KunstlerCast: Personal Transit & Green Buildings (Transcript)

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The following is a transcript of KunstlerCast #13: Personal Transit & Green Buildings. You can listen to and subscribe to this weekly audio podcast at KunstlerCast.com.

[Intro music]

Duncan Crary (as host): You’re listening to the KunsterCast, a weekly conversation about the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl featuring James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and World Made by Hand.

I’m Duncan Crary. Today’s topic: personal transportation and sustainable green building.

Today’s program is in special partnership with Planetizen. Visit them online at Planetizen.com.

Duncan Crary (in interview): Hey, Jim.

James Howard Kunstler: Hey, Duncan.

Duncan Crary: The Planetizen folks are back again for another special cross-promotional podcast.

James Howard Kunstler: Do they get here in some kind of UFO from their planet? Is that a planet they’re on?

Duncan Crary: They arrive in MP3 format.

James Howard Kunstler: Is that Planet Zen? Are they all Zen Masters?

Duncan Crary: It took me awhile to figure out how to pronounce Planetizen.

James Howard Kunstler: Man, I didn’t know until, you know I–I’ve been writing for them for like four years. I still don’t know how to pronounce it. So, I’m glad you told me.

Duncan Crary: Yeah, Planetizen. OK, anyway…

James Howard Kunstler: I thought it was like Planet Citizen, or something like that. I was having some kind of a, you know, learning disability thing.

Nate Berg (recording): Hi, I’m Nate Berg, assistant editor at Planetizen, the leading news and information website for the urban planning, design and development community. You can keep track of the latest news, views and issues in urban planning and contribute to the conversation at Planetizen.com.

Here are some questions for James Howard Kunstler from the Planetizen editorial staff and also a few from Planetizen readers:

How do you feel about personal rapid transit, a pod-like automated transit systems that are being experimented with at London’s International Airport? Is this just another crazy idea or has its time come?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from the PRT guys and I’ve run into them at conferences. They seem to be a particular kind of crank. And, you know, I just don’t get it because it requires so much infrastructure and so–you know, you have to build these sort of trestle systems and…

It’s basically a monorail with your own personal monorail car pod in it. And… are they going to build trestles everywhere? I don’t really get the whole idea.

If we’re going to replace the car, why do it with something that’s not only like the car but not really as good as a car.

Duncan Crary: Yeah.

James Howard Kunstler: It just seems crazy. You know, the whole point ought to be that we need walkable cities, walkable towns, walkable neighborhoods. And to just invent another machine system for schlepping people around is nuts. And this one just requires so much built infrastructure, I just don’t see how it has a chance.

These guys have come up to me time and time again with their schemes and their booklets and their diagrams. And you know, I just think they’re crazy. It seems basically like a railroad that only carries one person per carriage. So where’s that at?

I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something.

Duncan Crary: I don’t know. It’s probably going to end up with the Segway, go the way of the Segway, right?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, the Segway was a very interesting kind of analog to that. You know, another personal transportation device that costs a huge amount of money, like $3,000 or something or more maybe. And was it better than a bicycle? It just seemed…

And also, the Segway was a good idea for people who are disabled, let’s say, for one reason or another; you know, too old. But the idea that normal people need a prosthetic extension for walking around, that was also kind of nuts.

Duncan Crary: I think Crocodile Dundee got it right when he was sort of looking at the escalator, like: people have this machine so you don’t have to walk upstairs and then they have to go work out on the Stairmaster? [laughs]

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah, pretty nice.

Duncan Crary: Let’s take that next question.

Nate Berg (recording): With the increasing popularity of green thinking and development and the rising notoriety of environmental rating systems like LED and LED for Neighborhood Development, how do you think cities and consumers are going to react to the cost of creating “sustainable” places?

James Howard Kunstler: Oh, boy. Well, that’s a mouthful. Let’s start out with an English lesson. Notoriety means to be notorious, as to be known for doing bad things. It’s not a reference to things that are just, you know, well known. So, OK, English lesson over.

