Green Transportation
Moving toward a transportation system that fuels healthy people and a healthy planet.

Choosing the Right Diesel Fuel for the Time of Year


This blog post contains sufficient information for the reader to understand the sometimes confusing world of on-road and off-road diesel fuel. Here in the high country (elevation 9,800 feet), we actually have pretty mild winters with the temperatures only falling to single digit or minus degrees a few times a year.

Troubleshooting Common Problems with Diesel Tractor Engines

Diesel gelling. We never had a problem with diesel gelling in our old tractor, but for some unexplained reason this newer one seems to have that issue. With a small tractor that is used primarily to move the snow in the winter, we need it to start when needed. We average around 264 inches of snow a season and being able to keep it clear is vital to our survival.

Diesel gel color. When diesel fuel gels, it rarely gets warm enough, nor can we make it warm enough to run the tractor. I have always treated #2 diesel with anti-gel additive, in addition to what has been in it when purchased. When the diesel gels (turns a milky white), the solution is to drain the fuel from the tank and replace both in-line fuel filters.

Small tractors have tight spaces. Small diesel tractors are not designed for someone with large hands to easily remove and replace the fuel filters. One filter is underneath the tractor, so in the winter, I lay on the frozen snow-covered ground to remove it. The other filter is on the side of the engine, so all of the heavy front-end equipment has to be removed to access it. For someone who is 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, that leaves very little room to work easily in tight spaces. The manufacturer designed our tractor with the underneath fuel filter partially under an impact plate to protect from damage, so there is only 4 to 5 inches to maneuver my hands when changing the bottom filter. Then, when the filter is disconnected, fuel spews out, so I’m temporarily drenched in smelly diesel fuel. In addition, the diesel makes tools, hands, hoses, and the plastic fuel filters very slippery. It is a miserable job for a person my size.

Owner's manuals can be misleading. The owner's manual  instruction for winter use is to use #1 diesel. When I went looking for it, I found that because this grade of diesel has high sulfur content, it is not allowed to be sold commercially by providers. After about the 4th time of having to change fuel filters and drain the fuel tank, I inquired of the dealer if there was something that I did not know or wasn’t being told. I buy my diesel at a station that sells large amounts of fuel; however, it still gels even with subsequent liberal anti-gel treatment. I’m repeatedly told to just use more anti-gel or get fresh fuel which has not worked.

Searching for good advice. In desperation, I called a local diesel mechanic who advised me I need to buy a "diesel blend" and affirms that #1 diesel by law is not sold in our state. Diesel blend is only available at my dealership, which makes me wonder why I was not told this so I could have avoided all the frustration of draining the tank and replacing filters.

Knowing what to Ask For

This started my education into the different terms and types of diesel fuel. Asking for #1 diesel like my owner’s manual suggested was a waste of time because of the EPA Clean Air Standards Act. Looking for ‘off road’ diesel was allusive because it is also known as diesel blend and also called non-road. Diesel blend is a mix of half kerosene and #2 diesel with anti-gel additives added. It is easy to identify once you are educated to ask for the right type because it is pink in color (see photo).

I now know to ask for off-road, non-road or winter blend. Whether it is guarding superior knowledge or assuming  the consumer comes with a complete understanding of the various grades, terms and types of diesel fuel, it is essential that we end users know specifically what to ask for especially if we live in a cold climate.

EPA standards for diesel. The Environmental Protection Agency has developed standards for diesel fuel and its use. Diesel is used in road vehicles, trains, boats, construction equipment, farm equipment, heating and a host of other types of equipment and it has to comply with certain EPA fuel standards. The emissions from burning diesel fuel can be very harmful to our lives and especially our respiratory systems so the EPA has developed strict guidelines regarding its use. Having had asthma almost my entire life I fully appreciate the efforts of the EPA in helping keep our air clean.

Winter blend/summer blend. The diesel fuel available at the pump is generally #2 diesel to which the dealer adds an anti-gel component for cold weather. There is a summer blend and winter blend of #2 diesel and most dealers don’t seem to actually know when the winter blend starts to be treated with anti-gel. It is simply supplied and put into the storage tank to mix with the summer blend. That is why it is important that we consumers add additional anti-gel additive. When the temperature drops to single digit or below zero the #2 tends to gel even though it has been pre-treated with anti-gel.

In essence, using the wrong type of diesel fuel at the wrong time of year can be costly and frustrating when the equipment will not run. Not everyone has a heated garage/barn to keep diesel equipment in to ensure it will start when needed.

We keep our diesel tractor under the front deck covered with a tarp to keep the snow off but that offers no protection against the cold temperatures. We have a block heater for the engine but not a heater for the gas tank and two filters. Our dealer suggested we purchase a ceramic heater ($2,000+) to keep the tractor warm. Perhaps some could run right down and buy such a heater, but that is beyond our means, as is building a separate building and heating it so the tractor can stay warm. We heat our home with a wood stove and we spend much of our time keeping ourselves and our fur family warm, so keeping our tractor warm is not practical for us.

