John Cleveland | An Island Press Author

John Cleveland

John Cleveland was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and spent the first 12 years of his life living in small Indian villages on the Yukon River in Alaska that are now "ground zero" for climate change impacts. Living in remote wilderness gave him an appreciation for the power of Mother Nature and the truth of the admonition "Don't mess with Mama!" Since Alaska, he has lived outside of Boston and in several cities in Michigan, where he worked first in state government economic development and then as a strategy consultant to small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, most of them automotive suppliers. Along with Pete Plastrik, he is a co-founder of the Innovation Network for Communities, and has worked with Pete in supporting the growth of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the launch of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. He is coauthor with Pete and Madeleine Taylor of Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact (2014). He serves as the executive director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a CEO network that is supporting the development and implementation of the City of Boston Climate Action Plan. The Commission work has given him a deep appreciation for the nuts and bolts of city-based climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. John lives with wife Michelle in Tamworth, New Hampshire, where he greatly enjoys hiking, skiing, biking, and building stonewalls.

Vancouver

Cities’ Climate Innovations Are Driving the Next Urban Transformation

As Vancouver and other cities invent and implement ways to decarbonize their systems and strengthen resilience to climate change, we are reinventing the basic model for urban development that has prevailed since the beginning of the Industrial...

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 28, 2019 in Meeting of the Minds.

Earlier in 2019, Vancouver’s city council declared a climate emergency and adopted a new set of climate-action targets that pushed its already aggressive goals to a new level. In response to the urgent need to hold global warming to below 1.5°C, the city set a new goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.

There’s much more going on here than radical climate action, as vital as that is. As Vancouver and other cities invent and implement ways to decarbonize their systems and strengthen resilience to climate change, we are reinventing the basic model for urban development that has prevailed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In fact, we are transforming urban design and life in cities, and Vancouver’s new City Plan will fully embrace climate and equity as core principles.

As Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland explain in Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities, the many urban climate innovations underway carry big new ideas about what cities are and how they should work. And these ideas are replacing ideas that propelled the development of the modern city model we all know.

Vancouver is one of 25 global cities covered in Life After Carbon. The authors detail how these “climate innovation laboratories”— from Austin, Copenhagen, and Cape Town to Melbourne, Mexico City, New York, and Shanghai — have initiated wave after wave of locally grown climate innovations that leave no urban system untouched. These cities, they report, “have come to understand themselves, their place in the world, in a new way and act boldly on their changed awareness.” Their efforts have required remarkable creativity, political courage, and resources. Their work has also spurred collaboration among government departments, and between government and the private and civic sectors.

Plastrik and Cleveland have worked in and alongside many of these leading-edge cities, have written insightful reports about cities’ climate innovations, and were instrumental in the formation of two important city networks: the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. But Life After Carbon provides more than a survey of urban climate innovationsThe authors illuminate a compelling thesis of change that is happening on the ground, not just in theories and elusive visions. They identify four transformative ideas that are embedded in urban climate innovations and show how these ideas are being applied worldwide:

  1. Carbon-Free Advantage. Cities are employing their unique advantages to turn the emerging renewable-energy economy into urban wealth and jobs. The idea that cities can drive economies through innovation and clusters of businesses is new; it overturns the idea that cities are simply supposed to provide entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations with low-cost labor markets and public power and transportation infrastructure.
  2. Efficient Abundance. Cities are more efficiently using energy, materials, natural resources, and space to generate a new kind of urban abundance. In the 1800s, consumption of goods and growth of economies were considered the primary standards for abundance, and cities were designed to promote consumption. Today, though, ideas about abundance are starting to shift. Abundance is now signified by long term sustainability that is comprehensive, not just economic, and widely shared rather than possessed.
  3. Nature’s Benefits. Cities are restoring and tapping the power of natural systems to enhance and protect urban life. By contrast, the previous urban model swept away natural habitats and species, engineered control over waterways, consumed vast amounts of natural resources, and dumped enormous amounts of waste, while inhabitants lost direct connection with the natural world.
  4. Adaptive Futures. Cities are cultivating the capacities of inhabitants and core systems to adapt to new requirements, especially those of climate change. Urban planning previously involved decision-makers imposing their will for control and economic growth on nature and society. Today, climate risks force cities to think differently about the future because it has introduced the potential for disorder and shocks unlike any cities have faced. Planning is coming to focus on resilience, sustainability, and equity rather than control. There is now more awareness that cities must build broad social consensus for change.

