It looks like streetcars will, once again, be gliding through 22 major U.S. cities in the coming years thanks to a change in the U.S. federal transportation policy.
Last June, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) reversed policies of President George W. Bush that favored rapid transit, but made it difficult to spend federal funds on green alternatives. The FTA announced that it would now start evaluating applications on the basis of land uses and the economic development transit projects would bring to a city. Speed and efficiency will no longer be the only criteria. Convenience, quality of life and long term economic benefits will now be the primary focus.
The FTA announced that it would now start evaluating applications on the basis of land uses and the economic development transit projects would bring to a city.
In December, DOT announced that it would make grants of up to $25 million each for ‘urban circulator systems’ such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolleys. It noted that these systems foster the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.
“A streetcar does not save any travel time,” said Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc. in Oregon. “Rather, a streetcar makes movement within a city more convenient, and helps build up relatively dense, walkable, mixed use corridors. It also reduces dependence on automobiles.”
In the past ten years, he added, Portland has seen an increase in private investment along the Portland Streetcar line, by $3.5 billion USD. Up to 53 percent of all downtown development has been within a block of the streetcar line.
Who derailed the streetcar?
But if the street car is cheaper to operate, better for the environment and good for local economies, why did it ever disappear? To answer that question we have to look back to the beginning of the last century.
In the early 1920s only ten percent of Americans owned cars. The vast majority of commuters traveled by train, or by streetcar. The streetcar was a reliable and efficient means of travel, the city air was clean, and the streets where less congested. But although this arrangement worked well for city dwellers at the time, it did not work for the country’s largest car manufactures.
“We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars,” Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, was quoted as saying in a 1996 PBS docudrama titled Taken for a Ride.
The documentary contends that in 1922, Sloan created a front company called National City Lines, Inc. (NCL), with the intention of undermining the country’s rail-based public transit systems. In 1936, he got other specialized conglomerates on board and reorganized the NCL into a holding company. The defined mission—to acquire all local transit systems in the United States and dismantel them.
"Once [NCL] purchased a transit company, electric trolley service was immediately discontinued, the tracks quickly pulled up, the wires dismantled," noted Edwin Black, in his 2007 book, Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives. He said that GM buses soon replaced the trolleys, and commuters, bothered by the uncomfortable bus ride and toxic exhaust fumes, soon abandoned public transit altogether.
In 1949, GM, Standard Oil of California, Firestone, and others were convicted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products. The verdicts were upheld on appeal. The punishment? The corporations involved were fined $5000, their executives were made to pay $1 each.
The public mood today is shifting. Citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated with public policies that support the destructive behaviour of greedy multinationals. Obama’s sweeping electoral victory is one example of this. People are demanding change—new policies that will take citizens into account, improve our quality of life and foster new economic development. Interestingly, though, sometimes we have to look back in time to put good ideas back on track.
Cities working on plans to construct streetcar lines within a year or two are:
- Little Rock, Arkansas
- Los Angeles, California
- Sacramento, California
- Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Boise, Idaho
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Charlotte, North Carolina
- Cincinnati, Ohio
- Columbus, Ohio
- Lake Oswego, Oregon
- Providence, Rhode Island
- Dallas, Texas
- Fort Worth, Texas
- San Antonio, Texas
- Salt Lake City, Utah
- Arlington, Virginia
- Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Tucson, Arizona
- Washington, D.C.
Awesome footage of a streetcar traveling down Market Street in San Francisco in 1905.
Who Killed The Electric Streetcar?
Produced for PBS Frontline by the Center for Investigative Reporting
Every day, we slather ourselves with liquids, lotions, and potions – from shampoo and soap to deodorant and makeup. After all, most of us want to look and feel clean and to smell nice. It's not uncommon for a single person to use 10 or more personal-care products daily.
We don’t usually think of our cosmetics as a source of pollution. But U.S. researchers found that one eighth of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal-care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, plasticizers, and degreasers.
Take a look at the ingredient list on your bottle of shampoo or hand lotion. Most of us would have a hard time identifying which chemicals in the typically long list of ingredients may be harmful to human health or the environment.
Chances are your personal-care products contain “fragrance” or “parfum” – often the last item on the ingredient list. Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so manufacturers don’t have to disclose the chemicals they include. More than 3,000 chemicals are used to create “fragrances”, usually in complex mixtures. Up to 80 per cent of these have never been tested to see whether they are toxic to humans.
These fragrances are not just found in perfumes and deodorants but are also in almost every type of personal-care product, as well as laundry detergents and cleaning products. Even products labelled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” can contain fragrance, usually with a masking agent to prevent the brain from perceiving odour.