There’s so much yammer about greening this and being green and you know, I just came back from a green kind of conference in Colorado. And everybody wants to be green. And I think that we are blowing a lot of green smoke up our ass. I think there’s an awful lot of misunderstanding and confusion about what we’re actually doing.

I have a friend here in this town who–a very dear friend—who was a hippy carpenter who morphed into a developer. And he did a green development, so-called, full of buildings that were impeccably built without any kind of artificial off-gassing insulation. (But the development still) is not connected to any other kind of civic activity or infrastructure.

To me, it seems a very self-defeating thing. And I think that there’s a lot of that going on.

There’s an idea that if you can build a quote “green” house–you know, a house that is made of good quality, pristine, safe, healthy materials that you really have solved the problem. But the problem is a problem of urbanism, not individual houses. It’s a problem of how the buildings relate to each other and their context and how the whole thing works together as an ensemble.

So, I’m not very impressed with the so-called green thinking that I see. A lot of it, by the way, is being applied to skyscrapers. And I don’t see anything green about the whole concept of a skyscraper. I think that everything about them implies enormous externalities of cost and the likelihood that they’re not going to work very well under any circumstances given our power situations.

Duncan Crary: The second part of the question was, “How do you think cities and consumers are going to react to the cost of creating quote ’sustainable’ places?”

James Howard Kunstler: Well, let me begin by revisiting my campaign to abolish the word “consumer” from our discussions about these things. It’s a very unuseful, demeaning, degrading term to call ourselves consumers, because consumers have no obligations or duties or responsibilities to anything other than their desire to eat Cheez Doodles and drink Pepsi Cola.

We need to call ourselves something else. You know, maybe– I don’t know–citizens or something other than consumers; very bad word. Because it also suggests that remaining a consumer society is a desirable end. And I think that that has caused a huge amount of mischief.

So, now what was the rest of that question?

Duncan Crary: Well, it’s just asking: how are citizens–using your term–going to react to the cost of creating “sustainable” places?

James Howard Kunstler: I’m not sure that we’re even going to have a lot of money to spend on new forms of public transit or retooling or retro-fitting things that currently exist. It’s mostly going to be a question of how do you get people out of their cars and walking? And how do you create an environment that is rewarding for walking in that isn’t absolutely horrible and invoking fear and making people uncomfortable.

You know I was having a talk with one of my best friends today about–there’s a shopping center that was retooled in the asteroid belt of Albany, New York. It was actually the first big shopping center of the ’60s. And then it went into decline and it had a really bad decade, and then they’ve gone and poured a whole lot of money into it again, and they’ve pedestrianized it a little bit–they’ve built some sidewalks around the perimeter and down the road that it’s on, et cetera et cetera.

But it’s still not really a very nice rewarding journey to go down that sidewalk. They built the sidewalk, but to be on that sidewalk next to an eight-laner–or whatever the hell it is–is really a frightful experience. So we’re trying to get there by fits and starts and we’ve got a long way to go to make this stuff work.

Duncan Crary: OK, and here’s one more:

Nate Berg (recording): Rising oil prices have seemed to serve as a good impetus for getting people out of their cars. Public transit has seen higher ridership in recent years and some areas are reporting record lows in gas consumption. Do you think this trend will continue as fuel efficiency increases and alternative energies allow driving without the guilt related to pollution? Or do you think people will revert to their car-happy habits when the costs fall back down and the emissions concerns fade away? And how do you see this transition affecting land use and development?

James Howard Kunstler: I’ve been to places where there are some impressive changes going on. For example: Dallas, Texas. They’ve built a light-rail line there about five or six years ago and they had very low expectations for it. But the ridership has really been quite high.

And to go along with it, there’s a long urban corridor in Dallas called the McKinney Avenue Corridor–I think it’s called–which has gotten a lot of apartments and condominiums along it along with retail on the ground floor and all of the ingredients necessary to create a walkable neighborhood.

