Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reducing Transportation's Carbon Consumption - Plan B

The following question has been asked of the expert group on Monday in the "insider discussions" concerning transportation policy for the incoming Obama administration that are taking place under the aegis of the National Journal in Washington DC:

How Should EPA And DOT Reduce Transportation's Carbon Consumption?
How can Washington regulate and reduce the transportation sector's oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions? What are the appropriate roles and responsibilities for the Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency? How should those roles be incorporated into the climate change legislation and surface transportation reauthorization that Congress is expected to tackle?

As a member of the panel I was invited to respond. My presentation follows.

Summary: "Ready. Fire. Aim!" Better not do that. So before we get off to the races with our answers and recommendations, let me suggest that we first step back a bit and make sure that we have a full understanding of the important underling issues and forces that need to be taken into consideration. And then once we have this in hand we may end up getting an entirely different set of responses. We need a carefully thought out consistent base for informed public policy in a very different world context. In order then: (1) Strategy; (2) Actions; (3) Actors.

1. STRATEGY

First step. STOP! Remember? " Ready! Fire! Aim?"

We certainly don't want to start in the middle of such an important question -- a big problem I might add we often encounter in many of these proto-transportation/environment discussions. It seems as if as soon as the discussion opens everyone in the room stands up and starts to trot out their favorite concept, project or technology -- and then carry on as if their favorite pony somehow fits with the real priorities. As if all that were something that could be left to a shared implicit understanding. Well, it can't!

So before rushing into discussions about roles and responsibility, legislation and reauthorization, important as they are, let's see if we can first come to some sort of agreement concerning the basics that provide the foundation for all these questions and their eventual answers. Which is to say that we need a strategy fit for these times.

It's 2009 and one thing of which we all are fully aware is that the conditions out there are very very different from anything we have ever known in the past. So this is unlikely to be a matter of fixing stuff and marginal adjustments here and there. We have to reinvent the sector in the most profound manner that we can. And for that we better know where we have to go.

So what are the basics of this new mobility system, this new paradigm for transportation policy and practice at all levels? We have to get a handle on the big issues, the big trends and the big priorities, before we start to rush in to answer this questions of detail. My proposal to shake things up a bit here before we start to get too comfortable with what we pre-guess are going to be the answers – starting by setting before you a sequence of eight defining policy statements or propositions which in my view constitute the true bedrock of the issues and the choices we now need to make.

(As you move down this list I invite you to make a mental or jotted note to the "yes or no" query in each case. It may be that you agree with some of these points, but not others. We can then ideally go down the revised list here or in some other forum and THEN have a shared basis for deciding what next. Without a strong foundation fit for our times, we will risk just playing at the edges with stuff which is not central to the challenges at hand. At enormous opportunity cost.)

Let's have a look at our eight basic propositions:

Proposition 1. Climate emergency: The most urgent single policy challenge confronting us today in America and in every part of this planet, and requiring immediate and urgent action, is that of climate modification. The core of the problem lies in our continuing massive generation of life-threatening greenhouse gas emissions, which despite all the hot air and claims of success, continue to swell every day: every month, every year, and in every part of the world with close to zero exceptions. This is the bedrock issue of public policy today and we cannot afford to run away from it any more. (And yes step one is to recognize that we are running.)
• Peak oil: And if climate modification seems too abstruse for your taste, we always have the co-issue of peak oil, which has the advantage of hitting almost all of use directly where it hurts most, in the wallet. So if you prefer we can use this as our whip for immediate, large scale action and intervention, on the understanding that at the end of the day the two run in very close parallel. And since that is the case we will continue to use GHG as the guiding metric in this case, for all the reasons that are set out here.

• Yes (i.e., Accept as probably valid) or no (not sure or possibly just wrong)?

Proposition 2. Global policy goal: The over-arching goal of public policy across the board should therefore be massive GHG reductions. (See Prop. 4 below for more background on this point.)
• Yes or no?

Proposition 3. Transport share: The transport sector accounts for roughly 25 +/- 5% of this total load (And something like twice that when it comes to fossil fuel consumption.) . It is thus a priority target for public policy.
• Yes or no?

Proposition 4. Sustainable transportation: Turns out that we are in luck. Happily, GHG reductions work as an excellent surrogate for just about everything else we need to fix in our sector as well: namely, giving us a strong strategic framework and leverage to attain all of the necessary preconditions of sustainable transport, This includes reductions of traffic and its consequences, rationalization of speeds, fossil fuel savings, energy independence, affordable mobility, personal and public economics, public health, social equity, etc. Drive down GHGs and we are well on the way to achieving the rest. (Now, it does not automatically solve all our specific sustainable transportation problems, but it does give us the robust envelope of priorities and conditions within which to make our specific choices.)
• Yes or no?

