Employers play a major role in shaping commuting behavior

miami rush hour traffic
miami rush hour traffic

Rush hour traffic along I-95 in Miami (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

For sustainable transportation advocates, changing people’s commuting behaviors can seem like our white whale.

While commutes account for just 19% of total personal trips in the US, they play an outsized role in our transportation system, accounting for 27.8% of total vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Their timing is also critical. The concept of rush hour revolves around our commute patterns. In cities like Washington, DC and Los Angeles, rush hour congestion can make life hell commuters, costing them time, money, and sanity. But in cities that are not growing and have no real congestion issues normally, these rush hour periods are particularly important.

For a city like Cleveland, commuting patterns directly influence the transportation infrastructure we end up with. The influx of drivers heading to and from work each day provides justification to expand our already overbuilt road system, which has serious impacts on development patterns, travel choices, and mobile emissions. If we could smooth these demand spikes by reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on the road, we could potentially upend this vicious cycle, which justifies the continued addition of freeway lane miles to the system.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we’ve made little, if any ground in this area. In 1960, the Census Bureau reported that 64% of Americans drove to work; they did not differentiate between driving alone and carpooling at the time. Another 12.1% of commuters used public transit, while just under 10% walked. By 1980, thanks to OPEC oil embargo, 19.7% of Americans carpooled, and the drive alone number stayed at 64.4%, even as public transit use fell.

But by 2014, these trends had reversed; 76.3% of Americans drive alone to work, while just 5% take transit, and 3.4% walk or bike. To date, our efforts to get people to stop driving alone to work have failed spectacularly.

Commuting: What is the role of employers?

Part of the problem with these efforts is that we have focused far too much on the individual. Commute mode decisions are a two-way street (pun intended). They depend not only on the whims of the individual, but also on employers’ decisions. People don’t just decide to drive to work in a vacuum. Their universe of choices are shaped by a number of endogenous and exogenous factors, including things entirely in the control of their employers.

This thought really crossed my mind recently while I was reading an article on electric vehicles (EVs) by Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Mims noted the vital role that employers can play in normalizing EVs for their employees:

Placing charging stations at workplaces, where cars spend much of their time, will be uniquely powerful. When a workplace installs a charging station, employees are 20 times as likely to buy a vehicle with a plug, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In light of this fact, it’s important to consider what, precisely, employers can do to influence the commute patterns of their employees.

Earlier this year, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability and NOACA partnered together to launch what they called the Commuter Choice Challenge. The goal of the program is “encouraging Northeast Ohio organizations of all shapes and sizes to take action in sustainable transportation.”

While some people may scoff at the idea that we should reward organizations that provide pre-tax transit passes to their employees, there really are a number of steps employers can take to foster mode shift. Collectively, this effort to provide alternatives and enhance the efficiency of our transportation system is known as transportation demand management (TDM).

Changing jobs and the importance of signalling

One of the simplest things that an employer can do is to act as a knowledge broker and paragon for their employees. For most people, commuting is a habit – once people start driving to work everyday, it becomes very difficult to shake them out of it.

Because commuting is a habit, there are only so many potential points at which an intervention is likely to succeed. But habits become weaker when your personal circumstances change. This context tends to shift most abruptly after major life events, such as moving or changing jobs.

In a study published earlier this year, Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee, and Steve Melia from the University of the West of England explored how these life events affect people’s commutes. They found that, while one-fifth of all British commuters change their mode from one year to the next, car commuting is far stickier. Just 8.6% of car commuters changed away from driving, and the mean duration of their commute mode was 6.3 years, twice as long as those for public transit (3.0 years) or active transportation (3.2 years).

Targeting new hires can be a highly effective way to disrupt the stability of car commuting. The odds that a person will switch from driving to alternative modes increases 2.5-fold when people change jobs. This highlights the importance of providing new hires with comprehensive TDM options and information, not just a parking pass. Demonstrating from day one that your workplace acknowledges and supports non-SOV modes helps to normalize them for employees. Signalling is an important part of behavioral change.

Pull factors matter…

If employers wish to reduce their SOV share, they need to provide a suite of incentives to get them out of their cars. These pull factors can come in a variety of forms, from reduced health insurance premiums for people who use active transportation to subsidized transit passes.

Considerable evidence suggests that these sorts of TDM packages can go a long way. In a 2005 study, researchers from the U.S. EPA examined the impact of the Agency’s Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC) program, which recognizes employers that encourage, educate, and incentivize their employees to try alternative commute modes.

The researchers compared the commute patterns among employees using the BWC programs to the average commuter in these same Census blocks. They then modeled the impacts of these commute patterns to see the associated reductions in gasoline use and mobile emissions. According to the authors:

The results of this survey indicate that where employers provide employees with incentives to commute by means other than driving alone, significant percentages of them take advantage of these benefits. Comprehensive benefits packages such as those enjoyed by commuters in the BWC group, with financial incentives, services (such as guaranteed ride home, carpool matching, etc.) and informational campaigns, appear to produce reductions of trips, VMT, pollutants, and fuel consumption of around 15 percent even under conservative assumptions.

Another 2012 paper from Virginia Tech professor Ralph Buehler found that providing bike parking, showers, and locker rooms increases the odds that employees will bike to work nearly 5-fold. Clearly pull factors, such as financial incentives and facilities investments, play a central role in this equation.

But push factors – especially parking – matter more

But, as with anything else, changing commute behaviors requires both push and pull factors. And the latter are particularly key, as the single most effective strategy that an employer can use to reduce SOV share is to remove parking subsidies.

In the US, some 95% of US commuters receive free parking at work. The provision of this benefit can increase the SOV rate for commutes by up to 50%.

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, the godfather of parking research, has explored the effects of curbing this parking subsidy. In a 2005 report, he outlined the benefits of implementing a parking cash out program, by which employers provide commuters with the option of receiving a cash incentive equal to their parking subsidy if they don’t drive alone to work. Such programs allow employees who really want to drive to work to continue getting discounted parking, but it also incentivizes alternatives for those who would rather try them.

Shoup’s research in California found that cash out programs can cut SOV share by 17%. A separate study from Daniel Hess, also of UCLA, concluded that by charging $6 per day for parking, Portland was able to cut its SOV share by 16%.

Getting parking right is even more important than these numbers show, however. The lure of free parking so strong that if an employer rolls out a TDM program but fails to price parking, the latter will simply crowd out the former. As Dr. Shoup put it, “Advocating ridesharing while offering free parking is like denouncing smoking while offering free cigarettes.”

A separate paper Buehler and his colleague Andrea Hamre explored this issue. Their research showed that providing free parking increases the share of commuters who drive alone, regardless of what other incentives the employer may provide. Without free parking, 75.9% of Washington, DC area commuters would drive alone. Free parking increases that share to an astounding 96.6%. Providing subsidized transit and incentives for active transportation, while also supplying free parking, only takes that SOV share down to 86.8%.

As the authors concluded, their research “suggests that benefit combinations that include free parking either overwhelm or render insignificant the positive effects of benefits for public transportation, walking, and cycling.”

Location, location, location

But even the most comprehensive TDM packages will struggle to overcome another factor that employers can control – their location.

Often times, sustainable transportation advocates focus on the negative effects of residential sprawl, but neglect workplace sprawl. Just as people in the US have spread farther and farther outward, so too have employers.

Consider Northeast Ohio. The region boasts five major employment hubs, like downtown Cleveland and University Circle. Yet, combined, these hubs only account for less than one-quarter of all jobs in the region. The rest are distributed broadly across the five counties.

This outcome poses a major challenge to TDM. Transit ceases to be viable when households and destinations are sprawled out. The same holds true for active transportation. No one is going to choose to walk 10 miles to work in an exurb without sidewalks.

The Clark, Chatterjee, and Melia study illustrates this clearly. If a worker’s commute increases from less than to more than two miles, the odds that s/he will switch from active commuting to driving increases 30-fold. The research seems to indicate that two miles is a key threshold; most people simply will not bike to work if their commute is longer than that.

According to the National Center for Transit Research, location may be the most important variable in the commute equation. No matter how strong the TDM package or how much the organization supports alternative modes, locating your office in the middle of an exurban office park locks in your employees’ commute options.

Ultimately, I think we have focused our attention too narrowly on the individual commuter for too long. Research has shown time and time again that the most effective TDM strategies target the employer first, as that is the critical leverage point.

Large institutions that claim to support sustainability need to back up their words through their actions when it comes to commute options. It’s not enough to simply post an annual sustainability report or get your buildings LEED certified if you subsidize parking and locate your office in exurbia. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution in the US. It’s time for employers to act like it.

