Saturday, January 31, 2015

An Increase of $0.25 a Bus Trip Too Much in Some Quarters

Click for photo credit.
It looks like bus fares will be going up across Long Island by $0.25.  This will make a basic bus trip cost $2.75.  This increase is being met with some resistance across the island and highlights points of disagreement among the pro-road crowd and the pro-transit crowd.

Let's break this issue down a bit.

Roadways are entirely subsidized by tax dollars.  Except for the handful of toll roads in this country, there is no cost per trip for individual uses.  We rely on local, state, and national government to manage our roadways.  They are managed as a non-profit system for the greater good of drivers.  This is done, in part, because roadways are seen as important to our economy and our day to day lives.

Mass transit is partially subsidized by tax dollars.  They rely on fares from riders to pay part of the costs of managing the system.  In Long Island, the bus system is partially privatized and managed by a large international company called Veolia.  Unlike roadways in Long Island, the bus system is managed as a for-profit organization.

Of course, here is the rub.  The roadways, which benefit the middle class and wealthy, are entirely subsidized by the public.  The mass transit system, which benefits the poor, is a profit generating system.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I am unashamedly capitalistic in support of sustainability as a form of economic development.  Yet I am sure all of us agree that there are systems that are better managed by governments.  I don't think any of us want to deal with the myriad of problems that would emerge with privately held roadways.  At the same time, I think it is worthwhile to consider the fairness of a system that creates a for-profit environment for transit for the poor and a non-profit environment for transit for the middle class and wealthy.

Recently, there was a letter to the editor in our local newspaper, Newsday, that bemoaned the closure of local roads during a major snowstorm.  The purpose of the closure was to ensure the safety of drivers and to allow the roads to be cleaned without causing problems for drivers.  The writer stated that he was upset about the road closure because he needed workers who do not live in the community to get to the area to shovel them out.

In my mind, this letter highlighted the issue we have with roads and transit.  Many of us feel entitled to complete access to roads.  Yet at the same time, as a society we are happy to turn over the transit for the poor to profit generating companies.

Let's take a quick look at the income disparities on Long Island.  In Hempstead, the annual per capita income is about $21,000.  Many of these folks rely on the local privatized bus service for their means of transportation.  In nearby Garden City, the per capita income is about $62,000, and these folks largely rely on free roadways.

What often happens with these geographic disparities is that the poor must take mass transit to work in wealthy areas, often in service industry jobs.  On the East End of Long Island, home of the Hamptons, they have trouble finding workers to take service jobs in tony neighborhoods because workers have a hard time getting there.  As a result, they have invested heavily in expanding bus service.  Check out this video for more information about the transit disparities in eastern Long Island.  

How to spend tax dollars on transportation is a tough thing for local governments.  Managing the best way to ensure access and fairness while optimizing tax dollars should take into consideration the needs drivers and users of mass transit.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Masters in Sustainability at Hofstra

One of the goals I had when I moved from the University of South Florida to Hofstra University (officially one of the most underrated universities in the nation) was to build a Masters in Sustainability. After quite a bit of work by many of us at Hofstra, we are now accepting applications.  To find out more about the program and apply, click here.

We built this program with maximum flexibility for students so that they could work with one of 30 mentors in designing a degree program that makes sense for their professional goals. Hofstra is well known for having some of the best faculty in the nation who work closely with students on real-world issues.  As a small campus, we often work with students individually or as teams on a number of research issues.  Faculty who will serve as mentors for our graduate students come from the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, health sciences, law, business, and health.

Our close proximity to New York, gives us great access to major institutions (like the United Nations), leading businesses and non-profits, and leaders in the sustainability world.  At the same time, our suburban and rural setting with extensive coastal and agricultural resources provides an interesting juxtaposition that allows us to explore a full range of sustainability issues.

We also have funding for students.  We have wonderful support for our graduate program through the National Center for Suburban Studies and through Hofstra's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Even without support, our private university graduate tuition is comparable to the graduate tuition seen at must public universities.

Perhaps the best thing about Hofstra is the community of scholars we have on campus.  We attract some of the best students in the nation to work with some of the most talented faculty in the nation.  We pride ourselves on small classes and quality student and faculty engagement.

