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The Mess at the Top of the World

Mt. Everest: The Holy Grail of the climbing world. Each year 230,000 people travel to China and Nepal to hike Everest and its sister peaks in the Himalayas. All climbers generate garbage, and the mountains have no way to process it. It’s a delicate environment where trash remains frozen for eternity—or until the greenhouse effect takes over and releases the stench of rotting what-have-you.

Mount Everest from Kalapatthar. Photo by Pavel Novak. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5.

Mount Everest from Kalapatthar. Photo by Pavel Novak. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5.

For perspective on the garbage problem, some numbers are in order. In 1963 six people reached the summit. In 2012, more than 500 made it to the top. This created a traffic jam at the final ascent, known as the Hillary Step. Climbers waited for hours to hoist themselves up along a rope. Those that made it to the summit had a hard time finding a place to stand. Another several hundred attempted to make the summit but were turned back by bad weather or common sense. But their garbage was just as real.

hilary-step-455v

The traffic jam on a summit day, as climbers wait to for the Hillary Step near the top of Mt. Everest. Source: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/125-everest-maxed-out/jenkins-text.

And it’s not only garbage that is left behind. Some 200 bodies of climbers who perished in the mountain’s “death zone”—the area above 25,000 feet where the oxygen level is insufficient for sustaining human life—dot the landscape. The death zone is literally a place between life and death. From Camp 4 to the summit, each climber’s body is in the process of shutting down and the goal is to get to the top and back before that happens.

For those who don’t make it, their bodies may be pushed over a ledge so climbers don’t encounter them. Others remain in the crevasses into which they fell. All are frozen solid in the positions in which they died, a process that can happen imperceptibly between one breath and the next as they stop for a momentary rest.

Even George Mallory, who died in 1924 just 800 feet below the summit on the world’s first ascent of Everest, still lies face down where he landed. His body was discovered in 1999 during a special expedition. His clothing is ripped, and his back is exposed to the frigid air in a manner that makes the grandma in me want to cover him up with a blanket.

The body of Green Boots, an Indian climber who died in 1996 near the summit. http://altereddimensions.net/2012/dead-bodies-on-mount-everest.

The body of Green Boots, an Indian climber who died in 1996 near the summit. http://altereddimensions.net/2012/dead-bodies-on-mount-everest.

While the “Leave No Trace” ethic runs deep in many areas of the world, this is not the case in Nepal, where climbing is big business and the ineffective government has little recourse in enforcing efforts to treat the mountain as the religious force that Buddhists believe it is.

Given the difficulties in climbing the mountain, bringing a dead body down is harder than it seems. Several people attempting to recover bodies have died themselves. Now these 200 bodies are used as landmarks to guide Sherpas and their clients. Needless to say, the bodies will remain preserved and frozen until the rosy-fingered dawn of climate change reaches out and melts the Himalayan snow.

Thus, given the issue of its ill-fated explorers, it’s not surprising that the mountain suffers a litter problem. Expeditions are supposed to take their garbage with them, but this largely hasn’t happened. When commercial climbing took off in the 1970s, climbers routinely left tents, foot packaging, and what have you on the mountain. Things are better now, but it seems that the $65,000 in fees that each climber pays to the government of Nepal for the privilege of climbing makes them feel entitled to leave their empty water bottles and oxygen canisters behind.

According to writer Pablo Figueroa, “In essence, the mess at the top of the world is socially caused, and it has to do with the naturalization, promotion and exaltation of a culture of ambition and self-glory.”

Photograph: Daniel Byers./Mountain Institute Expedition

Photograph: Daniel Byers./Mountain Institute Expedition

Human waste is a big issue. None of the villages on the hiking trail to base camp have waste treatment systems. A group called Eco Himal is pushing for portable toilets at base camp and maybe even a waste treatment facility. Climbers are supposed to carry their own waste with them, but that’s not really feasible, given that climbers may stay several weeks at Everest Base Camp and higher levels. As of 2015, human waste at Everest Base Camp is stored in barrels that are later removed from the mountain. But this isn’t the case at the other three higher camps where it remains a huge problem.

