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7 Ways to Travel with a Green Conscience

Travel Green Mother Earth News 

As a travel addict, I love discovering new cultures and adventuring through foreign landscapes. But as an environmentalist, I struggle with my carbon footprint while wayfaring around the world. Is there a way to travel with a “green” conscience?

Travel is a form of consumption, from jet fuel to trash. It’s up to you to determine how much waste you will produce on your voyage. For me, seeing the world has been an education on the environment and the challenges we face. Witnessing other cultures has inspired me to reduce my carbon footprint. Ironically, travel has made me “greener.”

In this article, I’ve listed a seven ways you can reduce your impact on the earth. Implement these easy tricks on your next getaway to travel with a “green” conscience.

1. Carry a water bottle with a built-in filter.

In many foreign countries, you cannot drink the tap water. Instead of purchasing dozens of bottles of water throughout your trip, bring a refillable water bottle with a built in filter. My bottle clips right onto my backpack and has saved me from contributing to landfills in several countries where recycling is not common practice.

2. Be aware of food packaging and waste.

Wasting food in some countries around the world is a sin, so never order more than you can eat. I try to order small plates, or appetizers, when eating out at restaurants to reduce my food waste.

As for packaging, to-go containers are made of Styrofoam, paper or plastic bags, which almost always end up in the garbage. Be conscious of your purchases. Street vendors sometimes offer delicious finger food, such as kabobs, which have little to no food packaging. Pack your own silverware. Refuse a straw in your drink. Every little bit helps.

3. Use a wash bag and hang-dry your clothes.

Laundry machines use a lot of electricity and water. I carry the Scrubba Wash Bag when I’m backpacking. It allows me to wash my clothes with minimal water and takes only a few minutes per load. I hang dry my clothes using this packable clothesline. My travel clothes are also quick-dry fabrics or wool, so they dry quickly.

4. Take public transport or carpool.

Public buses or trains are an eco-friendly option for getting around your destination. Many youth hostels have carpool sing-ups for popular trips, which is an exciting way to meet fellow travelers. On my first day in a new city, I get a map and start walking! Exploring on foot is great exercise and offers excellent people watching opportunities.

Backpacking By Train 

5. Be a part of the solution, not the problem.

As I backpacked through Thailand recently, I noticed that the majority of the trash littered on the beaches and in the streets was from tourists. It disgusted me. Why would you come all this way to see a beautiful beach, only to destroy it?

I began picking up litter when I saw it and disposing of it properly. When I go on a hike and see trash on the trail, I pick it up. A great way to be eco-friendly while on vacation is to spend an afternoon carrying a bio-degradable trash bag and picking up litter. You can help compensate for others by going the extra mile!

6. Turn off the air conditioning.

In many countries, only the rich have access to air conditioning. Challenge yourself to live like the locals. Book the train car without air conditioning. Stay in the bungalow that only has a fan. By skipping out on luxury, doors can open. You may have never taken that amazing cooking class unless you were willing to compromise your comfort-zone. It can be a blessing in disguise.

7. Consider the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Is tourism destroying the local land? In order to accommodate visitors, destinations will go to great lengths without considering the sustainability of their practices. A local delicacy may have been sustainable once, but when thousands of tourists decide to try it, that species could be in danger.

Before traveling to a new country, do your research. Are the waters overfished? Do they import their meat from another country? How much meat, fish, grain does they average local eat? How much water, gas, electricity does the average local use? This information can help you make educated discussions on your consumption.

As a green conscience traveler, you should strive to waste less and reuse more than the average tourist. Be aware of your impact. Challenge yourself. Do your research. Being eco-friendly will enhance your adventure.

Finally, allow yourself to be educated by your travels. Enhancing your eco-awareness will make you a better consumer at home and on vacation!

Women Standing With Asian Elephant 

Photos by Guillaume Dutilh 

In an effort to pursue an alternative nomadic lifestyle, Jenna Spesard built a tiny house on wheels and hit the road. Within the first year, her tiny house traveled over 20,000 miles around North America and Canada. Read about her travels at and follow her tiny house on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Read all of Jenna's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

‘Worst Walking City’ in U.S. Gets Back on its Feet

Cicyling In Oklahoma City

Part of Oklahoma City's growing trail network.

The U.S. gave up on walking in the mid-20th Century — at least planners and politicians did. People on foot were virtually banished from newly constructed neighborhoods. Experts assured us that cars and buses (and eventually helicopters and jet packs) would efficiently take us everywhere we wanted to go.

Walking is Up in the U.S.

Thankfully, most Americans refused to stop walking. Today — even after 70 years of auto-centered transportation policies — more than 10 percent of all trips are on foot, according to Paul Herberling of the U.S. Department of Transportation. That number rises to 28 percent for trips under one mile.