Do ‘ozone action days’ actually inspire people to act?

robert wyly cleveland pollution
robert wyly cleveland pollution

Industrial pollution obscures Cleveland’s cityscape in this 1960 photo from Robert Wyly (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

“Ozone: Good up high, Bad nearby.” So goes the U.S. EPA’s catchy (?) refrain to help people distinguish between (good) atmospheric and (bad) ground-level ozone.

Fortunately, we have gotten some good news on the former in the past few days. A team of researchers has concluded that we are finally building up more good ozone; that is, the massive hole in the protective ozone layer over Antarctica is finally beginning to heal thanks to the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. It seems like the ozone layer may be on course to fully recover by the middle of the century.

Unfortunately, the news is not as great on the latter front, as we are also seeing an increase in ground-level ozone. On Tuesday, NOACA issued an ozone advisory, warning residents of Northeast Ohio that ambient levels of ground-level ozone may reach harmful levels, which U.S. EPA defines as those above 70 parts per billion (ppb).

As I’ve documented before, the number of these advisories has dropped significantly over the past decade; however, this summer’s hot, dry weather has stymied that downward trend somewhat. Tuesday marked the seventh time this year that ozone levels in the region exceeded 70 ppb, and NOACA encouraged people – particularly sensitive populations like the elderly and those with respiratory conditions – to limit their time outdoors during afternoon and evening hours in order to minimize their exposure. These types of warnings are commonplace; officials in some 230 metropolitan areas release similar advisories.

Air quality alerts as a call to action?

In a number of areas, these advisories are dubbed action days, highlighting the fact that the agencies see them as a call to arms around ozone pollution. Air quality officials are pushing citizens to not only limit their personal exposure to pollution but also to take steps to reduce the amount of ozone precursor emissions within the region. NOACA, for instance, encouraged people to carpool and take public transportation on Tuesday.

It was with all of this in mind that I read a recent post from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), a non-profit group in the New York City metro area that promotes sustainable transportation and alternatives to car dependency.

In a post titled “Air Quality Alert Days Should Be a Call for Better Streets, Not to Stay Indoors,” Emma Kilkelly, TSTC’s Communications Assistant, chided the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) for telling residents to limit their time outdoors, rather than changing their transportation modes away from cars. Kilkelly wrote that “this type of messaging addresses only the symptoms, not the cause of air pollution.”

It’s worth examining this argument further. Do ozone alerts focus on minimizing exposure at the expense of promoting sustainable transportation? Is it actually harmful to tell people to avoid high levels of air pollution? And, if you assume these two points, would using ozone alerts to promote active transportation and public transit actually work?

Now if all of this seems like unnecessary semantics, that’s because it is. But I’m a huge nerd who did all of this research, and this is my website God damnit, so I’m going to write about it.

But air quality agencies are already doing just that

First, it’s pretty disingenuous to claim that air quality agencies are not already encouraging people to change their transportation patterns on ozone action days. The very agency that Kilkelly critiques, DEEP, does this. To be fair, she acknowledges this in her post, so the argument rings a bit hollow, prima facie.

Second, there does appear to be value in encouraging people, especially those most vulnerable to the deleterious impacts of high ozone levels, to limit their exposure. We know that short-term spikes in ground-level ozone levels can have significant impacts on public health.

In a landmark 2004 study, Michelle L. Bell and colleagues from Yale University studied the changes in mortality rates tied to daily fluctuations in ozone levels across 95 U.S. cities. They found that for every 10 ppb increase in daily ozone levels, all-cause mortality rates jump by 0.52% during the following week. That number goes up to 0.67% for a 20 ppb increase, which is quite common on ozone exceedance days. And this effect is even more pronounced for elderly Americans. Mortality rates for Americans aged 65 to 74 go up 0.7% for each 10 ppb spike in ozone.

Do air quality alerts benefit public health?

Accordingly, limiting the amount of time that people from higher-risk groups spend outside during the late afternoon and early evening hours can benefit their well-being. But does encouraging people to shift the time that they exercise or go outdoors – so-called avoidance behaviors – actually work?

This answer appears to be yes. Economists Alison L. Sexton Ward and Timothy K. M. Beatty published a paper (paywalled) last year studying this very question. They found that, on air quality alert days, individuals do engage in avoidance behaviors.

Overall, people limit the amount of time they spend outdoors engaged in vigorous physical activity by 18%. The number is even higher among the elderly, who reduced the amount of time by 59%. A similar study (PDF) from Australia noted that cyclists reduce the amount of time they spend biking on air quality alert days by 18.2% for commuting and 38.2% for recreation, respectively.

But can they drive mode shift?

Third, the question of efficacy remains. If air quality agencies devoted all their public outreach efforts to promoting mode shift on ozone action days, would they suceed?

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests they wouldn’t. Several agencies have tried this approach for years. San Francisco, for instance, operates the Spare the Air Program, which encourages alternative commute modes and subsidizes transit passes on exceedance days. The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Multiple studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of Spare the Air. A 2009 study from W. Bowman Carter and Matthew Neidell noted (PDF) a small increase in transit ridership on ozone action days, but it was statistically insignificant. Stephen Sexton, in turn, argues (paywall) that ozone alerts may actually push some transit users to drive to work in order to limit their exposure to higher pollution levels. His review of the program found an increase in both transit trips and VMT.

As a result, Spare the Air apparently “has the perverse effect of increasing car trips,” making it, essentially “a pay-for-pollution program.”

Studies from other cities back up these results. Calvin Tribby and colleagues, for example, looked at the impact of air quality alerts on traffic volumes in Salt Lake City from 2001 to 2011. They concluded (paywall) that “messages regarding air quality and voluntary reductions in vehicle trips are not only ineffective at reducing traffic but apparently increased average daily traffic levels.” Their work again suggests that normal transit users shift to driving in an attempt to limit their personal exposure to pollution.

All told, the weight of the available evidence contradicts Kilkelly’s central argument. While ozone action days may drive people to take certain actions, they are not necessarily the actions she (and I) would like to see. Instead of criticizing air quality officials for encouraging people to take avoidance behaviors on exceedance days, we should acknowledge the limits of what their pleas can realistically achieve.

While ozone alerts are highly unlikely to cut down on VMT, they can and do provide a clear public health benefit. Let’s focus our attention and advocacy on those actors who can actually influence the nature of our transportation system in the long-run. Criticize the underlying system that forces your friendly area air quality planner to issue these advisories in the first place, not her/him for doing so.

Increasing mode shift is a great tool for improving air quality, public health

bike ferdinand
bike ferdinand

My trusty 2012 Trek FX 7.3, Ferdinand. Yes, like Magellan.

If it’s the first week of May, that can only mean one thing! No, not May Day. No, not Star Wars Day. No, not Cinco de Mayo. No, not Mother’s Day. Look, clearly you’re not going to get this on your own.

That’s right – it’s Air Quality Awareness Week. The U.S. EPA has designated this year’s theme as “Show How You Care About The Air.” EPA and various other government entities that work on air quality, including NOACA, are encouraging people to take a few simple steps throughout the course of the week that can have a positive, tangible impact on air quality.

One of these actions is changing your commute mode. The overwhelming majority of Americans (76.4% in 2013, to be exact) drive alone to work. Here in Northeast Ohio, that number is significantly higher, with values ranging from 79.9% in Cuyahoga County to 87.9% in Lake County. If you total the five counties in the NOACA region, 772,262 of the 938,244 workers over the age of 16 – 82.3% – drive alone to work. Given that transportation accounts for a significant portion of key pollutants in the region – 50% of nitric oxides (NOx) and 15% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – reducing the share of single-occupancy vehicles (SOV) on the region’s roads has the potential to improve air quality.

The question becomes by how much. While active transportation undoubtedly holds the potential to cut mobile emissions, some research suggests its immediate impact is somewhat limited. As I’ve shown, increasing overall fuel economy can do more to mitigate climate change than land use planning.

Moreover, research from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that bike and pedestrian are not the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. According to the agency’s analysis of projects funded through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), active transportation lowers emissions far less, per dollar spent, than diesel vehicle retrofits, truck stop electrification, or idle reduction projects. This may help to explain why bicycle and pedestrian projects accounted for just 7% of CMAQ funding in FY2013.

Short trips and cold starts

On the aggregate, it’s likely true that, at least in the short-term, retrofitting diesel engines in heavy-duty vehicles or reducing the amount of fuel that truck drivers use overnight may be a more effective way to cut emissions. But personal vehicles account for a much larger share of mobile emissions, and a significant share of these emissions come from short trips.

According to the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS), the median distance of a light-duty vehicle trip in the U.S. was just four miles; nearly half of all personal trips (43.4%) were less than 3.2 miles. These short trips account for an outsized share of vehicle emissions due the issue of cold starts.