The negative effects of some fragrance ingredients can be immediately apparent, especially for the growing number of people with chemical sensitivities. For example, fragrance chemicals can trigger allergic reactions, asthma attacks, and migraines. Researchers have even found evidence suggesting that exposure to some of these chemicals can exacerbate or even contribute to the development of asthma in children.
Other chemicals may have harmful effects that don’t show up right away. For example, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is a cheap and versatile chemical widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent last longer. But it is associated with a range of problems.
The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed it as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy).
Some research has also suggested that phthalate metabolites may contribute to obesity and insulin resistance in men. Health Canada has moved to ban six phthalates in children’s toys, after evidence showed that prolonged exposure can cause liver or kidney failure, but it has no plans to regulate the chemicals in cosmetics. DEP is also listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the U.S. Clean Water Act, based on evidence that it can be toxic to wildlife and the environment.
Fragrance chemicals often harm the environment. Some compounds in synthetic “musk”, which wash off our bodies and find their way into nature, remain in the environment for a long time and can build up in the fatty tissues of aquatic animals. Researchers have found measureable levels of synthetic musks in fish in the Great Lakes, and they’ve found that levels in sediment are increasing.
In response to the sensitivity many people have to airborne chemicals, a growing number of offices and public spaces are becoming “fragrance-free”. This is a great initiative, but what are these and other harmful chemicals doing in our cosmetics in the first place?
Canada’s regulations don’t measure up to standards in other parts of the world. The European Union restricts many fragrance ingredients and requires warning labels on products if they contain any of 26 allergens commonly used as cosmetic fragrances. Europe also prohibits or restricts the use of chemicals classified as carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins in personal-care products.
The David Suzuki Foundation and other organizations are working for safer products. We’re conducting a survey (www.davidsuzuki.org/whatsinside) to raise awareness and to find out what’s in the products people use every day. We plan to present the results in September, along with recommendations for strengthening laws to protect Canadians and our environment from harmful chemicals in personal-care products.
You can help out by becoming more aware of what’s in the products you use and switching to products that don’t contain harmful ingredients.
Cars and trucks are among the biggest contributors to the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming. About 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from private automobiles, and up to a quarter come from road transportation in general. That makes driving a good place to start in confronting one of the most serious challenges humans face.
Canada and the U.S. just announced plans to enact fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks manufactured in the two countries. Canada is expected to match the U.S. standards, which will require all cars and trucks built by a company to get an average of about 35 miles per gallon, or six litres per 100 kilometres, by 2016. Canada’s government estimates that will lead to a 25 per cent reduction in vehicle emissions in 2016 compared to 2008. The government’s next step should be to require more zero-emission vehicles powered by clean-energy sources.
The new-vehicle regulations are good for the environment and the economy – but people who don’t plan to buy new cars can also reduce their driving-related impact on the environment. Maintaining and driving a vehicle efficiently can make a big difference. Of course, the best way to reduce fuel consumption is to get out of your car. Walking, cycling, or using public transit mean fewer cars spewing emissions and less gridlock, which causes pollution as cars waste fuel while idling.
Getting out of the car isn’t always possible, though, especially in rural areas not served by public transit, where travel distances and weather often make walking and cycling impractical. Designing communities around people instead of cars by investing more in public transit and less on roads and freeways is important in the long term, but for now drivers can reduce their current gas consumption by as much as 20 per cent with a few eco-driving tips – something the David Suzuki Foundation’s Quebec office learned with its Drive Smart or Roulez Mieux campaign (www.roulezmieux.ca/).
As with the new government fuel standards, adopting better driving habits demonstrates that doing what’s right for the environment also makes good economic sense. Beyond saving money on gas, drivers can reduce wear on their cars, saving on maintenance and car-replacement costs.
One of the first things you can do is make your transportation more efficient through planning. Instead of making separate trips to get to work and the store, combine the journeys. Joining a car pool is also a great idea.
Keeping your vehicle properly maintained, with regular tune-ups, including air-filter and oil changes, and tires in good shape and properly inflated will allow you to go further on less gas.
Driving habits also help. Avoiding rush hour and driving defensively can help ensure that the fuel you burn will get you to your destination more quickly and efficiently. Shutting off the engine if your car is stopped for more than a minute makes sense too. Slowing down also helps. Going over the speed limit won’t get you to your destination much faster, but it will burn more fuel.
Other good habits include keeping your trunk clean – as less weight requires less fuel to transport – and using the car’s accessories sparingly.