The waste issue is monitored by the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, which is small, underfunded, and lacks the authority to do much about the problem. However, one recent improvement is that all expeditions must pay a $4,000 deposit on their equipment in hopes they will bring back what they took. This is helping enormously, according to people who have seen a marked difference in the once-trash strewn base camp. But much still gets left behind. Even when waste does make its way back to Kathmandu, the city has no recycling facility to handle it.

According to one article in the Guardian, in 2010 the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee recovered 25 tons of garbage from Everest; about half was paper and plastic, the other half human waste. What remains on the mountain stays perfectly preserved, like the bodies of those unfortunate climbers. In 2014 the Nepali Ministry of Tourism required all climbers to descend the mountain with 18 pounds of trash, which is the amount that the average climber generates during his or her time there. However, enforcement was sketchy to nonexistent.

Climate change is adding to the problem. Glaciers are receding, and freshwater is increasingly contaminated with human and animal waste. All of these factors create a situation that is unsustainable. The campaign “Saving Mount Everest 2011-2012” is on a quest to restore dignity to the mountain, but its quest is far from over. According to one Sherpa quoted in Treehugger, “The garbage was buried under snow in the past. But now it has come out on the surface because of the melting of snow due to global warming. The rubbish is creating problems for climbers . . . . Some items of garbage are from Hillary’s time.”

 

Source: http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/everest-expedition-to-clean-worlds-highest-garbage-dump.html

Source: http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/everest-expedition-to-clean-worlds-highest-garbage-dump.html

According to Mark Jenkins, writing in National Geographic, there are six ways to restore Mt. Everest:

  1. Limit the number of climbers and Sherpas on the mountain.
  2. Make teams smaller to reduce the traffic jams near the top.
  3. Certify climbing companies to make sure they know and exercise proper safety and conservation procedures.
  4. Require climbers and Sherpas to have high-altitude experience beforehand.
  5. Leave no trace. Those who leave garbage or human waste on the mountain will suffer penalties.
  6. Remove bodies to show respect for both the living and the dead.

It’s an uphill battle, but one that’s worth it if we are to truly respect the awesome power of Everest and respect the memory of those who have lost their lives seeking to reach its summit.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: April 21, 2015, 9:56 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

I Saw the Light, but Not the Light I Wanted

Highlighter in hand, I was ready to cross off the aurora borealis from my bucket list. The Northern Lights, that shimmering celestial curtain of charged particles crashing into Earth’s atmosphere, was scheduled to make a rare appearance in the southern Michigan sky on St. Patrick’s Day. A particularly awesome coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun was going to extend its ionic spectacle far beyond its usual stomping ground. My local meteorologist was hugely excited. He instructed all interested parties to head outside between midnight and 1:00 a.m. and gaze upward at the crystal clear sky.

Source: Spaceweatherlive.ocm

Source: Spaceweatherlive.ocm

I did as I was told. Indeed, the sky was clear. Bright twinkling lights of airplanes abounded, a star or two shone in the distance. But the Northern Lights?

MIA.

My bucket list didn’t stand a chance. There was too much darn light pollution. That orangey urban glow is a pestilence that rarely bothers me, but now I was nonplussed that my Irish holiday would end without the celestial equivalent of green beer.

It was time I took light pollution seriously, as so many others already do. I’d never really thought of it as real pollution, like, you know, air pollution or water pollution. Lack of true darkness in urban areas was an issue, to be sure, but the nuances escaped me. Turns out that what I was witnessing is called sky glow, one of the four main types of light pollution (glare, light trespass, and clutter are the other three). Here’s the skyglow of Istanbul in all its glory:

Source: Towards a (b)righter future?

Source: Towards a (b)righter future?