A cold start occurs when both the car engine and its catalytic converter have cooled to within 10℉ of the ambient air temperature. In order for an engine to operate at peak efficiency, it needs to warm to roughly 140℉. Until it reaches this point, the vehicle will fail to fully combust gasoline, ensuring that it releases emissions at a higher rate.

One recent study (PDF) notes that cold engines can emit four times as many hydrocarbons, three times as much carbon monoxide (CO), and twice as much NOas a warm engine. All told, the authors conclude that excess emissions attributable to cold starts account for 10-30% of total mobile emissions.

The benefits of mode shift on a national scale

Given these facts, it appears that shifting travel mode for short trips could go a long way to improving air quality. Additional research backs up this hypothesis.

In a 2010 article (paywall) in the journal Transportation Research Part D, Audrey de Nazelle and her colleagues examined the benefits of shifting short vehicle trips to active transportation. While their travel data were older (they used the 1995 NHTS), they found that 62.5% of all trips less than 0.5 miles occur in cars. This share that climbs to 87.1% for 0.5 to 1-mile trips, 92.2% for 1- to 2-mile trips, and 94.3% for 2- to 3-mile trips.

The authors examined the effects of shifting 35-70% of short social trips and 15-45% of commutes, respectively, from driving to active transportation. Nationwide, this mode shift would cut daily VOC emissions by 30-70 tons, CO emissions by 400-900 tons, and NOx emissions by 15-35 tons. It would also reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 0.8-1.8%, cutting greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 20,000-46,000 tons per day. They compared these results to emissions reductions from existing CMAQ projects, finding that promoting widespread mode shift for short trips could lead to emissions reductions that were “orders of magnitude greater.”

How can mode shift improve air quality and public health in Cleveland?

But that study looks at the U.S. as a whole. I often hear people from people that the weather in Northeast Ohio is too harsh, making it impossible to walk or bike for 6-9 months a year. The deck is also stacked heavily towards driving in this region, as our SOV mode share attests. Are national estimates really applicable here? Surely things are different here than in Portland or Austin or San Diego.

Fortunately, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison already considered this issue. In a 2012 study, they analyzed the impact of replacing half of all vehicle trips less than four kilometers (2.4 miles) with biking in the 11 largest metropolitan areas in the Midwest, including Cleveland. And they assumed this mode shift would only occur during cycling season, which they defined as April-October.

The authors estimated that eliminating these short car trips would slash residential vehicle use in these cities by one-fifth. This outcome would reduce the frequency of cold starts from 59.9% to 21.9% in urban Census tracts and from 55.6% to 20.3% in suburban tracts. Across the entire study area, PM2.5 concentrations would fall by 1-2%, while NOx and VOC levels would fall by 5-12% and 10-25, respectively.

Based on their findings,

Eliminating short car trips and replacing 50% of them by bicycle would result in mortality declines of approximately 1,295 deaths per year, including 608 fewer deaths due to improved air quality and 687 fewer deaths due to increased physical activity…We estimate that the combined benefit from improved air quality and physical fitness for the region would exceed $8.7 billion/year, which is equivalent to about 2.5% of the total cost of health care for the five midwestern states in the present study.

Here in Cleveland, PM2.5 values would fall by 0.05 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), preventing 53 premature deaths, 184 asthma attacks, and 1,405 lost workdays per year. The additional physical activity would save another 42 lives per year, increasing the total benefits to $664 million annually.

And these numbers don’t account for the health benefits of increased physical activity. That prevents another 687 premature deaths and provides $3.8 billion in total benefits each year. This mode shift would further reduce GHG emissions by 3.9 billion pounds.

Clearly, the air quality benefits cities can obtain by promoting mode shift for short trips are significant. While mode shift, on its own, cannot bring every city into attainment for air quality standards or halt climate change, it is an important component of a comprehensive approach to both issues. Increasing the mode share of active transportation can produce additional dividends, as it benefits public health, enhances the livability of neighborhoods, improves safety for all road users, and just generally elevates the quality of life in communities around the country.

So show you care about air quality this week and take shorter trips on foot or by bike. Even if the weather isn’t perfect, it will be well worth it.

If you want to make a walkable city, you need to do the little things well

saddest crosswalk sign
saddest crosswalk sign

The saddest crosswalk sign in Cleveland.

Last week, while riding my bike to work, I stumbled across a sight that was both frightening both for its content and for how commonplace it seems to have become recently.

As I came to a stop at the corner of West 25th and Chatham Avenue, I saw a person lying in the street, surrounded by concerned onlookers. A bus idled parallel to the crowd, and a car with obvious front-end damage was stopped in the middle of the street.

It was at this point that the light changed, and I had to resume my commute. I only saw the scene for a minute or two, but it was enough for me to piece together some semblance of a narrative. It appeared as though the pedestrian – I never actually saw the person from the waist up – had attempted to cross West 25th to catch the waiting bus. At that point, this person was struck by the car, which bore the telltale signs of damage around the driver’s side headlight. I have no way of knowing whether or not the person had the right of way, but the fact that the car was damaged suggests the collision was violent.

This was not the first time that I came across the aftermath of a car-on-pedestrian collision. Back in 2011, again while biking, I happened upon a 17-year old young man lying dead in a pool of his own blood on Ontario Street, just south of Public Square. The driver who struck him was standing outside his car, speaking to police. He was visibly shaken. I later learned that the 17-year old had run into the street after his skateboard, and the driver was unable to stop in time. It’s a scene that haunts me to this day. While the driver was found not to be at fault, this was a visceral reminder of the stark imbalance between drivers and pedestrians. If a teenager makes one bad decision, he may never make another.

It’s through this lens that I read the glowing coverage on the proposed updates to the City of Cleveland’s downtown zoning regulations. The City Planning Commission seems committed to moving towards form-based zoning, at least in limited areas, in an attempt to make our city more walkable and pedestrian friendly. Unfortunately, this pilot “urban core overlay” would only occur in the area of downtown near the proposed Weston-Citymark development. While this is welcome, it risks reinforcing one of the complaints that a number of us have made over the past few years – namely, the City seems preoccupied with big, shiny, expensive projects, rather than the types of small changes that can immediately improve peoples’ lives.

If you know me or have read things that I’ve written here in the past, you probably realize that I’m a proponent of incremental progress. It’s great to push for the Big Things that can help shift paradigms, but we shouldn’t ignore the types of small, tangible changes that help people at the margins. It’s just as important to do the little things well.

With this in mind, I’ve been wanting to explore how well the City of Cleveland addresses the small details that can go a long way towards improving pedestrians’ quality of life. Vibrant NEO 2040, the landmark report produced by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, laid out a few of the important things that cities can do to enhance their walkability (see “Pedestrian Orientation” section). The City of Cleveland was an active participant in this process, and this document is supposed to inform planning in the region going forward. Using these criteria, let’s consider Cleveland’s progress – or lack thereof.

1.) Do all intersections include crosswalks and pedestrian signals?

One of the simplest and most important things a city can do is to ensure that every intersection is equipped with crosswalks and pedestrian signals. This simple addition of some painted lines and signals carves out a small part of the street where pedestrians have a legally enforceable right to space. It is only in these crosswalks during these designated periods when a pedestrian can reasonably expect to have his/her rights protected from the 2,000 pound metal boxes that dominate our roads. Surely Cleveland is succeeding in this most fundamental of areas, right?

Not exactly. Consider the intersection where I came across that injured pedestrian last week. The collision occurred roughly parralel to that red marker. As you can see in the satellite image below, there are only crosswalks at three of the four points at this busy intersection. Keep in mind that this is just south of the corner of Lorain Avenue, home to the West Side Market and an array of bars, restaurants, and shops.

west 25th chatham

The intersection of West 25th Street and Chatham Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood (courtesy of Google Maps).

If you head just about a block northwest of this intersection, you will come across another heavily trafficked area – the West 25th Street rapid station on Lorain Avenue. Again, this is one of the busiest stations in RTA’s rail network, and it lies just across the street from the West Side Market. Surely pedestrians should be able to head out of the station and immediately cross Lorain to get to the Market? Well, as you can see, that’s not possible. Instead, they have to first cross West 24th Street/Gehring Avenue, then wait to cross Lorain. It’s all the more galling when you consider that this intersection is located on the edge of one of Cleveland’s pedestrian retail overlay districts.

west 25th rapid station

An aerial view of the streets around the West 25th rapid station in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

2.) Are all pedestrian signals set to actuate at all times (i.e. not pedestrian actuated)?