The framework in Life After Carbon rings true for Vancouver. Ours is a relatively young city, established in the 1860s with sawmills cutting some of the world’s largest trees into lumber. When a fire in the 1880s swept away what had been built, a modern city rose from the ashes. It had electricity and water systems, and streetcars. It was the western terminus of the new national railroad system, and a port for shipping wood across the ocean. In other words, Vancouver started out as a modern city exploiting local natural resources in a globalizing economy. It has since grown into a city with 640,000 inhabitants in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million, heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels to power vehicles and heat buildings.

By the end of the 20th century, city leaders and residents realized that the city’s future well-being did not lie in doing more of the same. In a radical change in the city’s thinking, we committed to becoming a green city, a renewable-energy city, an economically competitive city, and an equitable city. It’s a clear vision built on different ideas about what a city can and should be.

These commitments to action have helped drive Vancouver’s economic growth. We have partnered with entrepreneurs to develop a fast-growing, job-creating “green economy” business sector, and we are home to 23 percent of Canada’s clean-tech companies. Jobs and population in our community have each grown by more than a third since 1990, while our carbon emissions have decreased in that same time by about 12 percent. Vancouver has successfully branded itself as a highly desirable place for young, innovative talent to find work and build companies. A 2015 study by Brand Finance found that Vancouver is uniquely associated with being clean, green, and environmentally sustainable, resulting in a $31 billion USD brand evaluation.

Vancouver is also working toward a goal of 100 percent renewable energy before 2050. To that end, the city is reducing energy usage and switching from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and hydropower. The largest source of carbon pollution is the burning of natural gas for space and water heating in buildings, so with strong support of council, the public and the building design community, we have put in place a world-pioneering Zero Emission Building Plan for all new construction. The new building code will ensure that new buildings are energy efficient and use no fossil fuel by 2030. We built Canada’s first sewer heat recovery system, which harvests heat from a significant sewer line, enabling residents and businesses to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 70 percent. To produce our own renewable energy, we are harvesting methane from the landfill and partnering with FortisBC, our gas utility, to clean the gas and put it into the fossil gas distribution system.

Our new climate-emergency targets include ecosystem reforestation in the region: by 2030, restoration work will be completed on enough forest and coastal ecosystems to remove 1 million tonnes of carbon pollution annually by 2060. Meanwhile, the city is developing its next environmental plan, which calls for accelerating and expanding its nearer term decarbonization targets. By 2030:

  • 90 percent of Vancouver residents will live within an easy walk of their daily needs
  • Two-thirds of trips will be by active transportation and transit
  • 50 percent of kilometers driven on Vancouver’s roads will be by zero emissions vehicles
  • Embodied emissions in new buildings and construction projects will be reduced by 40 percent
  • By 2025, all new and replacement heating and hot water systems will be zero emissions

All of this work to create a new kind of 21st century city must be done with a strong lens on equity to ensure that everyone, especially low-income people and neighborhoods, benefits from these changes.

My involvement in shifting Vancouver’s thinking about its future as a city has taught me that, as Life After Carbon puts it, “transformational ideas are becoming a new standard for cities—not just a toolbox of innovations but a radically different way of thinking about, a model for, city development and urban achievement around the world.”

The framework of ideas that Plastrik and Cleveland found in urban climate innovations reveals a common ground among cities; a simplified understanding of what they share. It’s useful in several ways. Most importantly, the framework’s key ideas allow us to recognize that the real and urgent work of city leaders in the age of climate change is to fashion better cities. Better cities are economic innovation motors, ultra-efficient in all regards, fully reconnected to nature, and having the social capacity to turn climate disaster into opportunity for the entire community. Few cities have put all of these pieces together.

