Omaha, Nebraska

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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


Last night Verdis hit the town. We didn’t hit it hard, but we got out of the office for dinner and drinks so we could gather and recognize the upcoming fourth birthday of the company, the birthday of one of my coworkers, and the fact that Daniel will soon be at Verdis HQ full time. It was also an early send off for me, as my last day in the office is this Friday.

After I returned home and reflected on the evening, I realized (once again) how special a company Verdis Group has been and will be in the future. It isn’t special just because Verdis is the only sustainability consulting company in the region, or the fact that Verdis has had tremendous success creating positive and sustainable change among its clients. It is the people who work at Verdis that make it special. We are a small barbershop choir and each person contributes a unique voice and timbre to the harmony.

I am personally grateful for having had the chance to apply my own skills, talents, and strengths at Verdis over the past few years (none of which includes actual singing). Because Verdis is small—for now—I’ve had the opportunity to learn new things about running a company and apply myself to tasks I never thought I would face, such as developing an analysis of competitors in the sustainability consulting landscape or creating case studies for urban sustainability centers. Verdis allowed me to do things that were both productive and fun, like designing graphics and presenting visual information. I’ve also enjoyed the freedom of writing some pretty crazy blogs from time to time, with the full support of company leadership and my colleagues.

Working at a small company has also provided the chance to interact with my colleagues more often and more intensely than one would in larger companies. My experience has been more satisfying because I have been able to develop professional and personal relationships with Craig, Daniel, Chris, Kay, and Sally. We don’t always agree, but we get along. So I shouldn’t be surprised when it is so much fun to hang out at dinner and catch up on what is going on outside of work, discuss musical interests, share riddles, continue debating the Oxford/serial comma, or just generally give each other a hard time. While I am looking forward to my next professional step, I expect a long interval before I find myself in a professional environment like Verdis.

The core reason is that Verdis is a small group of passionate individuals who are also fantastic, fun, and interesting people. Although it might not be the right fit for everyone, I have loved working at Verdis and know that I will miss everyone on the team. Verdis is poised for continued and greater success in the future, so even though I am done clocking in, I will still be checking in. I’m proud to have been a figurative voice in this choir and a literal part of this company.

Signing off.

 

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Last August I noticed that Metro Transit was on pace to reach several milestones in 2012, and I wrote about it on this blog. One of those milestones was providing more than 4 million passenger trips in 2012. With 2012 now behind us, I am excited to share that Metro Transit provided 4,225,612 rides in 2012. This is a significant achievement for several reasons:

  • It is the first year Metro has provided more than 4 million rides since 1991 (4,098,497 rides). At that time, gasoline hovered near $1.00 per gallon, automakers were ushering in the era of the SUV, suburban expansion continued to be the dominant paradigm, and Metro ridership was on the decline. Now, gasoline prices are relatively high, automakers are focusing on fuel efficiency, suburban development is giving way to urban redevelopment, and Metro ridership is on the rise. Check out the trend in the graph:
(Download the graph as a .pdf: Metro Transit Ridership by Year 1973–2012)
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  • Metro ridership in 2012 matches (exceeds?) the number of passengers through Eppley Airfield in 2011: 4.2 million.
  • The previous one-month record ridership in at least the past decade was in October 2008 (381,678 rides) after the economy crashed. The current peak is now October 2012 (406,566 rides) with August 2012 (377,731 rides) a close third.
  • Seven of the ten months with the highest ridership in the last decade occurred between June 2011 and October 2012. Eight months in 2012 rank in the top twenty for ridership.

The ridership data paints a picture that is consistent with external indicators: gasoline prices; lifestyle preferences of Generations X, Y, and baby boomers; growing awareness of the environmental and health consequences of driving; and economic pressures making it more difficult to own and operate a private vehicle.

In addition, Metro has rebranded itself and continues to make improvements to its services (e.g., bike racks), facilities (e.g., the North Omaha Transit Center renovations), and programs (e.g., Metro Partners) while it awaits the results of the Central Omaha Transit Alternatives Analysis, the Regional Transit Vision Study, and the implementation of the Omaha Transportation Master Plan.

