E-Biking into sustainable mobility

By Halina Brown.

The bicycle of today is amazingly similar to its 1886 forbearer. The innovations over the ensuing 130 years — gears, breaks, new materials and manufacturing processes – have not changed its iconic shape and the relationship between the machine and its user: sit down on the saddle, put your hands on the handlebars and pedal to move forward. The stamina and motivation of the rider determine who uses a bike and how far they can go. But this is all about to change. There is a revolution in the air in personal mobility in the form an electric bicycle. It has a potential to greatly reduce the use of cars. I witnessed its beginnings during my recent visit to the Netherlands.

It is quite appropriate that the shift toward e-bikes would occur in the Netherlands, a country with a deep love affair with a bicycle. Simply put, the Netherlands is a biker’s paradise, both for long distance athletic bikers and, more importantly, for those who use it as a primary mode of personal mobility in everyday life and as a form of leisure and recreation. Nearly a third of all trips in the NL are made on bicycle.

There are several reasons for the popularity of bikes: high population density, short distances, flat terrain in most parts of the country, and cool summers and mild winters. But the biggest factor is the remarkable infrastructure, carefully developed and maintained by local and central governments. Many roads include one or two separate bike paths (fietspad) complete with their own system of traffic signals. The Netherlands has 35,000 kilometres (22,000 miles) of separate dedicated bicycle paths. When a bike road meets a car road there are dedicated bike crossing points, including roundabouts, with the right of way given in most cases to bicycles. The countryside, recreational parks, and large private estates are crisscrossed with bike paths. Recently, several high-speed dedicated bike roads have been built for long distance biking. Basically, I cannot imagine any place that cannot be reached and enjoyed with a bicycle. And along with the paths, there is an abundance of other support: garages, repair shops, ways to transport a bike on public transit, and so on.

The result is that in smaller cities streets are quiet, clean and peaceful – an extension of people’s homes, not simply thoroughfares for motor traffic. The variety of people biking in the Netherlands is extraordinary: parents with children, sometimes one on the front, one in the back, even kids standing on luggage racks and holding nonchalantly on to the cycling adult’s shoulders, unassisted school children, office workers dressed for work, older people chatting while biking side by side, shoppers, and groups of teenagers. And on sunny weekends people come out in masses, everywhere. Essentially, the daily life of Dutch families is on display while biking. No helmets, no special athletic clothing. Biking is part of the daily routine, and people obviously feel safe. The latter is helped by the country’s strict liability laws – in a collision between a faster, larger vehicle and a slower, more vulnerable one, the former is found liable by default, unless its driver can prove otherwise. Those on foot are protected from cyclists and both are protected from motor vehicles.

So why this sudden surge of e-bikes? Electric bicycles have been around for decades, but technological advances have made them user-friendly and affordable. Commuters and the elderly are embracing it. During my recent stay in the Netherlands, I checked out the bicycle parking lot in front of the local indoor swimming pool facility. It was a weekday morning when the pool is mostly populated by retirees. More than half of the bikes were electric. These are the people who until now might be thinking of giving up bicycling and become dependent on a car. The e-bike has given them a renewed personal mobility at a low carbon footprint, with the gentle breeze in their hair as a bonus. Both the people and the environment are the winners.

Now I am back in the U.S., feeling envy over the Dutch biking infrastructure. Hopefully, in a few years, we will make progress on that count. I might then consider buying an e-bike for these long hilly treks to do my daily errands in Massachusetts.


Sustainable lifestyle in New York City: Penn South and its labor movement roots

In my July 9 post, I proposed that one-way cities might ameliorate the detrimental effects of extreme income inequality, while also avoiding the inevitable increase in greenhouse gas emissions that accompanies higher income, is to provide affordable services and amenities. Affordable housing is a great place to start and it is an opportunity for municipalities to take charge. In his comment to my posting, Maurie Cohen pointed out that affordability is not enough; that access to other amenities that collectively amount to a high quality of life must accompany any such initiatives.

I agree. This is why in this posting I describe a very special place in New York City: a model of affordable housing, a thriving community, high quality of life, and not-too-big carbon footprint. I argue that affordable, ecological and socially thriving living is possible even in very expensive cities, but it requires a new financial model of ownership, profit-sharing, and management of housing.

