Home » Outdoors, Environment » Greenbelt Needs a Big, Dumb, Defining Idea

Greenbelt Needs a Big, Dumb, Defining Idea

 

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by Jeff Lemieux

Do you remember decades ago when Takoma Park, Md. declared itself a “nuclear-free zone”? The declaration generated both headlines and ridicule – it certainly created controversy and buzz.

You could say it was a cheap gimmick. On the other hand, I think it was a brilliant exercise in guerrilla town branding. It defined Takoma Park as a slightly loopy liberal activist community. Takoma Park has been benefiting from that brand ever since.

I think Greenbelt needs a similarly big, dumb, defining idea, to create controversy and bring attention to our city’s values. To attract new residents who wouldn’t otherwise consider living in Greenbelt, or even know we exist.

In my opinion, our unique history as a New Deal planned affordable town isn’t enough. Greenbelt has grown beyond its historic core, and not always for the better, at least aesthetically. Most people now visualize Greenbelt as an exit off the highway, or a generic strip mall surrounded by vast parking lots, or a pod of suburban office towers that has seen better days. Despite our history, Greenbelt doesn’t have a buzz anymore. People don’t see us as the hip, leafy, affordable, high-education community that we are. (OK, maybe we’re not hip.)

But we can easily fix our image and restore our buzz with a cheap, defining gimmick of our own.

To put the “Green” back in Greenbelt, Greenbelt should enact an outrageously ambitious and controversial environmental law.

We should ban (that’s right, ban) the use of internal combustion engines within the city, with a phase-in period of 15 years. As battery technology continues to improve, this goal isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.

Start by phasing out the most polluting two-stroke engines, like those ridiculously smelly gas-powered leaf blowers and weedwackers. Yay!  Gradually replace the city’s gas and diesel trucks as they depreciate. Over time, figure out how to do the public works jobs with electric vehicles.

For internal combustion cars and trucks on city streets, we should charge an “air-pollution toll” of 25 cents, gradually increasing to $1 over the 15-year phase-in period. Just a nuisance fee, but it would add up over time.

The fee could be collected remotely via EZPass at tolling sites around the city, on roads big and small. The city could just send an invoice for cars caught by the toll cameras who didn’t have EZPass. Drivers who fail to use their EZPass or ignore the invoices had better watch out! If they get pulled over in Greenbelt, they’d be liable for all their accumulated tolls! (As a side effect, this could lead to much safer driving within the city limits!)

So cue the outrage! Launch the lawsuits! Let the debate begin! Of course, Metrobuses and UMD buses would cry that their smelly buses shouldn’t pay. Delivery companies would cry that their smelly trucks shouldn’t pay. And so on, and on, and on.

Greenbelt is at a crossroads of huge highways and strip roads. We breathe a lot of air pollution from cars and trucks, some of which are serving us, and others that are just passing through Greenbelt on their way somewhere else. Either way, their internal combustion exhaust fumes create what economists call that an “externality” – that is, a cost imposed on others. Don’t like our toll? Fine, don’t drive through Greenbelt.

Let the fossil fuel industry explain why they shouldn’t have to pay us for the externality of poisonous air pollution they spew in Greenbelt. Let the state highway administration and our county transportation officials explain why Greenbelters’ health and clean air is less important than letting drivers dump exhaust fumes into our air like an open sewer. Put the onus on the polluters to fight the fees and strike down the ban.

Over the years, I’ve written articles suggesting smaller incremental improvements for Greenbelt: a trail from ERHS to NASA, re-purposed empty parking lots, a fixed bike trail, solar farms, and so on.

And it’s true in Greenbelt, we’ve already made progress against greenhouse gas pollution and global warming by cultivating as many trees as possible. But we could do much more.

Now it’s time to cast incrementalism aside. Greenbelt needs to go big.

We need a big, dumb, capital-G Green idea to re-define Greenbelt! Let’s impose the first local air pollution toll on stinky internal combustion engines and ban them outright within 15 years. It would be a good fight to fight, and a great result if we could pull it off!

Disclosure: the author’s family owns a car that burns only gas and another that’s a plug-in EV/hybrid. So we’d pay the toll and face the ban too, at least on one of the cars.

11 Responses

  1. Lin
    | Reply

    Interesting idea. Are there any other ways to improve air quality in Greenbelt as well?

  2. Jeff lemieux
    | Reply

    Hi Lin. The federal government seems pretty bought off by fossil fuel industry so I think ultimately states and local govemnments are going to have to do more to protect their rights to clean air. Electricfying as many energy uses as possible and then figuring out how to generate or bring in electricity from cleaner sources will be key.

    Obviously I don’t expect our current city council to do anything much. Their motto is “geriatric stasis.” But it’s good to start think how smaller towns and cities could take leadership to protect their environment and I like to try to get people at least thinking about it. Maybe 15 years from now we will be in a position to actually do something. Or if climate change accelerates we might be forced to! Jeff

  3. Jean
    | Reply

    Brilliant!

  4. Juan Haro
    | Reply

    Really interesting idea, but I think is lacking one very important point. To get a better environment, a better place, greener and cleaner, would be necessary to encourage people not to use their own vehicle as much as these are used right now. In order to accomplish this very difficult suicidal conversion, a much better public transportation system would be needed, like a team system which will connect different parts of Greenbelt with other mass transit utilities, like the metro (both green and orange and future purple lines) These new public transportation systems would be capable to connect the other mass transit facilities in a quick way, so people don’t spend too much to reach the metro. Also, the system should be affordable, this means that driving your own car should be more expensive than using the public transportation, so it’s attractive.