It’s not only amateur astronomers like me who shake their fists at excess night light when trying to locate the Big Dipper, but also the professional astronomers. Turns out their telescopes can’t filter out light and clouds, as I always thought they could. The Mt. Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, for example, is only 11 percent as effective as when it was built in 1908. Even Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, a state-of-the-art facility in the middle of Pacific Ocean, suffers from serious light pollution problems.

But this inconvenience to scientists is nothing compared to what night light does to birds and other nocturnal animals. When artificial life interferes with their biological processes, it’s called ecological light pollution. It is an actual life-or-death matter. Even plants can suffer, because some need total darkness as well as sunlight in order to thrive. For example, there’s a species of zooplankton that refuses to eat unless it’s super dark outside. They normally feast on algae, but when they don’t eat, the algae multiply unimpeded. Algal blooms flourish, marine life suffers.

Ecological light pollution messes up the predator-prey relationship of nocturnal animals. If it’s a frog’s benefit that it can see in the dark and its prey can’t, what happens when it’s never dark? The frog loses its advantage and the species suffers. Then there’s the whole system of moths and nighttime insects, along with night-blooming flowers, that can collapse. If moths have trouble navigating, they get lost on their way to the night-blooming flowers, which then do not become pollinated.

Source: Nocturnal-animals.com.

Source: Nocturnal-animals.com.

Then there’s towerkill. This is when birds become disoriented by lights on tall buildings and towers, such as cell phone towers and TV antennas. They can collide “with other birds, structures or windows, or [circle] the lights until they die of exhaustion.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that 4 to 5 million birds per year succumb to nighttime towerkill. Especially affected are juvenile seabirds leaving the nest for the first time and migratory birds whose navigational instincts get turned around in the brightened night sky. In Toronto, the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) urges building owners to turn off tower lights and for residents draw their curtains at night during migratory periods. This seems fine and dandy until you think about all those airplanes flying around in the dark. What happens to them without those flashing red lights?

Additionally, towerkill is child’s play compared to the number of birds who die each year by flying into windows in broad daylight. That number is supposedly between 100 and 900 million per year. With all due respect to ornithologists and bird lovers everywhere, eliminating light pollution won’t solve this even bigger problem. Not to mention the fact that these statistics raise a host of questions: Why don’t I see dead birds everywhere I turn? Can you narrow down your margin of error? Has the problem lessened with the widespread dismantling of TV towers in recent years?

Then there’s the poor sea turtles. They’ve suffered so much! Not only does light pollution interfere with the female turtles laying eggs, but also little baby turtle hatchlings are programmed to navigate to the sea in the dark, moving away from the dark silhouettes of vegetation and toward the water. When beaches are lit, they don’t know where to go—not to mention that they become tasty snacks for predators.

Source: http://www.sunrealtync.com/help-outer-banks-nc-sea-turtles.

Source: http://www.sunrealtync.com/help-outer-banks-nc-sea-turtles.

Lastly, Homo sapiens also suffer from light pollution in the form of headaches, fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Light pollution interferes with sleep and melatonin production. If you don’t care about the birds (but you should), at least you care about your own zzzz’s, right?

The good news is there is lots we can do to eliminate excess light pollution, which would be good for the wallet as well as the environment. Lighting up the sky unnecessarily costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion each year in the U.S. alone. Diverting or killing some of this light will result in a darker sky.

Source: © Jim Richardson

Source: © Jim Richardson

Some of the solutions to light pollution are pretty simple. Here’s a list from the Prairie Astronomy Club in Lincoln, Nebraska:

  1. Use the right amount of light, not overkill.
  2. Shield the light so that is goes down, not up or sideways.
  3. Use light timer controls whenever possible.
  4. Use low-pressure sodium fixtures whenever possible because it is the most energy efficient and because its light can be filtered out with telescope filters.
  5. Avoid using round globe lights unless they are properly shielded.