Once again, this seems like a small thing. It makes a pedestrian’s life a lot easier if she knows that regardless of when she gets to the intersection during the cycle, the walk signal is going to trigger when it’s supposed to. If that’s not the case, you may either have to wait through multiple cycles of the light to cross safely or take the risk of crossing when the walk sign is not activated.

Let’s head just two blocks east from our last intersection, down Lorain Avenue, to corner of West 20th Street. This is a very popular cut through point for commuters who want to avoid traffic on I-71 as they enter downtown via the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge. Likewise, I frequently bike down Abbey to West 20th in order to access the multi-use path on the bridge more safely.

But, alas, the signals at West 20th and Lorain are pedestrian actuated. If I fail to trigger the signal before the light on West 20th turns green – which, I would estimate, happens roughly half of the time – I either have to wait another cycle or risk crossing the street without the signal in the face of drivers making aggressive right-hand turns onto the bridge. I cannot count the number of times that I have nearly been run down in that intersection, even when I had the signal.

west 20th lorain

Intersection of West 20th Street and Lorain Avenue, just west of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (courtesy of Google Maps).

3.) Has the city installed “leading pedestrian interval” signals, which allow pedestrians to start ahead of vehicular traffic?

To be honest, this one is more aspirational than anything. I came across these signals throughout Washington, DC, but I hold out little hope that they’ll be installed here soon. (Keep in mind that the State of Ohio passed a law in 2013 requiring pedestrians to yield to cars turning right.)

Realistically, I just want the City to ensure that every pedestrian signal is synced to the traffic light. That is, the walk sign should activate as soon as the light turns green for cars, and the signal should not switch from flashing don’t walk to sold don’t walk until that traffic light turns yellow. At the very least, pedestrians should be afforded the same legal rights as the cars, right?

fulton bridge west 32nd

The five-points intersection of Fulton Road (north-south), Bridge Avenue (east-west) and West 32nd Street in Ohio City (courtesy of Google Maps).

Once again, that’s not the case. Let’s consider the case of the five-points intersection of Fulton Road, Bridge Avenue, and West 32nd Street. If you are walking down Fulton, you will soon discover that the walk signal does not remain activated long enough for you to cross Bridge.

From crossing this intersection on a nearly daily basis, I have learned that from the moment that the solid don’t walk sign comes on, I have exactly 12 seconds to cross Bridge before the light turns yellow. In other words, the City affords drivers a full 12 extra seconds of legal authority that pedestrians cannot claim. If I was hit by a driver turning onto Bridge, it’s entirely possible that I could be found at fault for crossing without the signal.

This is far from the only example of the City further stacking the decks in the favor of drivers.

Let’s consider the curious case of West St. Clair Avenue. Say you are a visitor to Cleveland, attending an event at our $425 million, publicly financed Convention Center, and you wanted to head to the nearest Starbucks to get your overpriced caffeine fix. You would need to head west down West St. Clair, form West Mall Drive to West 6th Street. Along the way, you would need to go through three separate intersections – Ontario Avenue, West 3rd, and West 6th. The traffic lights at each of these intersections includes a left turn arrow so that drivers heading south down one of these cross streets can get a head start. But that shouldn’t affect you as you head west down the north side of the street, right? I mean, those cars can’t possibly hit you when they’re turning the exact opposite direction.

west st. clair

West St. Clair Avenue in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

Yet, for a reason about as clear as asphalt, the pedestrian signals on the north side of St. Clair at each of these intersections are set such that the walk sign does not come on until the left turn arrow deactivates. That may make sense if there was a right turn arrow or if the left turn signal applied for cars heading in both directions on West St. Clair. But it doesn’t. Instead, someone in the City decided that it made sense to force pedestrians to wait so that cars three lanes south of then could turn farther south. Because logic.

There are a number of other criteria that we could use to judge Cleveland’s walkability. Are there mid-block crossings? (Yes.) Are they plentiful? (No.) Do they all have signs? (Some, but they aren’t maintained – see above.) Do drivers respect them? (Hell no.) Do all of the pedestrian signals have countdown timers? (Not even in downtown.) Do any of the pedestrian signals include verbal cues for the visually impaired? (No, given that I have had to escort a confused blind man across Superior Avenue.)

I certainly recognize that Cleveland is making very real progress in its effort to enhance bike and pedestrian infrastructure. But, all too often, we spend money on things that look nice or seem nice in theory, even as we overlook the little things that can make a tangible difference. I understand that elected officials don’t get to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony when you sync a pedestrian signal to the traffic light, but these seemingly small things matter. Until officials commit to tackling these easy-to-fix problems, the focus on the Big projects will seem like little more than PR.

Climate change will lead to more deadly traffic accidents

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

A rendering of the proposed Cleveland Midway, a network of protected cycle tracks that would run across the city (courtesy of Bike Cleveland).

In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to transportation issues in climate change circles. This makes sense, given that the transportation sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Mobile sources produced 1,806 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMtCO2e) in 2013 (27%), trailing just electricity generation, which accounted for 21% of total emissions (2,077 MMtCO2e). Emissions from the transportation sector have also grown by 16.4% since 1990, making it the second fastest growing emissions source behind agriculture.

Accordingly, the Obama administration has taken a number of steps to address the issue. These include corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for passenger vehicles, new investments in electric vehicles (EVs), proposed stricter rules for emissions from heavy-duty trucks, and the recent endangerment finding for GHGs from air travel. Each of these steps will be important if the US is to meet its goal to cut overall GHGs by 26-28% by 2025, as outlined in the administration’s pledge for the upcoming Paris Conference.

How climate change affects transportation

But the other side of this equation – how climate change will affect the US transportation sector – has garnered far less focus. The 2014 National Climate Assessment included a detailed chapter on the transportation sector, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) manages a pilot program to help transportation agencies assess their systems’ vulnerability to a changing climate. We know, for instance, that more extreme rainfall could wash out roads, that sea level rise endangers coastal transportation infrastructure, and that accelerated freeze-thaw cycles may increase the costs of road maintenance. But much research in this area remains to be done.

A few weeks ago, Resources for the Future, a leading environmental economics think tank, released a report that examines one as yet unexplored issue – how climate change may influence traffic accident rates. I’ll admit that the idea that climate change could affect the number of car accidents in the US seemed a bit far fetched to me a first. People tend to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to connect everything to climate change these days. But this report provides a convincing case that, barring aggressive action both to cut carbon pollution and become more resilient, climate change could make our roads even more dangerous.

The connection between weather and traffic accidents

In order to explore the relationship between climate and traffic accidents, economists Benjamin Leard and Kevin Roth first examined existing evidence on how changes in weather patters affect accident rates. Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on the number of traffic accidents that result in property damage, injuries, and fatalities for 20 states, the authors identified the existing relationships between temperature and precipitation fluctuations and traffic accidents. When temperatures fall below 20ºF, accidents that result in property damage increase by 9.3%. The relationship between temperature and accidents that lead to injuries is weak, but it appears highly significant for fatal traffic accidents. In contrast to property damage accidents, fatal accidents are 9.5% more likely on days when temperatures climb above 80ºF.

The relationship between precipitation and traffic accidents is more complex. Both rainfall and snowfall increase the incidence of property damage accidents; when rain and snow totals exceed 3 centimeters, accidents increase by 18.8% and 43.3%, respectively. This effect changes when we consider accidents leading to injuries and fatalities. In the former category, rain and snow totals over 3 centimeters lead to 14.4% and 25.9% increases in accidents, a relative reduction of 23.4% and 40.2%, respectively, compared to property damage accidents. But Leard and Roth found that fatal traffic accidents are actually less common on days with rainfall. On days with 1.5-3 centimeters of rain, fatal accident rates fall by 8.6%; this result is highly statistically significant. In contrast, this same amount of snowfall leads to 15.5% more fatalities. According to the authors, these results indicate “that drivers behaviorally compensate for these conditions,” but these adjustments are not enough to reduce the elevated accident risk presented by snowfall.

Importantly, the study also finds a strong correlation between weather conditions and the number of trips people make by foot, bike, or motorcycle (the authors term these “ultralight duty vehicles,” or ULDs). Unsurprisingly, these ULD trips decrease significantly as temperatures dip below 40ºF and as the precipitation begins to fall. Put a different way, as the weather improves, an increasing number of people choose to walk, bike, or motorcycle. This increases their exposure to automobiles, elevating the risk that they may be the victim of an accident. Accordingly, when the authors removed pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists from their models, fatality rates fell by roughly half.

Climate change will cause more traffic fatalities

The authors then used these observed relationships to project how climate change could affect traffic accident rates in the future. They utilize the IPCC’s A1B scenario – a middle of the road scenario that assumes global temperatures will rise by around 4ºC – to project changes in weather and traffic accidents through the end of the century. According to the Climate Action Tracker, we are currently on pace for 3.6-4.2ºC of warming in the absence of further action, making A1B a good model for this study.