We hope that our students, upon completing their masters, will help to make improvements in the sustainability of the New York region, our nation, or the world through their efforts.

As a geologist, I can affirm that we are entering a period of time known as the Anthropocene.  This is a new era of extinctions and widespread environmental and geologic change.  We have many difficult decades ahead of us as we work to adapt to this changing world.  There will be a great need for experts in areas of sustainability.  Come join us and be part of the team working to make the world a better place.

For more information, please contact me at

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tesla Insane Mode

From 0 to 70 mph in 3 seconds in an electric car in Tesla Insane Mode.  Yes, it's a real thing.  Enjoy,

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Pinnacles National Park

Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks. In this post we go to Pinnacles National Park in California. 

I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order. If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along. Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts of the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.

Click for photo credit.
Click for photo credit.
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Click for photo credit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park
Olympic National Park

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snow Day on the First Day of Classes and Twitter

Some light snow on campus this morning.
We are expected to get hit with a blizzard this evening.  The storm is expected to last for about 24 hours.  As such, Hofstra University is cancelling classes starting at 1pm today.  Some other local universities are staying open through the day and others cancelled classes for today and tomorrow.  I think the officials at Hofstra did the right thing by staying open for the morning.  Since this is the first day of classes, it provides an opportunity to get things started.

However, not everyone agrees with me.  Last night, when I was poking around on the Internet, to see if we were going to be open or not, I saw lots of students complaining about Hofstra being open today (prior to announcing we were closing at 1pm).  After the closure was announced, other students were complaining about their universities being open when Hofstra was closed, or Hofstra being open for the morning when other universities were closed.

Here are some of the Tweets from the last 24 hours or so.

"Kudos to Hofstra for having us go to school in the blizzard"  Um, the blizzard isn't starting until tonight.

"Common Hofstra, commuter students can't do this today."  All of the mass transit is running fine.  We close at 1.  There are no problems expected until later tonight or tomorrow.

"Thank you Hofstra for cancelling after 1:00 so I still have to get up early."  Our first classes start around 8am.  A normal time for folks to go to work or school.

"Hofstra cancelled class....after 1pm though.  Words can't express my anger..."  Yikes!  Remember, you paid to come here.  It's our job to stay open.

Okay, these are the glass half empty folks.  We've all been there...wanting an extra hour of sleep and avoiding the workload that school brings.  And most of us have taken frustrations out on Twitter at one time or another.  So I am not throwing stones at these folks.  I take the Tweets for what they are--harmless venting.

Now let's take a look at some other responses that are from the glass half full folks:

"Hey Hofstra Juniors and Seniors, remember Hurricane Sandy week of 2012? Now it's our chance to show the next generation the way."  Way to go!  Hofstra students were among the first to come through with helping to clean up hard hit areas after Hurricane Sandy.  You are turning a bad situation into a positive one.

"I may not get to all of my classes today, but the the fact that I'm starting a new school is exciting."  The start of the new school year is exciting for even us old timers!  It's always nice to turn a page and start a new chapter.  What a great outlook on life.

The way we react to these types of events in life teach us a bit about who we are. Sometimes our glass is half empty.  Yet I think it is important to strive to keep our glass half full whenever possible.

I am lucky to work at a university where I have the freedom to explore new ideas, meet fantastic students and colleagues, and be rewarded for my creativity.  With time, I hope that those with glasses half full recognize that for a very short time in their lives, they have the same opportunities.  Even thought the university is open for five hours today, that's 5 hours to do something special.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Sticker Shock of Electric Cars--And I Don't Mean $$

We have had our electric hybrid for several months now and I have to say that I truly love the car (Ford Fusion).  Now that Hofstra University has electric car charging stations close to my office, it is very convenient for me and my commute is now 100% electrical.  Prior to the stations opening, I would run out of electricity a few miles before returning home and I would travel the last few miles back to Port Washington using gasoline.  My gas milage now is well over 900 miles per gallon.  Prior to adding the Hofstra stations, I was at about 100 miles per gallon.  The added price for an electric hybrid, in my mind, is well worth the cost given the fuel savings.
Sticker #1
However, the real sticker shock does not come from the cost of the car, but from the stickers that are needed to verify that you drive an electric or clean car.

