Changes to the landscape of urban transportation are becoming increasingly inevitable. These changes are driven by the combination of government clean air and greenhouse gas reduction mandates, the effects of “Peak Oil” (exacerbated by China and India moving more towards personal auto-based transit), and the economic impacts of lost productivity due to highway congestion.
Unfortunately, any increases in vehicle fuel economy are offset by the increasing number of vehicles and the problems are compounded by dwindling oil reserves. Even if oil shale-based fuels are fully developed, the days of cheap and easy oil extraction are numbered. Private industry and federal, state, and local governments and agencies are already planning for the changes needed to address these issues.
According to the Department of Energy’s “Clean Cities” initiative website, the U.S. imported nearly 45% of the petroleum it used in 2011 and nearly two-thirds of this came from outside North America. Due to the fact that transportation consumes 71% of the petroleum consumed, any reductions in our reliance on petroleum-based fuels will support our economy and our energy security.
Big Changes Are Coming on the Local Front
If the details contained in the San Diego Association of Government’s (SANDAG) Regional Transportation Plan are any indication, it will be a 40 year, multi-billion dollar effort to make the kinds of improvements to the San Diego area’s transit infrastructure required to meet state and federal greenhouse emissions reduction standards.
The short and long term goals contained in the SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan and the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) include changes to town planning and zoning to encourage higher density, more walk and bike-friendly neighborhoods; construction of more dedicated lanes for high capacity vehicles, additional train and trolley lines, more investment in electric vehicle and alternative fuels infrastructures, and supporting what is called “Active Transportation” (such as walking and bicycling).
In other words “there is no silver bullet” to getting “green” cities and transit systems, but rather an entire arsenal of strategies that planners and civic leaders will need to use to incrementally change the pattern of individual car-based commuting.
At the local level the SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan calls for investing an estimated $214 billion in local, state, and federal transportation funds over the next 40 years. In the first 10 years of the RTP 34% of these funds will be for highway improvements (such as adding high occupancy vehicle lanes to existing freeway corridors) and 21% will go to local roads and streets.
SANDAG’s RTP envisions that in the next 40 years 1.25 million residents will live in our region, which will require the construction of nearly 400,000 new homes. (See http://sandag.org/ for the planning details).
The 2050 SANDAG RTP considers several new developments including the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the need to accommodate our region’s aging population, and to address the increasing patterns of infill and redevelopment in the region’s western third. In addition, the plan also places an emphasis on the public health benefits of “Active Transportation” modes such as walking and bicycling.
SANDAG’s planning also includes creating a north-south trolley corridor which would be sited along the I-805 corridor to connect University City, Kearny Mesa, Mission Valley, Mid-City, southeastern San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, and San Ysidro. Three new east-west trolley lines would also be built to serve commuters between University City and Mira Mesa, from Pacific Beach to East County via Kearny Mesa and Mission Valley, and from downtown San Diego to San Diego State University.
SANDAG’s RTP notes that one of the biggest impediments to using public transit is the “first mile/last mile” challenge of getting to and from a transit stop or station. Some of their proposed steps to overcome this obstacle are to create enhanced pedestrian crosswalks near transit stations, create bicycle lanes that connect to transit stations, and to install bike parking at transit stations.
Other SANDAG plans envision adding feeder/distributor bus and shuttle routes and increasing car sharing and ride sharing. The agency’s plans also include making bicycling and walking more viable options for everyday travel to increase mobility, reduce greenhouse gases, and improve public health. SANDAG’s Sustainable Communities Strategy envisions a doubling of the percentage of work trips made by walking, bicycling, and taking public transit with nearly one third of the commutes being made using modes of transportation other than driving alone.
One goal of the SANDAG planning would be to meet or exceed the CARB’s greenhouse gas reduction mandates. The 2050 RTP for the San Diego Region would result in greenhouse gas emission reductions that exceed the state’s targets for 2020 and meet them for 2035. Adhering to the RTP would result in a 14% reduction in emissions by 2020, and a 13% reduction by 2035.
The transit improvements required to meet these goals are such that by 2050 the percentage of solo driver, peak period commutes need to fall from 81% to 69%. Also, by 2050 15% of commuters will need to carpool (up from 11% in 2008). In the same period the percentage of local public transit commuters will need to almost double (from 6% in 2008 to 11% in 2050) and the commuters who bicycle or walk to work must double (from 2.4% to 4.8%).
In a telephone interview San Diego City Councilmen and mayoral candidate David Alvarez acknowledged the challenges facing commuters who use public transit, bikes, and carpools including what is called the ”first mile/last mile” problem. Councilman Alvarez, who often rides his bike, noted that the upcoming San Diego Bike Sharing program may result in higher numbers of cyclists who may eventually result in motorists being more careful and respectful of the riders. This program would, he added, be a “green” way to get people to their end destinations or to and from the trolley and ride sharing stations to overcome the “first mile/last mile” issue.
He added that “SANDAG’s policies are now more attuned to active transportation than they have been in the past and that grant funding is now targeted to more of those types of accessibility.”
He contends that striking a balance in developing alternative modes of transportation is a key to going green and that we should not focus solely on building more vehicle lanes and more parking spaces. Alvarez noted that some recent decisions have been steps backwards such as the lack of transfers between the MTS bus and trolley systems and he noted that the newly purchased trolley cars have even less room for cyclists to board with their bikes than did the previous trolley cars.
