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The RPA has Wheels

Last Friday I attended Regional Plan Association's 17th Annual Regional Assembly, entitled "A Bright Green Future," focused on climate change and energy use in the tri-state region. The keynotes (including Mayor Bloomberg's) and plenary were broad and deep, and of the numerous breakout sessions, I chose to attend, unsurprisingly, the one on transportation -- "The Wheels: Getting from A to B with Less C02."

Generally speaking, my interest in transportation is not an environmental one. I like mass transit because it enables a certain kind of social and economic development that is unique to big cities. Nevertheless, transportation is an important part of the energy and climate change conversation, so a thorough treatment by established experts is always a good thing.

The introductory presentation by moderator Lee Sander, CEO of the MTA, consisted primarily of a number of key statistics:

  • 25% of world petroleum consumption is by US; our share has only shifted slightly downward in last 20 years. In contrast, US has only 5% of world’s population.
  • 28% of US Energy Consumption is in the transportation sector
  • Transportation consumed 67% of U.S. petroleum usage in 2005.
  • Transportation emitted 58% of the nation’s pollution from carbon monoxide, 45% of nitrogen oxides, and 36% of volatile organic compounds.
  • Highway vehicles emitted 82% of all transportation carbon dioxide emissions in 2004.
  • U.S. vehicle-miles of travel (VMT) for all modes of transportation approached 3 trillion in 2004, growing at an average annual rate of 2.9 percent over the last 20 years. VMT is doubling every 24 years.
  • Passenger car vehicle efficiency has not changed in last 20 years.
  • Vehicle miles per capita in US by state – New York is the lowest by far of any state – density, transit, walking is the reason.

The presentations of the four respondents detailed some of the problems with and and solutions to our regional and national transportation and emission trends.

The first panelist was Lee Schipper, Director of Research at EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport. Some highlights of his at times riotously funny presentation include:

  • Income correlates directly with CO2 emissions per capita
  • President Bush has 'Kyotus Interruptus'
  • Mileage per Gallon is not going down in the US. All gains in fuel efficiency have been matched with increased horsepower in vehicles.
  • Hybrid HOV subsidies and Ethanol subsidies are silly
  • Fuel share as a fraction of household income is going down, encouraging further driving behavior
  • Alternative 'Fools' are not priced right
  • Compared with the US, Europe has higher gas taxes, and much lower fuel consumption and driving
  • The Mexico City MetroBus BRT project is working -- traffic is down, polluting minibuses are less used. Rigid enforcement of exclusive bus lanes is key

Next up was Steve Winkelman of the Center for Clean Air Policy. With a similar focus on transportation modes and fuel usage, his presentation was somewhat richer in terms of statistics and graphical exhibits:

  • It's all about Travel Demand Management (TDM), and the challenges of sprawl. Examining CO2 production density vs. CO2 production per household yields a rather stark contrast in the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • I also really like this diagram, which illustrates part of the inefficiency of the design of sprawled communities:

  • Fuel efficiency is a great thing, but is not enough to reduce CO2 emissions. The following graphs show the effects of rolling out California emissions standards nationally, with and without travel growth. Controlling travel growth will be an important part of controlling emissions growth:

  • Winkelman believes that compact development can save 20% - 50% of VMT. He cites realtor surveys that actually demonstrate increased consumer demand for compact, transit oriented development (TOD).
  • We have a real opportunity to affect change for the future with good policy today. Citing Arthur Nelson in the Journal of the American Planning Association: "Nearly half of what will be the built
    environment in 2030 doesn’t even exist yet, giving the current generation a vital opportunity to reshape future development."
  • For example, Portland, Oregon, has decreased its VMT by 6% over the last 15 years while the nation as a whole has increased by 10%.
  • In summary, the current ICE-TEA and SAFE-TEA federal transportation legislations are inadequate to help curb emissions and climate change; we need GREEN-TEA

Sonia Hamel, of the Center for Climate Strategies, gave a presentation that was less about the numbers, and more about her experience working in the Office of Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts, tackling climate change at the state level. Her focus was on the benefits of integrating a climate change strategy with other parts of state development agencies.

  • In her office, she helped screen the dispersal of state funds in four key areas:
    • Environmental
    • Transportation
    • Housing/Community Development
    • Energy
  • The primary criteria for screening was lower energy usage, allowing proposals that met appropriate criteria to jump ahead in the line for state funding.
    • In the first year of the program, there was substantial pushback against the guidelines they set.
    • In the second year, everything was different. People got it.
  • The problem with many smart growth initiatives is that they do not directly tie funding to the smart growth criteria.
  • Examples of specific changes she helped affect in MA:
    • Educate communities not to fear local housing development, just because increased population may require more schools
    • 30 TOD projects were completed
    • Highway design guidelines were revised.

Finally Paul Roberts, author of End of Oil, offered some cautionary notes and an amazing example of some of the possible unintended consequences of climate change solutions. Be assured, his presentation was much more convincing than my retelling:

  • The US government is subsidizing corn-ethanol production, in order to help foster an alternative fuel industry.
  • This has driven up the price of American corn which hurts everyone from cattle farmers to Mexican tortilla eaters.
  • The increased price of corn has farmers replacing other crops with corn, raising the prices of all sorts of seeds and grains, including wheat.
  • Which has caused food manufacturers to buy wheat gluten from China, which we have recently learned has its own problems (melamine!)
  • Growing ethanol requires fertilizer, which has high Nitrogen content.
  • Nitrogen in the land and water has all sorts of adverse affects such as harming babies (though I missed how), and feeding algae blooms which disrupt aquatic ecosystems.
  • But what's worse, one primary source of the Nitrogen for fertilizers is Natural Gas.
  • Which we end up needing to import from Russia and Iran, thus curtailing the national security benefits we expect from reduced oil dependence in our transportation systems.

Lots to digest!

PS get a different kind of rundown on the same session at Streetsblog

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 11, 2007 10:59 AM.

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