Another great resource is the International Dark-Sky Association, founded in 1988 to promote the idea of lighting what you need, when you need it. They initiated the International Dark Sky Places Program, which lists the locations you’ll want to be in the next time the aurora borealis finds its way south of the 45th Parallel. In fact, mark your calendar now, because International Dark Sky Week takes place from April 13 to 18, 2015. Here’s hoping I don’t see you there.

Source: NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank

Source: NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank

 

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: April 7, 2015, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Rigs-to-Reefs: High-Rise Condos for Sea Creatures

Here’s a question for you: What do you do when you’ve got 4,200 obsolete oil platforms dotting the Gulf of Mexico? Answer: You sink those bad boys and let what’s left of the area’s dwindling aquatic life move in. Hopefully, they’ll bring their friends with them; eventually, the starfish and the crustaceans gentrify the neighborhood. Rents skyrocket! Biodiversity wins!

sinking_rig

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is the idea behind the Rigs-to-Reef program, run by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). After an oil rig is done sucking oil or natural gas from beneath the sea, it is sunk to the ocean floor where it becomes the equivalent of a suburban development for local aquatic life. The tiny crustaceans that make up a reef clamor to the rusty metal structure and die, providing a nice foundation for all the other creatures looking for a new home. Bikini Bottom Heights, now leasing! If you lived here, you’d be home by now.

This is a great video about the process from the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, with stunningly beautiful photography. Ignore the fact that it’s sponsored by Shell:

Ships have been scuttled for centuries to become reefs, so it seems natural that the other giant metal structures of the sea would follow suit. The first rig-to-reef conversion took place in 1979, when Exxon towed a rig from Louisiana to Florida. Then in 1984 the National Fishing Enhancement Act (NFEA) begat the National Artificial Reef Plan. The Rigs-to-Reefs program was later formally developed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) under the Department of the Interior. The bureau does not create the reefs, it only makes sure that the rigs are decommissioned properly. It is up to the rig’s operator along with state and other federal agencies to carry out the transition. States with artificial reef plans include Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and California. The Louisiana Artificial Reef Program (LARP), launched in 1998, is the largest rigs-to-reef program in the world and has created 83 artificial reefs with 120 decommissioned rigs.

Source: http://www.joincca.org/articles/671

Source: http://www.joincca.org/articles/671

Oil companies and rig operators love the program, because it saves them money. Even when rigs are towed to a different area after decommissioning, it is still cheaper than hauling it back to shore and recycling it. Recreational divers love the reefs, as do local businesses who cater to them. The reefs are fertile ground for commercial fishermen too. It seems that everyone wins.

So who could possibly complain that this is a bad thing? A buncha people. In California, where there’s a rigs-to-reef program on the books, not one rig has been reefed yet. Representatives of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara argue that oil platforms should be completely removed because they could damage anchors or leech chemicals into the water. Shrimpers say that reefs interfere with their net fishing. Greenpeace argues that they should be banned simply because it is a form of dumping that saves the oil companies money, which only encourages more drilling.

Source: Greenpeacesuomi/Flickr. Greenpeace objects to the sinking of an oil platform in the North Sea.

Source: Greenpeacesuomi/Flickr. Greenpeace objects to the sinking of an oil platform in the North Sea.

There are about 420 artificial oil rig reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for about 10 percent of the total number of old oil rigs in the area. The fact that there are 4,200 old oil platforms in the Gulf is pretty astonishing. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico has the largest concentration of offshore oil platforms in the world, and this fact alone makes it the largest artificial reef complex in the world. Even when the rigs are in operation they provide a good habitat. According to Quenton Dokken, CEO of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, the 3,000 operating rigs produce “biological biomass and bio-diversity. . . . These towers of life provide a home for sponges, hydroids, mollusks and fishes of every description. A cornucopia of life.”