The external factors, the continuous improvement, and the ridership numbers clearly show that Metro Transit is becoming an increasingly important transportation option in the Omaha area.

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As an advocate for increasing the use of renewable energy as one action to slow climate change, I am disappointed by the news that the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association has forced one of the neighborhood residents to remove solar panels from the roof of his house.

Over the weekend the Omaha World Herald published a story summarizing the struggle and conclusion of one South Shore Heights (SSH) resident’s attempt to have solar panels on his home. Resident Tim Adams installed the panels on his roof in 2010 and has been battling the SSH Homeowners Association (HOA) ever since. The two sides recently settled a lawsuit (prompting the OWH story) and Adams agreed to remove the panels by July 1. I want to summarize the arguments on both sides and then add my own two cents.

Tim Adams’ Argument

Mr. Adams created a website to tell his side of the story and to “educate Omaha homeowners about solar power and the lawsuit” with SSH. His primary argument is that solar panels are not prohibited by any language in the SSH covenants. Moreover, Mr. Adams argues the HOA board has for years failed to follow protocols in the covenants for approval of external improvements and has been inconsistent in approving certain improvements.

A view of the rear of Mr. Adams house in South Shore Heights.

The HOA’s Argument

In challenging Mr. Adams’ solar panels, the HOA board relied upon covenant language requiring external improvements to conform to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood. The board argued that allowing solar panels on Mr. Adams’ house would reduce property values and make it more difficult to sell the home, in addition to being ugly.

My Perspective

Even though the HOA was on the winning side, I think the HOA was on the wrong side.  The evidence that global warming is already happening is growing, and even though Nebraska won’t disappear due to sea level rise—unlike many island nations—Nebraskans should start preparing for more frequent and severe drought, more wildfires, and changes to wildlife and insect inhabitants as climate change impacts the midwest. (What do you think these impacts will do to our agricultural economy?) Our past burning of fossil fuels and the associated emissions are starting to catch up with us. The future costs of the impact of climate change are going to make the supposed aesthetic concerns of the SSH HOA insignificant. The SSH HOA seems out of touch with the causes and effects of climate change.*

Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of drought in the midwest, meaning that reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky near South Shore Heights, will eventually disappear as water supplies decrease.

Although I do not know if the SSH HOA has challenged other exterior improvements in the neighborhood, other HOAs around the country have fought with homeowners over such frivolous items as holiday decorations, yard signs, types of pets, use of clotheslines for drying clothes, and allowable flora and fauna. There have also been other HOA challenges related to more significant items like the on-site use of renewable energy for a home. As a society we need to get past the point where aesthetics and short-term economic concerns prevent one individual from making a decision to reduce his family’s contribution to climate change by investing in solar energy.

I suspect that Mr. Adams thoroughly educated his neighbors on the financial case for on-site renewable energy and the environmental benefits of preventing climate change. However, I wonder if he mentioned the more immediate impacts of pollution from OPPD’s coal- and natural gas-based electricity generation, and the immediate health benefits to everyone in the Omaha region from reducing the emissions from nearby power plants. These emissions are directly tied to respiratory irritation across the population but especially in the very young and very old, linked to asthma and bronchitis, send mercury into the atmosphere and environment, and emit gases that lead to acid rain.

Selection Bias In Action

Regardless of the SSH HOA’s right to exercise its authority pertaining to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood, I think that Mr. Adams was right not to back down right away. The HOA may not have fully considered the practical value—as opposed to any aesthetic value—of the panels, because it appears the board members were likely making decisions using selective bias. Selective bias is a human tendency to perceive information that reinforces preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that challenges existing beliefs. In such cases, convincing others to act on information alone is quite difficult. Instead, those individuals need to come to the conclusion on their own either through their own experience or over time. It seems the SSH HOA already has a bias against renewable energy regardless of its practical value, and did not truly consider or weigh that value against any preexisting biases.