As global temperatures increase, precipitation will gradually shift from snowfall to rain. The authors find that this change will decrease the number of annual traffic fatalities by roughly 253. However, the changing climate will also induce an increase in the number of trips people take by foot, bike, and motorcycle – leading to an additional 849 traffic fatalities per year – which brings the net change to 603 additional deaths per annum. This spike in traffic fatalities will carry an annual cost of $515.7 million. All told, by 2090 climate change will lead to an additional 27,388 traffic-related fatalities in the US, carrying total costs of approximately $61.7 billion.

Now, I should note that this study does not explicitly address a few issues.

Research shows that as the number of pedestrians and cyclists increases, the chance that they will be struck by a car declines. Each time that the number of pedestrians and cyclists doubles, the risk that they will be injured in an accident falls by a third. But this decline in the relative risk of injury does not overcome the increase in the absolute number of injuries, which actually rises by a similar percentage. Leard and Roth’s study finds similar results. Furthermore, their use of fixed effects should account for this safety-in-numbers effect.

Moreover, the study does not directly account for the fact that expanding bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure tends to make roads safer and reduce the number of accidents. Protected bike lanes, for instance, can cut the risk of injury by up to 90%. To be fair, Leard and Roth admit that this is a potential shortcoming of their study, noting that failing to control for this effect “overstates the long-run impacts of climate change.” They also explicitly point out the important role that these types of interventions can play in climate adaptation planning,

Our results do not indicate that reliance on walking, biking, and motorcycling imply large fatality rates, as other developed English speaking and western European nations have per-capita fatality rates that are often less than half that of United States. Some countries like Sweden with extraordinarily low fatality rates have pursued a variety of urban design and legislative changes to reduce fatalities with policies such as replacing intersections with roundabouts to slow vehicles where they are likely to encounter pedestrians. Relatively simple changes like these may prove to be effective, although unglamorous, adaptation strategies to climate change.

How can this study inform climate policy?

I have two main takeaways from this study.

1. Climate change will affect nearly every aspect of our lives, and we will never be able to fully anticipate and prepare for it. That’s what happens when humanity performs a global science experiment on the planetary systems that facilitated the development of human civilization.

2. It provides even more evidence of the benefits of investing in better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly when accounting for climate change. It emerges as a win-win-win.

Promoting active transportation is a vital component of any mitigation strategy, as every mile we don’t drive keeps roughly one pound of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

This type of people-centric infrastructure  also represents an important step that local governments can take to enhance their resilience to the impacts of climate change. We know that it may help to offset potential increases in fatal accidents due to climate change. But, more than that, it can also serve as a key lifeline to supplement existing road networks, which may be endangered by a changing climate. When roads are washed away and subway tunnels flooded, being able to ride your bike or walk to access resources and social services becomes that much more important.

Lastly, these types of investments would be valuable even in the absence of climate change, as they improve quality of life. Active transportation benefits air quality and public health, which reduces premature mortality and health care costs. Complete streets can also raise property values, increase business activity, create jobs, and make neighborhoods safer. All of these things make communities more vibrant and better able to withstand external shocks, whether from economic or climatic forces. In this way, pedestrian and cyclist-friendly infrastructure is exactly the type of no-regrets investment that climate resilience experts say we should be making now, regardless of the inherent uncertainties.

Condoms are key for promoting responsible consumption

community health worker
community health worker

A community health worker talks to women in SIerra Leone (courtesy of H4+ Partnership).

At first blush, the idea that one action to reduce conspicuous consumption could bring about a sustainable future seems far-fetched. Sustainability is all-encompassing. There is no silver bullet; we need a thousand silver BBs. But not all actions are created equally. Some are so central that, without them, we cannot hope to bring about the future we want. Ensuring that all 7 billion people have the access to and education needed to properly use condoms is one such action.

Worldwide, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for contraception. This gap has startling consequences. In 2012, at least 85 million pregnancies were unintended. If every woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy could access modern contraceptives, there would be 22 million fewer unplanned births and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

The condom is perhaps the most important tool for tackling this issue. This simple piece of latex tackles a host of problems that undermine sustainability.

First, condoms help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). More than 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2013, while 35 million people live with HIV/AIDS. In turn, people contract nearly 350 million cases of STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, each year. These preventable infections make life far more challenging and can even be deadly. One such disease, HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

Second, condoms are vital for curbing population growth and addressing climate change. If contraceptive use increased by 14%, we could prevent 1 billion births by 2050. This step will be key for keeping global temperatures below 2ºC. Curbing population growth could, on its own, produce 16-29% of the emissions reductions we need to stave off dangerous climate change. This issue will be particularly important in the developed world, where each person’s carbon footprint is far larger. Here in the United States, where half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the average person uses 25 times more resources in his/her lifetime than one in a developing country. Clearly, condoms can reduce carbon emissions and tackle conspicuous consumption in tandem.

Third, ensuring that everyone can use condoms will increase our level of resiliency. Pregnant women and infants are uniquely vulnerable to a number of threats, like natural disasters and diseases. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women were four times more likely to die. And, because mosquitoes are attracted to pregnant women, malaria hits them especially hard. Infection during pregnancy causes 10,000 maternal and 200,000 infant deaths every year in Africa. Reproductive health, particularly contraceptive use, needs to be a centerpiece of health and disaster management planning.

Fourth, the condom can be a key tool for women’s empowerment. Every day, millions of women are trapped by the issues related to unprotected sex. Giving them the ability to choose when and how they reproduce is essential to putting their destinies in their hands. Condoms can help reduce the amount of time a woman spends pregnant, curb postpartum depression, and slash maternal deaths. As the WHO noted, “Without fertility regulation, women’s rights are mere words. A woman who has no control over her fertility cannot complete her education, cannot maintain gainful employment…and has very few real choices open to her.”

Clearly, while the condom is not a sufficient tool for a sustainable future, it is a necessary one. Condoms help liberate men and women alike from illness, vulnerability, environmental harm, and a lack of choice.

Water is life, but have you ever thought about what that really means?

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

 

World Water Day 2015 is coming up this Sunday, March 22. This year, in advance of this September’s UN summit to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals, World Water Day will focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

The axiom that “water is life” has become something of a cliche. But have you ever actually sat down and considered, even for a few moments, just how central water is to essentially every aspect of your life? Let’s consider a hypothetical day to demonstrate this effect, shall we?

Morning

7:00am: Your alarm clock goes off. You step out of your bed and head for the bathroom. About that bed – is it made from cotton? Well, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. It is the single largest consumer of water in the apparel industry, accounting for more than 40% of total water use. It takes more than 700 gallons to produce one t-shirt alone. Much of this impact stems from the fact that cotton is widely farmed in some of the driest areas of the world, including India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (we’ll return to this issue later).

7:05am: You step into the shower to get ready for the day. Well, this one is pretty straightforward. But do you know how much water and energy you’re using? According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. As a result, the average American family uses 40 gallons of water per day in the shower, accounting for 17% of total household water use. If we waste roughly 20% of water in each shower, as the EPA estimates, that means we are washing more than 200 billion gallons of excess water down our drains each year.

7:30am: You sit down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Each cup of coffee has a water footprint of 37 gallons, meaning it takes the equivalent of 37 gallons of water to grow, process, roast, ship, and brew your morning caffeine fix. Are you eating cereal with milk? That requires 22 gallons of water. But it’s still better than eggs, which have a water footprint of 37 gallons each. And that morning glass of orange juice is another 53 gallons.

7:50am: You head out the door and start your morning commute. Are you driving? Well, it takes roughly 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car and its four tires. How far is your commute? If you’re driving the average 12.6 miles each way in a car with average fuel economy (23.6 miles per gallon), then your gas tank is consuming 6.89 gallons of water on your way to work. Round trip, that will add up to 13.77 gallons (not to mention more than 19 pounds of carbon emissions).

Work Day

8:15am: You arrive at work and head into the building. But what is the building made of? Steel? That’s 62,000 gallons of water per ton used. Concrete? Try 1,360 gallons per ton. While the totals will vary by the type of materials used, there’s also water embedded in every window, square foot of flooring, gallon of paint on the walls, desk, chair, and trash can. Every step you take is dripping in water.

