Editor”s Note: Dirty, stinky, smoggy city

Jun 3, 2008 at 9:13 pm

What a shame. Or is it sham? 

The big, hilarious news out of Louisville last week was the confirmation that the air here is quite polluted. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the River City has the fifth-biggest carbon footprint per capita of the 100 largest metro areas in the country. Welcome to the king of self-fulfilling prophecies. 

At least we’re in good company: Lexington was first, Indianapolis second and Cincinnati third. St. Louis, Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn., were among the Worst 10. 

What do these places have in common? For one, all are on Louisville’s list of competitors — for new businesses, jobs, professional sports franchises, miles of bike lanes and so forth. They are mid-sized Southern or Midwestern burgs whose economies have been accosted by outsourcing and a shifty over-the-road economy that promises to degrade with surging gas prices. Like us, they also have issues with sprawl. 

So our problem is not only local, it’s regional. 

What is the source? The Environmental Protection Agency says the single most polluting thing a person can do is drive a car. Every gallon of gas burned in a car produces 25 pounds of carbon dioxide, and more than half of an American household’s annual carbon emissions come from driving, according to John Kaehny, a sustainable transportation consultant. 

I watched Kaehny and a host of other experts discuss the role of city-level transportation policy in climate change Monday night, on a program called “Big Ideas: Transport” on the Sundance Channel. The point of the program was to push the compound philosophy that climate crisis is forcing us to examine the way we live, and a large part of that is how we move ourselves. As such, we should make our cities places that encourage citizens to do right by the Earth, which means being more responsible about how we consume certain resources. This, in turn, reflects a particular set of values — moral, intellectual and practical. 

For a primer on those options, let’s take the New York City model (the Brookings study found NYC fourth-best in terms of per capita carbon footprint). There are 6,000 miles of streets and an equivalent stretch of sidewalks, 787 bridges and 500 miles of bike lanes, with a plan to add 100 more by the end of the year, according to Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation. There is an extensive subway system, known worldwide, and a bus system that includes bus rapid transit. 

“The bottom line is, you can’t build your way out of this anymore,” Sadik-Khan said from my TV screen. “We’ve poured enough concrete, asphalt and steel. We have to manage our systems more efficiently and more sustainably.” 

With that, let’s return to Louisville. In his budget projection, released last week, Mayor Jerry Abramson continued funding for expanded bike lanes. The city has made major strides toward becoming more bike-friendly, and while some cycling activists say it’s not enough, well, it’s better than most. Abramson said every dollar invested in bike lanes would yield $5 in new investment. I buy that. 

But there is the hilarious-sham part of this story, too, and it makes the punch of “Stink City” a little more bruising. 

After a Courier-Journal story on the Brookings report paraphrased its public policy director saying that road projects like the Ohio River Bridges Project wouldn’t help cities reduce their carbon footprint, the Build the Bridges Coalition — a nonprofit lobbying group funded in part by groups receiving taxpayer money — rushed out an e-mail to media saying the $4.1-billion bridges project would actually help reduce our carbon footprint. 

When I finished laughing out loud,
I pondered that masterstroke of PR.

How could one show that a major increase in traffic capacity would actually mean less cars? 

I e-mailed Kay Stewart, the group’s media contact, and asked a few questions. The basic logic at play is this: By doing nothing, we’ll be more congested. By building two bridges and redesigning Spaghetti Junction, we’ll be less congested. Everything hinges on congestion, not carbon footprint, and while they interact, those are two different things. The bridges project studies don’t show projections past 2025, when the project is supposed to be finished. And no study exists addressing the most essential matter, one that could also solve congestion problems: how to get less people driving. 

In other words, the prevailing minds behind Louisville’s transportation strategy stop thinking at a fixed point, where narrow calculations can easily reflect what they want to hear. Will you still be alive in 2030? 2040? How do you think you’ll get around the traffic on the bridges? 

Contact the writer at [email protected]