It would have been nice if our dealer would have told us about diesel blend instead of just telling us to add more anti-gel, or if the owner’s manual could have been more accurate and descriptive. Regretfully, neither happened so we learned the hard way. It has been a lesson we will not forget easily.

References: EPA Diesel Standards 

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain lifestyle go to: Bruce and Carol live at 9,800 feet elevation remotely in a small cabin in the Sangre de Christo mountains with their four German Shepherd Dogs. Read all of Bruce'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.

The PV EV RV: A Mechanical-Engineering Question for Solar-Electric Vehicles

Left: rigid, glass panel. Right: thin film flexible panel. 

First, here's a quick recap of my solar-electric VW bus conversion.

With the advent of thin, semi-flexible solar panels weighing in at just 6 pounds per 150 watts, the weight limitation of solar panels on vehicles has been lifted. For the weight of a well-fed man, a solar-powered vehicle enthusiast can include a level two charger on board. That’s over 6,000 watts of charging power. On my electric VW bus, that’s a full 100 miles of range in 5 hours of direct solar exposure. (Tracking the sun at all would give the opportunity to grab significantly more miles per day.)

That’s wonderful, but there is a catch: surface area. 5 kilowatts of solar panels would require five 1,000-watt arrays, one on each side of the van, plus the center. Obviously, now with a 15-foot width and some extremely floppy panels, we would have a problem. But what if we fold the panels in? We can then stop, unfold, and charge while we have lunch or enjoy a river swim.

Better yet, with all this unfolded surface area, we have a large shade roof. If I set it up as it is in my mind: a Solar-Electric Transforming Tiny House! It’s an off-grid mobile tiny home with all the electricity you need to heat, cool, light and then drive! In other words, we have a photovoltaic electric-vehicle RV, or "PV EV RV"!

Moving the Solar RV Project Forward

Phase 1

Work has begun on Phase Two of the project. Phase One, however, was a success and would likely be more appropriate for some folks.  The focus of Phase One was cost and the interest of supplying moms and their local transport to and from school, the grocery store, etc.

Currently, my wife is driving Phase One of the solar-electric bus. She sets a timer to have the bus heated when she and the kids get in. She tries to park in the sun when possible. It’s great to see the bus being used in a practical situation. It is a real solution.

The cost for this conversion was around $25,000. I put in many extras and, as a result of it being the “first-time” build, I spent more to get over that hump. If I was to refine the process and lean out on the parts, I could have built this bus for $10,000 to 15,000. Phase One is a financially feasible workhorse!

Phase 2

That said, let’s spend some money. If an individual was not entirely concerned about cost and wanted more the freedom and versatility that getting out beyond the charging stations offer, then immediately one would look at battery pack. The lead-acid pack came in at $2,800. The lithium iron phosphates, which would double storage (range) and reduce the vehicle weight by 500 pounds, comes in at $12,000. Then we have a 100 mile-per-charge RV!

Now there is no need to build a sealed battery box or vent it. A cooling fan would be wise, but other than that, it makes putting the phosphates in much simpler.

Now let’s talk solar. Chinese semi-flexible solar panels come in at about $2 per watt if purchased in bulk.  For 6 kilowatts, that’s also $12,000 — what a coincidence. However, as a result of the Chinese influx of cheap solar panels, tariffs have been imposed on these panels. You could likely get a sizable bill in the mail from the U.S. government after your initial purchase.

Some companies have a 250% tariff on solar panel purchases. It’s worth doing your homework. Using a custom shop like Solbian out of Italy would ensure quality without fear of Tariff. However, I’ve been quoted as much as $800 per 150-watt panel going this route. This would be $32,000 for 6 kilowatts. Granted, they can make these panels custom, and I’m sure with great quality, however $32,000 just for solar panels is a little beyond the financial reach of most of us. (Sponsors?)

Either way, for a $24,000 upgrade, one could drive and live completely on sunshine with an impressive range and an on-board power source. If we lean down the initial cost of the conversion, we are at total of about $35,000, not including labor.

Left: lead acid battery. Right: lithium iron phosphate battery 


At this point, I’m compelled to face the labor and basic material cost portion of the build. I’m a mechanical engineer working in the alternative energy world now for 20 years. I did all the work myself, from cutting the metal for the top apparatus to wiring up the motor. With this included the cost of the Phase Two vehicle climbs high, likely over $100,000.

Given the circumstances, I would recommend a project like this only to experienced electrical and mechanical engineers for feasibility as well as safety reasons. If you have a friend with this education and experience to guide you, go for it! I will continue to offer guidance so others can enjoy the solar-electric freedom as I have. Education must commence for us all to be more free. In the next blog post, we will be covering motor selection. Check out more specifics on my website: Have fun!