Indeed, we are in the midst of a walking renaissance as millions of people discover a daily stroll can prevent disease, boost energy, ease stress, connect us with our communities, and is just plain fun. The number of us who regularly take a walk has risen six percent in the last decade, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to a new study from the National Association of Realtors, 79 percent of Americans — even higher for those under 35 — want to live in a place that’s walkable. Walking’s popularity is now reaching beyond older city neighborhoods into suburbs and the Sun Belt.

Oklahoma City Struggles with Obesity

Even Oklahoma City — which was named as the “worst US walking city” in a 2008 study of 500 communities by Prevention magazine and the American Podiatric Medical Association — is embarking on big plans to become more walkable.

“Bleak” is how Jeff Speck, urban planner and author of Walkable City, describes walking in Oklahoma City seven years ago. “Traffic sped too fast…for pedestrians to feel comfortable on the sidewalks...oversized traffic lanes encouraged highway speeds,” he wrote in Planning magazine.

Oklahoma City also suffered from perhaps the worst sidewalk network in America. Most other towns conscientiously built sidewalks until the 1950s, but Oklahoma City abandoned the effort as early as the 1930s in some neighborhoods.

Mick Cornett, the city’s Republican mayor since 2004, notes, “We had built an incredible quality of life, if you happened to be a car. But if you were a person, you were seemingly combating the car all day.”

“We probably were last in the country for walking,” Cornett admits.

This rock-bottom rating really stung in a community that had earlier been passed over by United Airlines as the site for a new maintenance facility because, despite the city’s generous financial incentives, the company’s CEO said he couldn’t imagine asking his managers to move to Oklahoma City.

Then, a year after the walk rankings, the city again found itself in the harsh glare of unwanted media attention. This time Men’s Fitness magazine stigmatized Oklahoma City as the “#2 fattest city” in America. Among the country’s 100 largest cities, only Miami was more corpulent.

That’s all changing now. An ambitious $18-million sidewalk-improvement fund was approved by voters as part of a tax increase that also included money for parks, transit, bike trails and senior wellness centers around town. Four busy streets heading into downtown are now being narrowed, with new “smart intersections” that provide walkers more safety with “refuge island” medians in the middle of streets and clearly marked crosswalks.

So what’s driving all this pedestrian progress?

Mayor Cornett, a former sportscaster, bristled at his city being called fat and sedentary. Yet he knew that he couldn’t credibly deny these charges since he’d gained enough extra pounds while in office to be labeled obese, thanks to endless rounds of breakfast and lunch meetings.

OKC Gets Back on Its Feet

Cornett launched an initiative to get the city back in shape. Over the past seven years, he notes, Oklahoma City has added hundreds of miles of new sidewalks, built 8 miles of bike lanes on the streets (there were none in 2008), added 100 more miles to the recreational trail network, built new gyms at many public schools, created a public rowing center and started work on an whitewater kayak and rafting course on the Oklahoma River. Low-income neighborhoods, where health and obesity issues are most severe, are the biggest focus of the city’s programs for healthy eating and active living.

Cornett also issued a successful Challenge for Oklahoma City residents to lose one million pounds. Over 47,000 people signed up, and lost on average 20 pounds. Cornett himself shed 38.

Mayor Cornett Oklahoma City Walks

Mayor Mick Cornett (left) inaugurates a new sidewalk in Oklahoma City.

One major thrust of this campaign was working with fast food restaurants to offer healthier menus. Cornett is proud of this partnership and during our interview slipped into his office closet to fetch a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself posing with Taco Bell’s low-fat options, which was displayed in the chain’s 40 Oklahoma City restaurants.

This all seems to be making a difference — the growth in Oklahoma City’s obesity rate has slowed significantly from six percent annually to one percent, with the stage set for reductions in the future.

The mayor is quick to share credit. First and foremost, he applauds local citizens, who in 2010 voted to continue a one-cent addition to the sales tax for seven more years to pay for health initiatives. Oklahoma, he points out, is a very conservative state — the only one where Obama did not carry a single county in either 2008 or 2012.

Yet, Oklahomans are willing to support taxes when they know where their money is going. “They like projects where they can see the results,” he points out. “And this is not debt and it’s not a permanent tax — it’s up for renewal every few years.”

Revitalization Spending Yields Big Returns

Cornett views this spending as a smart business move, noting that the 2010 tax referendum, and two earlier ones under previous mayors focusing on downtown revitalization, public education and overall quality of life, amassed $2 billion in public investment which in turn spawned $6 billion more in private development.

“Ever since we decided to make this a great place for people to live, the jobs started coming here and young Millennials, who want to bike and walk, are arriving in numbers we’ve never seen before,” he says. “We are creating a city where your kids and grandkids will choose to stay. They used to go to Dallas or Houston.”

“It turned out that one thing people — especially young people — wanted was better sidewalks,” Cornett explains. That’s why the city now builds new sidewalks as part of most repaving projects and kicks in half the cost for any homeowner or neighborhood that wants them. Developers are now required to provide sidewalks in all new projects.

