Friday, January 19, 2018

Decarbonizing transportation: What state DOTs can do

Having recently spent a few days meeting with several thousand of my friends and colleagues in transportation (otherwise known as the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board), I wanted to share a few nuggets of information I picked up.
What can state DOTs do to advance decarbonization of the transportation system?
First of all, it’s encouraging that this was a prominent topic for discussion, including in a workshop dedicated to it.
Some general thoughts gleaned from various presenters and commentators:
·      The transportation sector is getting increased attention as the electricity generation sector is – in many places – rapidly cleaning up, leaving transportation as the next big challenge.
·      State DOTs need to move beyond their normal limits, getting involved in areas of the transportation space where they may have no direct jurisdiction but which may be critical for decarbonization efforts.
·      Many states have adopted a “toolbox” approach to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but likely the “big two” tools are promoting electric vehicle adoption (or, more precisely, increasing electric vehicle miles traveled – eVMT) and carbon pricing.  All the other measures are probably only nibbling at the problem.
·      And speaking of those toolboxes, how about evaluating how they are working?  A number of states adopted climate change action plans or energy master plans about 10 years ago or so.  A few have decided (I think it’s a great idea) to go back to those plans and take a look at how many of the proposed measures were actually adopted, how well they worked, and what lessons can be learned for planning the next 10 years.
And a few state-specific notes:
·       Minnesotans are becoming very attuned to climate change issues, as the state is experiencing higher temperature increases than any other state.   Minnesota DOT has set up a “Sustainable Transportation Steering Committee” that plans to publish an annual scorecard (first edition here) based on targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions in MnDOT facilities, fleet, highway operations, roadside management, and construction areas. 
·      In Washington State the transportation sector accounts for a whopping 44% of greenhouse gas emissions (a lot of electricity is provided through hydroelectric power), leading WSDOT to keep climate change issues on the front burner.  In addition to their well-known commitment to the West Coast Electric Highway (being strengthened through deployment of new Fast Chargers), the agency is funding electric buses, looking into the possibility of electric ferries (!), operating a new Active Transportation Division, and pursuing a wide range of partnership initiatives with other agencies and local governments.  The state already has a carbon cap in place, including transportation, but does not yet have a “trade” or “invest” component to the scheme.

·      I think most of us would put California in the lead for dealing with transportation decarbonization, as they are in so many spheres.  Perhaps their most important initiative right now is the carbon cap-and-invest program, which extends to the transportation sector.  But Caltrans is also undertaking a wide range of important activities.  To name a few: GHG emissions from department operations have been reduced by 40 in 6 years; $220 million a year is now programmed for Active Transportation(!); construction and materials (e.g., concrete) are being researched; the highway design manual has been revised to encourage flexilibility for multimodal transportation (called “facilities,” not “amenities”); the new high-speed rail line is planned as the spine of the state’s transportation network.  Lots of good stuff!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Good Morning Mobilitéit!

A little good transportation news (or, good transportation news from a little country?)……..
Yes, we could all use some good news.  How about a brand-new, spiffy-looking tram in Luxembourg!
The new tram – very reminiscent of the Strasbourg tram – connects several major activity centers, including the expo center, university, European institutions, etc.  In a few years the line will extend to the city center, main railway station, and airport.
Two new regional rail stations interconnect with the tram, one requiring a funicular connection.
Of course, being Europe, the plan also includes bus connections, a bikeway, bike lockers, and electric vehicle chargers.  The whole scheme is packaged as “Good Morning Mobilitéit!” (“mobility” in Luxembourgish – website here)
Speaking of Luxembourgish, I love the video (here) narrated in that little-known language.  (The subtitles are in French, and if that doesn’t help, the video works anyway!)  Another introductory video can be found here.
The cars are very sleek and modern and look like they fit perfectly with a city that combines old-world charm and ultramodern institutions (again like Strasbourg).
The modern European tram combines features of what in the US we would call light rail and streetcars. 

Some day maybe we can have good things here too!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

My report on Maryland transportation performance measures is out

I’m pleased to say that my report on Maryland transportation performance measures is now available here.
This is work that I have done for 1,000 Friends of Maryland and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, two excellent nonprofit advocacy groups that have been leading the struggle to defend and improve good transportation decision-making in the state.
The back story (very condensed) is that as a result of the last gubernatorial election, Maryland transportation and land use decision-making took one of its periodic steps backward (elections have consequences!).  The Legislature, with outside leadership supplied by 1,000 Friends and CMTA, enacted a law requiring a quantitative, transparent project selection process for transportation capacity increase projects as a way of preventing too much slippage.  The law specified a set of goals and performance measures and directed the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to adopt implementing regulations.  MDOT said – rather incredibly – that these performance measures were too difficult to implement.  As part of the ensuing hullabaloo (you don’t want to know all the details), I was brought on board to demonstrate that implementing these performance measures is, in fact, very doable.  Hence, the current report, which is an expanded version of legislative testimony submitted previously by 1,000 Friends and CMTA.
The report reviews each of the statutory performance measures and identifies best practices which MDOT can bring in to implement the law.  (Interestingly, MDOT is now circulating a draft report that aims at getting back in the game.)