Photos by Kira Belan 

Brett Belan lived off-grid in California for a decade before moving to Ashland, Oregon, and co-founding Apparent Energy, an engineering company dedicated to improving our electrical systems. He spends his free time building improving a converted 1973 Solar-Electric VW Bus. Follow Brett on Facebook and Instagram, and read his article in Home Power magazine. Read all of Brett’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.

Walking Picks Up Speed for Exercise and Transportation: 20 Tools and Signs of Progress

As life grows ever more challenging, with concerns about health and the future nagging at us, one solution can be as simple as taking a walk.

That’s the reassuring news from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who last year declared “physical activity is one of the best things Americans can do to improve their health and walking is an easy way to get moving” in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities.  He added that the benefits go beyond health. “It brings business districts to life and can help reduce air pollution.”

Noting that one out of two American adults suffers from a chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease and that walking reduces the risk of these conditions, Murthy initiated the Step It Up campaign to help Americans of all ages, races, income, regions and ability levels to walk more.

Murthy explained why he focuses on walking among many other forms of physical activity:

•It is already Americans’ favorite form of aerobic exercise.
•It is free.
•It does not require special skills, facilities or equipment.
•It can be done year-round, outdoors or indoors.
•People with disabilities can “walk” by rolling in wheelchairs.
•For busy people, a walk can often do double duty as transportation or social time with friends.

“Many of us live in neighborhoods that can present barriers to walking,” he acknowledged. “There may be no sidewalks; or there may be concerns about safety.” 

 “Physical activity should not be the privilege of the few,” Surgeon General Murthy added. “It should be the right of everyone.”

Signs of Progress and Advocacy Tools for Walking

Millions of Americans are now discovering that walking is good for our health, our social lives, our communities, our economic prospects and our overall happiness. Here are some of the recent signs:

1. A miracle drug. A September cover story on “The Exercise Cure” in Time magazine cited brisk walking, and even walking the dog, as the sort of “moderate intensity” workout that “works like a miracle drug”.

2. Walkable streets benefit everyone. Fast Company — a magazine renown for staying ahead of the curve on business trends — offered “50 Reasons Why Everyone Should Want More Walkable Streets.” Among their findings: “4) It makes people happier…...8) It makes neighborhoods more vital… …16) It boosts the economy…18) It makes people more creative and productive….”

3. More feet on the street. The number of Americans reporting they walk more now increased 14 percent in a 2012 USDOT survey of pedestrian behavior, compared to a 2002 survey.  This corroborates numerous local pedestrian counts documenting a rise in walking for transportation, recreation and exercise. Meanwhile the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to a six percent increase in the number of Americans walking between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available). That adds up to 20 million more people on their feet.

4. The path to prosperity and social equity. The most walkable metropolitan areas in the US are also the most prosperous, with lower levels of social inequity than auto-dependent areas, says a new study by the George Washington University School of Business. Low-income people in walkable neighborhoods spend more on housing but benefit even more from lower transportation costs and better access to jobs.

 5. Lack of exercise almost as deadly as smoking. A groundbreaking study conducted over 50 years shows low levels of physical activity are more lethal than high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other closely-watched medical conditions. These findings affirm an earlier Cambridge University study showing that lack of exercise increased the risk of death twice as much as obesity.

6. Booming real estate trend. Eighty five percent of Americans report that living near places to walk was important to them, according to  the National Association of Realtors’ latest Community Preference and Transportation Survey. This is even more true for Millennials, who favor walking as transportation over driving by 12 percentage points.

7. Feel better — and better about yourself. Communities good for walking enjoy lower obesity, lower diabetes, and more people who feel good about their appearance, according to new data from the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index.

8. Movement toward stopping climate change. Walking is incorporated into more than half of the recommendations in 50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation, a detailed report released in October by the Frontier Group. “America’s transportation system has emerged as Climate Enemy #1, with cars, trucks and other vehicles now representing the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution,” states the report.

9. Driverless cars can create pedestrian-filled streets. Many believe autonomous vehicles will transform modern life by turning huge tracts of land now used for parking into sidewalks, bikeways and public space. This will encourage people to walk more, using driverless cars primarily for longer or more complicated trips.

10. Walking means business. Firms in highly competitive fields like technology and marketing have discovered that top talent, especially young people, want to work and live in places a short walk from cafes and cultural attractions, says walking consultant Mark Fenton. Thomas Schmid of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds that businesses also want to be in healthier, walkable communities because it decreases their health care premiums. He points to Chattanooga, where Volkswagen built a new plant, in part, because they were promised that a popular walk-bike trial would be extended to their campus

11. Walking means local business. Foot traffic is the lifeblood of most business districts, and improvements that make walking easier and safer pay off economically. A street in West Palm Beach, Florida plagued by speeding traffic was make more walk-friendly, resulting in less crime and $300 million in new private investment.