Another San Diego mayoral candidate, Michael Aguirre, has four key priorities in his plan to restore and improve San Diego's critical infrastructure including: securing our water supply, lowering electric rates, paving the city’s roads and maintaining and reopening our parks, recreation centers and libraries. While his plan does not specifically address our unhealthy dependence on hydrocarbons in transportation, he notes that other nations, such as Germany do a better job of relying on renewable energy sources. He cited studies that show that Germany gets 45% of its electricity from photo-voltaic solar systems.
He added that “San Diego's number one resource is sunshine, yet our green energy portfolio remains at less than the legally mandated 20%.” He recalls that earlier in this century, San Diego Trolley Tracks ran down El Cajon Boulevard to what was then the end of San Diego's urban infrastructure near 44th Street. When those tracks were destroyed, he noted, our city’s commuters had limited options for public transportation. He stated that an important part of his plan is to create a renaissance in our parks, roadways, and bike paths. He contends that just by repaving roads the region’s residents will save fuel and commuter costs (by some estimates, a typical commuter spends an extra $700.00 a year on repairs and lost fuel created by poorly-maintained roads).
If elected, his administration would explore options for increasing electric vehicle use with power derived from an expanded, distributed solar generation system. Mr. Aguirre says that he would negotiate with SDG&E to develop green power sources to save the City and its taxpayers money, encourage conservation, and help create a more thriving and vibrant green economy for San Diego.
State Mandates Drive the Process
On the state level, two laws passed in 2006 and 2008 (AB-32 and SB-375) mandated local agencies such as SANDAG to develop plans to lower statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Senate Bill 375 supports the implementation of AB 32 by encouraging planning practices to help create sustainable communities.
SB 375 also tasked the California Air Resources Board (CARB) with setting regional targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. It also mandates organizations like SANDAG to prepare Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS), which must show how regions will meet the legislated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentally “Sustainable Communities” are those which are more conducive to walking and bicycling and that will also have more access to public transit.
According to the September 13, 2012 “Los Angeles Times” the AB-32 California law was challenged in court by fossil fuel and bio fuels lobby groups as interfering with interstate commerce, but were recently upheld in a case before the Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the agency level, part of California’s Caltrans District 11 mission statement says that “…building a multimodal transportation system that provides the public with more choices and reliability is a primary component of the department’s mission.” (See www.dot.ca.gov/dist11/aboutus/DistrictDirector.htm).
Federal Initiatives Take the Long View
On the national level the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Clean Cities Program (http://www1.eere.energy.gov/cleancities/) has for twenty years helped local governments transform their transportation infrastructures (saving more than 5 billion gallons of petroleum since its inception in 1993). The tactics of the Clean Cities Program include helping vehicle fleets and consumers reduce their reliance on petroleum by adopting alternative and renewable fuels, reducing vehicle idle times, and supporting emerging transportation technologies.
The Clean Cities Program literature maintains that the widespread adoption of electric and alternative fuel vehicle, higher MPG Standards, and improved public mass transit will all result in lower greenhouse gas emissions and improved public health.
Private Industry Is Addressing the Issues
Private industry is motivated to explore the many ways to address this high usage of fossil fuels in our vehicles. For example, a study conducted by GSE Engineering (an advanced diesel engine designer in South Lake Tahoe) showed that 15% of all the fuel burned in a typical internal combustion engine goes into overcoming piston ring friction. Even a small improvement in this area would, in the aggregate, result in substantial fuel savings.
The private sector is developing an array of new technologies and transit planning schemes that will allow for increased traffic volumes on existing roadways. Siemens, the German maker of street cars and trolleys has also developed a traffic flow system called SCOOT, which is an intelligent traffic control system that allows for the automated resetting of traffic signals during peak commute hours.
On its website Siemens maintains that transit systems such as trams or metros will become more important network for connecting people (especially in cities where space is limited). For intercity travel Siemens envisions the use of high speed rail systems such as the Siemens Velaro, which consumes only 0.14 gallons of fuel per seat per 100 miles. Siemens maintains a web site dedicated to showcasing 27 of the world’s “greenest” cities (see http://www.siemens.com/entry/cc/en/greencityindex.htm). Google and Mercedes Benz are developing a series of computer controlled cars, which they claim will safely accommodate higher traffic densities.
Some cities such a Portland, Hong Kong, and Barcelona are using aerial gondola systems similar to those used at ski resorts as highly efficient “people movers” to provide mass transit in areas that would be impossible to build roads due to geographical or right-of-way constraints. These systems are up to ten times more efficient per passenger mile than are some commuter buses. In addition, these systems do not require continued road expansion and maintenance.
The Only Way Out Is Moving Forward
It will be a long and complicated process to realize the transit and environmental improvements contained in the mandates and plans put forward by private industry and at the federal, state, and local levels. In the SANDAG RTP the challenges and costs of creating sustainable communities are weighed against the costs of doing nothing. From two vantage points, it does not matter whether people and politicians accept the current science on global warming and the costs of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.
One vantage point is shown in a 2013 report by Citigroup that contends that Saudi Arabia may turn into a net oil importer by 2030. Another vantage point is the stark fact that insurance companies have already begun to hike up premiums and to withhold issuing new policies in coastal areas in the face of the insurer’s anticipation of higher risks due to climatic changes. These two factors mean that we will all be paying more for oil and paying higher premiums for climate change, whether or not we believe it will come to pass.