Eugene’s Emerald Express

Eugene, Oregon has a history of being proactive. Its residents seek to create a sustainable community and are well on their way to accomplishing this. This proactive spirit has inspired innovation in the Lane County Transit District with the emergence of the EmX bus rapid transit system (BRT). The EmX is a well-implemented addition to an already extensive bus system. In a large town with considerable sprawl, yet lacking the infrastructure for an electric rail system, the EmX is an appropriate fast-track transportation option along Eugene’s more heavily traveled avenue

 EmX is an abbreviation for Emerald Express (it’s pronounced M-X). The name was figured from the efficient express-like qualities of the BRT. The Lane Transit District website informs us the EmX began service in 2007 and had 1.5 million boarding’s in its first year; doubling the rider-ship of the standard buses that had originally run that route. The strong majority of the $24 million project was federally funded, a large incentive for the municipal government to proceed. The first EmX corridor runs from Eugene Station and along Franklin Boulevard, a busy street that perimeters the University of Oregon campus (this is a two-way route). EmX buses complete the nearly four-mile corridor trip in roughly 15 minutes according to the schedule. After two years of construction on a second corridor that is considerably longer than the first, a second route was added. It loops along the area’s largest hospital and also stops at the distant Gateway mall.

The Pioneer Parkway Corridor 

The EmX fleet consists of six hybrid electric-engine buses that are 60 feet in length. Because of its length the bus must be articulated; this means the middle of the bus is flexible. Each vehicle costs $960,000. EmX buses use a GM Allison Hybrid Engine; an engine that uses electric propulsion up to a certain energy output and then diesel fuel injection. According to Hybrid-Vehicles, kinetic energy produced by the diesel engine actually recharges its electric counterpart. This energy is also recaptured by kinetic energy produced by braking; in which 25% of the energy lost in the deceleration process is re-captured. When the bus is idle there are no emissions because the diesel fuel is not being used. When the bus accelerates there is little emission because it uses recaptured kinetic energy to propel the bus forward. The hybrid bus gets 2.9 mpg, a lesser fuel efficiency than a normal diesel engine, which gets about 4mpg. A lack of fuel efficiency is of course compensated for by a lesser use of fuel.

The EmX is timely and quick from stop to stop. It has an exclusive lane (corridor) with signal priority through intersections for most of its route. The hope is that the only time the bus stops will be to pick up and unload passengers. There is an off-bus fare system to quicken the process of boarding. Each stop has a fare box where passengers purchase their boarding pass to have it ready when their bus arrives.

EmX buses are very bike and handicap accessible; they have low floors (level boarding), wide entries/exits on either side of the bus, as well as a bike storage area. Reader boards and audio announcements signal the arrival of stops to avoid confusion. Having visual and auditory indication is also meant to prevent neglect of visually or hearing impaired people.  The bus has an extensive carrying capacity, between standing room and seating it can transport well over 100 people (Lane Transit District).

The city of Eugene is growing. Much of this growth is pushing the city boundaries, making vehicle travel more necessary. Lane County development has long followed segregated land use patterns in which neighborhoods are secluded from the commercial sectors and the commercial sectors themselves tend to be stretched geographically. The Center for Neighborhood Technology research group who is directly involved in the creation of the Travel Matters website, indicated Eugene and surrounding areas as having an above average annual output of carbon dioxide emissions. The spaced orientation of development in Lane County results in high VMT’s (vehicle miles traveled). Increased VMT’s directly result in more emissions and more traffic congestion. Traffic congestion in itself causes accumulation of greenhouse gases. Vehicles are either idle or moving slowly, unnecessary emissions that don’t even come with the trade-off of moving from point A to point B.

For a high population area with such sprawl it is important to have a good transit system. It offers opportunity to a low-income demographic that can’t afford a vehicle. Just as important, it spares the atmosphere thousands of pounds in greenhouse gas emissions. By my calculations, if even half of the EmX passengers taking the Franklin route on a given weekday were driving instead, it would produce 5, 240 more lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions.

Lane Transit District has high hopes for the future of the EmX and other innovative possibilities. Transit planners’ greatest ambitions are to build another corridor to expand to the Westside of town. The Westside of Eugene is an industrial section of town that sees perhaps more VMT’s than anywhere else in the county. An EmX corridor would offer a great convenience to drivers and non-drivers. It is estimated that rider-ship would near capacity during the weekdays. Unfortunately the project has been met with a lot of resistance. Local funding is a reflection of tough economic times and some of the public don’t see the value in the investment of another corridor.  