12. U.S. Department of Transportation champions safe streets. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, launched Safer People, Safer Streets “to help communities create safer, better connected bicycling and walking networks” in response to a steady rise since 2009 in pedestrians killed by motorists.

13. Federal Highway Administration pushes 80 percent cut in pedestrian deaths by 2031. An 80-percent reduction in all pedestrian deaths and serious injuries over the next 15 years is the new goal of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA in the agency’s recent Strategic Agenda for Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation. On top of that, the agency is pushing to double the number of short trips (1 mile for pedestrians; 5 miles for bicyclists) taken by Americans by 2025.

14. Vision Zero movement hits the streets. Eighteen cities from Fort Lauderdale to Anchorage have formally pledged themselves to the Vision Zero goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities (foot, bike, car), according to the just-launched Vision Zero Network. Seventeen more are exploring the idea The movement is inspired by Sweden’s success in reducing road fatalities by 50 percent since 2000, thanks to improved street design and stepped up enforcement of speed limits. “We know that speed is the most critical factor in the severity of a traffic injury,” says Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network.  “That means we must bring speeds down to safe levels.”

15. A growing movement to get us back on our feet. A wide coalition of advocates devoted to better health, social justice, a greener future and community vitality is spreading the word that walking is good for us and our communities. More than 500 people from 44 states participated in the 2015 National Walking Summit  in Washington, DC,  30 percent higher attendance than the first Summit in 2013.  The 2017 Summit is September 13-15 in St. Paul, MN, which will be hosted by America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, and sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente health care system.

16. America’s walking renaissance. This new book showcases success stories from communities all over the country where walking is picking up speed, and offers practical tips on how you and your town can walk more. Here’s a free PDF download.

17. A college for walking. Fifty activists from across the US are applying lessons learned at the Walking College to improve health, equity and economic prospects in their hometowns. To apply for the Class of 2017 contact Ian Thomas, the Columbia, MO city council member who heads the college.

18. The case for healthy places. “Your zip code is an important factor to your health,” explains Tyler Norris, Kaiser Permanente Vice President for Total Health Partnerships, announcing a new report. documenting about how to make places healthier. Produced by Project for Public Spaces, “The Case for Healthy Places” will appear later this year and focuses on these key areas: 1) opportunities for social connection and support; 2) opportunities for play & active recreation; 3) access to green & natural places; 4) access to healthy food & beverages; 5) access to walking & biking; and 6) actions for healthcare institutions.

19. Walk audits: A tool to make better Streets. Blue Zone’s Walkable communities guru Dan Burden invented walk audits while he was Florida’s Bike and Pedestrian coordinator to help everyday people improve their communities. Here’s his list of five key things that make streets great places to walk:

Transparency—how appealing buildings and landscapes are to us on the street level;
Enclosure —trees, benches, street parking and other elements that buffer us from moving vehicles;
Complexity—many layers of things to see while strolling down a street;
Imageability—unique features of a place that make it memorable;
Human-scale—a place designed for people, not just cars.

20. First step toward reuniting a divided nation. The recent election spotlights how fractured America has become. Thankfully, walking offers a first step toward reconnecting to one another.  Sidewalks, streets, trails and other public spaces we travel on foot are common ground—literally.  They are among the few places where Americans of all backgrounds come together face-to-face, giving us the chance to smile, wave, talk, share and get to know someone different than ourselves. It is much harder to fear, hate, dismiss or ignore people you cross paths with every day.

Photo credit Dan Burden/Blue Zones

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.

Solar Power Meets Electric Vehicle Atop a VW Microbus

VW Camper With Solar Panel

I always wanted an electric vehicle. Not because they are quiet, fast or fashionable, but because I can charge it off the sun! I built a golf cart with a panel on top and hauled wood for years with it. The electric chainsaw ran quite well off the 72-volt bank. What a workhorse! Just park it in the sun.

I realized that if I built a highway-legal vehicle with a good amount of solar on top, I would really have something valuable. I had no idea.

Sizing Solar Panels for Electric Vehicles

The time is here for solar power to make its way to our vehicles. The state-of-the-art panels pose no weight limitation. At 6 pounds per 150 watts, thin flexible solar panels will weigh 600 pounds but give you 15 kilowatts! This is enough to directly drive from the sun.

However, the surface area is a limitation, because that much solar would require 10 feet around the vehicle on all sides. The solution, ironically, is a mechanical engineering question of how to accordion-style fold these panels to conveniently open them for charging while the vehicle is at a standstill.

Considering Design Options for VW Bus Solar Conversion

My first rendition put 1,200 watts on top of the vehicle. I could easily hinge the array in the front of the vehicle for solar tracking. I made a convenient tent space under the array to mimic a VW Westphalia camper design.