Source: © HOWARD HALL (MACGILLIVRAY FREEMAN FILMS)

Source: © HOWARD HALL (MACGILLIVRAY FREEMAN FILMS)

Reefs are more than a playground for scuba divers and cute fish; they are crucial underwater ecosystems are the “rainforests of the sea.” They are integral to the health of our oceans because of their vast biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide. But the world’s coral reefs are dying due to climate change. The temperature sweet spot that allows reef life to thrive is narrow. Water is becoming too warm, too acidic, too polluted to support the diversity they once had. Coral is dying. Saving the seas means saving the reefs.

When Big Oil agrees with a number of well-respected conservation groups, the result is cognitive dissonance. No one wants to give oil companies a free pass to leave their junk in the ocean, but everyone wants to see the fishes happy. A well-reasoned middle position comes from researchers Peter Macreadie, Ashley Fowler, and David Booth, whose study Rigs-to-Reefs: Will the Deep Sea Benefit from Artificial Habitat? treads a comfortable middle ground by acknowledging the various benefits of reefed rigs in shallow waters. But they are cautious about reefed rigs in deeper waters and suggest ways to minimize possible damages. This is science I can get behind, and so can a host of other researchers, who have cited the article in their own research on oil rig reefs. Any scuba divers out there? You might want to slip on your wetsuit and do your own research.

Source: NOAA.

Source: NOAA.

 

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: March 24, 2015, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,

Solar Roadways: Wave of the Future or Money-Sucking Vortex?

Nothing would be cooler than solar roads that generate the electricity for our no-emissions, self-driving electric cars. The grass would be green, the sky would be bluer. Technology would usher us from this dismal age of potholes, smog, and traffic jams into a Shangri-La of smart infrastructure and a dainty carbon footprint.

Credit: www.bobjones.org.

Credit: www.bobjones.org.

This is the goal of engineers Julie and Scott Brusaw of Solar Roadways, an Idaho-based start-up that has raised over $2 million on Indiegogo to fund their interlocking hexagonal solar panels embedded with LED lights and heat elements. They developed a working prototype via a Federal Highway Administration grant, which is demonstrated in the somewhat tongue-in-cheek video “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways”:

Here’s their pitch:

  • Solar panels can replace any hard surface: roads, sidewalks, bike paths, driveways, parking lots, tarmacs, basketball courts, etc.
  • Private investors will be the early adopters, public infrastructure adoption will come later.
  • Panels will be manufactured using recycled materials, especially for the tempered glass surface.
  • LED lights can be programmed for various configurations for parking, lanes, and to warn drivers if sensors detect an obstacle. LED lights will provide improved nighttime visibility.
  • Manufacturing panels will create tons of jobs
  • Heating elements will melt snow and ice, thereby saving communities the costs associated with salt and plowing, not to mention preventing corrosion on automobiles.
  • Parallel corridors flanking the solar roadway will provide access to power cables and other utilities, eliminating the need for and dangers associated with telephone poles.
  • Water and snow runoff will be channeled to treatment facilities, rather than into nearby waterways.
  • Solar roadways uses existing spaces to generate electricity, rather than requiring the development of pristine land for solar farms.
  • Solar roadways will pay for themselves over time.
Source: Solar Roadways

Source: Solar Roadways

Scott Brusaw tells his story in this TEDxSacramento talk, where he outlines his inspiration in slot cars and his learning curve on pitching to politicians. His wide-eyed idealism is commendable; how else does the world ever change? But what viewers are left with is the feeling that Solar Roadways is an idea that is still very much attached to the drawing board.

Enter the Naysayers

Could anything be more expensive than replacing the nation’s roads with something as expensive as an energy-producing computer chip that you can drive on? David Forbes, as quoted on Jalopnik, hates the Solar Roadways idea, and he’s an electrical engineer who lives in a solar-powered house. Forbes notes that Solar Roadways takes “the problem of generating solar power, and [puts] it into conditions that maximize cost.” On top of that, the labor involved in bolting hundreds of thousands of hexagonal tiles into concrete and constructing the raceways necessary for transferring all that golden solar energy to where it needs to go is practically insurmountable. Moreover:

The idea of having LED signage built into the panels is intriguing. Do you know the only electronic thing that’s more expensive per square foot than solar cells? Yup, you guessed it – LED signage. A few years ago, I built an LED-covered video coat. It cost $20,000 and it was only big enough to cover my body. Multiply that by a billion.

