As Trump retreats on climate change, US cities are moving to tackle it

A climate change protest in Washington D.C., April 2017. Image: Getty.

Despite almost universal scientific consensus that climate change poses a growing threat, President Donald Trump’s recent infrastructure plan makes no mention of the need to build resilience to rising global temperatures. Instead, it actually seeks to weaken environmental reviews as a way of speeding up the infrastructure permitting process.

This proposal flies in the face of scientific evidence on climate change. It also contradicts the priorities of many local leaders who view climate change as a growing concern.

During the summer of 2017, we and Boston University’s Initiative on Cities asked a nationally representative sample of 115 U.S. mayors about climate change as part of the annual Menino Survey of Mayors. Mayors overwhelmingly believe that climate change is a result of human activities. Only 16 per cent of those we polled attributed rising global temperatures to “natural changes in the environment that are not due to human activities.”

Perhaps even more strikingly, two-thirds of mayors agreed that cities should play a role in reducing the effects of climate change – even if it means making fiscal sacrifices.

Green roof on Chicago’s City Hall. Image: Conservation Design Forum/creative commons.

Cleaner, smarter cities

In our survey, mayors highlighted a number of environmental initiatives that they were interested in pursuing. Over one-third prioritised reducing the number of vehicles on the road and making city assets, such as buildings and vehicles, more energy-efficient.

Other popular programs included shifting toward green and alternative energy sources; promoting energy efficiency in private buildings; reducing risks of damage from flooding; and installing smart traffic lights that can change their own timing in response to traffic conditions. Many mayors are already implementing these initiatives in their communities.

When we asked mayors what would be required for a “serious and sustained effort to make a meaningful impact in my city” in combating climate change, they identified multiple programs. Large majorities agreed that significantly reducing their cities’ greenhouse gas emissions would involve steps such as requiring residents to change their driving patterns, increasing residential density, reallocating financial resources and updating building codes and municipal facilities.

Interestingly, mayors largely did not think that such initiatives would require imposing costly new regulations on the private sector. Only 25 per cent of mayors said such action was integral to addressing climate change.

Mayors’ top priorities for investments in the environment and sustainability. Image: BU Initiative on Cities/creative commons.

Climate politics is national and local

Mirroring national opinion, mayors’ views on climate change and environmental policy were sharply divided along partisan lines. While 95 per cent of the Democratic mayors we surveyed believed that climate change was a consequence of human activities, only 50 per cent of Republican mayors shared that view. And a mere 25 per cent of Republican mayors believe that mitigating climate change necessitated fiscal sacrifices, compared with 80 per cent of Democrats.

Interestingly, Republican views appear to have become more negative over time. When we surveyed mayors in 2014, just over one-third of Republicans did not believe that their cities should make significant financial expenditures to prepare for and mitigate impacts of climate change. By 2017, that figure had risen to 50 per cent. This shift suggests that Republicans are increasingly opposed to major policy initiatives targeting climate change, even at the local level.

However, despite these partisan differences, there was considerable consensus about making sustainability investments in cities, albeit perhaps for different motives. Democrats were were more likely to highlight green and alternative energy sources, and Republicans were more inclined towards smart traffic lights, but there was significant support across party lines for these kinds of improvements.

Mayors were asked how strongly they agreed with this statement: Cities should play a strong role in reducing the effects of climate change, even if it means sacrificing revenues and/or expending financial resources. Image: BU Initiative on Cities/creative commons.

A missed opportunity

President Trump’s strongest support in the 2016 election came from rural areas, and urban leaders have strongly opposed many of his administration’s proposals. We asked mayors about their ability to combat federal initiatives across an array of policies. Mayors identified two areas – policing and climate change – as opportunities where cities could do “a lot” to counteract Trump Administration policies.

Indeed, mayors have already banded together to send a strong political signal nationally, and perhaps even globally, on climate change. After President Trump abandoned the Paris climate agreement, many mayors publicly repudiated Trump and signed local commitments to pursue the accord’s goals. A large number of mayors have also more formally allied and joined city-to-city networks and compacts around climate change and other issues. Mayors see political value in these kinds of commitments. As one mayor put it, compacts “increase political voice... [it] give[s] more clout to an issue when mayors unite around common issues.”


The ConversationAlmost two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in cities or incorporated places. While mayors and local governments cannot comprehensively tackle climate change alone, their sizeable political and economic clout may make them an important force in national and global sustainability initiatives. In our view, by not proposing substantial investment in infrastructure – including climate resilience in cities – the Trump administration is missing an opportunity to build better relationships with cities through steps that would benefit millions of Americans.

Katherine Levine Einstein, Assistant Professor, Political Science, Boston University; David Glick, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boston University, and Maxwell Palmer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boston University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities build a better bike culture? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.