Now the 1973 VW transporter is a camper! If I work it, tracking the sun all day, the 1,200-watt array will fill the 14 kilowatt-hour lead-acid battery bank for a 40-mile run. Not even trying around town, there is 20 miles of range waiting just from natural solar exposure — no plugs necessary. My family and I did 1,400 miles this summer using up the month of July. The viability is here!

Brett Belan lived off-grid in California for a decade before moving to Ashland, Oregon, and co-founding Apparent Energy, an engineering company dedicated to improving our electrical systems. He spends his free time building improving a converted 1973 Solar-Electric VW Bus. Follow Brett on Facebook and Instagram, and read his article in Home Power magazine.

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.

New York’s Hudson Valley Revs Up for Electric Vehicles with New Campaign


The first electric vehicle (EV) consumer education program in the Hudson Valley goes live this fall. For the growing population of consumers who are curious about EVs and want to learn more, Drive Electric Hudson Valley will provide consumer workshops, informational materials, and test drive opportunities throughout the fall.

A project of Sustainable Hudson Valley (SHV), Drive Electric HV is supported in part by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). It’s led by Seth Leitman, author and consumer advocate who reaches tens of thousands on social media and at special events as the Green Living Guy.

Leitman has worked for the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and NYSERDA on developing and implementing major marketing and infrastructure programs for electric vehicles. In addition, he test drives the greenest cars for reviews for other major publications regularly (including Mother Earth New).

Seth will partner with mechanical engineer and clean technology-bilingual outreach expert Hugo Jule to inform and inspire green living and technology enthusiasts throughout the Hudson Valley.

New York State Electric Vehicle Goal

SHV’s Executive Director Melissa Everett notes that “New York has made a commitment to getting 750,000 electric cars on the road by 2025. This program has been designed to close the gap between consumer curiosity and confidence, and create an opportunity for entire communities to climb the learning curve.”

Drive Electric Hudson Valley will offer a full schedule of workshops in community centers and at car dealerships, an informative website and experts available at outreach tables at commuter hubs such as train stations and Park & Rides.

In exchange for completing a simple survey on their knowledge and attitudes about electric vehicles, consumers will have an opportunity to test drive the cars and attend free workshops. Program Associate Hugo Jule, a bilingual energy educator with automotive, electrical and mechanical engineering background, will be raising the program’s profile by driving a demonstration VW e-Golf around the region.

 ‘Reforming the Energy Vision’ with Electric Vehicles

Drive Electric Hudson Valley supports Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) strategy to build a cleaner, more resilient and affordable energy system and helps New York State meet its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030. The transportation sector is the State’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Local community actions like Drive Electric Hudson Valley are vital to Governor Cuomo’s energy vision for New York,” said John B. Rhodes, President and CEO, NYSERDA. “We congratulate Sustainable Hudson Valley and all its partners on this effort to educate consumers about electric vehicles, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help address the challenges of climate change.”

Drive Electric Hudson Valley is modeled on the successful three year Solarize Hudson Valley program, rolled out by Sustainable Hudson Valley in partnership with Catskill Mountainkeeper. Research shows that many of the same people who use solar panels, also purchase or lease electric vehicles.

According to Leitman, “When you combine solar and an EV at home, the economics become really compelling, and so do the environmental benefits. That’s because the car’s operating costs are so low and you can charge from your solar panels.”

“At our forums, we will tell the whole truth about EVs — the learning curve for the consumer, the economics, and their huge contribution to cleaner air which consumers may not recognize”, said Leitman. “Even factoring in the electricity it takes to charge it, the EV is still cleaner than any other gas car on the road. As the NY grid gets cleaner, expect those benefits to increase.”

EV Sales Growth and the Future of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicle (including plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) sales are growing exponentially, from around 10,000 in 2010 to over 800,000 today. The U.S. is the world’s largest market, and trends point to sharpening growth.

For example, battery prices fell 35% last year alone. Bloomberg projects that by 2040, long-range electric cars will cost on average less than $22,000, and 35% of new cars worldwide will have a plug.

Still, consumers need education and confidence-building, said Everett. Drive Electric Hudson Valley will address that need. Find out more at Sustainable Hudson Valley, or contact Melissa Everett at 845-514-8567 or Seth Leitman at 914-703-0311.

The Green Living Guy, Seth Leitman is a green living expert, celebrity and Editor of the McGraw-Hill, TAB Green Guru Guides. Seth is also an author, radio host, reporter, writer and an environmental consultant on green living. The Green Living Guy writes about green living, green lighting, the green guru guides, and more. Find Seth on his website, and read all of his 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.

How to Make City Streets More Friendly

Afoutayi Music and Dance Company performs in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Jon Pavlica

Laughter, lively music and lip-smacking appreciation of food from many cultures animates St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota as a crowd whoops it up at the Better Bridges Bash.