As for the $18 million earmarked for sidewalks from sales tax revenue, “most of it goes where we know we need sidewalks, connecting schools and shopping centers with neighborhoods,” the mayor says.

While most people consider walking essential to a good neighborhood, there’s still a lot of opposition. “We hear from those who say, ‘We don’t need sidewalks, because no one walks here,’” Cornett says, noting that the absence of sidewalks is a big reason people don’t walk.

The city is in the early stages of initiating a Safe Routes to Schools program, making it possible for more school kids to walk or bike, and a Vision Zero campaign, aimed at eliminating all traffic fatalities in the city, says Dennis Blind of the city’s planning department. The city also holds Open Streets events — festivals where a street is blocked off to vehicles so people of all ages can reclaim the streets (temporarily) as public space.

“We’ve come a long ways in a short time,” says Cristina Fernandez, who moved from Santa Monica — one of the most walkable communities in California — for an executive position at a local firm. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

Walkscore, which rates the walkability of any address in America, still ranks Oklahoma City in the lower 15 percent of cities over 200,000, which is nonetheless a big improvement over last place. The city’s low score can be partly explained by the fact that sprawling subdivisions, which would be classified as separate municipalities elsewhere, are inside the city limits here.

The epicenter of walking in Oklahoma City is downtown and nearby neighborhoods, which exhibit all the signs of urban vitality: sidewalk cafes, new loft apartments, refurbished old neighborhoods with local business districts, indie shops and restaurants, nightlife, sports and entertainment venues, well-populated parks, riverside bike trails, and sidewalks alive with people of all ages walking between all these spots.

An old warehouse district with a pedestrian promenade along a canal thrums with activity. A 70-acre central park is being developed that will connect downtown with a largely Latino neighborhood on the South Side via a new pedestrian bridge. A streetcar line debuts later this year that will loop through many of these neighborhoods. Protected bike lanes, which physically separate bicyclists and pedestrians from rushing traffic, will soon appear on major arteries coming in and out of downtown.

Expanding Walkability Outward

Oklahoma City’s mission now is to widen the walkable section of the city outward.  Local transit service has been improved (including new Sunday and evening buses), resulting in a sizable jump in ridership. The Wheeler District, a new pedestrian-focused infill neighborhood south of downtown, breaks ground this year with plans to create 2,000 homes.

North of downtown, things are already picking up. “You have a lot of young people moving into the area because they can walk,” says Fernandez, who lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Business districts scattered throughout this part of town, some of which once harbored crack houses and brothels, now flourish with restaurants and shops catering to local residents.

Fernandez, her husband and kids are still waiting for sidewalks on their street but already are walking more “because there are now more places to walk to.” An attractive streetscape to improve the pedestrian ambience of the Western Avenue business district near their home makes walking more fun.

“When we go anywhere in the neighborhood now, we usually go on foot,” she says.

Photos by AmericaWalks Case Study on Oklahoma City

Jay Walljasper writes regularly about public health and healthy communities.  The former editor of Utne Reader, he is author of The Great Neighborhood Book. His website is Read all of Jay’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Automakers Ring in 2016 with Electric Car Showcase

Chevrolet Bolt

It’s become routine for major automakers to declare their annual focus in the early months of each year, often at expos or events like the Consumer Electronics Show, which took place from January 6th through 9th. There, companies like General Motors and Volkswagen unveiled various green-thinking transportation ideas, providing consumers with an in-depth peek at what could represent green transportation in the coming months and years ahead. What was revealed showed a focus on electric vehicles and technology, with the younger demographic in mind.

An Aim to Entice Younger Car Enthusiasts

With US auto sales hitting a record 17.47 million in 2015 — an increase of 5.7 percent from 2014 — it's apparent that the automobile industry is here to stay, likely being propelled in part by low gas prices.

Still, automobile makers continue to focus on the younger demographic (ages 18-29), a group that is more concerned about global warming than older adults are, according to a Gallup poll. It’s this environmental attentiveness in addition to tech savviness that makes this younger niche a natural fit for the electric car movement, which is expected to be in full stride by the time many in this demographic can afford a car.

Smartphone-linked car systems are rapidly becoming the norm, showing the type of integration concept automobile makers have their focus on. In addition, the prospect of offering affordable electric cars to a generation seems poised to be the most environmentally-aware manufacturing movement to date. 

Chevrolet Bolt

One talked-about reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show was the Chevrolet Bolt, which is promoted as being the first plug-in electric car that can go long distances and is relatively affordable (priced around $30,000 after government rebates). That’s a price affordable enough to still leave wallet space for essential tools like vehicle adhesive and sealer.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra showed off the car during the show, touting a battery range of around 200 miles and technologically-inclined features like a mapping system that includes routes to electric charging stations. As expected, smartphone compatibility via Apple CarPlay and Android Audio is there as well. "The Bolt delivers on our promise of low price, high range and an unparalleled level of connectivity," Barra noted. Many in the industry view the Bolt as General Motors' response to Tesla Motors' Model 3 vehicle, expected to begin production in 2017.