They even have a pretty marvelous pedestrian and bike trail that runs on an old railroad right-of-way, that, if I remember correctly, there may even be an existing rail line on it, I’m not sure. But it runs quite a distance, kind of a parallel way of getting around on your bike or on foot or running. And the whole combination was pretty favorable. I got a pretty good impression of it. That was about two years ago.

Portland, Oregon is another place that made some really large investments in light-rail and I think those have proved to work out really wonderfully well.

Everywhere that we’ve seen it, really, the light-rail, I think, is paying off. Unfortunately there are still a lot of people who are stuck where they are in houses that they bought in the ’80s and ’90s and they’re not served by the rail and they don’t have a whole lot of choice.

We’re trying to kind of fix a development pattern that is a very unfavorable development pattern to begin with. I think some places are making a heroic effort, and in some places it’s working out better than others.

The Dallas thing is interesting. On the other hand, Dallas is in a very punishing climate. You can understand why people stay in their cars all the time, because it’s so hot there. Three of four months of the year it’s 90 degrees, 100 degrees every day. So it’s punishing to walk from point A to point B in a place like that. Unless it’s really compact-and I’m not sure they’re really getting there with as much compactness as they need–even though they’re building downtown buildings, multi-story buildings and condos, the blocks are probably too big and too long to traverse. The whole scale thing has really not been addressed.

Duncan Crary: OK, and the second part of this question is: Do you think people will revert to their car-happy habits when the costs fall back down?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, that is a question of whether the costs will fall back down and how far they’ll go and what the picture is with gasoline and oil. And I think it’s probably deceptive. The price of oil probably is going to ratchet around. It’ll go up a few steps, it’ll fall back a step, maybe fall back a few steps, and then notch up a few more steps. I do think that the overall trend line is going to continue to be upward. But, of course, price is not the only factor here.

Other people have made the case-and I think that it’s correct-that before too long, sooner rather than later, we’re going to have problems with spot shortages and regional shortages of refined product and diesel and gasoline. And that’s really going to be the thing that is going to get the attention of people. It’s not necessarily just going to be price.

Duncan Crary: OK, Jim, but there also is something about (the) psychology of Americans and driving. I showed you once an historical memoir of someone who was visiting Saratoga Springs in 1814 and was like, “American’s drive everywhere!” This was in the day of horse and carriages. But there’s something about hyper-individualism and just the American Way.

So, I think what they’re asking is: If we came up with some fuel that had lower emissions or some magic fuel, would American’s return to our happy motoring ways, even if, in the meantime, we’ve built better public transportation?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, that’s kind of a trick question, because I don’t really believe that there’s going to be a rescue remedy for happy motoring. I just don’t believe it. If there were, well, I have to say, I don’t think there’s any question that American’s would revert to their happy motoring habits. Why wouldn’t they? The system’s all set up for it.

I just consider it an idle wish. You can understand the wish. Once you’ve invested all of your nation’s wealth in a certain way of using your environment, there’s certainly going to be a huge desire to keep running it. And that’s exactly where we’re at.

But realistically I don’t think that any hypothetical “they” are going to quote “come up with,” a miracle rescue remedy for this thing.

Duncan Crary: Well, Jim, that was an ultra-fast Q & A round with you but I think you held your own, so thanks for doing it.

James Howard Kunstler: My head is still spinning.

Duncan Crary: [laughs] Those were some great questions…

James Howard Kunstler: It’s spinning like a planet of its own. Maybe I have my own Plan-Planetizanzin–how do you say that?

Duncan Crary: Planetizen.

James Howard Kunstler: Planetizen.

Duncan Crary: So, all you KunstlerCast listeners, if you haven’t been there, check out Planetizen.com. Thanks a lot, Jim.

James Howard Kunstler: See you, Duncan.

Duncan Crary: You’ve been listening to the KunstlerCast, featuring James Howard Kunstler. To leave a listener comment, call toll free at 866-924-9499.

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