The settlement between the parties reinforces the apparent presence of selective bias. In addition to restricting Mr. Adams from taking future legal action or filing complaints against the HOA, the settlement does not allow him to make any future public comments about the case or the HOA and its members, whether on Facebook, his website, or other media. Although I don’t agree, I can understand the settlement requiring removal of the panels and preventing future legal action, but the restraint on Mr. Adams’ speech seems only to underscore the HOA’s bias in this situation. The HOA was able to block Mr. Adams from using renewable energy on his home, but why should he also be restricted from making future comments about the case? The answer is that it reinforces the HOA’s apparent bias against on-site renewables: The HOA had an opportunity to remove a voice from the table that it didn’t agree with by imposing this bias on Mr. Adams’ would-be audience. In other words, the HOA appears to have shifted from the internal bias of “I don’t care what you have to say and I’m not listening,” to the external “Because I don’t want to hear what you have to say, I won’t allow you to say it to anyone else either.”

Conclusion

By filing for a court injunction to force Mr. Adams to remove his panels, the SSH HOA could have set a very damaging precedent to the future use of private renewable energy generation in the Omaha area. Even though it is disappointing that the HOA ultimately achieved its objective to remove the panels, it is better that it occurred through a private settlement rather than a court decision. The next time an HOA threatens renewable energy on a private home in Omaha, I hope Omaha residents can galvanize support for city-wide changes that ensure any homeowner can take action to his or her carbon footprint by investing in private, on-site renewable energy generation. Nebraska’s net metering statutes presumes that residents have the ability take such action, and allowing distributed generation increases the security and reliability of our electricity grid by spreading out the generation and reducing the need for transmission, in addition to mitigating climate change.

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*The South Shore Heights website “about” page states that SSH is “situated within a quarter mile” of Lake Zorinsky, and features a panoramic image of the lake. The implication is that the neighborhood derives value from its proximity to a natural place, and I am sure that is true. However, there is a disconnect because Mr. Adams solar panels would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is an action that mitigates climate change, and thereby helps preserve natural places as we now know them. Without greater action to mitigate climate change, scientists predict more frequent and severe drought in the midwest, which has the potential to perpetually dry up reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky as water resources become more scarce.

 

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Phew! The world did not end on 12/21/12 as many deduced it would based on the rollover of the Mayan calendar. That is great news. Now we only have to wait for global warming to become as alarming and “interesting” as the possible end of the world.*

As more people are concerned by global warming, more people will want to act to prevent global warming and be willing to contribute to the effort. Those contributions will have to be both action-oriented and financial, but many Americans are weary of making that financial commitment in a recession when they aren’t sure climate change is even linked to human activity.**

The United States was long the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, but China has recently surpassed the U.S. In spite of the recession, the U.S. remains the second-largest emitter in the world (producing nearly 20% of worldwide emissions) because of the availability of energy. When I say availability, I mean that energy is both easy to use (accessible) and cheap to buy in the U.S.

Cheap?… Cheap! Cheep!

When many Americans hear politicians advocate for cheap energy, they often respond like baby chicks with an enthusiastic, supportive, and approving “Cheap? Cheep!” without much concern for where that energy comes from or the actual cost of supplying that energy. And realistically speaking, who doesn’t want energy to be as low-cost as possible? The problem is that when you only talk about energy being cheap in terms of the dollar cost to the consumer, you miss a lot of the hidden costs associated with fossil fuel energy.

But why is fossil fuel energy so cheap in the U.S. (Cheap? Cheep!)? I’m not an economic guru, but can share a couple of fundamental factors of which I am aware. One reason energy is cheap in the U.S. is that the extraction and production of fossil fuels is heavily subsidized by the federal government. In fact, the federal government subsidizes fossil fuels with about 5 times as much money as renewable energy in the form of tax breaks and direct spending. For example, from 2002 to 2008, the government provided $70 billion to fossil fuels and only $12 billion to renewable energy.

Secondarily, the presence of these subsidies on fossil fuels incentivize the effort to search for and extract fossil fuels. This increases the supply of these sources beyond what a free, unsubsidized market would support. According to the economic “laws” of supply and demand, a greater supply leads to lower relative demand and lower prices. We know the impact of large subsidies on fossil fuel extraction is real because even the relatively small production and investment tax credits from the U.S. government for wind energy have created a tremendous wind energy boom in the past five years. The policy problem with putting our chips behind fossil fuels now is 1) that fossil fuels eventually run out, and 2) while we burn fossil fuels at a rate far greater than our ecosystem can safely absorb the associated emissions (and pollution) we are changing the atmosphere and environment. These changes are starting to warm the planet and create foreseen and unforeseen consequences. There is no way to accurately predict the financial cost of these changes, but they are estimated to be very large.