Volkswagen BUDD-e electric van

Another big reveal at the show came via Volkswagen, where brand chief — Herbert Diess — began by addressing the audience with an apology for the diesel emissions scandal (the Justice Department is currently suing them for billions). Once he finished the apology, he unveiled the company's BUDD-e electric van, which has a nostalgic reminiscence of microbuses of the '60s. It's certainly modern though, with at least a 233-mile range, smartphone integration and a voice control system.

For those wondering how long it will take to charge the Budd-e, VW says that a special charging system can charge the van's 101-kWh battery pack to 80 percent in just 30 minutes. With a top speed of 93mph and 124.1-inch wheelbase, the BUDD-e electric van certainly won’t be lacking in either aesthetics or power.

In addition to driverless vehicle showcases from several other automobile makers, the offerings from both General Motors and Volkswagen impressed green transportation enthusiasts — showing a commitment to relatively affordable electric vehicles that can help usher the niche into the mainstream.

Photo by Inhabitat.

James White is green builder and home improvement blogger who focuses on sustainable living via his family blog Homey Improvements. He also enjoys sharing his recent discoveries with DIY projects, home tips and organic gardening. James is "Alaska Grown" but now resides in Pennsylvania. Connect with him  on Twitter at @DIYfolks. Read all of James' MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

'Kickstarting' the K15 Bamboo and Recycled Aluminum E-Bike

In 2013, architect Bill McDonough and his collaborator, chemist Michael Braumgart, published the sequel to Cradle to Cradle. With the forward by President Bill Clinton, the thesis behind The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability: Designing for Abundance is that the possibility exists to design materials and products so that — rather than ending in up in a landfill somewhere — discarded products can become the feedstock for new goods and services when their useful lives are complete.

In Upcycle, you “think of every component of your design as being borrowed. It will be returned one day to the biosphere or technosphere. It is your role to return it in as good a condition as you found it, as a good neighbor would.”

Finding an Electric Motor for Bicycles

That idea intrigued me and I carried it around in the back of my mind. Around the same time, I came across a small startup in Milan, Italy, that was developing an all-in-one electric motor for bicycles.

Unlike the more famous “Copenhagen” wheel, the ZeHus BIKE+ motor was amazingly compact, fitting the 250-watt electric motor and 160-watt-hour lithium battery, along with Bluetooth transceiver and a trio of sensors into a 3.2-kg package. I tracked down and chatted with one of the developers via Skype and started following their progress over the next year and a half.

Then last fall at Interbike, the annual bicycle trade show in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to try out the motor on a pair of demonstrator bikes. The test track was set up on the parking lot behind the Mandalay Bay hotel casino. It was as level as a blackjack table, so gauging the motorʼs hill-climbing ability wasnʼt really possible, but I was surprised by its torque and re-generative braking capability. I chatted with their representatives, who included the company CEO, and promised myself I would get a motor to test.

Finding a Bike Suitable for the Electric Motor

Of course, that also meant I needed to find a suitable bike on which to mount the motor. With a tip from an EV World reader, I came across Greenstarʼs EcoForce1 out of Minneapolis.

Assembled in China from native bamboo and recycled 6,160 aluminum tubing gussets, it seemed the perfect complement to the ZeHus motor. I arranged to buy both: the bike arriving two weeks before Christmas, the motor two days before the holiday.

With the help of Kelly Smith at the Bike Rack here in Omaha, I not only ended up with one of the most beautiful e-bikes Iʼve ever seen, but it also turned out to be one of the lightest. Kellyʼs scale said it weighted 32 lbs, while my wifeʼs digital bathroom scale indicated it was just 31.6. There are very few e-bike this light. I know of only two others in the world.

‘Kickstarting’ the K15 E-Bike

Every place I took the bike I kept being told, “Bill, you have to build more of them,” so I decided to do just that, offering an initial 150 bikes as part of a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

I call it the K15, because it weighs less than 15 kilograms. This is not the “cheapest electric bicycle” you can buy, but it will be among the lightest and certainly one of the loveliest. It also comes closest to fulfilling Upcyclesʼ goal of designing for abundance.

You can learn more about the quikbyke online. And click here to support the Quikbyke Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign — which begins on July 14th — as well as a form to reserve a future production version of the e-bike.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

Little Town on the Prairie Steps It Up: Examples of Walkable Communities

street scene sq 

It’s like a small-town scene from Norman Rockwell, updated for the 21st Century. 

A Latino family strolls leisurely through the park, immersed in conversation. Coming up fast behind is a blonde woman in designer exercise gear and earplugs, intent on maintaining her power-walking pace. Bringing up the rear is a young man with his Husky, both of them staring up at a patch of sun that has appeared from behind the clouds.