Even chilly temperatures and gusty winds can’t dampen folks’ enthusiasm — nor does the unpromising location right next to the roaring traffic on the I-94 freeway. Indeed, that’s the point of the event: to better connect neighborhoods on either side of the freeway by improving the bridges and to explore ways to make the area more friendly to people when they are not in cars.

This is why — in addition to enjoying a kazoo parade, a Liberian-American rapper and the Lexington-Hamline Community Band — festival goers wander into tents where they are encouraged to think expansively about their neighborhood’s future.

“We’re seeing that this community is engaged in how the streets feel, and they are letting local leaders know what they want,” offers Isaak Rooble, who is standing next to a gallery of photos showing possible improvement projects for this mixed-income, mixed-race community. People stick green post-its to ones they like, pink ones to those they don’t, and yellow for maybe.

Among the photos generating the most excitement are:

• A land bridge covering a section of the freeway with green space
• Archways, mosaics and murals at entrances to bridges over the freeway
• Medians in the middle of busy intersections making it easier for people to cross the street

Ideas for Better Streets and More Friendly Street Life

At another tent, people are invited to share their own brainstorms for the neighborhood on an idea tree. Here are a few of the brainstorms:

• “fewer cars”
• “fountains”
• “walking path and track”
• “more street parties”

“I am passionate about community development and helping migrants get involved with the community,” says Isaak Rooble, a young Somali immigrant working with Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI), the organization hosting the event.

FSI is conducting surveys with as many people as possible in English, Somali, and Oromo (a language spoken in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya) to learn more about issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the freeway. This is part of the organization’s “community-led mission,” which means “we are guided by the ideas coming out of neighborhoods,” explains Robyn Hendrix, an artist organizer with the group.

The Friendly Streets Initiative grew out of a group of volunteers working with various neighborhood organizations to make biking and walking safer in St. Paul. In the summer of 2011, they sponsored a series of parties along Charles Avenue which runs through a racially- and economically-mixed community a few blocks from the freeway to discuss community concerns. The group created a survey to measure residents’ opinions and offered a photo gallery of innovative street designs found around the world.

Closing off  blocks on Friday evenings, the parties featured food from local restaurants, games, and the opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other better.

“More than 700 people turned out and we got a real sense of what the community thought,” recalls Lars Christiansen, an urban sociologist at Augsburg College who lives in the neighborhood and is now FSI Director. “What they liked and what they didn’t.”

The ideas folks liked most became the nucleus of the Charles Avenue Friendly Street plan, which emphasized four street improvements:

1. Better-marked crosswalks at busy intersections;

2. Traffic circles, which help slow the speed of vehicles at low-volume intersections;

3. Medians and other modifications at busy intersections, which provide refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street;

4. A raised intersection, and sidewalks bumping out into the streets at select locations.

Friendly Streets Initiative

The volunteer committee formally organized themselves as the Friendly Streets Initiative to build support for the Charles Avenue project among neighbors and on the city council. Construction on Charles Avenue began in 2014 along a four-mile stretch of the street.

“FSI built grassroots support for change in St. Paul, a city reputed to have lots of opposition to bike and walk projects,” observed Jessica Treat, director of Transit for Livable Communities in an interview earlier this year. Since then TLC has become FSI’s fiscal sponsor.

Treat credits FSI with mobilizing young families and other groups in the city who don’t usually weigh in on planning decisions, which showed political leaders the depth of public support for walk and bike projects.

Council Member Russ Stark, whose ward contains a section of the project, notes that FSI has changed how business is done in St. Paul.

“By talking to people where they live, by using block parties and other means to find out what people value on their streets, they’ve helped change how we do civic engagement. We usually hear from a vocal minority on projects, but we don’t necessarily know what the public as a whole thinks.”

Revitalizing Neighborhoods Afflicted by Poor Freeway Planning

One of FSI’s major pushes now is a project coming out of the Better Bridges Bash to create better bike, foot and transit access in neighborhoods on either side of the I-94 in between the Capitol and the Minneapolis city limits. This includes Rondo, the historical African-American neighborhood where photographer Gordon Parks and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins grew up, much of which was bulldozed in the 1960s to construct the freeway.

“It was a beloved community,” says Melvin Giles, FSI community organizer, who remembers Rondo as a young child. “People would walk to the neighborhood store and kids could see all the others kids. They’d play baseball and football in the street. You couldn’t do those things today.”

What was once Rondo is probably the worst place in St. Paul to walk today, with a freeway ripping through the middle of the area and bridges that feel dangerous and dispiriting to cross.

“They seemed not to care a lot about poor kids and African American kids getting to school, or anywhere else, when they built the freeway,” remarks Anne Parker, an artist working with FSI who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.