    Right now, for my daily commutei would love to go by mass transportation, but if I do so I spend one hour extra or way and the cost is like for or five times higher.

  5. John Campanile
    | Reply

    Rather than a “banning” approach, how about a “proactive “ one? An ambitious 20-25 year plan to improve non-cumbustable transport – walking, biking and electric. New road projects to include clearly designated bike lanes, sidewalks where none exist currently. On top of a federal tax credit, a city-funded tax credit for the purchase of an electric vehicle, including power-assist bicycles/tricycles.
    I agree that smaller cities and municipalities can and should take the lead, short and long term. And Greenbelt residents need to remember its progressive history and vote accordingly come November (a short term solution).
    Great concept – make it big and knowing by doing so this will spark a lot of ideas. Thanks Jeff!

  6. A. Ashpes
    | Reply

    Think how clean our air and streets will be when they begin digging the MAGLEV tunnel and the dump trucks go back and forth continuously.

  7. Diana McFadden
    | Reply

    This is a great idea, Jeff! Combine it with John’s suggestion about a proactive approach as well.
    Would love to see the combustion engine phased out, with each “unit” replaced by one powered by electricity generated by renewable energy. This would reduce the sonic stink as well – i.e. Those annoying vehicles made noisier than they need to be, such as motorcycles with straight pipes, muscle cars, etc. There’s even a loud Mercedes around here….Makes an awful noise that takes all the class and cool out of that car. It’s a white Mercedes sedan I’ve seen around Court 38 Ridge. Why do that to a Mercedes?
    Bike lands of course!

  8. jeff lemieux
    | Reply

    And here comes the bad air quality, right on schedule:
    Air Quality Alert
    DCZ001-MDZ004-503-504-013-016>018-VAZ505-506-052>054-030400-
    DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA-FREDERICK MD-MONTGOMERY-PRINCE GEORGES-
    CHARLES-ST. MARYS-CALVERT-LOUDOUN-
    PRINCE WILLIAM/MANASSAS/MANASSAS PARK-FAIRFAX-
    ARLINGTON/FALLS CHURCH/ALEXANDRIA-
    440 PM EDT Tue May 1 2018

    …AIR QUALITY ALERT IS IN EFFECT FOR WEDNESDAY MAY 2 2018…

    The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in association
    with Maryland Department of the Environment, Virginia Department
    of Environmental Quality, and District Department of Environment
    has issued a Code ORANGE Air Quality Alert Wednesday for
    the DC metro area.

    A Code Orange Air Quality Alert means that air pollution
    concentrations within the region may become unhealthy for
    sensitive groups. Sensitive groups include children, people
    suffering from asthma, heart disease or other lung diseases and
    the elderly. The effects of air pollution can be minimized by
    avoiding strenuous activity or exercise outdoors.

    For more information on ground-level ozone and fine
    particles… visit http://www.cleanairpartners.net.

    $$

  9. jeff lemieux
    | Reply

    Air Quality Alert
    DCZ001-MDZ004-503-504-013-016>018-VAZ505-506-052>054-040400-
    DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA-FREDERICK MD-MONTGOMERY-PRINCE GEORGES-
    CHARLES-ST. MARYS-CALVERT-LOUDOUN-
    PRINCE WILLIAM/MANASSAS/MANASSAS PARK-FAIRFAX-
    ARLINGTON/FALLS CHURCH/ALEXANDRIA-
    442 PM EDT Wed May 2 2018

    …AIR QUALITY ALERT IS IN EFFECT FOR THURSDAY MAY 3 2018…

    The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in association
    with Maryland Department of the Environment, Virginia Department
    of Environmental Quality, and District Department of Environment
    has issued a Code ORANGE Air Quality Alert Thursday for
    the DC metro area.

    A Code Orange Air Quality Alert means that air pollution
    concentrations within the region may become unhealthy for
    sensitive groups. Sensitive groups include children, people
    suffering from asthma, heart disease or other lung diseases and
    the elderly. The effects of air pollution can be minimized by
    avoiding strenuous activity or exercise outdoors.

    For more information on ground-level ozone and fine
    particles… visit http://www.cleanairpartners.net.

    $$

  10. Lore Rosenthal
    | Reply

    Jeff, in regards to this sentence (bel0w) . . . .Philippe Orlando and members of GCAN (Greenbelt Climate Action Network) already petitioned the city to get rid of fossil fuel use in landscaping equipment. We got an extensive report back (and sent them a few more questions). They are slowly phasing out the two-stroke engines as you mentioned and moving to all-electric.

    “Start by phasing out the most polluting two-stroke engines, like those ridiculously smelly gas-powered leaf blowers and weedwackers. Yay! Gradually replace the city’s gas and diesel trucks as they depreciate. Over time, figure out how to do the public works jobs with electric vehicles.”

  11. Sandra Roberts
    | Reply

    I have also thought it would benefit us to have our gas powered vehicles in an outlying parking lot and then have an electric powered “jitney” that would circulate throughout Greenbelt to deliver folks from parking to wherever in Old Greenbelt they wished to go. We would build more community as we get to know our other neighbors on the jitney and we would be more likely to plan our gas vehicle trips to be more efficient. I for one would be more inclined to walk from one location to another.

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