It’s up to all of us to do what we can to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change. That’s especially true because governments are often slow to act and don’t always go far enough. Sometimes they need a bit of a push, from individuals, communities, businesses, or even other levels of government. For example, the U.S. emissions standards were developed in response to tough standards enacted by the state of California and adopted by other states. (In Canada, Quebec was the first province to implement tougher fuel standards.)
As fossil fuels become scarce, and as our knowledge of the impacts of pollution and global warming increases, the benefits of doing all we can to use less gas just keep adding up. For the new fuel standards, savings at the gas pump will even offset the higher costs of the new fuel-efficient vehicles. The new standards will also lead to more jobs, as new technologies are developed.
We have a long way to go in resolving the issues around our love affair with the car and environmental destruction, but at least we’re getting started.
Somewhere in your city, several renegade environmentalists are huddling around a dimly lit kitchen table drawing out their latest offensive. They make a few phone calls and send out a couple of emails before they grab their shovels and march downstairs into the dark city streets. They call themselves guerilla gardeners and, today, they will be defacing another drab city sidewalk with bright yellow sunflowers and lovely purple lavender.
Guerrilla gardening, a tradition that can be traced back to the late 18th century, consists of people planting crops, flowers and shrubs on land that does not belong to them. At its core, it is a direct action political statement intricately tied to land reform and land rights. However, it has been making a significant comeback in recent years, according to prominent guerilla gardener Richard Reynolds. Why? Well, because it is simply a fun way to spend an evening.
We here at Alternative Channel have become increasingly intrigued by this blossoming movement. So, we tracked down Richard Reynolds in his London office to find out, why he does what he does, what is behind the movement’s growing popularity, and what are some of the problems guerrilla gardeners face.
AC: So, for all of us that are not familiar with Guerilla Gardening, what is it about?
RR: It’s about gardening wherever you want regardless of who owns the land. It’s about getting out there and doing it and expressing yourself in a public place. In a place where the land is not being done anything with. It’s not until the last four years that it has caught on because people like myself have been blogging about it and writing about it and talking about it and making short movies about it.
AC: Why do you think Guerilla Gardening has been gaining in popularity?
RR: People want to keep in touch with the land around them. More people are getting the sense that we need to get a little closer to nature again. More people are living in cities. So they don’t have their own garden space. That is how I came to be doing it. Because I moved to London and I had no garden. Not even a window sill, for the first time in my life. But I also got involved for the sense of community. If you’re doing something in public that is generally seen as pretty positive, you are going to meet people. That is the social side of it.
AC: So you have collaborators?
RR: Yes, I do it with others (laughter). These days some of my best friends are from guerilla gardening. And, some of my older friends, who aren’t really gardeners, come on the journey with me.
AC: Watching your video, I noticed you spend a lot of money on this.
RR: Sometimes. Yep. But by no mean does it have to cost that much. It depends on how impatient you are. And there are times when I’m quit impatient. And I want to do something that is really obvious and that means buying plants. But you don’t, by any means, need to spend a lot.
May 1st, for four years now, has been the international sunflower guerilla gardening day. Which is an idea some guerilla gardeners in Brussels conceived. And that’s just about planting a few sunflower seeds around the city.
And, if you get word out people give you stuff as well. Gardeners chuck stuff out and people chuck stuff out of their gardens. They feel guilty about it, so if they can find some positive way to direct it then...
AC: When you have to spend money, do you pay for everything out of your own pocket?
RR: Yes. Or there is a little bit of fundraising going on.
AC: What kind of fund raising?
RR: We sell lavender. Some of the lavender that we planted in the guerilla garden, which you can see on some of the online films, we chop up about once a year anyway, and stuff goes into pillows. And that raises lots of money because we sell them at an extortionary price. (laughter )
AC: Have you ever had any mishaps when guerilla gardening?
RR: There is an online film showing one of my many encounters with police. It is the only one, actually, where I was threatened with arrest. I have a video of it online. It’s quite hammy. It’s quite a bit hyped up to be dramatic, because it was being done for Swedish children’s TV. They didn’t really appreciate that, actually. There was no need to film it like it was some spy movie, because the drama is there anyway.
AC: So that was the only time?
RR: Yes. That’s when it got difficult and I got angry. Normally when the police realize, after brief questioning, that we are not really destroying stuff, they just let us get on with it and turn a blind eye. The wide spread attitude is tolerance. Sometimes we will try to provoke a political reaction, by planting larger plants. Quiet tolerance is usually the response. However, for virtually every guerilla gardener I’ve met, the political objective is secondary to the fun and pleasure of doing it.
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