9:07am: You check your email and start answering the flood of requests that came in since you left work yesterday. Are you using a desktop computer? It probably took around 42,000 gallons of water to produce. A laptop fares better at around 10,500 gallons, given its more compact size. But let’s not forget that you need electricity to power that computer, along with your phone, desk lamp, and the building’s HVAC system. Where you live matters, as different energy sources have different water footprints. Here in Ohio, we get roughly two-thirds of our electricity from coal, along with 15% from natural gas generation, and another 12% from nuclear power plants. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced from these three fuel sources requires 7.14 gallons, 2.99 gallons, and 1.51 gallons of water, respectively. Assuming that the average Ohio household uses 750 kWh of electricity per month, that means that your electricity use will consume 4,170 gallons per month, or nearly 140 gallons of water per day.

10:12am: You’re eventually going to need to use the restroom. The average toilet requires around 3.5 gallons per flush. And don’t forget to wash your hands, which may take up to 5 gallons per minute, depending on the faucet.

12:00pm: Lunch time. Maybe you’re a carnivore and have a hamburger; that will take a whopping 634 gallons. Or perhaps you’re eating healthy these days and opt for a salad, which has a considerably smaller footprint (31 gallons).

2:53pm: Hitting that mid-afternoon lull? You run out to the nearest coffee shop and grab a latte. All that extra milk and sugar adds water to the coffee, requiring a total of 52 gallons.

Evening

5:00pm: Finally, the work day comes to an end. Are you going straight home? If so, don’t forget about the water you’ll use on your commute. Or do you meet some coworkers for a drink afterwards? Choose carefully. That pint of beer requires 20 gallons of water. Wine fares even worse at 31 gallons.

6:00pm: Dinner time. Every pound of beef demands nearly 2,000 gallons of water. And that baked potato will add another 34 gallons per pound. Thinking about dessert? Chocolate will cost you an incredible 2,061 gallons per pound (though I doubt you’re eating that much chocolate in one sitting).

7:45pm: You head to the laundry room to do a load of laundry. That standard, top-loading washing machine will use 40-45 gallons of water per load. Efficient, front-loading machines can halve that total.

11:00pm: You brush your teeth and head to bed. Hopefully you remembered to shut off that faucet, as Americans waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year from leaking sinks, toilets, and sprinkler systems.

Total

All told, the average American uses approximately 2,167 gallons of water per day, more than double the global average of 1,056 gallons. But because most of this water is embedded in the manufacture and transport of the products we consume, we rarely, if ever, consider the true scale of our water footprint. Instead, we tend to focus on just the amount of water we actually use each day (i.e the amount of we drink or use to shower, flush the toilet, brush our teeth etc.). This number – roughly 90-100 gallons per person, per day – is a (pun intended) drop in the bucket of our total footprint. And Americans tend to vastly underestimate even this number.

Unintended consequences

Clearly, there is a disconnect here, one that can have unintended consequences. It builds a wall of ignorance between our decisions and their downstream effects. Consider the Aral Sea, one example of how our actions can drastically alter the world around us.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to turn the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into vast fields it cotton. In the 1960s, engineers constructed a vast network of dams, canals, and irrigation ditches to divert the water of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and channel it to the world’s largest cotton plantations.

Until this point, all of the unused water in these rivers – the lifeblood of the dry region – flowed into the Aral Sea. Prior to this, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. It surface area spanned more than 25,500 square miles. Its average depth was 52 feet, though the water reached a depth of 223 feet at its lowest point. The sea supported a thriving fishing industry among the various communities located along its shore. More than 40,000 people fished its waters.

All of that changed. Once completed, this irrigation system captured more than 90% of the water flowing into the Aral. As the sea began to shrink, it grew ever shallower. This process facilitated surface evaporation, hastening the process. As the surface are constricted, the land formerly covered by several feet of water turned into a dry, salt-caked desert crust; this reflected the sun’s radiation, causing surface temperatures to rise and evaporation to speed up. Wetlands and other aquatic vegetation dried up and died. The loss of these plants allowed stronger breezes to flow across the shallower water, which exacerbated surface evaporation even further.

Today, the Aral has lost more than 90% of its original volume. NASA reported last October that the entire eastern basin of the sea is now dry for the first time in at least six centuries. The Aral has entered a death spiral, and experts project that it may disappear forever in the next few years. It is, perhaps, the worst man-made environmental catastrophe of all time.

This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. exists. Our work, including our annual World Water Day events, seeks to reconnect people with water and illustrate the essential role it plays in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully by bringing people closer to water, we can stave off the next Aral Sea-type disaster before it is too late.

Why we need to link disaster risk reduction to the sustainable development goals

disaster mortality since 1990
disaster mortality since 1990

Trends in disaster mortality since 1990 (courtesy of the Global Assessment Report 2015).

I know I said that my next post would be on the Syria climate change & conflict paper; that’s coming next, I promise. But I wanted to finally get around to cross-posting this piece I wrote for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction first, because it completes the logical chain I started in my last post – climate change feeds into DRR which feeds into sustainable development.

As we enter the year 2015, we approach the final target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In many regards, the MDGs have been successful. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 47% to 22% by 2010; the global burden from HIV/AIDS and malaria has been ameliorated significantly; and more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean water.

Despite these successes, the international community has been unable to halt environmental degradation. Though MDG 7 called for integrating the principles of sustainable development and reducing biodiversity loss, the destruction of critical ecosystems, such as wetlands and tropical forests, continues apace. Additionally, global carbon emissions have increased by 34% since 1990. Failing to stem this tide will could reverse many of the gains made through the MDGs. As Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last April, “Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future.”

It is for this reason that the international community proposed developing a set of so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the Rio + 20 Conference. These SDGs will pick up where the MDGs left off and further embed the principles of sustainable development and environmental protection.

But, just as we cannot hope to promote sustainable development without addressing climate change, we cannot expect to achieve the SDGs without tackling the threat posed by disasters. The number of disasters worldwide has spiked in recent years, increasing from roughly 100 disasters per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2000-2010.

Strangely, a consensus appears to have emerged among some economists that disasters may have limited macroeconomic impacts and can actually be beneficial in the long-run. According to this theory, disasters tend to have a stimulative effect for economies by sparking large-scale reconstruction efforts and attracting financial support from the international community.

From an economic perspective, there are several shortcomings to this theory. It assumes that disasters are exogenous events, rather than part of the normal political and economic order. It is also assumes that disasters significantly alter the existing economic order. Yet, low- and middle-income states lack the capacity to replace their productive capital on a broad scale. Moreover, most developing countries lack the necessary human capital to maximize such new technologies. Accordingly, even when disasters provide a boost in the short-term, economies should ultimately return to their pre-disaster state.

More importantly, this theory ignores the political economy of disasters, which disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable. Disasters tend to undermine the social, political, and natural capital upon which vulnerable groups depend to make their livelihoods. For one, they can severely damage the natural capital upon which most low-income households rely. It can take years, if not decades, for this capital stock to regenerate. The specter of frequent disasters also makes low-income agricultural households more risk averse. In Ethiopia, this threat has reduced economic growth by more than one-third. And disasters can create significant, long-term consequences for the most vulnerable groups. Women living in camps for disaster survivors may find themselves at an elevated risk of physical and sexual violence. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher than the rate before the storm.

Taken together, disasters can undermine the vital coping mechanisms of low-income households. Consequently, they may become locked into debilitating poverty traps. Households need to maintain a minimum asset threshold in order to provide for their needs and retain the ability to move up the economic ladder. Evidence suggests that a large number of households fell below this threshold as a result of asset destruction during Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and the 1998-2000 droughts that affected Ethiopia. Such environmental shocks may lock poor households into spirals of poverty and degradation from which they may never escape.

It is for these reasons that the international community must embed the principles of disaster risk reduction into the SDGs. Failing to account for the deleterious impacts of disasters would undermine this enterprise and risk stymieing further progress on poverty alleviation. Moreover, as we enter a greenhouse world, the risk from climate-related disasters and environmental change will only become more apparent. The time has come for the world to mainstream disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation into development planning. The risks of not acting are too great to ignore.

Climate overshadows disaster risk reduction. Here’s how to change that.

sendai earthquake tsunami damage
sendai earthquake tsunami damage

Fires rage in Sendai, Japan, following the devastating earthquake & tsunami that hit the area in 2011 (courtesy of the AP).

Next Saturday, the Third Wold Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) kicks off in the coastal city of Sendai. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) has been on international agendas for decades, but it tends to get overshadowed by climate change. DRR is the broader, less famous, older sibling of climate change; think of it as the Frank to climate’s Sylvester Stallone.

The WCDRR is a follow-up of the 2005 conference in Kobe, Japan, which produced the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan to reduce disaster risk and enhance resilience worldwide. That, in turn, served as a successor to the 1994 Yokohama Conference, the first international meeting on DRR, which led to the development of the landmark Yokohama Strategy and Plan for Safer World. (If you’re noticing a theme here, you’re right; Japan is more or less the center of the world when it comes to DRR. It is highly vulnerable to a number of natural hazards and has, accordingly, become a leader and innovator in this space. The 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 5,000 Japanese, served as a catalyst to place DRR onto policymakers’ agendas. Sendai, for its part, has the unfortunate distinction of being the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which is the costliest disaster in history at $235 billion.)