Taxes, Fees, and Caps

In order to level this playing field, and provide price signals to consumers about the actual known and unknown/unquantifiable cost of burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases into the environment, experts, citizens, and Congress have explored various methods to create pricing signals.

Taxes on emissions are often generically referred to as “carbon taxes” because the element carbon is one of two elements present in carbon dioxide, the most prolific and infamous greenhouse gas. These taxes could work similarly to traditional taxes on specific items like gasoline, cigarettes, or alcohol, and would apply to fuels that produce carbon dioxide through combustion. The government would collect these taxes and in theory use them to support programs and projects that mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Other experts have advocated for carbon fees. Generally, carbon fees would be collected similarly to taxes but distributed directly back to citizens rather than being doled out by the government. The benefit of fees is that they would directly help citizens purchase energy or efficiency measures and thereby help them with the increased cost of goods and services.

Finally, cap-and-trade is a notorious proposed solution to reduce emissions in the U.S. Cap-and-trade basically involves setting a limit on an entity’s emissions (a cap) and then allowing that entity to either use less energy (by reductions or efficiencies) or obtain emissions offsets from other entities that produce fewer emissions than their limit who sell credits for those reductions. This scheme affects the price of carbon by creating an economic market for the capacity to produce greenhouse gas emissions.

What Have We Now?

I think many Americans are opposed to all of the above options because they would inevitably increase the cost of energy, which would increase the costs of goods and services that use energy for production and transportation. However, as demonstrated by the lesson of Omaha’s $1.6 billion combined sewer project, if we aren’t willing to pay a little bit today and over time, we are going to have a very large invoice from mother nature before the end of the century, and it will probably make the cost of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy look like my allowance in first grade.

But here is the thing, your cost of energy already tracks the related emissions. The only difference between what we have now and the above options is that, in many cases, no percentage of the current cost is specifically designated as being tied to emissions. As an example, take a look at the graph below showing the average annual total greenhouse gas emissions and average annual total energy cost for 83 OPS schools over the past 24+ months. The two lines are nearly identical in shape! What does that mean? Simply put, it means that you can figure out emissions simply based on energy spending, and therefore that the cost of energy somewhat incorporates the related emissions. But we are not yet calling a component of that cost a carbon tax or fee.

Graph comparing the average total annual emissions (previous 12-month period) with the average total annual energy expenses (previous 12-month period) for 83 OPS schools.

Download a .pdf of the above graph by clicking this link: OPS Emissions v Expenses.

The pricing schemes mentioned above would simply shift the cost line up slightly while retaining the same overall shape. Yes, it would probably increase the monthly energy bill by a certain amount, but if we apply the additional marginal revenue toward energy efficiency, clean energy, and renewable energy, we will over time be investing in measures that prevent a future lump-sum bill that is likely to exceed anything we can imagine. For example, one expert has calculated that for every $1 New York City spends today to prepare for and prevent climate change it will save $4 in future repairs.

Conclusion

My personal conclusion is that there is no reason to fear a slight increase on your energy bill today (assuming the increase leads directly to climate change mitigation and adaptation) when there are clear indications that the cost of not making that investment will be, for lack of a better word, huge. Cheap energy might seem desirable, but if we aren’t careful to think about what it really means to have cheap energy we might all be shouting “Cheep? Cheap!” while civilization as we now know it risks the same fate as the infamous dodo bird.

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* Climate experts are predicting that future warming due to past emissions already has the potential to change many aspects of civilization as we now know it.

** Climate experts are certain that the current changes to earth’s climate are the result of human activity.

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I see a parallel between Omaha’s $1.66 billion combined sewer overhaul project, the decisions and behaviors that led to the sewer system problem, and climate change. Anyone else?