In real life, this is Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town of 18,000 working to prove that healthy lifestyles like walking and good nutrition are not just big city things. “We’re not a resort town or a college town, we’re an ag-based rural city promoting healthy living because it’s the right thing to do and it’s how we want to live and want our children to live,” explains Ellen Kehr, a former city council member who is a leader in the effort to make Albert Lea healthier.

It’s mistakenly assumed that no one in smaller communities walks, except between their pick-up truck and the Walmart entrance. Actually, walking is far more common in smaller communities across the country than people think. In towns of 10,000-50,000, 8.5 percent of all trips are made on foot, second only to “urban core” communities, according to the US Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey. In smaller towns 2500 to 10,000, walking accounts for 7.2 percent of trips--higher than in most suburban communities.

The Blue Zones Project                                

Albert Lea in many ways resembles Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. It’s a place “where the women are strong…and all the children are above average.”  That fits with goals local citizens embraced in 2009 when they adopted a community-wide approach to wellness laid out in Blues Zones, a best-selling book by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, which examines places around the world where people live longest and healthiest.

What they’ve accomplished over the past five years offers both lessons and inspiration for smaller towns and cities across the US. “The idea is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Buettner, whose new book The Blue Zones Solution chronicles the progress in Albert Lea together with other community success stories around the world.

Blue Zones is now launching a second phase in town, in partnership with Healthways, a Tennessee-based company focusing on well-being improvement solutions. 

Around one-quarter of adults in Albert Lea participated in the first Blue Zones project, along with half of local workplaces and nearly all kids in grades 3-8. Encouraging everyone to engage in more physical activity was a chief thrust of the campaign, which was funded in part by AARP.

It appears to have worked. Even on a gray, chilly weekday afterno

on, the new 5-mile trail around Fountain Lake draws more walkers and bikers than you’d expect in a town set among soybean fields of southern Minnesota. The downtown, which borders the park, is filled with people on foot heading between the bank, the library, the kitchen store, clothing stores, churches, schools, restaurants, and-- in a perfect Prairie Home Companion touch--the Sportman’s Tavern, which advertises “cabbage roll hotdish” as the daily special.  

Walking has increased 70 percent in the last five years, according to pedestrian counts conducted by the National Vitality Center, a local initiative working on the community health campaign. Smoking has also dropped four percent, and Blue Zones participants collectively lost almost four tons of weight, notes Buettner. Residents formed about thirty groups to walk or bike together regularly, nearly half of which are still going strong five years later.

City Council member Al Brooks, who now walks 2 ½ miles every day, credits the campaign with big improvements in his own health. “When I started four years ago, I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Now my cholesterol is lower, my blood pressure is 116/70 and I lost 15 p


After being launched in Albert Lea, the Blue Zones idea has now been taken to Fort Worth, Texas; Naples, Florida; Southern California; and across the states of Iowa and Hawaii.

Albert Lea’s impressive health gains are paying off in many ways. Good Morning America broadcast live from the shores of Fountain Lake to tell the country what was happening here-- part of a wave of media attention which is valuable to the town’s future prospects, says City Manager Chad Adams.

Adams stresses that a lively, walkable community is key to attracting businesses as well as the families and young people that Albert Lea needs to thrive in decades to come. Briana Czer, a young bank manager who moved here a year ago, thinks this strategy is working.  “I like how walkable Albert Lea is. When people walk more, they socialize more. That helps connect everyone and makes me feel more part of the community,” she says.


How to Make a Walkable Community

So how exactly did Albert Lea get more people back on their feet walking, especially in a rural region where driving is deeply embedded in the fabric of everyday life?

It was a combination of: 1) creating a public education campaign about the health advantages of physical activity; 2) organizing people into informal social groups to walk or bike regularly; and 3) making the city’s streets and parks more safe and appealing for pedestrians.  Here are some of the accomplishments:

-A community-wide focus on physical activity--enlisting civic organizations, businesses, schools, public agencies, the media and citizens--offered continual reinforcement for people to get out and walk. “It has reconnected our community in a way that I never thought possible,” notes Randy Kehr, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce (and husband of Ellen Kehr). “Sociability is as important to health as exercise and eating.”

-Walking groups, which serve as an incentive to get off the sofa, even when you feel lazy or it’s freezing outside. This makes physical activity a social occasion to look forward to.  In Albert Lea, walking groups are generally 4-10 people committed to walking together 3-7 times a week.

-Downtown was made more walkable by widening sidewalks, eliminating unnecessary traffic lanes, restoring diagonal parking, replacing some stoplights with stop signs, and “bumping out” sidewalks into the intersection, which shortens the crossing distance on busy streets.  

-Sidewalks were added to six-and-a-half miles of city streets in strategic locations near schools, senior centers and businesses.

-A bikeway along Front Street now connects a state park to downtown and a commercial street on the city’s west side.  Bicycling has risen 74 percent on the street, according to the National Vitality Project’s count.