DRR in context & why 2015 matters

The Hyogo Framework defined it as a strategy to bring about “the substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries.” Minimizing the risks and damages wrought by disasters is critically important, given their dramatic costs in blood and treasure. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), the world lost a combined 42 million life-years annually as a result of disasters from 1980-2012. On average, disasters cause at least $250 billion in economic losses each year, a number that UNISDR expects will climb considerably due to economic growth, demographic changes, and climate change.

DRR encompasses more issues than climate change, generally speaking. While climate change will generally influence climatic and hydrometeorological disastes, DRR includes all types of disasters, including geological ones like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. While the former varieties tend to get a lot of the attention, the latter types are often far deadlier and more destructive. 2015 marks the anniversaries of a few of these severe disasters, including the aforementioned Kobe earthquake, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. These three disasters alone killed more than 306,000 people, affected over 9.3 million, and caused more than $113 billion in damages, according to EM-DAT.

More broadly, 2015 is shaping up to be a landmark year for the international community. The WCDRR is taking place in conjunction with this September’s UN Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals and December’s Paris Conference on climate change. Unsurprisingly, given the scale of what’s yet to come, the Sendai Conference has largely stayed below the radar. You won’t see any major world leaders giving speeches like you will in New York, and the conference won’t produce a document with binding targets like we may get out of Paris. Instead, as the zero draft makes clear, WCDRR will lead to a voluntary agreement that sets global metrics for disaster impacts, defines progressive international principles for DRR, and outlines actions that governmental and nongovernmental actors can take at all levels.

WCDRR & the climate question

Interestingly, even though many observers expect the Sendai Conference to help set the table for the SDGs and Paris Conference, these issues, particularly climate change, have thus far been nearly absent from the conversation. As RTCC noted yesterday, climate is more or less morphed into Sendai’s version of Voldemort – that which shall not be named:

But compared to a planned UN climate change deal in Paris this December, or the Sustainable Development Goals process, this is not making headlines. In part that’s because the proposals – which are still under negotiation – are non-binding and will not require countries to make any financial pledges. It’s also due to the decision by the UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction – conscious or otherwise – to delink the talks from global warming, instead focusing on wider “natural disasters”. This UN body is desperate to avoid the toxic clash of developed and developing countries its climate cousin has suffered from since the early 1990s. Even mentions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body which has a number of publications on disaster risk, are omitted from the draft text. Presenting the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction on Wednesday, its head Margareta Wahlström appeared at pains not to mention the ‘c’ word.

Decoupling DRR from climate change may prove to be something of a two-edged sword, however. While keeping the two issues separate may help shield WCDRR from some of the political controversy that has tended to overshadow the UNFCCC process, it also limits opportunities to link DRR to climate change and, more broadly, the SDGs. Keeping these three critical processes on parallel tracks that rarely, if ever, intersect reduces opportunities to find commonalities. As a result, we may miss ways to use interventions or funding streams to address them at the same time. Worse yet, keeping these topics siloed may lead us to pursue projects that appear beneficial in one area, but are actively harmful in another.

Making climate change part of DRR

What’s the international community to do? Fortunately, researchers Ilan Kelman, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer have just released a paper (open access) that outlines a strategy to bring these three topics together. It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

In the article, Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer (herein referred to as KGM) explain how some actors have framed social vulnerability as the result of individual’s “double exposure” to the effects of globalization and climate change. But, as they note, these are just two of a variety of threats that people face on a daily basis; there are also poverty, inequality, social repression, gender roles, disaster risk, environmental degradation, and the burden of disease, among others. In this environment, our focus on globalization and climate change can crowd out these other crucial issues.

Moreover, as KGM notes, some governments are actively using these two issues to pursue their own political ends:

Research in Maldives shows how climate change and globalization are being used as excuses by the government to force a policy of population consolidation (resettlement) on outer islanders. Yet the government has long been trying to resettle the outer islanders closer to the capital using other reasons, such as that it is hard to provide a scattered population with services including health, harbors, and education. Both arguments have legitimacy and can be countered, but climate change is used as an excuse to do what the government wishes to do anyway.

So what’s the solution? The international community needs to adopt a broader “multiple exposure” model that considers climate change as one challenge among many. And, according to KGM, the best way to do this is treat climate change as a subset of DRR. While the authors note that linking climate change to DRR will not be easy to achieve in the current political environment – particularly before the end of this year – they stress the need to pursue this end. As such, they provide three key principles for considering climate change as a subset of DRR:

  1. The international community must treat climate change as one contributor to disaster risk, but not the only or even the most important one. Focus on climate cannot be allowed to dominate other factors, like population growth in floodplains or economic inequality.
  2. Climate change must be seen as one “creeping environmental change” among many, such as soil erosion and desertification. KGM define this term as “incremental changes in conditions that cumulate to create a major problem, apparent or recognized only after a threshold has been crossed.”
  3. We should harness climate change’s political salience as a tool to engage policymakers in a more comprehensive discussion on sustainable development. On this point, it’s best to see the climate-DRR-sustainable development like a nesting doll. Climate change fits within the larger topic of DRR, which, in turn, must be placed within the context of sustainable development. The authors provide a great example to illustrate this: “Little point exists in building a new school with natural ventilation techniques that save energy and that cope with higher average temperatures, if that school will collapse in the next moderate, shallow earthquake.” And, beyond this, building a green, earthquake-resilient school makes little sense if it is only open to boys or the children of the wealthy.

KGM explain how taking this three-in-one approach is the most effective way to harness the strengths of all three issues: the political and power of climate change, the historical perspective and theoretical strength of DRR, and the universal legitimacy of sustainable development. Climate may get all the attention – Lord knows I talk about it enough – but it’s important to recognize its proper place and role within a sustainable development agenda.

I think this framework holds a lot of practical power and value. In my next post, I will use it to consider the recent PNAS article on the role of climate change in the Syrian civil war.

Don’t blame it on the rain: On the root causes of Northeast Ohio’s flooding problems

Floodwaters submerged vehicles in the parking lot at Great Northern mall in North Olmsted on May 12 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

“Après moi, le déluge” – King Louis XV (1710-1774)

Northeast Ohio has a flooding problem, as anyone affected by the severe storms last evening can attest. The region has experienced at least four major flooding events in the past few months, the most serious of which occurred five months ago on May 12, when torrential rains caused widespread flooding in several communities.

As the hydrographs below demonstrate, this severe deluge caused several rivers and streams to overflow their banks throughout the western and southern portions of Greater Cleveland. Flash floods also occurred in several areas; one raging flash flood nearly washed away a vehicle containing legendary meteorologist Dick Goddard, who apparently did not heed that famous National Weather Service saying: “turn around, don’t drown.”

This hydrograph displays the streamflow for three Northeast Ohio rivers – the Vermilion River (red), the Black Creek in Elyria (green), and the Rocky River in Berea (blue) – as measured by the US Geological Survey during May of this year. As you can clearly see, the streamflow in each of these rivers spiked drastically on May 12-13, due to the extreme precipitation during that period. Both the Vermilion and Black Rivers exceeded their respective flood stages (courtesy of USGS).

Who is to blame?

Since these floods occurred, people have been looking for answers or, in many cases, someone to blame. Those individuals whose property and piece of mind were damaged by the floodwaters have, in many cases, been understandably and justifiably upset, even angry. Many of these people have turned their anger at their municipal governments for failing, for one reason or another, to prevent the floods from occurring. This anger bubbled over in some instances, leading to highly contentious public meetings, such as the one in North Olmsted during which a resident got on stage to publicly rebuke officials and call for citizens to sue the city. Residents of other municipalities, including Olmsted Township and Strongsville, are also considering class action lawsuits, accusing their cities of negligence for not investing in adequate infrastructure upgrades.

City officials, for their part, have found a different scapegoat – the rain itself. And there can be no question that the rain in some areas in the past few months has been downright biblical. North Olmsted endured 4.44 inches of rain – more rain than it receives, on average, for the entire month of May – in a couple of hours on the 12th. Put another way, that amount of rain would be equivalent to roughly 44 inches of snow. Strongsville, in turn, saw 3.58 inches of rain that evening, just under its monthly average rainfall of 3.66 inches for May.* The following month, Cleveland suffered a similar fate. The 3.54 inches that fell on June 24 made it the fourth rainiest day for the city in the past century.

