Fighting Climate Change Is About to Get Personal

By Barbara Miller

Drive less. Walk or bike more. Take the bus. These have been the mantras of environmentally concerned citizens for years.  

Many of us have been cheering from the grandstand. And it’s easy to cheer when the major efforts to counter climate change have been directed at corporate energy suppliers and auto manufacturers. The results might cost us a little more or limit our choices but they don’t necessarily impact how we go about our daily tasks. In some cases, improvements in the technology and scale of solar and wind power have made costs go down -- which makes the cheering morph to a standing O. Easy peasy for you and me.

But a time may be coming soon when cheering won’t be enough.  

With the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, the challenge to make further reductions in carbon emissions is reverting to state and city governments, which have always been ahead of the Feds; many are rising to the challenge because they’ve seen, appreciated and measured improvements to air and water quality. And their citizens like the results.

Evanston embraced the challenge way before the Federal government walked away.  We set emission reduction goals and have made excellent progress. The Mayor’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan Working Group is charged with figuring out our next steps. It won’t be easy. The low hanging fruit is mostly picked.  

Check out this recent CityLab article on how cities can fight climate change.


How is Evanston doing?

1.     Build Housing Near Transit

Check. Doing that. We even had a 90 year head start!  All those 1920’s era apartments in southeast Evanston were transit oriented development (TOD) before the term was coined or our current decision makers were born. The challenges now seem to be how much, how high and how affordable. But TOD doesn’t work so well if all the new residents bring cars with them and expect to park them somewhere.

2.     Create Transit Options People Like

Mixed bag. Not a lot of creativity going on. Fixed lines like Metra and the “L” work pretty well and most people seem satisfied with those. Buses? East-west? West Evanston? Timing? Not so much.  The popularity of Uber and Lyft may be sending us in the opposite direction as our culture trends towards “on demand” everything and away from fixed schedules.

3.     Make Buildings More Energy Efficient

Working on it. Evanston has introduced programs to encourage energy efficiency at the governmental, commercial and residential levels. We’ve introduced benchmarking for energy and water use in larger buildings.

4.     Rethink Driving

Not so good. Estimates indicate that the share of commuters who bike to work is 3.7%, walking is 9.4% and transit is 18.4% -- so there is plenty of room for improvement. Given the daily congestion on (mostly) the east-west routes in/out of town at rush hour, it feels like more people are driving than 59.4%.  And mutually respectful behavior among motorists, cyclists and pedestrians happens only some of the time. We also seem to be perpetually conflicted as a community when safer biking infrastructure vies with parking and traffic flow for space on our streets.

5.     Invest in Renewables and Electric Vehicles

Working on it. Evanston just recommitted to renewable electricity sources. About two-thirds of residents participate in the community choice aggregation program. The City also provides a number of electric vehicle charging/parking stations around town.


Conclusion --  City governments can do quite a bit to fight climate change through purchasing decisions, ordinances, zoning and economic incentives. Evanston’s track record is pretty good -- especially on items 1, 3 and 5, which don’t require individuals to modify their personal transportation habits. If we as a community want to significantly reduce carbon emissions further, we’re going to have to tackle items 2 and 4 to help and encourage individuals to rethink how they get to work, school, parks and the grocery store. Drive less. Walk or bike more. Use transit.