Incineration Not the Answer to Waste Problem

You can’t ignore the elephant in the room, and you can’t ignore a 3.5 square mile area in your community piled-high with garbage (much like the Fresh Kills Landfill in New York City) (CNN). The solid waste created by the billions of people on this planet has been building at an alarming rate, and continues to do so. Most everything we buy is packaged. Consumer cultures like things nice and neat, an assurance of cleanliness and newness. Once we consume our products we pawn off the left over material to our municipal trash and recycling service, which pawns off the waste to a recycling center or more likely a landfill. We would like to think that most recyclable waste is disposed of correctly, but in fact the EPA informs us that in 2010 the United States only recycled 34% of its total municipal waste generated. That’s a dramatic increase from 25 years prior when the total recycling rate was only 10%, but not so impressive when we learn that total waste generation more than doubled in that 25-year period. There are tens of thousands of square kilometers occupied by waste all over the world, an estimated 40,000 in the United States alone. Rachel Oliver (CNN journalist) explains that this is not just a problem for industrialized nations, though they are by far the largest generators of waste. Undeveloped nations have less waste, but no resources to treat it, leaving hazardous heaps out in the open on the outer boundaries of slums and communities.

Moving grate incinerator; capacity of 15 tonnes per hour.

How can we dispose of these miles of trash? How do we prevent future accumulation of more waste? Should we burn it? Historically, incinerating waste has been a viable option for disposal. Not only that, intensely hot steam released in the incineration process was harnessed to produce power. Solid waste incineration started in an increasingly industrialized Britain in the 1870’s. An inventor named Albert Fryer patented the design for the first incinerator (then called “destructors”) built in Nottingham in 1874 (The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management). New York City would soon after adopt the method of waste disposal, seeing it as the perfect solution to a building waste problem in the densely populated city. Incinerators were in operation for nearly a century without obligation to air control standards. It would be another twenty years before specific stringent standards would be enforced. Prior to the existence of the EPA (and equivalent European organizations), efforts to minimize incinerator pollution were limited to sorting of waste, pre-incineration drying of waste and a moving grate design for thorough elimination of waste. Despite an aptness for industrial ingenuity during that era, there was little understanding that incinerator design could be specified to different types of waste at different volumes, improving performance and reducing potency of by-product.

Political awareness of a need for better design was realized mid-20th Century, but all too late as the public perception of incinerator plants was one of disgust. Those living in near proximity of  incineration plants faced poor air quality, pungent odor and health problems. According to a study conducted by the British Journal of Cancer the closer the residents’ proximity to the incineration site the higher the occurrence and risk of multiple types of cancers and illnesses. Specifically, there was 37% excess cases of liver cancer and 5% excess cases of colorectal cancer in populations living within 0-1 km of incineration site. The study accounted for other potential causes including socioeconomic status.

Adverse health effects from prolonged exposure to incinerator by-product come as no shock when we consider the content of gases and ash produced: sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, cadmium, mercury, dioxins and furans. Certainly the worst among these are dioxins and furan, which are carcinogenic cancer-causing particulates. United Nations Environment Program claims that 69% of the world’s dioxin contamination is a result of waste incineration. However dioxin is also present in high levels in the herbicide 2-4-5-T. When used for warfare in Korea and Vietnam 2-4-5-T was nicknamed Agent Orange. It was released by aircrafts over large distances and in comparatively high volumes to destroy food supply and expose areas suspected of harboring enemy forces. Food was contaminated in affected areas and populations were exposed to concentrated levels of dioxin. Higher than normal rates of stillborn and premature births were reported by hospitals in affected areas; the same effects were seen amongst local animal populations. Upon their return home some U.S. Vietnam Veterans developed chloracne, a disease that causes eruption of the skin, numbness in extremities, respiratory problems, irritability, loss of sex drive, headache and depression. Many developed cancer and lesions of the skin as a result of ingestion or contact with concentrated levels of dioxin (Barbara Clayton).

Dioxin molecules are very stable; they reside in contacted areas for generations. Barbara Clayton’s article explains that in many cases the offspring of contaminated populations are born with minor to serious defects, including deformity and retardation. Families exposed to the clothing of the contaminated individuals sometimes contracted disease or illness characteristic of dioxin exposure years after the initial contamination.

Dioxins and furans are born of the chemical reaction that takes place when organic materials like wood and paper are incinerated at extremely high temperatures. It is present in both ash and gas by-product of incineration. The most modern technology for waste combustion that suppresses or contains flue gas, still releases particulates into the atmosphere and into the ground. Incinerator ash is often spread over landfills. Watershed problems in developed areas create the potential for this ash to be carried into food or water supplies, along with other hazardous substances residing in our landfills. We also raise concern for the workers exposed to this by-product day in and day out. Are they aware of the health risks they take by doing this work? Are their families aware?

It becomes clear to us that incineration cannot be a viable method of disposal, regardless of how strict pollution standards have become and how much more efficient incinerator design has become. Until there is incineration technology that can prevent the creation of dangerous chemicals and particulates, we can only use incineration to a very limited degree. There is a place for incinerators in the future of solid waste disposal with the elimination of health care waste. Contamination of medical equipment with infectious pathogens makes re-use dangerous. Extremely high temperatures are often the only way to destroy these pathogens.

