The Future is Brilliant

Imagine getting off a plane straight out of a sci-fi movie, borrowing an electric car like a library book, and cruising a metropolis reverse-engineered to be as cozy as an Old World hamlet. All this and more is right around the corner.

SMART LITTLE FELLA: MIT's City Car electric vehicle, currently in development, would fold, stack, predict traffic, know its users, and be part of a self-serve rental system with pick-up/drop-off/recharge points scattered throughout metropolises all over the globe. The lightweight auto would reach 55 miles per hour, with a range of 50 to 75 miles per charge.

Reinventing the Apple

Greening New York

Green Technology
(Illustration by +ISM)

The Ten-Second Take
"Only New Yorkers know what they need, but every city is going to be looking for innovations like these in the future—whether they want to or not. New York's just getting a jump on things."
—TOM POTTER, mayor of Portland, Oregon, the most bike-and-pedestrian-friendly metropolitan area in the U.S.
GREEN-O-METER: 3

Recently, a New Yorker (let's call him Tim) was forced off a sidewalk by a double-wide stroller, a large dog, and an elderly pedestrian all traveling abreast. So he shimmied between parked cars, nearly collided with a bike messenger going the wrong way up a one-way street, and walked through the exhaust-choked margin of the avenue while fantasizing about a future in which New York City's clogged streets are reconfigured in favor of pedestrians and cyclists. A pipe dream? Nope, and you can thank advocacy/watchdog group Transportation Alternatives.

New York is a walker's city, but its streets, which represent 85 percent of its public space, are monopolized by the fume-spewing, driving minority. "For so many years, the streets have just been for cars, like NASCAR speedways," says Paul Steely White, TA's executive director. "We're trying to reclaim the city for the people." How? Well, thanks in part to TA's dogged pursuit of transportation reform, the city recently took a major step forward by retaining the services of the godfather of anti-automobile urbanism: Copenhagen-based urban designer Jan Gehl, whose Gehl Architects has helped draft plans for Stockholm, Melbourne, and, most famously, London. Gehl is now in the midst of an American invasion, having signed on to consult not only for New York but for Seattle and, possibly, San Francisco. The first step, he says, is getting people to think anew about urban life. "We can talk about it in terms of ingrown habits," he says. "Many people don't ask for changes because they don't know that changes are possible."

But NYC's hiring of Gehl's team is indicative of a general upsurge in both awareness of the need for change and the city's willingness to take action. In April 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled PlaNYC 2030, an ambitious 127-point strategy for the greening of the city, including ample transportation and public-space reforms. Already, pilot projects have been implemented all over New York to show people what the near future might look like: new painted, protected bike lanes on Ninth Avenue; dedicated bus lanes in Midtown; countdown signals at crosswalks; HOV/bus lanes on the Manhattan Bridge; landscaped pedestrian islands in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza; a lot more bike racks.

And even Bloomberg's controversial proposal for a London-style congestion charge ($8 to drive into Manhattan) has its supporters. According to White, "A year ago, congestion pricing was impossible, all this other stuff was impossible, but now it's a very fluid situation, and that's exciting." Gehl sees progress, too. "In New York, they are beginning to ask the right questions," he says. "What do we have cities for? Is it for getting from A to B or is it for developing the culture?" In his estimation, New Yorkers already know the answer: "The 21st-century lifestyle has arrived in New York, but, apart from the great parks, the spaces have not been developed to accommodate it. Yet."

Pedestrian Plan
1. I'M WALKIN' HERE!: Even, level sidewalks should be at least 20 feet wide to allow ample room for pedestrians and enough space for people to stop and chat or look in shop windows without causing a pileup.

2. BIKER ALLEY: Creating a safe, welcoming environment for city cyclists begins with bike lanes painted a noticeable color (green in the Manhattan and Brooklyn pilot projects) and separated from traffic by parked cars or flexible bollards where possible.

3. NO PARKING: Free and cheap parking will have to be severely cut back. "You can essentially store your property in this public space that could be used so much more productively," says White. Selective removal of on-street parking will discourage car use and recapture space for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, bike parking, plantings, sitting areas, and even taxi stands.

4. EXTRA PROTECTION: Extending the medians through the crosswalks, in effect creating a protective bracket on the side of the crosswalk exposed to traffic, keeps pedestrians safe, gives them a mid-crossing refuge, and keeps traffic from cutting too close to the medians. Bollards serve as both a visible marker and physical barrier.

