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Tap the Power of Local Motion

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on What Individuals Can Do

By Paul Steely White | Transportation Alternatives | September 23, 2011

CREDIT: William Murphy (CC).

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

–H. G. Wells            

With Washington under the sway of climate change deniers, it is easy to feel despondent. The cure is to focus on local progress—to reclaim momentum and win real results.

In fact, New York City is stoking a revolution in its streets with very little help from Washington. Mayor Bloomberg and his innovative transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, are making clean transportation a much more attractive option simply by giving more space and priority to bicycling and walking.

Biking in New York has doubled in recent years, and mass transit and walking are also on the rise. Bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, while just a part of the Mayor's larger climate change initiative, are now the most powerful and popular symbol of our greening city.

Next year the revolution will kick into high gear with the launch of North America's largest public bicycle-share system: 10,000 bikes spread over 600 stations in the first phase alone. Funded entirely by private investment, catalyzed by a small group of committed environmentalists, and supported by local community groups, this local initiative will make zero-emission transportation an easy and obvious choice for millions of New Yorkers.

Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other cities are taking similar steps to make clean transportation more attractive than driving.

Just as the carrots of easier biking, walking, and mass transit are being deployed in more and more cities, so are the sticks. Local policies where the "polluter pays" can encourage cleaner choices in energy and transportation.

With Washington deadlocked, it is easy to feel despondent. The cure is to focus on local progress.

Many cities and towns have raised parking fees in cooperation with neighborhood business improvement districts, and drivers generally support these higher fees so long as the revenue pays for local walking, biking, and transit enhancements. On the energy front, Maryland's Montgomery County took the bold step last year of introducing the nation's first local carbon tax.

While these revolutions in local transportation and energy policy will certainly reduce carbon emissions, they are not enough. To slow and ultimately stop climate change we need a much larger revolution in the form of a national carbon tax that would, across the board, make cleaner options like solar, wind, and geothermal more cost competitive with oil, natural gas, and coal.

So long as Washington remains deadlocked, your limited time and money are best spent working to support change at the local level. Compared to what it takes to move the needle on national or global policy, it's much easier to tip the balance on your own street, in your own neighborhood, and for your own city.

My recommendation is to work with your local bike advocacy group to win a new bike lane, or support parking reforms and streetscape beautification with your local business improvement district. Work with your local Sierra Club chapter to convince your elected officials to explore local driving and parking fees and taxes on dirty fuels that can subsidize green alternatives.

All the local actions do add up, influencing other cities, and, ultimately, national policy. Check out to plug into the local biking and walking advocacy group nearest you.


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