Conditions are grim on many of St. Paul’s I-94 bridges. Many walkers endure sidewalks so narrow that they must scrunch together to walk side-by-side, and switch to single-file if any other walker needs to pass.

Better Bridges Make Better Communities

 “A lot of outside groups who want to help the neighborhood just come in and start doing stuff—FSI did not do that,” says Melvin Giles, explaining why he joined the group. “As an organization we help the community decide what it wants by offering a process for people to think about what they want from their streets — and then we will work with them.”

Giles helped convene a series of listening sessions with elders and leaders in the African American community. “FSI is not doing things for us — it’s doing things with us,” he says. “It’s not just community engagement. FSI shows you how to turn your ideas into reality.”

One of the community leaders Giles contacted is Marvin Roger Anderson, a retired attorney and former Minnesota State law librarian. “Encouraging bicycling and walking are important to reweaving the Rondo neighborhood, so I am delighted to be working with Friendly Streets,” Anderson says. “Biking and walking are healthy. Biking and walking can save you money. We need to create a culture of biking and walking.”

The long-term goals of the project are to call on the community’s expertise and creativity to inspire fresh thinking about transforming these bridges from barriers into connectors between neighborhoods. Planned reconstruction of the freeway offers opportunities for big ideas that stir excitement in the community.

Ranking high among the ideas proposed: a land bridge, wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes, bike lanes, better winter maintenance, greater attention to disabled users, traffic calming, making it feel more like a public space, and adding a cultural wall to celebrate the history and art of the Rondo community.

In the short term, FSI wants to tap community expertise and creativity for ideas on improving existing bridges. “The whole point of FSI is to transform streets of fear into streets of joy, in ways both large and small, affecting the physical environment and the emotional one,” says Christiansen.

7 Lessons for Friendlier Streets

Here are the chief lesson’s of Friendly Streets Success, which can be applied in other communities around the country.

Rethink community engagement. It’s no longer good enough to simply present neighborhood people with a plan, and ask them to approve it. Residents are the world’s leading authorities on what their communities need. They must be involved in the planning of a project from the very start. Their ideas and goals must be given serious consideration every step of the way.

Show how new ideas work. Installing temporary prototypes of proposed improvements lets everyone get a feel for how well they work. It can dispel unwarranted fears and reveal potential problems.

Recognize how things are connected. Social, economic, cultural and psychological issues are all linked. A better sidewalk or walking trail can boost economic opportunity, racial inclusion and community aspirations as well as transportation. When you understand all that is at play with a given project, you’ll get more successful outcomes for everyone.

Take art seriously. Art is not a frill — it’s indispensible in helping everyone reimagine their communities, and discovering new approaches to old problems. “Asking people to draw or paint or act out what they would like to see in their neighborhood allows everyone to think differently and find new inspiration,” notes Robyn Hendrix, arts organizer for the Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI) from 2014 to 2016. “The arts activities brought kids and families out, and created a festival quality that also drew more low-income people and people of color,” adds FSI director Lars Christiansen.

Work with the community. Find out who are the leaders, which may not be who you expect. Learn about neighborhood concerns. Speak their language (literally and figuratively). Listen.

Be flexible. No community visioning method is universal. What works in one place may flounder just a few blocks away. Discover the tools the community itself uses.

Make it fun. “A feeling of festivity, levity and wonder enliven the conversations about public spaces,” concludes Christiansen. “You need a sense of play in everything you do.” FSI events have included mini-golf, living statues, chalk drawing, flag-making and lots of music and food.

This is excerpted from the new book, America’s Walking Renaissance, which can downloaded free as a PDF.

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.

Walking Makes Strides in All Kinds of Communities

Pedestrians Walking In Seattle Streets

Imagine living in one of America’s great walkable communities.

Your day begins with a stroll — saying hi to neighbors, noticing blooming gardens and enticing shop windows, maybe stopping for a treat on your way to work.

Weekends are even better. You step out your door and join the hum of activity on the sidewalk en route to a coffeeshop, park, shopping district, friend’s home, recreation center or house of worship.

More time on your feet provides an opportunity to reflect on your life (you feel more energetic and creative now that you’re not driving all the time) and your community (it feels more alive now that everyone walks more). Even driving is more fun than it used to be with fewer cars clogging the streets.

And the really good news is that you don’t need to move to another town or a more expensive neighborhood to enjoy these pleasures. Any community can become more walkable if people are willing to get off the couch to make a difference.

That’s what my colleagues and I at the Every Body Walk! Collaborative  and America Walks discovered researching our new book America’s Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded here for free.

Feet on the Street, Coast to Coast

We found inspiring stories from places across the U.S. where people got things started in communities not so different from where you live.

•In Baldwin Park, a racially diverse suburb of LA, high levels of childhood obesity are dropping as the result of a community-wide effort to make walking more safe and comfortable.