Source: Walt Disney

Source: Walt Disney

That’s just the beginning of Forbes’s criticisms, which include queries about dirt reducing effectiveness and so forth, and his isn’t alone. Sebastian Anthony, writing in the ExtremeTech blog, notes that “Solar Roadways passes $1.4 million in crowdfunding: Just short of the $56 trillion required, but not bad for a crazy idea.” More temperate in his criticism was Eric Weaver, a Federal Highway Administration research engineer who tested the Solar Roadways panels. “I’d say it’s not very realistic to cover the entire highway system with these panels,” he says in a column for Green Tech Media. “[But] if you don’t reach for something, you’ll never get there. Just the effort of doing something new creates byproducts.”

The Dutch Did It First

What if I told you a solar bike path already exists? In November, 2014, a 230-foot long solar-powered section of a bike path in the town of Krommenie, just north of Amsterdam, opened to two-wheeled traffic. The technology was created by Dutch company SolaRoad. Total cost: $3.7 million. That’s $16,087 per foot. For a bike path. It was mostly paid for by the local government, because who else has $16,087 to shell out for one foot of bike path?

Source: SolaRoad

Source: SolaRoad

 

The path features silicon solar cells embedded in safety glass that is mounted in concrete. The pathway generates enough electricity to power two to three houses for a year. It’s a great proof-of-concept, even though it doesn’t have many of the bells and whistles of the proposed Solar Roadways panels.

Source: SolaRoad

Source: SolaRoad

 

For my 2 cents, I’m going with Weaver and his Kermit the Frog-like optimism. The world needs dreamers and believers in rainbows. We need mad scientists who won’t quit when others call them crazy. We need people like Alexander Fleming, who accidentally created penicillin by failing to clean his petri dishes before taking a vacation in 1928, thereby launching the antibiotic age that has saved millions of lives. Maybe the Brusaws’ Solar Roadways won’t come to fruition, but can anyone doubt the usefulness of new technology being created in the pursuit of stemming climate change? Tech curmudgeons are on the wrong side of history, and they’re probably not much fun at parties either.

Source: WikiCommons

Source: WikiCommons

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: March 10, 2015, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,

The Truthiness of America’s Changing Driving Habits

no-driving

Good news, everyone: Americans are driving less. Not only are fewer people driving now than a decade ago, those who do drive are accumulating fewer miles behind the wheel. Praise Mother Earth: we’re finally doing something environmentally responsible. Just like we’re also eating less sugar and tracking our daily movements via FitBit. I don’t know why we’re still so collectively overweight.

I’ve looked at the data from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a reputable organization, and while I don’t necessarily dispute their data or their conclusions, the whole report gives off a distinct aroma of truthiness.

truthiness

According to the PIRG study, “the average American drives 7.6 percent fewer miles today [2011] than when per-capita driving peaked in 2004.” This trend isn’t isolated, PIRG says; the downshift has taken place in the 100 largest urban areas across the country. The decrease in driving is coupled with an increase in the number of people working at home, a decrease in the percentage of two-car households, and an increase in public transportation use and bicycle commuting. So it’s a multi-pronged sea change. There do seem to be an awful lot of bikes on the road these days.

Source: (Augusta Quirk/IFC)

Source: (Augusta Quirk/IFC)

Look: I want it to be true, but it pays to be cautious. The study looks only at urban areas, not the exurban areas that are now booming again thanks to cheap oil and a resurgence in the stock market and new housing starts after the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. It also doesn’t factor in changing demographics, such as the graying of America. The baby boomers are retiring, ergo, they are not driving to work every day. Generation X is a smaller cohort, and the millennials are mostly out of work or still in college. Also, since the study was published a year ago, the price of gas has plunged and it looks like it’s going to stay low for awhile.