First, what the heck is Omaha’s sewer project for? A combined sewer provides a route for both stormwater and “sanitary” sewage (basically, anything that goes down a drain in your home, including the toilet). About 43 square miles of eastern Omaha—primarily built before 1960—is serviced by 510 miles of combined sewers.

Map showing the portion of Omaha with a combined sewer system.

With as little as 0.1″ of rainfall, the stormwater combines with the sewage and causes the untreated, raw sewage to discharge directly into both the Missouri River and Papillion Creek (which feeds into the Missouri River)—known as a Combined Sewer Overflow, or “CSO.” If you don’t want to have crap, urine, and other chemicals from homes in your waterways, then you should like the idea of fixing the combined sewers to reduce the number of annual CSO events in Omaha from 52 per year to four or less per year.

Graphic schematic of a combined sewer.

If you aren’t sure if having crap, urine, and household chemicals in your waterways is a bad thing, consider that raw sewage can be a source for disease-causing organisms (in addition to being smelly and unsightly) and chemical pollutants that cause problems for fish and other aquatic wildlife (i.e., birds, amphibians, reptiles). By the way, much of Omaha’s drinking water comes from the Missouri River, and even though it is treated first, wouldn’t you rather know it started off a little bit cleaner?)

 
Second, how did we get to the point where this sewer project needs to happen? Well, it is a combination of two things. One thing is real and the other is artificial. The artificial thing is regulation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Basically, the EPA has effectively set a limit on the number of CSO events a community’s combined sewer can cause per year. The Federal Government has found that more than 770 communities across the country have a CSO problem, so Omaha is not alone here.

Map showing locations of other communities subject to EPA's CSO regulations.

The real thing that has created the need for this work is the storm water management paradigm in Omaha. A 0.1″ rainfall event may not seem like much, but consider what happens to that water. All the water from a rooftop is concentrated into a gutter, which then combines the flow with other gutters and the flow from impervious surfaces like asphalt, concrete, and packed dirt and takes that to the storm drain, which in a combined sewer system overloads the “sanitary” sewer leading to CSO events where all that waste and chemicals goes directly into our waterways. Over watering and over-fertilizing your lawn can contribute to harmful runoff as well. If, over time, Omaha and its residents had been investing in more diverse and dynamic storm water management in the form of storm water retention ponds, rain gardens, bioswales, porous pavements, green roofs, and rainwater capture systems like rain barrels, it is possible the combined system would have created fewer CSO events, maybe even few enough to avoid EPA’s regulations.

 
Now, in order to fix the problem of CSO events in Omaha, we need to collectively spend $1.66 billion dollars within 15 years rather than investing a little bit over the past 150 years to prevent overburdening our combined system today. And finally, ladies and gentlemen, is the three-step analogy to climate change!
 

  1. In the combined sewer system, the problem input is too much combined storm water and sewage. In climate change, the problem input is greenhouse gases.
  2. In the combined sewer system, the sewer has only so much capacity for sewage and rainwater before it overflows and causes a CSO event. In climate change, our atmosphere and planet has only so much capacity to deal with greenhouse gases while maintaining the equilibrium with which every living human and current ecosystem on earth is familiar.
  3. In the combined sewer system, the undesirable outcome is a CSO event, directly caused by the system inputs overwhelming the system’s capacity. In climate change, the undesirable events are many: rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and stronger weather events, all of which are the result of the system input overwhelming the system’s safe capacity.

Why is this analogy even worth writing about other than connecting seemingly unconnected ideas? I see a clear lesson here. In the case of the sewer system, the cost to fix the problem (mitigation) rises over time until—when there is no choice but to adapt—it is extremely, painfully costly and no one wants to pay for it all at once. Climate change is the same way. Experts estimate that every year that passes in which we do not apply serious climate change mitigation measures, the cost of adapting to it later increases by $500 billion. Yes. $500 billion every year we delay.

 
We missed the chance to use smart, diverse, storm water management solutions in eastern Omaha so as to avoid the lump-sum cost of fixing the combined sewer all at once now. But the good news is that we can still avoid the huge price tag of adapting to climate change in the future by investing our financial, social, and political resources in serious mitigation today.