Proposition 5. Time window: The critical time window to achieve these reductions is the 2 to 4 years directly ahead. (Hey! the period of the first Obama administration or your own period in office.) And less we forget, planetary stresses are so severe that any failure to put off these near-term large-scale reductions will have disastrous consequences.
• Yes or no?

Proposition 6. Scale: How big should the reductions be in this suddenly very short target period? Whatever it is it must be bold. It must be on that scale to have the level of impacts that are required to avoid the worst. It may have to be as high as 20 to 50 percent for the four year period. But of course the exact target will depend on place, etc.
• Yes or no?

Proposition 7. Traffic reductions: The only way to achieve the scale reductions required in that tight timeframe is through achieving corresponding scale cutbacks in motor vehicle traffic, and more specifically in terms of VMT/VKT (vehicle miles/kms travelled) reductions. (There is NO OTHER WAY TO DO IT. And don't think that this is going to be a purely negative policy. To the contrary with a well thought- out policy we can get more and better mobility with a lot less traffic - and that has to be our overarching goal.)
• Yes or no?

Proposition 8. Feasibility: We are in luck. This is not utopian thinking. Our sector has so much fat in it that we are going to be able to slim it even at the very high levels which are needed. Using technology aggressively (that is IT and organizational skills) we are going to be able to get more bang per mile, more bang per gallon of the vehicles that are out there on the road. We are going to have more, better and fairer mobility with less traffic, less pollution, less energy, and less wasted public money. And it will be a policy with far more options and choices at that any period in the past. Did someone say . . . yes we can?
• Yes or no?


* * *

How are we doing? To this "insider" the least that I can say is that this simple list gives us the core of the strategy which we now need to articulate, then work to get some kind of strong consensus on (it won't be universal, you will see), and finally put to work.

In summary whatever we give attention to in this high emergency context:
• Must be capable of achieving significant bottom line GHG reductions in the two to four years directly ahead.
• And offer a new combination of more mobility (access)0 and less traffic.

If your preferred technology or policy option passes these two tests, then it is an eventual candidate for short sting . And if not, not!


2. ACTIONS

We now have a pretty good idea of what we need to do -- next comes the task of figuring out how we are going do it. The means, the actions, policies, services, technologies, procedures, institutions, roles, pricing arrangements, legal frameworks, enforcement, finance and all the rest.

So, what are the sorts of things that we need to be giving attention to in this new paradigm. To get us going on this, let's sketch some examples of the literally thousands of tools, technologies, measures, policies, services, instruments (economic and other) that can be combined to achieve our ambitious objectives. Here are a first handful of different approaches to get the discussions going.

1. Trip elimination/travel substitution
This is the most powerful single instrument we have at our disposal, though some of them, land use changes come to mind, are going to lie toward the outer edge of our target period. Still, there is a lot that can be done to bring them on line into our time frame. Bearing in mind that we are talking about the elimination of motorized trips here (think carbon transport), among the wide spectrum of choices available : trip planning, chaining, grouping, land use shifts, scheduling (4 day weeks for instance), teleshopping and tele- quite a few other things as well, and the substitution of electronic for physical travel (of which there is a huge variety of examples). Most of these are low cost , readily implementable, and if we get them properly orchestrated can be made into significant components of the overall new mobility reform strategy. We also have seen enough successful examples of their use in a wide variety of circumstances that this indeed not be an area of great uncertainty and failure. Plenty of solid experience and information out there to build on.

2. Move away from SOE (single occupancy vehicles) – and toward something better
There is a huge range of approaches for increasing load factors in the cars out there on the street, without impinging on free choice or increasing costs in unfair manners. To the contrary, once we get the policy frame right, the new arrangements will be "BFC" – better, faster, and cheaper for those who decide to shift over to them. Voluntarily mind you, and as much for anything else for economic reasons.

Here is a first sample of the sorts of things that are available to get us going on this: ridesharing, carsharing, taxi sharing, competitive public transit, and new forms of group service that are heavily reinforced by new information technologies and organizational forms.

3. Move from motorized to non-motorized transport
This process is already in place well engaged: cites at the leading edge are giving a greatly expanded role to and support of bicycles and walking. The examples are many, varied, clear and there for the taking and adaptation. The key being infrastructure modification, about which there are two key points to be made here. First, none of it is to require new construction, Rather the public space is taken from what previously were used (for the most part poorly) by high-carbon and also space-inefficient transport, and recycled to these no-carbon, space efficient, healthy and finally social systems of private transport. True auto-mobility if you will. Beyond this, the shirt from motorized to non-motorized transport has to be accompanied by a ballet legal measure favoring lighter slower transport, enforcement of the law, and fiscal and tax shifts.