Sticker #2
For example, New York State makes one have 4 stickers on each corner of the car.  These stickers allow one to drive in the high occupancy/clean car lanes.  One of the stickers (thankfully) fell off our car and the photos below are of the remaining three.  In order to use the electric charging stations, Hofstra requires an "E" sticker on the front and back of the car.

So in total, I need to have six stickers on my car to verify its greenness.  
Sticker #3
If my car gets any greener, I am not sure I'll see the color of the car.

Yet, all of these stickers are worth 900 miles per gallon, even if gas is $2.00 a gallon.  I just have to get used to my car looking like a high schooler's notebook.

Sticker #5

Monday, January 12, 2015

This Historical Precedence for Governor Cuomo's Fracking Decision

The New York State Capitol.  Click for photo credit.
My friend in the Special Collections Department at Hofstra University, the brilliant Geri Solomonlink to a very interesting blog post on the New York History Blog (I've added it as a link to blogs I like on the right) on the historical precedence for Governor Cuomo's decision to ban fracking in New York State.
, sent me a

The article reviews several key 20th century environmental decisions in New York and how scientific commissions were established to guide executive level decision making.  What is so fascinating in the blog post is how the science on the key issues (particularly water pollution) changed with time.  For example, one of the commission reports noted that industrial pollution in the Hudson River was not a threat to human health and that it actually worked as an anti-bacterials agent.  Wow, how times have changed!

It will be interesting for historians to see how the fracking decision rates within the long-line of important environmental decisions in New York.  How will science judge this decision in 50 years?

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Workers Who Will Make Community College "Free"

Click for photo credit.
The reports about President Obama's planned "free" community college program I am sure sound good to those concerned about paying for higher education.  There is no doubt that higher education is getting more expensive.  There is also no doubt that college is still a good return for investment.  So I am sure that most will applaud when it is announced that the President is pushing for "free" community college for all Americans.

Yet I think it is worth looking at the statistics on community college before everyone applauds.  Prior to everyone associated with community college throwing daggers at me, please know that I love community colleges and think that they are great places for some young adults to start their college careers.  However, I urge everyone to think about the labor issues associated with community colleges.  According to this report, roughly 58% of community college courses are taught by part-time, low-paid community college instructors known as adjunct faculty or adjunct professors.  While many of these part time (adjunct faculty) workers are outstanding, the President's initiative is likely to expand the part-time workforce of community college instructors.

What this means is that there will be greater differentiation among colleges and universities in the long-haul.  Premier colleges and universities will continue to attract students willing to pay (or who can earn scholarships) for access to full-time, research active, quality faculty.  Students who cannot afford these private and premier state universities will turn to the community colleges where they will be met with many part-time faculty who do not have access to basic benefits like health care and retirement.

So while a "free" education sounds great, please think about the implications.  Elementary school teachers have benefits and retirement.  We pay tremendous property taxes to pay those teachers.  The only thing that allows community colleges to be "free" is because we do not compensate community college instructors as we do other teachers.

By offering "free" courses, we are taking advantage of a group of people.  We would never let this happen to firefighters, police officers, or kindergarten teachers who earn a living wage through our taxes.  Think how you would react if the business or service you provide were now "free" and valueless to the greater society.

Some statistics.  The average annual salary of an adjunct faculty member at a community college is $30,000 per year.  This works out to be about $10-$13/hour considering prep time and grading.   The average Wal-Mart salary is about $12.00 per hour.

So, yes, it is great that more people have access to higher education, but nothing is free in this world.  The free tuition is at the cost of instructors who do not make a livable wage.  You might call it a free education.  I call it exploitation.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

First Major U.S. Off-Shore Wind Farm on Hold

Click for photo credit.
The Boston Globe is reporting this morning here that financing problems caused major utilities to end contracts to buy power from the unbuilt Cape May Off-Shore Wind Farm in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts.  The article is brief, but suggests that the project may be on hold indefinitely.