Whether you understand that climate change is caused by human activity or you choose to believe something else, you can’t refute the evidence that our planet is getting warmer. And if you agree that our planet is getting warmer (regardless of the reason), you should agree that the smartest financial move, the fiscally responsible and conservative move, is to spend our resources now to avoid having to lay out unforeseen amounts of money at some critical point in the future.

The math of climate change is very simple. The consequences of climate change are very serious. Now that we have the cost and headache examples of what happens when a combined sewer runs amok, and can see how climate change is like sewer crap, it should be clear to see how bold action today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can save even more money and bigger headaches down the road.

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McKinsey & Company is a world-wide management consulting firm that happens also to provide consulting services related to sustainability. In support of that aspect of its business, McKinsey periodically surveys companies to learn more about how they incorporate sustainability into their businesses. Last year it published a report (free registration required to download) based  on that survey. The report is rich with information about how companies and CEOs view sustainability, and shows that recently more and more companies are embracing sustainability.

Page 13 of this report addresses how companies put sustainability into practice, particularly when it comes to capturing value from sustainability. Exhibit 1 specifically illustrates this concept graphically:

This diagram, created by McKinsey & Company, illustrates the mechanisms by which companies create value using sustainability.

As I was reviewing this portion of the report recently I realized there is another way to organize the information in this chart. McKinsey has essentially organized the areas by contemporaneous functions. However, I think it makes more sense to organize the areas into three planning domains: Strategic, Reputational, and Operational like this:

Modification of the relationship among the areas in which McKinsey sees the opportunity for businesses and organizations to capture value.

Let me first explain these new categories.

Strategic

The strategic category includes functions that address the where, what, and when of the organization: Where are we going? What should we be doing? When are we going to get there or do that thing? These are all forward and future thinking functions, so in the modified version I used fuchsia (or at least what I think is fuchsia) for “Strategic” because it sounds like “future.”

Operational

The operational category includes functions that address the how of the organization: How are we going to get where we are going? How are we going to do what we should be doing? (Notice how I referenced the questions from the strategic category?) This is orange because it starts with the same letter as “operational.” Interestingly, this was the only category that included functions from McKinsey’s diagram that actually use the word “sustainable.” Historically, the bulk of Verdis’ work with clients has focused in this area, because this is often where organizations see the largest opportunity for financial benefits. Therefore, it is probably not a coincidence that McKinsey listed them in the “returns on capital” category.

Reputational

I think “reputational” may not officially be a word, but it sounds good so I’m running with it. The reputational category includes functions that address the who questions: Who is the business? Who knows about the business? Who cares about the business? Who does the business care about? Interestingly, McKinsey’s graphic included a reputational function in each of its three areas. This really shows up in my version where each of the three shades of brown from McKinsey’s graphic fall under the red (R = red, R = reputation, get it?) group.

I think there is one more aspect to this. The why questions. Why are we doing X instead of Y? In my view, the why questions fall under both the reputational and organizational categories and help to drive the strategic functions. The reverse is also true. Strategies and strategic plans tend to drive operations and help make decisions that affect the company’s reputation.

One other way to visualize the strategic, operational, and reputational aspects of a business is in this little sketch I made:

A diagram to show the dynamic interaction of strategy (S), operations (O), and reputation (R).

Here, you can see the forward-thinking strategic functions (S), the internal ongoing operational functions (O), and the reputational functions (R) that influence how the organization interfaces with the outside world. Obviously this grossly oversimplifies many organizations, but provides a framework for thinking about sustainability. As I mentioned, most of our work focuses on the operational aspects, but we constantly encourage our clients to consider how sustainability integrates into the larger strategic plan. Most organizations that can successfully incorporate sustainability at a very high strategic level find that the operational savings and reputational benefits follow naturally.

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The American Institute for Cancer Research has produced a very helpful infographic that illustrates how incorporating small breaks throughout the workday and a period of moderate to vigorous physical activity can reduce the cancer risk indicators. The great thing about this is that not only will adding short breaks every hour help you reduce the risk of cancer, it will help you be more productive, energized, and focused throughout the rest of your day!

