Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My congressman was a rocket scientist

Bad news: Rush Holt, New Jersey congressman and scientist, is wrapping up his Capitol Hill career.
Good news: Rush will be the new CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science! (story here)
Now that the Flat Earth Society has a working majority in both houses of Congress, we can only hope that Rush Holt will be able to use his new platform to argue persuasively for science, reason, creativity, and optimism.   This is clearly his platform – including seeing the need for imaginative new thinking in transportation! (see some nice quotes in the linked story)
We continue in this country to spend far too much money on 20th century solutions to 20th century problems and very little on developing and implementing 21st century solutions to 21st century problems.  Let’s hope Rush can give us a boost!

FYI, Rush Holt (who is not now, but has been my congressman) is really a plasma physics guy, not a spaceflight guy, but “My congressman is a rocket scientist” has to be one of the best political bumper stickers of all time!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Latest climate change report: Situation normal, awfuller and awfuller

The latest climate change report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientists is out and has the usual grim warnings.  I read with interest the “summary for policymakers” of the final report.  Unfortunately, it’s a difficult summary (22 pages of dense text and 18 pages of complicated tables and charts) and probably not much use to policymakers.  All the pieces of the 2014 status report can be found here, including a set of “headline statements,” which are a bit easier to follow.
The important takeaways (from my point of view):
·      Yes, things are continuing to get worse.
·      The good news, mitigation works: “Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.”
·      The bad news, it’s still going to get worse: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
·      The bad stuff that can happen?  “In urban areas, climate change is projected to increase risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems, including risks from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise, and storm surges.”  (Yowsers!)
·      How urgent is mitigation?  “Delaying additional mitigation to 2030 will substantially increase the challenges associated with limiting warming over the 21st century.”  (How is that looking after Tuesday’s election results?)
Although the document doesn’t offer much for policymakers (I don’t think that was their mandate), it does suggest some guideposts for further policy work.  For instance, they note that mitigation strategies and adaptation strategies can often yield “co-benefits.”  Examples: “(i) improved energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources, leading to reduced emissions of health-damaging climate-altering air pollutants; (ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services.”  There are also, however, tradeoffs that may need to be made.
There is no attention paid to transportation, other than the barest mention that very large investments in “low carbon electricity supply and energy efficiency” in transportation and other sectors will be vital to any mitigation strategy.  (This fits with my view that electrifying the transportation system is job number one.)
Unfortunately, the chances for an educated public policy debate on climate change in this country are bleak and have become bleaker.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of urgent work to be done, and the latest IPCC report documents both the gravity of the problem and the size of the gap we in the transportation policy world need to close between the facts of climate change and workable, real-world policies and programs.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Taming King of Prussia

King of Prussia – if you don’t know it – is one of those regional supermall/supersprawl sites, in this case 18 miles from center city Philadelphia.   The good news is that small initial steps are being taken to tame the sprawl and make this mess of an area a bit more transit-accessible, walkable, and mixed-use.
A recent panel discussion in Philadelphia (“Crowning the New King of Prussia”) provided an update on key happenings (press story here):
·      A Draft EIS is moving forward for an extension of the Norristown High-Speed Line rapid transit service to King of Prussia,
·      The local municipality, Upper Merion Township, has rezoned a core area for mixed-used development, with real prospects for new residential development (currently the vast majority of the 50,000 people who work in the area commute by car from neighboring towns), and
·      The local business improvement district has committed to ameliorating the “everything looks like a highway” appearance of the place with some landscaping, road diets, and programmed open spaces.
Unfortunately the transit line – if all goes well! – won’t be in revenue service for another 9 years.  SEPTA, the transit agency, now has a good supply of state money from the recent revenue package, but still needs to compete for very scarce federal New Starts money.  We as a nation just plain spend far too little on new transit.  Even when money is available, it takes an excruciatingly long time to plan, design, and build projects, even when they provide enormous environmental and economic benefits.
The panel discussion included direct comparisons with the Tysons redevelopment plans in northern Virginia.  The Tysons complex is twice as big as King of Prussia and the planned redevelopment and Metro extension are far more extensive.  But at least King of Prussia is making a start!

Congrats to PenTrans (Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions), who sponsored the program, one of a long series of events they have held to educate opinion leaders and promote sustainable transportation (PenTrans website here; full disclosure: I serve on the PenTrans board).