The framework also helps city leaders recognize that other players: businesses, professionals, community organizations, and other levels of government, are not only critical to success but are embracing these new ideas and implementing them in their own spheres. Life After Carbon emphasizes this point in its final chapters, describing the substantial range of related activities undertaken globally by non-governmental entities.

Life After Carbon presents an inspiring account of actual urban change that could not have been written just 10 years ago; there simply wasn’t enough going on then. But today, the story of cities’ transformative journeys makes compelling reading for local government leaders everywhere. As we know in Vancouver, and as other cities are showing, Life After Carbon is prescient in declaring that “the successor to the modern city is busy being born.”

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

What will be the most pressing climate change issue in the next 50 years?

We turned to some of our authors to find out—What do they think will be the most pressing climate change issue in the next 50 years? Why?

Recent climate marches have captured our collective attention. Students and young people around the world have taken to the streets to demand action on climate change now, in order to protect the environment for a better future. The impacts that we can already see are not the only climate impacts that will affect quality of life for future generations. Some climate dangers have yet to materialize. We turned to some of our authors to find outWhat do they think will be the most pressing climate change issue in the next 50 years? Why?

The most pressing climate change issue will be our capacity to provide adequate nutrition and water to every person on Earth. This is a challenge we already struggle with and climate change will increasingly cause droughts and extreme weather events. Both our water sources and agricultural production are sensitive to these climatic shifts. Potential future food and water shortages will lead to increased global unrest and political tensions. However, we can take steps today to prevent these future shortages by developing sustainable adaptation strategies. Our greatest strength as humans is our capacity to innovate, and if we do so carefully and responsibly we'll be able to prevent many of these future crises. 
-Jessica Eise, author of How to Feed the World

Clearly, the most pressing climate issue is figuring out how to get the global economy to carbon neutrality, and then developing the technologies for economically taking large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. But another critical issue that is not yet really being addressed is how we get in place national and international regimes to manage massive human migrations that will be driven by climate change. Regardless of the success that the global community has in implementing deep greenhouse gas reductions over the coming decades, we already know that anticipated future climate impacts will eventually cause large-scale migration of populations away from areas that are threatened by climate risks such as sea level rise, extreme heat, extreme storms, drought and wildfires, and towards areas of lower risk. The timing and geographic distribution of these movements is highly uncertain. They will, however, have a large impact on both the areas that lose population and the areas that gain population. And they will cause substantial economic, social, and political turbulence. As one commentator noted: "You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and one million people, but not 10 million." How will we manage this climate migration? What legal status will the migrants have? How do we prepare the areas that are losing population, as well as those that are likely to find themselves with large unplanned in-migrations? It is time to start digging into these questions.
-John Cleveland, author of Life After Carbon

Coastal flooding
Credit: iStock image

In my view, the largest threat to Earth in the decades to come will be unsustainable human population growth. This will trigger all kinds of irreversible environmental change. A smaller human footprint means first of all fewer feet.
-Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup

Most scientists agree that climate change will increase the occurrence, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events, including flooding, hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires. If we don’t do anything about this, most cities will become less comfortable—some by a lot. Depending on their location, cities and their inhabitants could suffer from the following possible scenarios: too wet, too dry, or too warm. Homes could be flooded on a regular basis, water faucets could stop flowing, or people’s lives could be confined to air-conditioned interiors because outside will be too hot. Fortunately, architects and city planners can help increase urban resilience—the ability of urban communities to bounce back from shock. If we do it right, we can even think of this as an opportunity to improve our cities and buildings. Dikes could double as flood protection and functional buildings, native species and drought tolerant plants can save water used for landscaping, and trees and plants can help cool down urban spaces. The future has always been uncertain, but our future may be even more uncertain. With climate change impacting our cities in unpredictable ways, the big question is: how do we design with these new risks?
-Stefan Al, author of Adapting Cities to Sea Level Rise