The plan called for the construction of over 100 windmills with cables bringing power onto shore.

If the project is indeed dead in the water, it will certainly take the wind out of the sails of other planned farms up and down the east coast.  The very low cost of energy right now is probably one of the major culprits causing economic headwinds for developers.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Southern Queens Greenway

Map of the original greenway plan.
In 1993, the City of New York published a Greenway Masterplan that connected the 5 boroughs of the city with walking trails and bike paths.  This was an ambitious plan that tried to link up the city within usable trails to try to promote bike and walking for commuting and exercise.  Today, only a portion of the greenway system has been built.

There is a group, spearheaded by Daniel Solow, that is trying to reinvigorate the greenway process within southern Queens.  I am very excited about this because I am very interested in the same thing for Long Island.  We have many commuters who go back and forth between Queens (and other portions of the city) and Long Island who would benefit from an integrated greenway system.

Long Island has one of the highest pedestrian and bike deaths in the country and it is time to start a serious conversation around integrated greenways in our region.

To learn more about the efforts for the Southern Queens Greenway, please see their Website here.  You can also sign their petition for action here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Can Local Communities Ban Fracking?

The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the status of local fracking bans that was published over the weekend.

If you go back to this post from December of 2012, you'll see that Longmont, Colorado voted to ban fracking.  As a result, the oil companies sued Longmont (and won, although the case is on appeal).  In my earlier post, I noted the role of local communities in regulating land use within their jurisdiction.  However, I was incorrect in one assumption.  In Colorado, the state regulates subsurface extraction activities.  My belief that the local community would win the case was wrong.  The oil companies have successfully argued that the state regulates their activities.

However, the law on this does seem to be a bit wobbly since according to the article the case is on appeal.  Plus, more and more communities are interested in banning fracking.  As noted in the Times article, the oil companies, through their lawsuits, are causing tremendous financial costs on local communities that can ill afford them.  This obviously discourages local communities from enacting a fracking ban.  Putting one in place will likely raise taxes or cause a cut in services in order to pay for the expensive lawsuits brought forward.

While the oil companies may win the battle, they ultimate do the oil and gas industry a disservice by going after these little communities.  Through this initiative they tarnish the reputation of the industry.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Collaboratorium Grows at Hofstra

A collaboratorium is a place that facilitates collaborative research and teaching on university campuses. As most would agree, traditional university departments, while important, sometimes limit collaboration within emerging interdisciplinary units.  At universities, most department structures were established decades ago. Yet the emerging research and teaching issues (sustainability, health sciences, information technology, etc.) transcend these departmental silos.

Universities are creating new organizational structures and places to try to create cooperative spaces to change research and teaching culture.  That is what is happening at Hofstra with our new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Collaboratorium focused on biology, geology, sustainability, and health sciences.  We received a 1.5 million dollar grant from the state of New York that will be matched by Hofstra University to renovate space in Gittleson Hall to improve our ability to teach these subjects in new and innovative ways.  The space also opens opportunities for advanced undergraduate and graduate research projects.

You can read more about the project on Hofstra's Website here.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Metformin Found in Lake Michigan

Milwaukee on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Click for photo credit.
The problem of prescription drug pollution remains one of the most concerning emerging environmental issues.  Evidence is mounting that some of the prescriptions we take pass through our bodies and enter surface and ground water after sewage treatment plants and septic systems release wastewater.

The latest piece of evidence comes from researchers at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, who found that metformin, a common diabetes drug, is the most commonly found personal care pollutant in waters in Lake Michigan near wastewater treatment plants in Milwaukee.  According to this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the levels are so high that they could disrupt the endocrine system of fish.  They also found caffeine, sulfamethoxazole, and triclosan--all common human-derived pollutants from wastewater that are not naturally found in surface waters
Current sewage treatment plants focus largely on removing solids, nutrients, and harmful biologic materials from wastewater prior to releasing it into the environment.  However, as we see our use of pharmaceuticals increasing in our society, there will be a need to improve technology to enhance wastewater treatment to remove these and other emerging pollutants.