Week of 02/07/10

Dear EarthTalk: Short of massive efforts to build a public transportation infrastructure, which doesn’t appear likely anytime soon, what is being done to address traffic congestion, which is reaching absurd levels almost everywhere?

—John Daniels, Baltimore, MD

Traffic congestion has gotten way out of hand—and not just in developed countries anymore: Traffic jams and smog plague dozens of cities in China and in many other parts of the developing world. Here in the U.S., road congestion now causes commuters to spend an average of a full work week each year sitting in traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. While alternative modes of getting around are available, most of us still opt for our cars for the sake of convenience, comfort and privacy.

The most promising technique for reducing city traffic is called congestion pricing, whereby cities charge a toll on entering certain parts of town at certain times of day. The theory goes that, if the toll is high enough, some drivers will cancel their trips or opt for the bus or rails. And it seems to be working: The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) reports that Singapore, London, Stockholm and the three largest cities in Norway have reduced traffic and pollution in downtown areas thanks to congestion pricing.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to push for congestion pricing to ease traffic in Manhattan. The latest proposal—rejected by the State Legislature in 2008—called for an $8 toll to enter Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., with monies funding public transit maintenance and expansion.

Here in the U.S., road congestion now causes commuters to spend an average of a full work week each year sitting in traffic. Pictured: Traffic going in and out of New York City.© Antonio García Rodríguez, courtesy Flickr

Another way to reduce rush hour traffic is for employers to implement flex-time, which lets employees travel to and from work at off-peak traffic times to avoid rush hour. Those who must travel during busy times can do their part by carpooling. Employers can also subsidize employee mass transit costs, and/or allow more workers to telecommute (work from home) so as to keep more cars off the road altogether.

Some urban planners still believe that the best way to ease traffic congestion is to build fore roads—especially expressways that can take drivers around or over crowded city streets. But such techniques don’t really keep more cars off the road; they only accommodate more of them. Forward-thinking city planners, knowing that more and more drivers and cars are taking to the roads every day, are loathe to encourage more private automobiles when mass transit options are so much better for people and the environment.

And Americans are getting it. According to EDF, public transit usage has steadily risen since 1995, with Americans taking 10.7 billion public transportation trips—the largest number in a half century—in 2008. Light rail, hybrid buses and other promising options are working their way into some U.S. cities. To this end, the Obama administration has committed some $7 billion in stimulus dollars to help transit systems increase capacity and upgrade to more efficient technologies.

But environmentalists complain that such funding is a drop in the bucket compared to the $50 billion committed to roads, bridges and highways, and that transit authorities can’t use any of it to fund maintenance and operations, meaning that jobs must be cut and routes shut down. EDF is calling on Obama to include significant funding for transit operations in the jobs bill now being debated in Congress.

CONTACTS: Texas Transportation Institute; EDF.

Dear EarthTalk: I have a new linoleum floor, which I chose partly for its eco-friendliness. How do I clean and maintain it without using harsh or toxic chemicals?

—A.J. Maimbourg, via e-mail

"It's starting to get a little scuffed down here!" Real linoleum is one of the greenest flooring options out there today — and there are many safe, non-toxic ways to keep it maintained so it will last for decades.© Steven Luscher, courtesy Flickr

Whether you chose linoleum flooring for its no fuss functionality, the soft feel underfoot, its distinctive look, or its green attributes, you definitely want to take care of your investment in an eco-friendly way for the sake of maintaining it for as long as possible while protecting the indoor air quality in your home.

Real linoleum—as distinct from synthetic versions or vinyl—is made from all-natural materials, including wood flour, rosins, ground limestone, powdered cork, pigments, jute and linseed oil. As such it is one of the greenest flooring options out there today. The GreenFloors.com website reports that old linoleum—including scraps and remnants from the production process—can be recycled to create new sheets of the stuff. And given that it is made from natural materials, linoleum is practically carbon neutral, and the energy created by incinerating it at the end of its useful life is almost equal to the energy needed to create new linoleum.

Given how green linoleum is, cleaning it with harsh synthetic chemicals and maintaining it with polymer-based waxes just wouldn’t be right. Luckily there are alternative ways to help keep your linoleum floor looking good for decades without compromising the environment or shortening your own life span in the process.

Melissa Breyer of the green lifestyle website Care2.com recommends sweeping, dust-mopping or vacuuming your linoleum floor frequently in order to cut down on the amount of abrasive dirt around that can build up and mar the finish. As for actual cleaning, she says to use a damp mop with a mild all natural liquid dish soap and warm water. Adding a half cup or so of vinegar to the rinse water will increase shine if that’s the look you’re going for. To get rid of scuff marks, Breyer suggests dipping a sponge in jojoba oil and rubbing lightly before wiping up completely. Pencil erasers can also work wonders on linoleum scuff marks.

As for what to avoid, Breyer says to stay away from solvent-based products which can soften and damage linoleum. Typical floor cleaning solutions will leave a sticky residue behind, so sticking with something like Ivory Liquid dish soap is the best bet. Also, the best way to deal with tough stains is not by scouring; instead make a paste of baking powder and gently wipe with a wet rag until the stain fades away.

In terms of wax, there are several greener varieties now available. Livos" BILO is a paste wax designed for wood, cork, tile and—you guessed it—linoleum. It is derived from beeswax and linseed oil and produces a semi-gloss finish after buffing. Like all Livos products, BILO is made from organic ingredients and is 100 percent biodegradable and safe for humans, animals, air, water and soil.

For those willing to commit to periodic occasional maintenance, linoleum flooring should last decades if not longer. And given its relative low-cost and ease of installation, some consider linoleum the "green flooring for the masses."

CONTACTS: GreenFloors; Care2; Livos.

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