Penn southA few blocks south of Penn Station — the main intercity railroad in New York City — there is a housing development known as Penn South. Its formal name is Mutual Redevelopment Housing. It is a limited equity cooperative development in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. Built in 1961 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, with an invaluable support from the City of New York, this cluster of ten 24-story high buildings houses 2820 apartment units for moderate and low-income residents. Monthly charges are about one-third of market rates. And like all very dense urban conglomerations, the greenhouse footprint of the residents is much smaller than in sprawling car-dependent suburbs with large single family houses.

I know some people who live in Penn South. I consider it a perfect urban ecosystem and community: the buildings accommodate public indoor spaces for childcare facilities and health and recreational activities; 65% of the land is reserved for open space (yes, in Manhattan!); the magnificent tree canopy feels like a park; there are playgrounds, basketball courts, meticulous landscaping, and flower and vegetable gardens. On warm days, benches are full of people talking to each other; neighbours inquire about families and keep an eye on the children. Jane Jacobs would surely like this place, despite the buildings’ heights she was so weary of.

Penn South is a diverse community of all ages, races, and ethnicities, actively engaged in self-management of their commons. There are numerous self-help organisations, including those helping the elderly. For modest fees, you can sign up for a woodworking shop, yoga, and other activities. You can buy theatre tickets at a deep discount. You can watch a recent release movie for free. On one recent evening, the place was aglow with a million fireflies, which for some reason made the Penn South ecosystem their home. I would like to live in Penn South but it takes fifteen to twenty years on a waiting list to qualify for an apartment.

How does Penn South, with its red brick cluster of ten identical high-rise towers, avoid the feel of a “project” (the term conjuring an image of ghetto-like clusters of low-income housing, often crime-ridden)? For one thing, it is a democratically run cooperative, the occupants of which have an equity in the collective and in their common future. Second, it is located in the centre of the city, totally integrated into its life and infrastructure. There are no boundaries, real or de facto, around it; other buildings are interspersed with the Penn South buildings, including two small ancient churches. For a passerby on the street, this is not a “project” but simply a continuation of city landscape of tall residential buildings.

But it is the history of Penn South and its financial model that are at the heart of its continuing success as an urban community. Penn South was built in 1961 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to provide good quality apartments and dignified living for workers in the then thriving New York garment industry. The photographs taken at the ribbon cutting ceremony show President Kennedy at the speakers’ podium and Eleanor Roosevelt sitting next to him, squinting on that sweltering summer day. From its very inception, Penn South has operated as a limited-equity cooperative. It is owned and operated exclusively for the benefit of the member-shareholders, who are the occupants of the apartments. Each member has an equity investment in proportion to the size of the unit he/she occupies (by New York standards the equity up-front payment is very modest), and is obligated to sell the apartment back to the cooperative when moving out. Each apartment constitutes one unit with one vote, irrespective of the size of the apartment or number of shareholders who reside there.
The City of New York has helped to keep Penn South affordable from the very beginning through tax abatements during the first twenty-five years and thereafter through a gradual phase-in of real estate taxes at a reduced rate which is tied to the co-op’s income rather than the open real estate market (which has recently skyrocketed in that part of Manhattan). But the lure of windfall profits that might accrue to the current occupants if the development went from a limited equity cooperative to market rate casts a long shadow on Penn South’s future. Other similar co-ops in New York have already been privatised. Fifteen years ago when the most recent vote on Penn South’s future was taken, an overwhelming majority of residents voted, and of those an overwhelming majority supported the co-op system. But that guarantees the current status only until 2022 under the current contract with the City. Determined to keep the commercialization at bay, the management recently evicted a cooperator who used his apartment as an AirB&B. For now, Penn South is safe as a co-op for the middle class and low-income New Yorkers. I hope that it will continue that way.

The reality is that the market cannot produce affordability in affluent cosmopolitan cities like New York. The best it can do is to set aside token “affordable” apartments which are subsidised by more affluent neighbours. And the market certainly cannot produce a thriving community of people who together build a collective good life. Progressive cities that wish to address consumption, inequality and quality of life must confront this reality. This is an opportunity for municipalities but also a great challenge. The dominant financial model of ownership, profit, and management is misaligned with progressive municipal social agendas and needs to be radically changed. But this will require a vision and leadership from the non-governmental sector as well, partnering with a municipal government. With the labour unions in retreat, I find it hard to envision them taking on that role as ILGWU has over fifty years ago. Who, then?