“Small towns can reinvent themselves as places faster than big towns,” explained Dan Burden--one of America’s foremost authorities on walkable communities--to a roomful of city, county and state officials at Albert Lea’s City Hall working on further improvements for the town. 

Former Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the State of Florida, Burden is the Johnny Appleseed of urban vitality, who has brought ideas for walkability and livability to over 3500 North American communities in the past 18 years.  He helped Albert Lea citizens map out their original healthy cities strategies in 2009 as part of the Blue Zones team, and has now returned for the new phase of work as the organization’s Director of Innovation.

“When I first came into Albert Lea, I’ll be honest, it looked like the downtown was closed,” he admitted to the local officials.  “There were businesses but there was no life in the streets.  That’s changed now. Albert Lea, I am proud of you.”

Walkable Communities Across the United States

Albert Lea is part of the wave of smaller communities around the country showing that walking is not just a big city pastime: 

Batesville, Arkansas (pop. 10,500): Even smaller than Albert Lea, Batesville has revived its downtown by slowing traffic speeds, narrowing streets, restoring diagonal parking, bumping out sidewalks into intersections and building recreational trails along the White River.

Hamburg, New York (pop, 57,000): This upstate city is a national leader in building roundabouts, which reduce crashes and tame busy streets so that pedestrians and bicyclists feel safe crossing.

Murray, Kentucky (pop. 18,000): The streets here were so dangerous that children were prohibited from walking or biking to school. Local officials stepped in to build three miles of sidewalks around schools and in low-income neighborhoods.

Hendersonville, North Carolina (pop. 13,000): A busy road bisecting downtown was narrowed to two lanes with wider sidewalks and traffic calming features.  The results: an increase in people walking and a plunge in retail vacancies to almost zero.

Photos courtesy of Blue Zones 

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities.  He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. Find him online at his personal website.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

MPX Update, Part 2: Horsepower for Heavy Hauling

In March I showed you a photo of MPX (MOTHER's Pickup eXperiment) just as we'd crossed over the Oregon border. I wanted you to see the aerocap in its full glory, so I cropped out the punch line: MPX had been towing an automobile factory, all the way from Maryland.


Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. It wasn't a complete factory...but it was all the molds and fixtures and tools to make a Lotus 11 replica (called Kokopelli if you're googling), and it was lashed to a twin axle car trailer and it was right up there at the rated towing capacity of this compact pickup, 3500 pounds. Plus I had plenty of cargo on board the truck itself (likely approaching the rated cargo capacity of 1640 pounds if you include the weight of Yours Truly in the front seat).

I had two reasons for subjecting myself (and MPX) to the ordeal of a coast-to-coast trip with its maximum payload. The first, of course, is I needed to get all that equipment from its home to my home, and there was a continent in the way. The second is I wanted to do some real world testing with the standard hundred-horse engine in a variety of conditions, doing real truck stuff—the sort of work that makes people buy a pickup instead of a car.

Well I'll tell you, by the time I'd driven crossed the Appalachian Mountains, I'd decided that a hundred horsepower was the practical minimum with a load like this, and I hadn't even left Maryland yet. Most of my transcontinental trip was in fifth gear, but I saw a lot of fourth while approaching the Continental Divide, and no small amount of third gear in the steep stuff. And at one point, in some extremely steep stuff, I was creeping along in second, in the extreme right lane with the other professional truckers.

So don't I wish I owned a bigger truck with a bigger engine? Actually, I don't. I've had one comparably laden truck-and-trailer trip before, and that was back in '85. A long heavy haul every 30 years does not justify owning a specialized heavy hauler. If I hadn't been doing this MPX project, I might have rented a truck one-way, or found somebody who was driving a big pickup cross country and hired him or her to hook my trailer on the back. Mind you, if you haul loads like this often, it will probably be worth your while to have a big powerful pickup to haul it with, but if it's annually or less, you're probably better off renting a bigger truck for those occasional big loads, hiring somebody else to haul them, or accept that a little truck that's as good as a big truck 99 percent of the time is going to be in the slow lane for the 1 percent of the time that you're working at its limit.

There is one piece of modern technology that is essential if you're going to pull big loads with a small vehicle—don't forget that after you chug up that hill like The Little Engine That Could (“I think I can, I think I can...”) you're going to come down the other side, and that means the brakes on your trailer need to be up to the job. You need electric brakes (like the trailer in the photo has), or hydraulic brakes (some trailers have brake master cylinders built into the hitch), but don't expect your mini pickup to stop your maxi trailer by itself, 'cause it won't.

Photo by Jack McCornack

Check out the 100-mpg Car page; for all MOTHER's MAX stories, and Kinetic Vehicles.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

What America’s Most Walkable Suburb Can Teach Towns Everywhere

Walk Cities

Suburban life has always been synonymous with long hours in the car—going to work, school, the grocery store, the mall, soccer practice and friends’ homes. Some people even drive to take a walk.