Waste generation is not sustainable. We have created a mess that we aren’t sure how to clean up, at least not safely. Future emphasis concerning waste should be to avoid it all together. We can’t avoid waste completely, but we can reduce waste generation to a manageable point for future generations. A change in public attitude and commercial infrastructure are key to waste reduction. For example, because food production is centralized and distributed over long distances, packaging becomes necessary. Buying local can make packaging obsolete. The public effort should be directed towards maximizing recycling rates. Awareness should be raised of what materials can be re-used and it should be underlined that these materials be recycled every time. Recycling should be highly organized at state and municipal levels. It should also be thorough; items like abandoned furniture and electronics should be salvaged as much as possible. It will take a collective effort of this sort to avoid solid waste generation and thus the problems of disposal.

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Uniting for Change: Environmental Activism Against Deregulation

Mohondas Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Man has been a student to change over the course of his existence. As we come to understand ourselves as a unique species on this planet, our ideas change and then our ways of living. Some changes have come about subtly, but change has also been fought for and come about violently. There have been so many moments in history when a group of people have recognized the prevailing structures to be wrong or unjust, and then acted collectively. Power in numbers has always been understood as a determining factor in conflict. Traditionally though, it has been the militaristic threat of greater numbers. In this last century we have come to see that with some guidance the collective voices and actions of a people can carry a different kind of power without violent action; it is the power of righteousness.

Also in this last century, we have come to understand in great detail, the physical properties of the world we are born into. It has become clear that this industrial chapter of human existence coupled with a population explosion (so to speak) has strained our planet and continues to do so. We now realize (on a large scale) that our atmosphere is damaged. The planet is gradually warming, sea level is rising and fragile ecosystems are suffering. So, like many times before people have risen to the occasion to try and set things right. But environmental activists have always had their work cut out for them. The numbers have not always been on the activists’ side, nor have the politics.

The U.S. Government has a history of environmental regulation followed shortly thereafter by unannounced deregulation. The early 20th Century seemed promising for the future of America’s ecosystems. Areas of dense population were forced to face the consequences of aggressive industrial activity and high rates of consumption because it was literally right in their backyard. The Rivers and Harbors act of 1899 prevented the dumping of waste into “navigable” waters, and was a precursor to a solid twenty years of legislation aimed to conserve, preserve and protect our land. However since the Rivers and Harbors act of 1899, there has been a Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, Clean Water Act of 1977 and a Water Quality Act of 1987. If you check the track record of the Clean Air Act you will see roughly the same number of amendments and re-attempts. After all of that, the air and water within so many cities and small communities is far from clean and in some cases it is poisonous or lethal. This indicates a severe neglect to enforce these regulations, but perhaps “ignore” is a better word, as business interests become political interests and visa versa.

It was in the 1960’s, a time of changing culture and changing attitudes towards the powers that be, when grassroots environmentalists decided they must take matters into their own hands. A Boston College article on American environmentalism describes this movement, “The approach of modern environmentalism transformed from top-down control by technical and managerial leaders into bottom-up grassroots demands from citizens and citizen groups.” Among other environmental disasters of the time, it was a burning river in Cleveland that sparked a series of nationwide campaigns and protests. The heart of this grassroots movement lay with the youth, in a number of universities across nation. The very same demographic that caused such a stir in their relentless uprising for social justice in Vietnam and on the civil rights front, was simultaneously fighting for environmental responsibility. It was a very unique generation that seemed to embody the equality of all mankind and a connectedness to the natural world. It was also a generation that refused to be ignored. A youthful foundation of activists and environmental NGO’s were the spark that encouraged another string of federal regulation throughout the 1960’s aimed to protect and clean up our air, water and wilderness. In fact, activists were involved in the drafting of the renewed legislation.

The modern environmental movement went from grassroots to mainstream when on April 22, 1970 an estimated 20 million people across the nation took to the streets to celebrate the environment and demand its preservation on the first ever Earth Day. The movement was commended by political affiliations of all kinds (at least publicly), and brought a somewhat underground issue to the forefront of discussion. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was the one to initiate and organize this massive celebration. He would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton for his memorable efforts. It is said that Earth Day of 1970 was the reason that the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency the very same year.

An environmental activist’s work is never done though. Even after tightened regulation and the creation of the EPA, under the radar violations have gone unnoticed or ignored. Reagan himself dismissed the science tying acid rain in Canadian territory to heavy pollution from Midwestern industrial areas; subsequently denying the EPA funding for further research into its effects or possible prevention. New York Times published an article in 2009 on severe neglect of  clean water laws and the lack of consequence, “In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times…However the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment.” Lobbyists and large political action contributions buy a free pass form congress members allowing corporations to act as they please. On the political front there is a polarization of belief in the extent of global warming. Even though scientists everywhere have verified the effects of global warming, conservative ideals that have a large stake in congress continue to dismiss the issue. The government is now forced to cut funding to agencies of lower priority; the Republican Party believes the EPA to be on that list.

As long as democracy is the prevailing force in this country, it is the people who yield the greatest power. We are becoming much more environmentally conscious both in culture and in industry. Our collective actions to reduce a disproportionately large carbon footprint will make a difference simply because we are trying. Yet if hybrid cars and solar panels replace that grassroots spirit of activism, how much change will we really see for our future. We must remain vigilant of the activities of big business and the politics that support it. If anti-environmentalism is confronted in a unified manner then, as history shows, changes will be made for the better.

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