•In Batesville, Arkansas, and Albert Lea, Minnesota, improvements to boost walking around town are paying off in new residents, businesses and hope for the future.

•In Birmingham, a growing network of walking trails helps address problems arising from decades of economic decline, racial inequity and declining public health.

•In Arlington, Virginia, an innovative plan to transform neighborhoods into foot-friendly villages made it America’s Most Walkable Suburb.

•In Phoenix, ambitious programs to encourage walking are part of a push to become America’s healthiest city.

• In St. Paul, a multicultural community torn apart by freeway construction seeks revival and healing through better pedestrian connections.

• In San Francisco and New York, neighbors are teaming up with public leaders to end all traffic deaths on city streets.

• In Northeast Iowa, small town kids are growing excited about walking to and at school.

• In Seattle, groundbreaking policies curb speeding motorists and prevent traffic crashes.

• In African-American communities coast-to-coast, GirlTrek encourages women to take charge of their health by walking regularly.

• In California’s Central Valley, Latino parents are organizing campaigns to make streets hospitable for people on foot.

• In Indianapolis, leaders from around the world study the Cultural Trail, a 21st-Century walk-and-bike corridor that has reinvigorated struggling business districts.

•In Greater Philadelphia, a network of bike/walk trails link the entire region — 300 miles so far with 450 more planned.

• Even in Oklahoma City, once named America’s “Worst Walking City,” big plans are working to make walking easier, less dangerous and more fun.

Why is Walking Suddenly Popular?

Improvements like these are popping up all over because Americans want to get back on their feet — for better health, stronger communities and happier, more relaxing lives.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found the number of people who regularly walk rose 6 percent between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available), a jump which translates into 20 million Americans stepping up.

But we still have a long ways to go. Only 48 percent of adults met the CDC’s minimum daily recommendation for walking or other physical activity: 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week (60 minutes daily for kids).

That’s the magic number that cuts your chances of suffering from depression, dementia, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, anxiety, high blood pressure, and other serious diseases by 40 percent or more.

The American Heart Association lauds walking as the exercise people stick with the most over time. It’s free, requires no special equipment, and can be done anytime, usually right out your front door.

Last year, U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, singled out walking as a powerful health solution in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities.

“Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy declared. “The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”

Health Benefits of Walking

The rise in walking for recreation, transportation and exercise is also being fueled by new research showing it’s good for us in many ways besides better health:

•Going out for a walk is one of the best ways to meet people and strengthen community connections, which is fun but also boosts our mental and physical health.

•Kids who walk to school do better in their classes, according to Mary Pat King, the National PTA’s Director of Programs and Partnerships. Walking improves students’ concentration, mood, cognitive performance and creativity, explains Dr. Richard Jackson, former Environmental Health Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

•Metropolitan regions with many walkable neighborhoods perform better economically than those with just a few, according to a new report from the George Washington University School of Business.

•Reduced anger, increased self-control and a greater sense of well-being are other documented benefits of walking, according to 100 Reasons to Walk, issued by Walk with a Doc, an organization of physicians working in 29 states.

Signs of the Times

You don’t have to look far to see signs that Americans are rediscovering the joy of walking.

Real Simple magazine declared it “America’s untrendiest trend” in a cover story.

•Soul singer Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video, which highlights the sheer pleasure of strolling down the street, has been watched 850 million times.

•A recent national poll from the National Association of Realtors finds that 79 percent of Americans believe it’s important to live “within an easy walk” of the places they want to go.

•Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has announced an all-out effort to make walking safer in communities everywhere. “Bicycling and walking are as important as any other form of transportation,” he declared at a major transportation conference.

•More than 10 percent of all trips in America are on foot, according to Paul Heberling, Policy Analyst at the US Department of Transportation — and 28 percent of all trips under a mile.

Everybody Has a Right to Walk

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared Dr. Robert D. Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement in a keynote speech at the National Walking Summit in Washington, D.C.

“All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”

Yet it is a stark fact that children, older Americans, the poor, people of color, and people with disabilities are injured or killed more frequently while walking (or rolling, in the case of people using wheelchairs or motorized carts).

• People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.

• African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.

• The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, crumbling sidewalks, street crime, poor lighting, or the lack of stores and public places within walking distance.

Poor conditions for walking among low-income households limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.

“A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one,” says Gil Penalosa, founder of 880 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. He notes that the average cost of owning and operating one car is about $8,500 a year, even taking into account recent dips is gasoline prices.

The good news is that the right to walk is becoming a major issue, as advocates for social justice, public health, neighborhood revitalization and other causes push for policies to make walking safer and easier in communities all across America. In fact, Secretary of Transportation Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, has made it one of his top priorities with the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative.

Adapted from the book America’s Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded for free.

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, writes, speaks and consuslts about how to create healthier, happier communities.  He lives in Minneapolis and 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.