That’s changing now, just like the stereotype of suburbs as places where everyone’s white, married with children and plays golf at the country club.  From Bethesda, Maryland to Edina, Minnesota to Kirkland, Washington, citizens are reinventing their towns to better accommodate walkers.  Traffic is being tamed on busy streets. New sidewalks and trails are being constructed. Business districts are coming to life thanks to growing foot traffic.

Leading the charge are suburban leaders who see their communities’ continuing prosperity and quality-of-life dependent on creating lively walkable places that attract young people, families and businesses wanting to locate where the action is.  Walking is gaining popularity across the US for both transportation and recreation because it improves health, fosters community and saves money.

The best place to experience the future of suburban living is Arlington County, Virginia, right across the Potomoc River from Washington, DC.  Built up during the 1950s, ‘40s and late ‘30s, after autos already dominated American life, it’s a classic suburb full of freestanding homes with driveways and green lawns.  Nonetheless it’s been named one of the 14 best “Walk Friendly” communities in America by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina and one of the 25 Best Cities for Walking by Prevention magazine.

A Day in the Life of America’s Most Walkable Suburb

 Walkable Cities

In Arlington’s Courthouse/Clarendon district, even on an unseasonably frigid Friday evening, you’ll find folks walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, toting home groceries, out strolling or heading to health clubs, shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

The next morning is windy with snow flurries, but the wide sidewalks of Arlington’s Virginia Square/Ballston district hums with people running errands at the bank, the cleaners, the mall, the tailors, the print shop, the pharmacy, the hair salon and the phone store. A lot of shoppers popped over from nearby apartment buildings and townhomes that have grown up recently what once was a struggling commercial strip, while others strolled from nearby single family homes.

Clarendon/Courthouse and Ballston/Virginia Square are both served by a regional train system, a boost for walkable communities that most American suburbs won’t have access to anytime soon.  But pedestrians flourish in Arlington neighborhoods distant from train lines too.

The Westover neighborhood sports a typically Mid-Century design with parking lots in front of many businesses but still offers friendly streetlife. A trio of middle schoolers walk home from the grocery with lunch fixings, while neighbors stop for a chat on their way to the hardware store, library, pharmacy, barbershop, bus stop, the Lost Dog Café or the Stray Cat café.

Meanwhile the brand new Shirlington community, rising out of the ashes of a failed shopping center, feels like a suburban village. A Main Street built in what was a parking lot invites you to take an afternoon stroll browsing a wide selection of shops, ethnic restaurants, a library, a full-service grocery and Bus Boys & Poets, a popular bookstore. A few steps away are movie theaters, service businesses like hair salons and yoga studios, office buildings, townhomes, apartments, a bus station and parking garages.

These neighborhoods stretch over six miles in the heart of Arlington (which is both a city and a county at the same time), but you can reach them all on foot via pedestrian-friendly city streets or Arlington’s 50-mile trail network.

Arlington’s Path to Transformation

Arlington did not become a pedestrian success story overnight.  The sidewalks are lively today thanks to a series of smart decisions carried out over several decades. The story of this community’s rise to become America’s most walkable suburb offers lessons for towns everywhere wanting to thrive in the years to come. 

As an early model for the auto-oriented development that popped up all over the country after World War II, Arlington also become one of the first suburbs to experience the inevitable side effects of aging. The county population dropped from 174,000 in 1970 to 152,500 in 1980 as new land to develop became scarce and kids who grew up there moved away. 

“In the 1970s this was a declining inner ring suburb,” notes Chris Zimmerman, who served on the county board for 18 years. “I moved here in 1979 because of the cheap rent.  Arlington was a stopover for a lot of people until they could afford to move somewhere else”-- a familiar scene today in thousands of suburban communities.

The first step in Arlington’s revival was improved transit service, including a number of stops on the Washington Metro subway system. But most of the streets were still designed to move cars as quickly as possible with little regard for the impact on pedestrians and surrounding neighborhoods. “When I took office in 1996, traffic was the biggest issue in every neighborhood. People were worried about their kids walking to school,” notes Zimmerman, who left the county board in 2013 to become Vice-president of Economic Development for Smart Growth America.

The county board, spurred on by neighborhood leaders, adopted an “urban village” approach to planning, which Zimmerman says, “really resonated with people-- the idea of comfort and community while still being cosmopolitan. Being both suburban and urban at the same time.”

One strong focus of this plan was to make walking more safe and convenient. A task force on traffic calming was launched and the outdated policy of charging homeowners for the cost of building new sidewalks--still common throughout the US--was eliminated.

Ninety percent of all residential streets now have sidewalks (up from 73 percent in 1997), and traffic on seven of the county’s nine busiest roads has declined between 5 and 23 percent since 1996. As a result, walking and biking now account for16.6 percent of all trips around town.