5. A WIDE SWATH: "We need to have extended, exclusive pedestrian crossing time," says White, "so people aren't molested by turning vehicles." Crosswalks should be clearly and uniformly marked, with signals recalibrated to a walking rate of 2.5 feet per second to give enough time to the elderly, young, and disabled.

6. LOOKOUT: The installation of both red-light and speed cameras, particularly in high-traffic areas, will keep motorists to slow, pedestrian-safe speeds.

7. LOUNGE AREAS: Encouraging cycling will require more bike racks and bike parking; making the streets safer for pedestrians will require more bollards and better lighting for sidewalks; and benches, tables, and other places to watch the world go by will foster community in public spaces.

8. STRIP GARDENS: Raised and widened medians with plantings serve as refuge, help "calm" traffic, and give the street a boulevard-like feel.

9. CURB ENTHUSIASM: "Bumping out" intersections with curb extensions and bollards (rigid three-foot posts) means safer streets, narrowing crossing distances, making pedestrians and cars more visible to each other, and keeping traffic in line. They should feature on the corners of high-traffic streets.

No Car? No Problem.

Introducing the City Car

Green Technology
City Car (Franco Vairani/MIT Cities Group)

The Ten-Second Take
"I'm impressed. Its adoption will help to mitigate climate change and urban congestion—and even make the roads safer, since you can see around it."
—MATTHEW E. KAHN, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and the author of Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment
GREEN-O-METER: 5

If William Mitchell gets his way, the ubiquitous gas guzzler may not be long for this world—or could at least suffer a drastic reduction in numbers worldwide. The director of MIT's Smart Cities interdisciplinary research group says he has the luxury of tackling big stupid problems by "stepping back and asking the big stupid questions." Exhibit A: He and his team have developed a foldable, stackable, rentable electric car they hope will revolutionize urban transportation. Each joystick-controlled City Car would be part of a system with rental "docks" scattered all over town, specifically near transit hubs like subway and train stations. Just swipe a card and go.

1. ONBOARD BRAIN: These computers on wheels will "learn" as they go, monitoring traffic, weather, and so forth. Interior screens will reflect users' preset preferences, recognized via a swiped card. You'll be able to personalize the handling, display, and possibly even color. "For a shared-use system to work, you need sophisticated information technology," says Mitchell. A fully functioning City Car prototype—needing one-eighth the parking space of an SUV—could be finished by next year.

2. VISIONARY WHEELS: Since the folding car is joystick-controlled and recharges when it stops, there's no need for a steering column or bulky battery bank. Instead, the team created computerized, omnidirectional "wheel robots"—self-contained accelerating, braking, suspension, and four-wheel-independent-steering units with motors powered by lithium-ion batteries and a range of 50 to 75 miles per charge. Mitchell hopes to wrap them with airless, flat-proof Michelin Tweels, which would feature a honeycomb of polyurethane spokes. The motors may be capable of 190 miles per hour, but the plan is to cap the speed at 55.

Sky Scrubbers

Capturing carbon for resale

The Ten-Second Take
"Trees and plants have been using free solar radiation for millennia, but the technology has to demonstrate that it is environmentally better than planting and burying biomass."
—KELLY THAMBIMUTHU, CEO of Australia's Centre for Low Emission Technology and lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report on the capture and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide
GREEN-O-METER: 3
Green Technology

Face it: Most of us are fossil-fuel junkies, and that's not gonna change anytime soon. Enter Columbia University physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner, of Tucson-based Global Research Technologies, who's currently developing a "carbon air trap" system, the idea being to outfit vast rural fields and other places with large filters that would gather carbon in the air, pump it into subterranean reservoirs, and sell it. Critics charge that costs for such a setup would be enormous and that energy requirements are unrealistic. But Lackner counters that governments may put a price on captured carbon and that new technologies could allow the carbon to be pumped to factories where it would be converted to synthetic fuel, closing the carbon loop. A pre-prototype filter has been built, and GRT plans to have a working field up within the next few years. Says Lackner, "This is not an idea you can prove except by doing."

1. VEXING ISSUE: The average U.S. car spews about 6,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. Roughly 40 percent of the 51.7 trillion pounds of CO2 emitted globally every year comes from big polluters like transportation and agriculture, the rest from point sources like power plants, where CO2 could easily be captured before leaving the smokestack.

2. REMOTE ACCESS: Carbon-capture devices need not be in close proximity to polluting sources. A field in west Texas could capture emissions from, say, a Rio-to-Paris nonstop, traffic in Jakarta, and a Beijing steel factory. It's all in the mix.

