The City of Minneapolis has declared a climate emergency. What does it mean to be in a state of emergency? If you’re having a health emergency, you ride in an ambulance with sirens blaring. The normal rules of the road are suspended as drivers get out of the way. When your house is on fire, a fire truck races towards you, blasting through red lights as you stop, drop and roll. An emergency means you drop what you’re doing and put all your efforts towards solving the problem at hand. It’s a pretty simple concept, right?
The climate emergency was on my mind when I received a letter in the mail that began with the ominous words “Dear Minneapolis taxpayer” and went on to inform me of a $7 million street resurfacing project in my neighborhood. This is the kind of letter that usually causes my eyes to glaze over. This time, though, I perked up. Wait a minute, I thought, we’re in the middle of a climate emergency and I’m paying to extend the status quo of asphalt-covered residential streets with free parking? Transportation is a huge contributor to climate breakdown in our city and in our state. All that pavement for driving and car storage contributes to the urban heat island effect and prevents rain water from seeping into the ground, making us more vulnerable as the temperature rises and rain storms become stronger and more frequent. The cars and trucks we drive on top of the pavement spew out noxious gases that harm our health while also warming the planet. The City of Minneapolis has included climate change in the Transportation Action Plan–the City knows that our transportation system is contributing to the climate crisis and making us vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Additionally, the City has declared that we’ve got a climate emergency on our hands that “demands a massive-scale mobilization to halt, reverse and address the consequences and causes of climate change.” So, where’s the stop, drop and roll?
Because my fear of the climate crisis is stronger than my dread of attending a potentially tedious public meeting, I headed over to my neighborhood recreation center for the street repaving informational session with Public Works. I waited as neighbors asked questions about coordination with utilities and such, and then I had a chance to ask my question. “Can you tell me about the climate impact of the street resurfacing program? I’m curious what the carbon cost of the project is, and how you might reduce that cost.” A city engineer stared at me as if I had asked my question in another language. “What? Can you repeat that?” he said, though I had spoken loudly and clearly. “The City of Minneapolis has declared a climate emergency. You’ve told us what the monetary cost of the project is, and I’d like to know the carbon cost,” I clarified. Still looking completely perplexed, he conferred with his fellow Public Works employees, and said “I have no idea. No one has ever asked me that before.” And then he moved onto the next question. A few neighbors gave me a thumbs up for asking the question, which made me feel a little less like a Martian in a skin suit.
We’ve got ten years to drastically cut our emissions, and we’re not going to get there by conducting business as usual like this. When your house is on fire, you don’t continue cooking dinner while you wait for the fire truck to arrive. You turn off the stove, grab your cat and run out of the house, and leave the stir fry for later.
In a way, it’s actually kind of exciting that the City does not appear to be considering the climate impact of routine public expenditures like my neighborhood street resurfacing program. Far from exhausting all our options in the fight against climate change, we have tons of untapped potential to cut our emissions and increase our resilience. The climate emergency doesn’t necessarily require a huge amount of new funding or an entirely new city department–instead, it requires us to bring climate considerations to the forefront of all the seemingly mundane work we’re already doing. Every time we spend a dollar (or $7 million) of public money, we have an opportunity and a moral imperative to respond to the climate emergency. We know our communal house is on fire, and it’s time we started taking that into account in all our decisions.
Thank you for asking this very important question.
Excellent article, thanks Maria. We need change, immediately.
What’s the solution? Don’t repair roads? Remove all of them?
Reduce their size. Add more boulevard space, plantings, rain catchments. Our roads are severely overbuilt, especially residential ones that serve mostly as de facto parking lots.
Yes, and also make them friendlier to getting around without a car – curb extensions, bike facilities, etc. – some of which the city might already be doing.
The solution depends on having an understanding of the problem. Right now, the city has no idea what the climate impact of street resurfacing is. So we don’t know if the impact is small or large, negative or positive. If the city is using climate-positive construction practices and materials (like cold in-place asphalt recycling or concrete that captures CO2), perhaps the climate impact is small. If they’re using conventional methods and materials, perhaps it is large. Depending on what we find out about the climate impact, I could see a whole range of solutions, from implementing climate-positive construction practices/materials to including the installation of green infrastructure in the repaving program to fully or partially depaving some roadways and converting them into parks.
The problem is too many vehicles traveling too many miles. The traffic engineers, whether with the City, County, State or Federal agencies, or at some institute of “transportation” studies, not only ignore the problem, they exacerbate it.
The goal of the traffic engineers is not to reduce traffic or pollution or pavement or collisions or spending, but rather, just the opposite – to spend forever-increasing amounts of money moving forever-increasing volumes of vehicles a forever-increasing the number of miles. The goal of all these “transportation” projects is not to address any environmental or other quality of life issues, but rather, to continue spending forever-larger amounts on everything from the proverbial “roads and bridges” political jargon to hospitals to banks to auto dealerships to mega-malls to apartment complexes to big box retail to suburban office buildings to motel-conference centers to professional sports stadiums to gentrified urban core warehouse districts to University research centers and on and on – all at the end of a freeway ramp.