Still. Let’s give the study a chance.

Source: PIRG

Source: PIRG

I can’t help but think the decline in car ownership may also correlate with the rise in poverty:

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/17/the-49-states-of-rising-child-poverty/

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/17/the-49-states-of-rising-child-poverty/

Overlap: Mere coincidence, or evidence of something nefarious going on—as in people driving less because they can’t afford to?

Moving on. Let’s get to the details:

What’s the city with the largest drop in vehicle-miles traveled per capita between 2006 and 2011? New Orleans! Doesn’t take a climate scientist to surmise that a mitigating factor in this statistic goes by the name of Katrina.

Source: 85th Civil Support Team.

Source: 85th Civil Support Team.

However, the second and third largest drops took place in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. One a blue-collar bastion with a surprisingly walkable downtown, the other a hotbed of liberal activism teeming with thousands of fresh-faced and optimistic students. Spots four and five belong to Pennsylvania: Harrisburg and Pittsburgh respectively. Again, one a blue-collar bastion and the other a walkable urban area with lots of students. Milwaukee will be getting a high-speed rail system in 2016 and Pittsburgh already has light rail, so props to PA and WI. Credit where credit is due.

And I don’t have a problem with PIRG’s conclusion:

“The time has come for cities and states to shift their transportation priorities away from investments in expensive, unnecessary new highways, and toward the maintenance and repair of our existing infrastructure and the development of new transportation choices for Americans.”

Add to all of this the meteoric rise of Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, Megabus, and Citi Bike: Young people are finding it cost-effective to ride-share and use pedal power. Maybe America’s transportation habits are finally, really changing.

Source: Lyft.

Source: Lyft.

Think about it: Americans are buying different cars today than 10 years ago, when Hummers were status symbols and super-sized SUVs were barrelling down the freeway, guzzling unleaded like it was free beer at a frat party. Nowadays, even your grandmother drives a Prius, and you can find a plug-in parking spot for your Nissan Leaf or your Chevy Volt in any public library parking lot.

Source: Nathan Bernier, KUT News.

Source: Nathan Bernier, KUT News.

But this is where the truthiness creeps into the equation.

We all know consumers are more conscious than ever about fuel economy and their carbon footprint. Right? In 2004, Ford sold 939,511 F-Series pickup trucks—a record that still stands for the venerable make and model. The next top-selling cars were the Chevy Silverado and the Ford Explorer—both models with plenty of testosterone and bad gas mileage (about 15 mpg for the Ford truck, 16 mpg for the Silverado, and 15 mpg for the Explorer).

Fast forward to 2013. What are the top-selling vehicles in the U.S. of A? The Ford F-150, the Chevy Silverado and the Toyota Camry. In this case, I think people got perturbed with the Explorer’s constant tire blow-outs and rollovers. But trucks remain the sales winners.

Okay, I’m pessimistic about this new “trend,” but you don’t have to believe me. Even the New York Times agrees with PIRG in their article “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving”:

“Younger people are less likely to drive—or even to have driver’s licenses—than past generations for whom driving was a birthright and the open road a symbol of freedom. Research by Michael Sivak of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan found that young people are getting driver’s licenses in smaller numbers than previous generations.

Online life might have something to do with the change, he suggested. ‘A higher proportion of Internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate,’ he wrote in a recent study. ‘This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people.’”

Here’s a chart to back that up:

74518_600x450-cb1387302373

However, young people are less likely to have after-school jobs now than in previous generations and more likely to have parents willing to play taxi. What happens when these young people grow up and have children who need to go to daycare? Theoretically, you can do this on a bike, but I just don’t see it happening in Butte, Montana, in the middle of winter. There simply wouldn’t be enough cup holders for everyone, not to mention the lack of heated seats.

All of this is to say, I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. I’m a long-time fan of mass transit and ready for the sea change.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: November 11, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,