Climate change, as western U.S. water scholar Brad Udall frequently points out, is water change. What Udall means is that, even as we work toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to focus on reducing our vulnerability to changes even now being felt in the planet's hydrologic cycles. That can mean more water where we don't want it—think for example the flooding felt in the central United States from a freak storm in March 2019, or the creeping rise of sea level confronting our coastal cities. It often means less water where we've come to depend on it, like the shrinking reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin. Preparing for a future of water change is essential regardless of how successful we are in reducing our greenhouse gas footprint.
-John Fleck, author of  Water is for Fighting Over

The transportation sector remains one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and thus represents the lowest-hanging fruit for governments looking to meet difficult carbon-reduction targets. Through our research, we've found that the Netherlands provides the best example of a clear path forward. A 2014 World Bank report ranked it in the bottom 25 nations for transport-related carbon dioxide emissions (as a percentage of total national production). In fact, Dutch transportation contributes just a fifth of their overall emissions, compared to a third in the United States, which—with 1.9 billion tons of CO2 emissions in 2016—overtook power generation as the most-polluting sector in the country for the first time in 40 years. Rather than wait for the electric car to save us, we should be looking to the humble bicycle, which—with the right infrastructure and policies in place—could immediately replace a significant number of trips we take by car, and begin moving us in a more sustainable direction for the future of our planet and our children.
-Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, co-authors of Building the Cycling City

The most pressing issue in relation to climate change is almost certainly the preservation and, if possible, extension of forest cover. Obviously, we must work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing the adoption of renewable energy, but even the most optimistic scenarios around that would not solve the problem. Forests, and the oceans, provide the greatest sinks for CO2; we can fight to maintain oceanic biosphere and health, but we could—at least conceptually—increase the area of forests. And we MUST try to halt forest destruction.
-Joe Landsberg, co-author of Forests in Our Changing World

Logs in the forest
Shutterstock/Alberto Masnovo

Society will not only need to prepare for current and impending changes due to climate change, we will need to do this while taking drastic action to avoid catastrophic consequences in the future. Many cities are vulnerable and dealing with the effects of climate change already. Forty percent of the United States’ population lives on 10% of its land mass—along coastlines. While cities have the power to make a greater impact on how we prepare for climate change, future planning and growth needs to be coordinated, thoughtful, and innovative. To start, policymakers should embrace and champion policies that encourage walkable, urban places and associated density—particularly in suburbs. Walkable, urban places create the opportunity for a lower carbon footprint, while contributing to a better quality of life for residents.
-Jason Beske, co-author of Suburban Remix

While the costs of adapting to climate change will be historic—in the US exceeding in real dollar terms the costs of fighting World War II and building the interstate highway system combined—the costs of inaction will be catastrophic. The UK’s National Oceanographic Centre (NOC) estimates annual global costs of climate-driven flooding, only one of multiple climate change impacts, at more than US$14 trillion. The NOC also projects that more than six hundred million people could be displaced by rising seas alone by 2100. In the US, seven of the ten most economically productive metros—representing roughly one-quarter of the entire economy and growing 50% faster than the US as a whole—face serious risks from rising sea levels.

Yet a blinders-on, single-issue focus on resiliency can mean falling into an all-too-familiar priority trap that pulls resources away from other compelling challenges. For example, the developed world is rapidly aging. People over the age of 65 will represent more than half of America’s (and the developed world’s) net growth for at least the next two decades—placing extraordinary stresses on healthcare costs that are projected to eat up all discretionary US federal spending by 2050. Growing income disparities in the US and across the developed world, accelerated by the shift to a knowledge economy that delivers most of its economic benefits to the better-educated top 20% of the workforce, are generating growing social as well as economic strains. Rapidly evolving technology means that within two decades the US and rest of the developed world will need to retool trillions of dollars in transportation infrastructure to adapt to autonomous mobility while at the same time responding to automation’s projected evisceration of the jobs of tens of millions of workers in the US alone. Nor can government stop funding transit, parks, and education—without facing grave social unrest and economic decline. And already today the developed world faces an enormous bill for fixing existing infrastructure—a figure that in the US will reach US$2 trillion, or almost 10% of the entire US economy, by the late 2020s.

