By Alina Koch Lawrence
A whopping 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. That is about one and a half times more than emissions from the power sector. A host of statewide energy policies, such as Energy Efficiency laws and ambitious Renewable Portfolio Standards are effectively reducing energy-related emissions. Many would agree that the energy policies in California are among the world’s most progressive.
Supply versus demand
Achieving a similarly impressive success within the transportation sector is a bit more challenging. Unlike in the highly regulated energy sector, transportation policies deal with individual consumer choice. In reality, most of us don’t choose where our energy comes from. However, we choose whether we travel by car, the type of car we purchase, the fuel we use and how far we travel. With an expected population increase (30 percent growth between 2010 and 2040 in the Bay Area), progressive transportation policies and infrastructure planning is imperative for the future. Regulations aimed toward the supply side, such as the Clean Car Pavley Standards, ZEV Program, SB375, and Low Carbon Fuel Standard Program (LCSF) are targeting transportation-related emissions reductions in various ways. But, achieving behavioral change on the demand side is more difficult. Ultimately, consumers are the decision makers – and they are the ones that have a significant stake in transforming our infrastructure to one that is less polluted, less congested and less oil-dependent.
Electrically powered transportation is part of the answer…
We rely almost entirely on one type of fuel for transportation (over 96 percent of U.S. transportation is powered by oil). Eileen Tutt, Executive Director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition, reasoned during a panel session at the Navigating the American Carbon World conference that electricity is California’s cleanest alternative fuel available. She noted that in contrast to older gasoline-powered cars, which tend to be less fuel-efficient, electric vehicles (EVs) get cleaner with age due to an increasingly cleaner grid power in California.
Sacramento has developed appropriate policies to boost deployment of electric vehicles, such as the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program targeting 1.5 million ZEVs in California by 2025. During a keynote speech in San Francisco, Mary Nichols, Chair(wo)man of the California Air Resources Board reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to reducing transportation-related emissions. As a result of effective policies and consumer preference, about one third of all electric vehicles sold in the United States go to California alone, currently we have more than 20,000 EVs throughout the state (not as many as initially forecasted but EV charging infrastructure installments are taking place statewide). An ameliorating fact for EV skeptics: contrary to a common assumption, electric vehicles sell more than twice as fast as hybrids during their infancy stage. Considering that California now has over 500,000 hybrid vehicles, this should boost optimism for EV enthusiasts and skeptics alike.
Cleaner cars are great, fewer cars overall are even better
Improving fuel economy and reducing tailpipe emissions is a significant component to reaching California’s aggressive, but feasible, climate goals. Higher fuel efficiency and carbon intensity standards for cars have been effective. Simultaneously, we also need an infrastructure that doesn’t rely on cars. On any given day, California roads host 30 million vehicles. Even the cleanest cars won’t solve our severe congestion problems. Beyond concerns about vehicle tailpipe emissions, densely populated areas deal with public health issues, directly and indirectly, related to congestion and long commutes, resulting from suburban sprawl.
The Bay Area recently ranked highest in the U.S. for commute length. Some Bay Area commuters drive as long as 1.5 hours to and from work. This daily grind is associated with considerable negative health effects. A Portland State University study has shown that commuters who bike and walk have a well-being index nearly three times as high as that of people driving to work alone (lowest well-being index of all forms of commutes). Shifting transportation modes from driving alone to carpooling, biking, walking or transit has several valuable benefits. It reduces the number of cars on the road, lowers emissions and improves physical and mental well-being.
Of course, this kind of behavioral change requires an adequate infrastructure. Many cities have already started improving the safety and appeal of walking and biking (dedicated bike lanes, sidewalk enlargement/improvements, such as pedestrian zones, parklets, tree/greenery planting, etc.). Notably, municipalities with fewer drivers and more pedestrians, bikers and transit users, experience an increased sense of community and enjoy cleaner air while they are burning calories.
Stimulating demand by providing more options
Admittedly, coming from Germany, I was spoiled by reliable, efficient, affordable and comfortable public transportation. Upon moving to San Francisco nine years ago, I quickly noticed a difference. It is difficult to convince people not to drive when the alternatives are unattractive or even unfeasible. San Franciscans struggle with an inefficient, unreliable and peak time-overcrowded public transit system. New Yorkers were not compelled to bike until the city invested in the bicycle development program. Inevitably, the chicken or the egg dilemma arises. Would more people take public transit if it were accessible, reliable, and affordable? Would biking become a better alternative if it were safer? I dare to say: yes, they would. For example, expansion and improvements of bike lanes increased ridership by 71% in San Francisco over the past five years and more than doubled in New York City since 2005, which reaffirms the notion of “build it and they will come.”
Therefore, I am excited to see the progression of California’s long-term strategies, including regional planning policies, that are aimed at reducing the commute distance, transit priority focus and high-speed rail. Expanding rail-based transit, for instance, is an extremely capital-intensive and politically sensitive undertaking and requires support across several stakeholder groups. Without going into the politics of high-speed rail, let’s just consider that NIMBYism (“Not In My BackYard”) seems to reflect a rather undemocratic process in a democratic state.
Transforming our transportation infrastructure won’t happen overnight. While policies improving the supply side are taking shape, our individual transportation choices can have a more immediate impact. As soon as the next time we are headed somewhere, every single one of us can make a deliberate choice as to how we get there – be that by carpooling, biking, walking or taking transit. More often than not, one of these choices is more feasible than we think…and healthier, too.