The growth-fixated economic model in general, and the road construction industry in particular, is a Ponzi scheme. An integral part of the scheme are academic institutions, where government agencies, the auto industry, the oil industry, the road construction industry and other business interests whose continued prosperity relies on perpetuating the Ponzi hand the corporate and political cronies the funds to produce the bogus studies that find we need more loony highway expansions.
Rather than getting one’s shorts in a bunch about a $7M project to repave a residential street, maybe it would be wise to look at the millions of dollars spent weekly, if not daily, just cleaning up the mess that surrounds the Humphrey Institute, where the collapse of a rusted, worn-out 35W bridge, not only didn’t wake up the rocket scientists at the U’s Center for Transportation Studies, it inspired them to leap on the opportunity to double-down on their insane road construction madness.
As anyone who’s been around for the last 20 or 30 or 40 or more years knows, every highway expansion, beginning with the 394 bottleneck boondoogle 30 years ago, if not sooner, has resulted in more traffic traveling at more dangerous speeds resulting in more collisions, more congestion, and more expense. Until the goal changes, from the never-ending “roads and bridges” Ponzi scheme to a sensible, economical way to reduce the number of vehicles and miles driven, we’re screwed.
This is such a great article! Thank you for raising this point here and at the meeting. Asking how free car storage impacts the climate is absolutely something the city needs to do with every street project.
Thank you for this excellent article! You’ve captured my thoughts as well in it and it makes me feel so much less alone in bringing these issues up in meetings that I’m in–and I’m so glad to hear that your neighbors got it!
Maria, thank you for writing this piece and asking a necessary question that absolutely needs answers. I know the City of Minneapolis means well in this declaration, but to be able to go deeper and do some in-depth analysis on current practices vs best practices are essential. Without understanding where change could be made, we cannot recommended or prescribe solutions. I’m curious to know if other cities have made declarations like this and what they are doing to put that intent into action.
We’ve got ten years to drastically cut our emissions, and we’re not going to get there by conducting business as usual like this.
And some tweak here or there about how we recycle toilet paper or use electric big wheels ain’t gonna do it.
China is responsible for more greenhouse emissions than the US, EU, sub-Saharan Africa AND India combined.
You can’t stop global warming if you don’t stop China.
It’s not that you’re wrong… China is hugely important. But if you look at per capita emissions, which seems like the #1 way to think about this, everything changes quite a lot. Deflecting isn’t ideal… We need to lead with China on the solution.
In the very same public meeting, I asked if the city could install permanent curb bumpouts at a successful plastic bollard bumpout pilot – to calm traffic and improve safety at an intersection located at a busy walking/bicycling entrance to a park (Brackett) and the Midtown Greenway.
Answer: that’s not in the scope of this project.
We have such a long way to go.
Keep asking the tough questions and we’ll keep inching the needle…
I agree that we need to get really serious about climate change, but I think we’re still a long way before there is genuine political will to do it. Because even though your average person is now concerned about CC, most people haven’t really come to grips with the massive lifestyle changes that are going to be needed. We are probably going to have to get to ZERO fossil fuel extraction, and rely much more heavily on energy we can generate in the present moment from wind, solar, hydro, biofuels and (yes) nuclear. That probably means:
We need to reduce driving. A LOT. Many if most people will have to stop driving altogether, or reserve it for special situations. No driving the kids to school every day or for grocery runs.
The vehicles that do remain are probably going to have to be electric (or at least biofuel-only, if still internal combustion). Not only are electric motors several times more efficient than combustion engines, but they’re more versatile in terms of where their energy ultimately comes from.
In order to get more people closer enough to most of the services they use so they can walk, bike or take transit there, most of us are going to have to live a LOT closer together, in smaller homes.
Our homes are going to have to get more energy efficient, and we’re going to have to give up some comfort at the same time. No more routinely heating all indoor spaces to 70 and cooling them to 70. There just won’t be enough energy available for everyone to keep doing this, and reducing our energy footprint to non-fossil sources is going to make energy very, VERY expensive compared to what we’re used to. Those who remain in full sized houses may have to get more like people who lived in old farmhouses used to do, heating only the rooms they are using, and most of the time only cooling sleeping spaces.
The only way to avoid the above bullet, and get enough non-fossil energy sources going to preserve something even remotely resembling our current lifestyle, is probably going to demand a massive investment in nuclear energy.
With more people living closer together, we need to rework our transportation system massively. That means stop expanding freeways, massively expand public transit, walkway and bikeway networks, start fully plowing sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, stop subsidizing driving and parking, and more.
I don’t think even most progressive, climate-woke people really comprehend what’s going to have to happen in order to get to (or, ideally, below) zero net carbon. Everyone’s life will change. Or, somewhere between a third and 90% of us will die of pestilence, famine, and war.