Despite doubts expressed by US political leaders, the real question is not should we react to climate change, but how? The sheer enormity of the threat compels action. But how do we avoid the priority trap? My own experience planning for New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina suggests three strategies: public private partnerships that unleash the innovation potential of the private sector, institutions and government working together; adopting the principles the Dutch originated following World War II—any resources spent on protection from rising seas or other climate forces need to also address livability, economic competitiveness, and wellness; and the time
-David Dixon, co-author of Suburban Remix

I just returned from Sweden where it’s all about climate change. The government is planting trees around the world, as well as working hard to reduce Sweden’s carbon footprint. Recycling options are everywhere. At the university where I spoke there are only washable dishes, cups, silverware in the cafeteria and break rooms. Everyone over four years old rides a bike, and those under four are in contraptions attached to an adult’s bike. Greta, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, is inspiring us all with her courage and passion. For me the key question in tackling climate change is: Will we be willing and able to follow and support the youthful leadership taking on the challenge? It’s easy to write off the younger generation as inexperienced, whimsical, lost in their devices. That is old-fashioned and destructive thinking. These young activists are on the frontline of climate change, and we need to put our faith—as well as our money, influence and energy—in their leadership.
-Lucy Moore, author of Common Ground on Hostile Turf

Creating extensive ecological networks consisting of well-connected, large protected areas is most pressing priority because it is our best option to limit the extent of the sixth mass extinction. Climate change is adding to and exacerbating other threats to biodiversity, such as habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation. Ecological networks can reduce the impact of all stressors, promote population persistence, and allow species to adapt to climate change by moving to climatically suitable areas.
-Dr. Annika Keeley, co-author of Corridor Ecology, Second Edition

Photo Credit: Rockaway Youth on Banner by Flickr.com user Light Brigading

Cutting Back: IP Authors Reflect On Their Carbon Footprints

With the end of COP 21 and the signing of the historic Paris Agreement, it’s not just countries that are thinking about how to reduce emissions—individuals are...

With the end of COP 21 and the signing of the historic Paris Agreement, it’s not just countries that are thinking about how to reduce emissions—individuals are reflecting on how their habits and actions impact climate change as well.

Island Press authors shared what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprints and, in some cases, what more they could be doing. Check out their answers and share your own carbon cutbacks—or vices—in the comments. 

Jason Mark, author of Satellites in the High Country:
Very much like the Paris Climate Accord itself, ecological sustainability is a process, not a destination. Which, I'll admit, is a squirrely way of saying that I'm doing my best to reduce my carbon footprint. I ride my bike. I take mass transit. Most days my car never leaves the spot in front of our home. Most importantly, I have sworn off beef because of cattle production's disproportionate climate impact. The (grass-fed, humane) burger still has a siren song, but I ignore it. 

Grady Gammage, author of The Future of the Suburban City:
I drive a hybrid, ride light rail to the airport and don’t bother to turn on the heat in my house (which is possible in Phoenix).  My greatest carbon sin is my wood burning fireplace.  I don’t use it when there’s a “no burn” day, but otherwise, I have a kind of primordial attraction to building a fire.

John Cleveland, co-author of Connecting to Change the World:
We just installed a 12 KW solar array on our home in New Hampshire. At the same time, we electrified our heating system with Mitsubishi heat pumps. So our home is now net positive from both an electricity and heating point of view. We made the solar array large enough to also power an electric car, but are waiting for the new models that will have more range before we install the electric car charger.  The array and heat pumps have great economics.  The payback period is 8-years and after that we get free heat and electricity for the remainder of the system life — probably another 20+ years.  Great idea for retirement budgets!

Dan Fagin, author of Toms River:
Besides voting for climate-conscious candidates, the most important thing we can do as individuals is fly less, so I try to take the train where possible. I wish it were a better option.