4. New forms of public and shared transport
There is enormous room for improvement here since public transport has by and large been fossilized in what are basically early 20th century delivery and institutional patterns. Fixed route, fixed schedule. This is no substitute for car travel, but we now have to clean out the stables of laws, ordnances, practices, and open up the possibility of a true renaissance in the sector. Most of this is going to involved small and medium sized (and some large) vehicles with motors (and in the year immediately ahead mainly internal combustion engines, albeit of greatly improved performance in the three key areas (fuel efficiency, emissions, and costs)). The whole thing to be driven as is the case in almost all of these new mobility services by great gobs of information and communications technologies that are going to give the services the very high levels of performance that is possible once you set your mind to it. (The upper limit of new system construction is state of the art tramways, which we are seeing being built on the streets at reasonable levels of cost (though not always) and within our time frame (albeit at the upper limit).

5. Infrastructure adaptation
The key word for the new policy in our plan period is adaptation -- not construction. There will be no time for any large new infrastructure road, bridge or metro projects, but enormous opportunities for adapting the infrastructure we already have in place. Our roads and streets are so unstrategically used today in most places that it is almost imposable to have done worse. (We must have been trying.) So as we reduce the number of moving and parked motor vehicles to replace them with more effective services, this will open up a renaissance of adaptations, opening up room for safe cycling, walking and public spaces, including eventually local parks and play and recreational areas. These parts of the streets become not just conduits as in the past, but even destinations. And the adaptations will include slow streets, complete streets, naked streets and all the rest.

Parking policy, practices and pricing will be important components of this fundamental overhaul. There are few places in the world today that have a completely rational parking policy – the only one that can help us attain the objectives of this Plan B transition strategy. And it is not just a matter of eliminating parking but also in making it more efficient. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are still going to have lots of cars in and around our cites, so we getter know where to stash them conveniently when not in use. Once again lots of IT in that.

6. Economic and fiscal instruments
The present pricing, fiscal and legal instruments in most part of the world favor, for historic reasons, private cars and motorized transport more generally. The playing field is not level, and there is enormous room for using these instruments to more toward full cost pricing. And full cost pricing, fair pricing is going to provide incentives for the better forms of mobility which are needed if we are to make the transition to a low carbon society with all that entails. And as we have seen with the vigorous debates and divergences encountered in virtually all congestion or road pricing proposals in this first decade of the new century, these are complex considerations which need to be handled with subtlety and care. But it can be done, and it should be done.

To conclude this section on actions and measures: the point is that there are a huge range of concepts and tools that are available to be put to work to shape the system in the years immediately ahead, so the question becomes not so much what but how to do it. Which brings us to our third and final section of this recommendation.

3. ACTORS

To open up this final section, let's refer back briefly to the opening question: "What are the appropriate roles and responsibilities for the Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency?"

Big question, but rather than try to answer this universally and in an abstract sense here, let's instead take and examine how this might workout in the case of a single and rather simple new mobility example: carsharing.

Here are a few useful truths about carsharing to get us going on this

• Carsharing is not by itself going to solve the problems of local transport in our cities, suburbs and rural areas. It is just one new mobility tool ,among many.

• The actual number of cars and trips ultimately is never going to be that huge. Carsharing is neither going to solve all our problems of local transport, nor will it save the US automotive industry.

• Carsharing is thus what we call a "one percent solution", in addition to which it has this unusual lynchpin role. But even where we have it in place and working well, we are still going to have to figure out the remaining ninety nine percent. And that is what the New Mobility Agenda is all about.

• That said, it has a key role to play, namely as a vital linchpin in the pallet of new mobility modes. Carsharing serves in a dynamic sense to provide a bridging strategy for people, first to test how they might live without actually owning a car, or at least one less car. Or perhaps never to buy a car in the first place and still be able to drive when they need one. Carsharing is flexible and trying it requires little commitment or cost. But once in any given place a reasonable number of non-car mobility options begin to appear, the idea of carsharing begins to take a new shape. For some multi-car families it will allow them to shed one of their cars. For others once the full range of non-car options is in place, there will be people who are in a position to get rid of their own car altogether.

• As it happens there are more than one thousand cities in the world where you can pick up a carshare vehicle this morning. And that this number had doubled in the past three years alone. It is thus a fully operational system and on a high growth trajectory, which already provides some useful clues for the supporting role that these government agencies might execute.

• It is now fair to say and based on the wide range of experience already in existence, that every city and many smaller communities across the United States, including in rural areas, are potential candidates for carsharing. That carsharing until now something practiced in the main in the States by relatively affluent city dwellers, is also something that needs to be explored both for poorer people.

• So the question then becomes, what can these federal agencies do to bring about this important alternative mobility arrangement quickly, universally and well?

Rest of this section to follow.



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