The connection to sustainability is obviously that healthier, happier employees have a much more positive impact on the company, and by encouraging frequent short breaks, the company is also more attractive to employees. This bolsters both the “people” and “prosperity” legs of the three-legged sustainability stool. It is a simple easy way for employers to incorporate sustainability into their corporate culture.

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The Heartland Active Transportation Summit (HATS) took place on September 28, 2012—two weeks ago—and by reflecting two weeks later I get to share with you all the concepts that really stick with me. The focus for HATS this year was “trails and transit,” which means the speakers focused on public transit[1] and multi-use trails, primarily in urban settings.

Perhaps I should first address a question that often comes up in our work at Verdis: How does (active) transportation relate to sustainability? I can understand how many at first might not see the connection. Oftentimes people think about sustainability within a box that includes only recycling, using less water, and turning off lights. However, sustainability goes far beyond that. Active transportation is a key aspect of the sustainability of communities because it does several things at once, all of which relate to the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and prosperity. Active transportation…

  1. Is more efficient than single-occupant, conventionally powered vehicles and therefore produces less air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and stretches our energy resources—particularly oil—farther so we don’t run out of them as quickly or don’t need to depend on foreign sources so heavily.
  2. Reduces the number of vehicles on the streets, making the streets safer for other people whether they are walking, bicycling, or driving a vehicle. A side benefit may be that with fewer vehicles on the street, traffic congestion is reduced and results in less time and fuel wasted stuck in traffic[2].
  3. Directly and indirectly improves community health. For users of active transportation, it provides a direct health benefit because they are either walking or bicycling more as they get to or from transit. For non users, active transportation means better air quality with fewer vehicles on the road, and therefore reduced incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
  4. Makes better use of available land by supporting denser development and preserving undeveloped land in its natural or agricultural state. In urban areas, it may also mean less land used for parking lots as more individuals arrive at their destination by transit, walking, or bicycling and do not need to store a personal vehicle somewhere nearby.
  5. Generally is more economical for individuals than owning and driving a personal vehicle. This of course depends on a number of factors, but assuming a person has access to transit, drives an average vehicle, and lives in an average community, they can save hundreds of dollars per month using transit instead.
Now—although I was tweeting my impressions and fun statistics throughout HATS—I would like to share my top five impressions after the dust has settled.

1. Make it Sexy

Too often we think of transit as being purely functional and without aesthetic value. Maribeth Feke with the Greater Cleveland Transit Authority made a presentation on the HealthLine in Cleveland, which is a bus rapid transit line designed to look and act like light rail. When planning the roughly 6-mile line, Cleveland completely redesigned the street from store front to store front, selected a vehicle that is sleek (it even “smiles” (see image below)), designed shelters that look cool and have interactive digital kiosks, and also involved local artists and gave the line character using thematic signage and other features.

For me the takeaway was that by making transit sexier (my words, not hers), you will pique the curiosity of people who might not otherwise have considered transit. Of course there are many other factors that affect a person’s decision to use or not use transit, but the “make it sexy” idea borrows from the automobile industry, whose advertisements are full of emotional appeal. One Danish company has figured this out and created an amazing commercial that shows transit as exciting, sexy, and desirable. The commercial is also quite funny in its hyperbole, but is a refreshing take on transit and borrows much of the drama and special effects of automobile advertisements (and movie trailers). Do you think it is effective?

2. If You Build It, They Will Come

I cannot attribute this takeaway to any one presenter, but it certainly proved to be true in projects discussed by several speakers. In all cases, it was clear that thoughtful, useful, and connected trails and transit infrastructure attracted riders and users, and often exceed expectations. It was true with the HealthLine in Cleveland, and it was true with the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. Check out this short video on the Greenway (P.S. It gets plowed before the streets do when it snows).

3. (Un)Arrested Development

Similar to the fact that urban trails, thoughtfully designed transit lines, and even rural trails see more use than initially expected, nearly every project also led to increased development along the trail or line. In some cases, neighbors who fought against the new trail or transit line near their home end up loving it, and developers have even embraced these features. As Carl Knoch from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy highlighted, in one community in the northeast a developer even went so far as to name its new multi-family building after the trail it was built next to.