Yet, major rainfall events are not uncommon for Northeast Ohio during the summer months; in fact, they are the norm. On average, roughly 40% of the total precipitation in the Midwest each year falls during just 10 days; almost all of these days occur during the summer months, when high heat and humidity can lead to major convective storms. But, what is different is the frequency with which these types of flooding events are occurring. Residents in many of the affected communities have testified that they have experienced floods on a semi-regular basis over the past 10-15 years.

Don’t blame it on the rain…or the sewers

While it may be convenient to blame these floods on the rain, it’s not that simple. As the (handful of) people who have perused this blog in the past have no doubt grown tired of reading, there’s no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Rather, disaster risk is the combination of a natural hazard, our physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and our socioeconomic vulnerability. If 4 inches of rain falls in the middle of an uninhabited tract of some national park in Montana, it does not constitute a disaster. In a sense, for disasters, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it really doesn’t make a sound.

So, while it may make sense for people to blame inaction by public officials or the heavens for floods, these simply represent the proximate causes of the disaster. We cannot hope to address the real issue at hand by focusing simply on these; that is the equivalent of treating the symptoms of the illness. Rather, we need to focus on the root causes, which one can identify through this disaster risk lens.

Since I cannot readily or adequately examine the various facets of disaster vulnerability for every community affected by this summer’s floods, I want to focus instead on the other two components of the disaster risk triad – natural hazards and exposure. Increases in extreme precipitation events due to climate change and Northeast Ohio’s ongoing sprawl problem, respectively, account for much of the apparent spike in flooding events throughout the region over the past several years. I explore each of these below.

Natural hazard: Climate change and precipitation in Northeast Ohio

Logically, the more rain that falls over an area, particularly within a limited period of time, the higher the likelihood that a flood will occur. We already know that, based on simple physics, as global temperatures increase, the amount of moisture in the air should also rise. According to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor increases roughly 7% for each 1ºC increase in atmospheric temperatures. This should lead to two general outcomes. First, it will take the atmosphere longer to reach its point of saturation, which may lengthen the periods between rain events for many areas, contributing to droughts. Conversely, because the amount of water vapor available for precipitation also rises, rainfall events should become more extreme in nature. As Dr. Kevin Trenberth put it in a 2007 study (PDF),

Hence, storms, whether individual thunderstorms, extratropical rain or snow storms, or tropical cyclones, supplied with increased moisture, produce more intense precipitation events. Such events are observed to be widely occurring, even where total precipitation is decreasing: ‘it never rains but it pours!’ This increases the risk of flooding.

We are already witnessing this intensification of rainfall in the US, particularly in the Midwest.  According to the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA), total precipitation has increased in the Midwest by 9% since 1991. Over the past century, certain parts of the region have seen precipitation totals climb by up to 20%. This increase is due largely to a spike in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. From 1958-2012, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy downpour events jumped by 37% in the Midwest. This statistic helps to explain why, of the 12 instances in which Cleveland received more than 3 inches of rain in a day during the last century, 7 have occurred since 1994.

heavy downpours by region

One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades. Changes are compared to the period 1901-1960, and do not include Alaska or Hawai‘i. (courtesy of Climate Central).

Unless we take action quickly to reduce our carbon emissions, this situation will only get worse in the coming decades. The NCA projects that, under a business as usual scenario (RCP 8.5), Ohio will see such extreme precipitation events four times more frequently by the end of the century.

extreme precipitation events projections

The increase in frequency of extreme daily precipitation events (a daily amount that now occurs once in 20 years) by the later part of this century (2081-2100) compared to the later part of last century (1981-2000) (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Exposure: Sprawl and flooding in Northeast Ohio

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Northeast Ohio’s problems with sprawl-based development (see here for examples). As I wrote one year ago today,

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the decentralization of the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

We’ve come a long way since 2002. The heyday of sprawl appears to be on its last legs, as the combined effects of the Great Recession, the rise of the Millennial generation, and the gradual retirement of the Baby Boomers has led to a resurgence in the number of people living in walkable urban areas. Multiple sources have proclaimed the end of sprawl; this trend even appears to be taking root in Atlanta.

Cleveland has tried to position itself to follow this emerging trend. The city was recently ranked 10th most walkable among the largest 30 metro areas, enjoys a 98.3% residential occupancy rate downtown, has unveiled a plan to double the amount of bike routes in the city by the end 2017, and has seen a rise in transit-oriented development.

Given all of these positive indicators, why would I suggest that sprawl has increased the frequency and intensity of floods over the past decade-plus? Well, simply put, because it has. While it’s impossible for one to  deny all of these positive indicators, one also cannot ignore the facts.

In its Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, Smart Growth American ranked Cleveland 153 of 221 metros on its sprawl index. The median score was 100; cities with scores over 100 were more compact, while those with scores less than 100 were more sprawling. Cleveland scored an 85.62 (PDF), placing it below other regional metros, including Detroit (12th), Milwaukee (15th), Chicago (26th), Akron (111th), Dayton (116th), Toledo (117th), Pittsburgh (132nd), and Columbus (138). Cleveland does outperform some other nearby metros, including Indianapolis (158th), Cincinnati (166th), and Youngstown (175th).

Moreover, a recent study out of the University of Utah suggests that from 2000-2010, the Cleveland metro area became even more sprawling (PDF). Using Smart Growth America’s sprawl index, the authors examined the rate of change for the 162 largest metro areas (paywalled) during this period. While Akron actually became 2.7% more compact, Cleveland sprawled by another 13.3%, the 10th worst change of any metro area. Though the city’s number improved since 2010, our 85.62 in 2014 is still lower than the 86.01 that we had 14 years ago.

So why does this all matter for flooding? Well, simply put, areas that follow sprawl-based development models are more likely to suffer from flooding problems. Sprawl increases the percentage of land area that is covered with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and driveways. As the extent of impervious surfaces rises, so too does the amount of precipitation that winds up as surface runoff during storms. Forested areas are excellent at controlling stormwater (PDF); trees enable 50% of precipitation to infiltrate the soil and allow another 40% to return to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Urbanized areas, in contrast, drastically reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate into the soil, guaranteeing that 35-55% of precipitation ends up as runoff.

As Hollis (1975) has shown, urbanization increases the incidence of small flooding events 10-fold (paywalled). Additionally, if 30% of the roads in an urban area are paved, major flood events with return periods of 100 years or more tend to double in magnitude. Northeast Ohio has more than 48,000 acres of impervious surfaces, equivalent to approximately one-third of the region’s land area. Accordingly, we fall directly into that danger zone for major flood events due, in large part, to our development patterns.

Secondly, because so much of the county is already developed, many new developments are being built in existing flood zones. In December 2010, FEMA released its first comprehensive flood zone maps for Northeast Ohio since the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, these maps show a dramatic increase in the number of people living in flood zone areas, due to the outward expansion of development. Thousands of people woke up one day to find out that they had been living in a flood zone, and they were none too happy to learn that they would now have to shoulder some of the cost of that decision by purchasing federal flood insurance. Interestingly, the gentleman who filed the class action lawsuit against Strongsville over the flooding lives in a housing development in one of these flood plains.

Lastly, sprawl directly contributes to climate change by leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban areas account of 50% of the US’s total emissions, despite being home to less than half of the population. While households in downtown Cleveland produce just 26.5 tons of GHGs annually, that number skyrockets to 85.6 tons for Gates Mills residents. Because transportation accounts for such a high portion of the average family’s carbon footprint in this region, our sprawl problem has directly resulted in additional carbon pollution.

Conclusion

There is no question that flooding represents a real threat to the quality of life of people living in Northeast Ohio. Those individuals who have been directly affected by it have every right to be upset and to demand answers. Unfortunately, however, it appears that we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. Focusing exclusively on the proximate drivers of these floods may seem like a good idea, but it allows us to escape examining the real, underlying root causes. Until we step up and begin to shift our regional development patterns away from those centered on sprawl and rampant fossil fuel use, this flooding problem will only get worse.

 

*It’s worth noting that Strongsville is one of eight suburbs that have sued the Northeast Ohio Sewer District to fight the implementation of its stormwater management program. The case went before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday. Obviously, this action runs directly counter to the city’s interests. While the stormwater management program will lead to an increase in rates, it is also the only chance we have to begin managing runoff as a region, which is essential not only for flood control but for improving our water quality and fighting harmful algae blooms. Additionally, a portion of the revenues from this fee would be made available for cleaning up after floods and helping to prevent future flooding. Perhaps that’s why, after the May 12 storms, North Royalton withdrew as one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. This region desperately needs the investment that will come from this program, through Project Clean Lake, though I strongly encourage NEORSD to invest a greater portion of the program’s funds into green infrastructure, which is vital for controlling floods and filtering water.