This article is the third in a series on how people in our area are responding to the environmental imperatives outlined in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. While the book does not contain a category for active transportation, measures for facilitating increased walking and biking are among the solutions for climate change that are already in action. The book’s editor, Paul Hawken, says if these existing projects are ramped sufficiently higher, we can reverse global warming by 2050.
“Every chance we can get to move without using fossil fuels is a step towards reducing climate change,” said architect and planner Jeff Olson. “After 29 years of pushing a rock up a hill, this is now a trend, that cities and towns are rethinking their downtown areas, making it more enjoyable for walkers and cyclists to get around.”
Olson and Ulster County Assistant Deputy County Executive Tim Weidemann will speak on the topic of active transportation on Monday, April 1, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., at the Woodstock Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, as part of a series on climate change solutions, hosted by the Woodstock Land Conservancy.
Active transportation is defined as walking, biking, and other forms of mobility that involve using our muscle power. Based on his decades of work designing greenways, open space, and alternative mobility projects, Olson said the challenge is making sure walking and biking are considered when making decisions on how to invest in improving infrastructure.
The problem in the Catskills is that we don’t always have “a lot of funding or space or land to change the built environment,” said Olson. Narrow roads, for example, can be dangerous for cyclists, and topography often doesn’t allow for widening. Nevertheless, the Hudson Valley has succeeded in implementing such features as rail trails, including the Wallkill Rail Trail and the Walkway Over the Hudson. Projects underway, such as the Ashokan Rail Trail, will eventually connect up with the Empire State Trail, which, when completed by the end of 2020, will form a continuous 750-mile route spanning the state from New York City to Canada and Buffalo to Albany.
Meanwhile, the linear parks currently being established in Kingston are designed to allow residents to access shopping and walking/biking trails for exercise and recreation, without a need for cars or buses. The parks are expected to save money for low-income people and reduce the use of fossil fuels.
In the 1990s, Olson was involved in early development of the New York City Greenway System and the creation of the Hudson River Park. “Back then the High Line was nothing but a collapsing railroad track. The idea of a network of linear parks goes back 100 years, but the idea of significant investment hadn’t happened. Society was not valuing those investments. Now there are hundreds of thousands of people using the parks, and they’re healthier, happier, and more physically fit.”
A sunny afternoon on the High Line or on the Walkway Over the Hudson will tend to confirm Olson’s claim, as walkers and bikers stream above the streets of western Manhattan or peer down at the waters of the Hudson surging below.
New York City has, in recent years, divided the streets with bike lanes and reduced the speed limit from 30 to 25 m.p.h. Olson is a co-founder of CitiBikes, the public bicycle rental system operating in New York, Washington, DC, Boston, and Chicago. “When we started,” he said, “people were saying it’s going to be dangerous. But we’ve had people travel 30,000 rides on bikesharing, with zero fatalities. In many communities, as people walk and bike more, facilities develop to make them safer.”
Designs can incorporate traffic-calming devices, such as tree-lined roads that tend to make people drive more slowly. Speed bumps, crossing islands, and striping of pedestrian crossings are ideas imported from Europe. Roundabouts are a popular European means of slowing traffic without stoplights, but there are historical examples in New York State. “In the town of Geneseo,” said Olson, “there’s a roundabout with a statue of a bear holding a street light that’s over 100 years old.”
One of the faster-growing trends is electric vehicles, including bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs, and cars. In rural communities, where steep hills and long distances make people less comfortable about jumping on a bike, electric vehicles can come in handy. “Some places have begun to integrate that thinking,” said Olson. “In California, they’re building 30 to 40 miles of connected paths with solar-powered charging stations for golf carts, electric bikes, and other small vehicles.”
Electric bikes are #69 on Drawdown’s list of the 100 top solutions for climate change. Regarding the claims of the Drawdown project, Olson said many people don’t believe there’s much of an effect from a choice such as deciding to take a walk in town instead of going for a drive. “I disagree strongly. Every light bulb we turn off, every time we walk instead of drive, it has an effect, not just on a personal level.” When such actions become habits, he said, they influence the choices of others.
Olson still has a car. “I’m not saying I don’t drive, but I live in a place where I can get out and walk and do most of my day-to-day activities without having to drive. I can jump on my bike and go for a ride, without having to drive somewhere first. Let’s make every home a trailhead, get out and be active and be mobile every day of our lives.”
The Woodstock Land Conservancy presents “Going Mobile – Active Transportation for Our Communities” with Jeff Olson and Tim Weidemann on Monday, April 1, 7 – 9 p.m., at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock. Admission is free. For more information on Olson’s work, visit https://altaplanning.com. His 2012 book The Third Mode: Towards a Green Society is available on Kindle.