The huge impact of trails and transit on development is clear, and therefore they should be viewed as an economic development tool as much as they are a personal mobility and choice tool. There is data to show that bus rapid transit and street car (as technologies) appear to always increase development along the route. I snapped this photo from Ranadip Bose’s presentation:

Ranadip is with SB Friedman and will be helping study the economic impact potential of various options under the Central Omaha Transit Alternative Analysis, a planning process currently underway in Omaha looking at transit options from downtown to midtown, UNMC, and branching out to UNO and Aksarben Village.

4. Bicycling is Good for Health and the Economy

One of the speakers at HATS, Dr. Sam Lankford, is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of the Iowa Trails Study, which looked at the economic and health benefits of bicycling in Iowa. Dr. Lankford’s research used a conservative approach, yet it still concluded that annually:

  • bicycle commuting generates over $50 million in direct and indirect impacts for Iowa
  • bicycle commuting saves Iowa over $13 million in healthcare costs
  • recreational cycling generates over $360 million in direct and indirect impacts for Iowa
  • recreational cycling saves the Iowa over $70 million in healthcare costs
Futhermore, the study estimated that in 2011, more than $18 million was spent on bicycles, apparel, accessories, and service at local bicycle shops (not chain or “big box” retailers) in Iowa leading to bicycling related tax revenue for the state. The study provided some empirical evidence for what we all know is intuitively true: that bicycling provides economic and health benefits for communities that embrace it as a means of both transportation and recreation. Personally, it was great to see scientific research methods applied to this area of interest. I also was pleased to see such positive results in a state that in many ways is similar to Nebraska, leading me to believe that Nebraska can also embrace cycling more fulling and reap similar economic and health benefits.

5. Abundant Access

The lunchtime keynote speaker was Jarrett Walker, an international expert and consultant in transit planning. His keynote presentation was full of eye-opening insights. But because Walker has a knack for boiling down seemingly complex concepts into their essential parts and getting at the simple core of an issue, it was easy for me to encapsulate his presentation with one idea: abundant access.

Abundant access, Walker said, should be the goal of any good transit system. Abundant access means that a person can get from an origin to any destination, when they need to get there, in a reasonable amount of time, and even to be spontaneous. It also means that any person can access the transit system, whether they be someone who depends on that system, or someone that chooses to use it for one reason or another.

For anyone that wants to use transit, abundant access also means freedom from having to own a personal vehicle. In the U.S., we often think about the personal vehicle as providing freedom to get where you want to go when you need to get there. But when the average annual cost of owning a vehicle in the U.S. is between $7,000 and $9,000, and you have to worry about parking and storing that vehicle, and taking care of that vehicle, owning a vehicle actually starts to feel more like a burden. Good transit that provides abundant access, on the other hand, can enable a person to be without that burden and experience mobility free from encumbrances. In Omaha, U.S. Census data suggests that the cost of vehicle ownership may be a strain on many households and accordingly there may be a need for transit services beyond current levels[3]. Recent trends in Metro Transit’s ridership support this hypothesis.

Conclusion

After HATS 2012 I was left with sense of the huge opportunity. There is clearly more we can do in Omaha and in Nebraska to take advantage of the opportunities around improved transit and expanded trails. We aren’t going to see that change overnight, and there will be many smalls steps before we realize that vision. The good news is that there are many concurrent planning efforts underway right now at the regional and local level that can incorporate and plan for more trails and transit.

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[1] To borrow a definition from Jarrett Walker, “public transit” means a system of “regularly scheduled vehicle trips, open to all paying passengers, with the capacity to carry multiple passengers whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes.” Walker, Jarrett, Human Transit 13 (2011).

[2] “Traffic congestion is taking its toll. The cost of traffic congestion in 1999 came to $78 billion nationwide. This total includes the cost of 4.5 billion hours of lost time due to traffic delays and 6.8 billion gallons of fuel wasted while sitting in traffic.” Source: The Association for Commuter Transportation, Commuter Choice Brochure Document No. FHWA-OP-02-027, www.commuterchoice.com.

[3] City of Omaha, Master Plan – Transportation Element: Inventory and Needs Assessment 30, adopted by City Council on August 21, 2012). Available on the City of Omaha website.

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