This controversy is not over, but I think the takeway is that advocacy groups, if they stay focused and bring in expert help, can hold agencies to a higher standard.  DOTs do better when they have energetic, well-informed, and well-equipped groups engaging with them.

Monday, December 11, 2017

York PA takes the prize!

One of the many good things the advocacy group “10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania” does is to hand out annual “Commonwealth Awards” recognizing the state’s best Smart Growth developments (full disclosure: 10,000 Friends is a client of mine).
This year’s awards celebrated the great stuff happening in York PA.
York is a mid-size city (~40,000 city, ~100,000 metro) with an industrial past, urban texture, lots of empty rustbelt-type buildings, AND several dynamic and successful redevelopment schemes.  The awards ceremony testified to the vitality of public-sector, developer, and nonprofit initiatives.
The full list of awardees will be posted on the 10,000Friends website, but here are some of my personal favorites:
·      York College has restored and renovated a classic townhouse (the former Lafayette Club) in the center of the city to serve as the college’s “downtown foothold,” housing its community engagement center and various town/gown programs.
·      Warehaus” – an “interdisciplinary design firm with deep industrial roots” – has renovated an old plumbing supply warehouse into a modern, LEED-platinum, industrial-style headquarters, complete with ground-level commercial development.
·      Another old industrial site – the Keystone ColorWorks – is being transformed into a residential site, with 29 high-end, loft-style units, complete with a fitness center and a green rooftop deck overlooking the Codorus Creek.
·      The “Think Loud” development – in another industrial setting – includes a world-class recording studio (home to the York rock band LIVE) and space for startups.
·      The big award winner was the “Royal SquareDistrict,” a four-block area transformed by RSDC developers into a mixed-use neighborhood with art galleries, restaurants (including a space for popup restaurants), shops, a brewpub, and a wedding and event venue.

Congrats to York for its many successful redevelopment schemes – and to 10,000 Friends for spotlighting them!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Thanks Dru!

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland for 19 years, has decided to move on.  A big loss for them, but hopefully a big gain for someone else in the Smart Growth and Transportation Reform world!  (Full disclosure: 1,000 Friends is a client of mine)
Dru’s many accomplishments are summarized in a good story from the Bay Journal (here).  For me, Dru’s work demonstrates that smart, thorough, persistent work can make a big difference.  As the article indicates, she has been a fixture at the Maryland legislature, continually educating and working for better outcomes.  Obviously she couldn’t single-handedly prevent all the nuttiness that happens in a legislative setting, but she made a huge difference.  Her work also reminds us that the state legislatures are more than even the front lines in the struggle for smarter growth, smarter planning, and smarter transportation.  And her example should reinvigorate all of us that work at the state level.

Thanks Dru!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Tesla rolls out its electric truck

Elon Musk has rolled out the Tesla electric semi-truck and – no surprise – it’s supercool.
This baby is streamlined, loaded with safety and automation features, able to travel 500 miles fully-loaded on a single charge, and capable of going from 0 to 60 mph in 20 seconds (also fully-loaded).
Will the Tesla truck actually reach production and be competitive with diesel rigs?  Predictions differ.  What is important, in my view, is that serious manufacturers are vigorously pursuing electric power (Daimler, VW, and Cummins are also in the fray).  Decarbonizing the freight sector is a challenge, and frankly one that many of my “freighty” friends don’t yet take seriously.  Yet it has to happen, and the sooner the better.  (Next stop, hydrogen fuel cell locomotives?)

Thanks to Elon Musk for showcasing this critical new technology!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Still crashing after all these years (the Can Opener Bridge)

Call it schadenfreude or voyeurism or something else, but it’s hard to resist watching the videos of truck after truck crashing into the low railroad overpass in Durham, North Carolina, captured for posterity on the amazing website
For those who haven’t watched, the website has two fixed cameras that record the occurrence of trucks failing to obey the flashing lights and clearly posted height limit and slicing off the top of their truck and/or getting stuck by running straight into the bridge.  This happens on average about once a month.  A lot of the trucks seem to be rentals, so I guess that unfamiliarity with the vehicle is some sort of excuse (although when I’m in a rented vehicle I tend to be super-cautious and observant).

I don’t know what lessons can be drawn from this crazy place, but it sure reminds us that the human element is always unpredictable.