The county’s population has now climbed to 220,000, and it’s attracting many young professionals and families who could afford to live in wealthier suburbs but prefer Arlington’s walkability and sense of community.

“This could be done anywhere,” Zimmerman counsels. “It doesn’t depend on big-scale transit, it depends on good urban design.”

Walking As a Way of Life

Peter Owen, a lawyer who grew up in nearby McLean, Virginia, chose to live in Arlington after studying at University of Virginia, William & Mary and Harvard because he wanted to be close to his family but still enjoy opportunities to walk.

Still old habits die hard, he admits. “It took me about four months of living here to stop driving in my car to the grocery store, even though I lived just a few blocks away.” Owen still owns a car, but says it stays in the garage most of the time.

When asked why walking is so important to him, Owen has plenty to say:  “I value the serendipitous encounters with my neighbors and the sense of connection to this place.  You notice lots more things, like kids playing, when you’re living at five miles per hour.”

“It’s dramatically different walking here than in the 1990s,” says Dennis Leach, Arlington’s Director of Transportation, who lived here for years before joining the county staff.  “You see all these people in places that used to be nowhere. It shows that if you do the infrastructure and land use right, you can provide people more viable transportation options and good places to walk, which has benefits for social equity, health and a sense of community.”

Walking in City 

What Makes For a Walkable Street?

Key actions that make Arlington’s streets more walkable include:

Crosswalks, which are clearly defined so motorists know where to look for walkers;

Bulb outs, which extend the sidewalk a few feet into an intersection to shorten pedestrians’ crossing distance;

Median islands, which offer pedestrians a mid-point refuge while crossing wide, busy streets;

Bike lanes, which not only encourage people to bike instead of drive, but also increase the distance between sidewalks and rushing traffic;

Pro-pedestrian zoning, which enhances the walking experience through measures like requiring first-floor retail shops or windows on buildings along pedestrian routes;

• Road Diets, a new step for Arlington, in which moderately traveled four lane road are reduced to two through-lanes with an alternating left-turn lane in the middle, creating space for bike lanes or wider sidewalks

Complete Streets, a county policy that all modes of transportation must be considered in street reconstruction projects;

Transportation Demand Management, a sophisticated strategic plan that looks at traffic issues involved in all development decisions, and offers incentives for businesses to locate in walkable places served by transit.

City Initiatives to Promote Walking

Of course, it takes more than crosswalks and sidewalks to get people walking.  That’s why nearly everyone I spoke with Arlington pointed to the work of WalkArlington, a county-sponsored initiative to encourage people to get back on their feet.

WalkArlington developed 25 walking routes known as Walkabouts around the county, highlighting neighborhoods’ history, community resources and attractions. The WalkArlington Works program helps employers and staff to boost walking in the workplace, both for commuting and breaks during the workday. The organization is part the county’s Car-Free Diet program, an innovative approach that helps families figure how living without a car or car lite (using just one private car) would work for them. WalkArlington also excites kids about getting around on foot with programs such as Walk to School Day  and walking school buses (in which parents become bus drivers on foot, picking up kids at their doors and walking them to school).

Arlington is taking steps toward fulfilling the dream of many residents, best articulated by the county’s former Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Charlie Denney who grew up here: “Our goal would be to build a community where every 8-year-old can go all by themselves to buy an ice cream cone.”

10 More Suburbs Making Great Strides in Walking

Walking is gaining ground in many post-World War II suburban communities, including:

Edina, Minnesota — In 1956 this town just outside Minneapolis inaugurated the modern suburban era by opening the first enclosed shopping mall surrounded by vast acres of parking.   Now Edina is working hard to evolve into a 21st century suburb, where there’s a place for walking and biking too. 

Lakewood, Colorado —This Denver suburb traded a failed shopping mall for a built-from-scratch downtown offering shops, homes, offices, restaurants, Whole Foods, Target, a town common, a bowling alley and an Irish pub, all within close and pleasurable walking distance.

Bethesda, Silver Spring & White Flint, Maryland — Real estate developer and business professor Christopher Leinberger calls the DC region the most walkable metropolitan area in the US, edging out New York City on the strength of its suburban areas.  Indeed, Silver Spring, White Flint and Bethesda may someday challenge Arlington for the title of America’s most walkable suburb.

Kirkland, University Place, Sammamish, Redmond & Bellevue, Washington---Seattle is neck-and-neck with DC for pioneering walkable suburbs. Dan Burden, one of America’s leading experts on pedestrian friendly communities who works with Blue Zones, lists these five towns as taking big steps: Kirkland, Bellevue, University Place, Redmond and Sammamish.

And it’s worth keeping an eye on Tigard, Oregon, a Portland suburb, whose city council passed a resolution last November to make the community “the most walkable city in the Pacific Northwest.

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to create more healthy, happy, enjoyable communities. He is the author of the Great Neighborhood Book. You can check out his website, too.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.