Photo by Bernal Saborio, used under Creative Commons licensing. 

Darrin Nordahl, author of Public Produce:
The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, and how we produce food in this country is responsible for much of those emissions. From agriculture, to the fossil fuels needed to produce bags and boxes for pre-packaged food, to the burning of gas and oil to transport both fresh produce and pre-packaged food, I have discovered I can reduce my carbon footprint with a simple change in my diet. For one, I avoid processed food of any sort. I also grow a good portion of my vegetables and herbs and, thankfully, local parks with publicly accessible fruit trees provide a modicum of fresh fruit for my family. We also eat less meat than we used to and our bodies (and our planet) are healthier because of it.

Yoram Bauman, author of The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change:
I try to put on warm slippers or other extra layers around the house in order to not have to heat the house so much, but I still like to take long hot showers. (Maybe those two things are connected).

Rob McDonald, author of Conservation for Cities:
I try to pay attention to my daily habits that make up a lot of my carbon footprint. So I bike to work, or take mass transit. That gets rid of the carbon footprint of driving. I also try to only moderately heat or cool my home, so I’m not burning a lot of energy doing that. The biggest component of my carbon footprint that I haven’t managed to cut is for travel. I have to travel once or twice a month for my job, and unless it is a trip in the Northeast (when I can just use Amtrak!), I am stuck travelling. The carbon footprint of all that air travel is huge. I try to do virtual meetings, rather than travel whenever I can, but there still seems to be a big premium people place on meeting folks face to face.

Emily Monosson, author of Unnatural Selection 
We keep our heat really low in the winter (ask our teenage daughter, it's way too cold for her here!) and I hang my clothes on the line in the summer. Because it’s so cold, I love taking really hot long showers. I should also hang my clothes in the winter too, and ditch the dryer. 

Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley, co-authors of Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs:
We both live in a town-house in the central part of a city – on opposite sides of the continent: one in Philadelphia the other in Vancouver. Our neighborhoods have 100% walk scores. We each own one car, but don’t need to drive it very much - most of the time we can go where they need to on foot.  We wrote our book using email and Dropbox. What they still need to work on is using less air travel in the future.

Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People:
I live in Denmark where 33% of the energy is delivered by windmills. A gradual increase will happen in the coming years. As in most other countries in the developed world, too much meat is on the daily diet. That is absolutely not favorable for the carbon footprint. It sounds like more salad is called for in the future!

Photo by Katja Wagner, used under Creative Commons licensing. 

Suzanne Shaw, co-author of Cooler Smarter:
Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low Carbon Living provides a roadmap for consumers to cut their carbon footprint 20 percent (or more). My approach to lowering my carbon footprint has gone hand in hand with saving money through sensible upgrades. Soon after I purchase my 125-year-old house I added insulation, weather stripping and a programmable thermostat. When I needed a new furnace, I swapped a dirty oil furnace to a cleaner, high-efficiency natural gas model. And now have LED bulbs in every fixture in the house, Energy Star appliances throughout, and power strips at my entertainment and computer areas. This summer, I finally installed solar panels through a 25-year lease (zero out-of-pocket expense). In the month of September, I had zero emissions from electricity use.  Living in the city, I am fortunate to have access to public transportation and biking, which keeps our household driving to a minimum.

Peter Fox-Penner, author of Smart Power Anniversary Edition:
I’m reducing my footprint by trying to eat vegan, taking Metro rather than taxis or Ubers, and avoiding excess packaging.  Right now I travel too much, especially by air. P.S. Later this year I’ll publish my carbon footprint on the website of the new Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy. Watch for it!

Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars:
Our family has a (small) car but I cycle pretty much all of the time. My kids cycle to school (some days) and my wife cycles to work (sometimes). It’s useful to have the car for some journeys, long ones mostly, but having a family fleet of bikes means we don’t need a second car. Reducing one’s carbon footprint can be doing less of something not necessarily giving up something completely. If everybody reduced their car mileage (and increased their active travel mileage) that would be good for the planet and personally: win/win.