3. SUCKING WIND: Surfaces coated with a sorbent will trap CO2 in the air. Water running past will wash the mixture to a tank, where the sorbent can be separated from the CO2 by electrolysis and then recycled. After separation, the CO2 will be piped off to be compressed and pumped down into sealed reservoirs miles below—and put on the market.

The New Green Monster

Baseball parks go green

Green Technology
New Washington Nationals stadium (HOK Sport)

The Ten-Second Take
"A great beginning. And imagine the next steps, from totally renewable power to scoreboards that show the stadium's environmental performance, challenging other franchises to meet these standards."
—DAVID ORR, professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College and author of Design on the Edge: The Making of a High Performance Building and The Nature of Design
GREEN-O-METER: 4

When it came time for Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals to make plans to move out of 46-year-old RFK Stadium, progressive Kansas City, Missouri–based architecture firm HOK Sport and D.C.'s Devrouax + Purnell Architects were tapped to design a $611 million, 41,000-seat stadium with a focus on minimizing environmental impact as much as possible. Set to open March 30, the new Nationals Park, which is easily accessed via multiple bike, bus, and train routes—and possibly water taxis—will discourage car traffic with its scant 1,200 parking spaces, 5 percent of which will be reserved for carpoolers and hybrids. And that's just to start. Full LEED certification is imminent. According to HOK project manager Susan Klumpp, "it's the wave of the future." And, apparently, a home run.

1. COOL RUNNING: Compared with a traditional stadium of its size, the Nats' new home is a hopeless miser: Low-flow plumbing will reduce water consumption by 37 percent, saving 3.6 million gallons a year; fancy lighting will use 21 percent less power; the walls are highly thermally efficient; and a massive recycling initiative is in place.

2. BUILT TO PLEASE: Using low-VOC (volatile organic compound) adhesives, glues, and paints and local building materials reduced environmental impact and transportation costs and emissions. Roughly 5,500 tons of construction waste was recycled, and the structure may feature as much as 20 percent recycled content. And to lessen the strain on the nearby Anacostia and Potomac rivers, an intricate system made up of five 40-by-20-foot filters will catch organic debris, detergents, and the like in the wastewater.

3. SITE NOW SOUND: The stadium's 19 acres, once occupied by industrial facilities, was extremely polluted, but all contaminated soil was removed, and the groundwater is being treated. The site will now be liberally sprinkled with cherry trees—a grove will stand behind the outfield bleachers—and drought-resistant shrubs to eliminate the need for irrigation.

Aerodynamo

Airplanes get a green makeover

Green Technology
(Illustration by +ISM)

The Ten-Second Take
"The 50 percent increased efficiency would be a massive step forward for the industry and the environment, with the potential to save millions of gallons of fuel."
—MICHAEL MILLER, CEO of Green Skies, which consults with the aviation industry in an effort to promote environmental responsibility
GREEN-O-METER: 3.5

A jet quieter than your washer, with greater fuel efficiency per capita than a Toyota Prius? Sounds like science fiction. But don't tell Boeing, who—with some help from the Air Force and NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program—is developing the ultra-streamlined blended-wing-body aircraft that are set to revolutionize aviation in the decades to come. Though a scaled-down model dubbed the X-48B was flight-tested by Boeing last July, and BWBs may be flying military missions by 2020, for us civilians it might be 30 years before takeoff. "We're still years away from a full-scale aircraft," says Norm Princen, chief engineer of the X-48B, "but blended-wing-body technology has enormous green potential—a low-noise, low-fuel-burn, and low-carbon-emissions aircraft all rolled into one."

1. GOOD IDEAS: Dozens of airlines have retrofitted fleets with "winglets," similar to the vertical wingtips seen here. These small airfoils reduce drag—and can increase fuel efficiency by 2 to 5 percent. And the Airbus A380, flying commercially since last October, and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to begin service this November, feature lighter frames, smaller, quieter engines, and more aerodynamic designs.

2. BIG AMBITIONS: Even the largest BWBs, with 240-foot wingspans, will be up to 50 percent more efficient than some of today's commercial aircraft and seat up to 800 passengers in the middle of the fuselage. And the sleek form and built-in engines will damp and block noise, meaning a plane more than ten times quieter than today's least obnoxious commercial jet.

3. SHARP SHAPE: With no flaps or tail and a low-profile undercarriage, the integrated fuselage and wings will significantly cut air resistance and, possibly, weight, which might allow for smaller engines and make for a greatly improved lift-to-drag ratio. Eventually, BWBs may be able to reduce fuel burn and emissions by 50 percent.

Filed To: Culture / New York City
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