Monday, June 12, 2017

A step forward for Paris and carbon caps

Despite all the hullabaloo about the US leaving the Paris Accord (and joining the new Triple Entente with Syria and Nicaragua), work to advance the (almost) worldwide climate change effort goes forward.  Many of these initiatives have been covered in the media.  One important step forward – with miniscule media attention – is publication of a new report on carbon pricing.
The Report of the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, written by a blue-ribbon group of economists, sets out a global strategy for putting an extra price on carbon dioxide emissions (report available here).  Their argument:  “A well-designed carbon price is an indispensable part of a strategy for reducing emissions in an effective and cost-efficient way… Carbon prices encourage producers to decrease the carbon intensity of the energy sector and manufactured products, and consumers to choose less carbon-intensive goods.”
The report goes on to discuss the two main policy alternatives for putting a price on carbon (a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system) and how these alternatives might be applied in a variety of settings throughout the world.  There is a good account of how the revenue raised from carbon pricing can be used to pursue an array of policy choices: cutting other taxes (the revenue-neutral option), assisting the poor and vulnerable, easing the transition for the hardest-hit economic sectors, investing in infrastructure, fostering technological change to support the transition, and – my favorite – investing in public transportation infrastructure and supportive urban planning.
None of this analysis is particularly new, although it is crisply and clearly presented.  The big takeaway is probably the price that the authors recommend for carbon.  The bottom line recommendation is pricing of $40 to $80 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted by 2020 and $50 to $100 by 2030.  Applying these costs through carbon taxes, cap and trade, or some combination should incentivize market forces to “decarbonize” the economy enough to keep us within the magic 2°C ceiling that scientists have established.
What would those rather esoteric numbers mean in the real world?  Those of us who are old transportation hands like to think in terms of cents per gallon of motor fuel.  In the surface transportation sector, CBO has estimated that a tax of $20 per ton of emissions would raise the price of gasoline about 20 cents.  By this measure, the $40 to $80 range of pricing recommended for 2020 would be equivalent to about 40 to 80 cents per gallon.  Of course this is just a rule of thumb for one sector in one country, but I think it gives a sense of what we are talking about.  Imposition of a federal gas tax (or equivalent) increase certainly isn’t politically viable at the present time in the present Congress.  But it’s not crazy either.

Thanks to Joe Stiglitz, Nicholas Stern, and their colleagues for giving us another step forward for Paris (and Paris is never a bad idea).

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Storrs Center at 15

I recently wrote about Poundbury (here) and garden villages (here) in Britain, but there are also good things happening in the US.
Storrs Center, Connecticut is now built out!
Storrs is the central place of Mansfield Township, home to the University of Connecticut………..and lots of trees. 
A few years back, the town leadership decided to build themselves a real town center, put together a master plan (approved 15 years ago), and then built it!
Storrs Center is a mixed-use, Smart Growth development, with a real town square, lots of retail and entertainment, and housing (see their website here).  The agency that implemented the plan insisted on strict sustainable, New Urbanist design standards (available here) for buildings, streets, and open spaces.  The result is a handsome and virtually complete town center.  The center is heavy on retail, serving as the “college town” for UConn, just across the street, as well as for the surrounding area.  But there is also intensive housing, with 618 apartments (with about 1,000 tenants), 32 townhomes, and 10 condos. 
As I mentioned in discussing Poundbury, the transportation value of communities like this lies mostly in “being there already” – the sense that people are only a few minutes’ walk from most everything they need.
For longer trips, Storrs Center has a transportation hub – the Nash-Zimmer Transportation Center – with access to buses serving the UConn campus, local communities, and intercity service to Hartford (about 40 minutes away), Providence, New York, and Boston.  The Transportation Center also has parking, bike rentals, and electric vehicle chargers.

Storrs Center is a real success story in community planning, a story that I for one will continue to follow with great interest.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

UK General Election: Transportation issues

It’s always fun (for me at least) to follow British politics as well as their transportation policies (see my recent comments here and here). 
So how big a role does transportation play in the current UK General Election campaign?  Actually, not much. 
Overall, the main political parties are broadly supportive of significant, and generally responsible, investment in transportation.
A look at the party campaign manifestos (what we would call platforms) gives an insight into their overall approach.
The Conservatives (the party in power) mainly emphasize increased investment, with promises to build a new runway at Heathrow, build the new high-speed rail line (HS2), and add lanes to congested motorways.
Labour focuses its manifesto on renationalizing the railroads.  In part this is a reaction to deteriorating service on the passenger network and in part a reflexive return to old Labour policies (party like it’s 1945!).
The Liberal Democrats do the best at linking transportation, environment, and energy policies, with calls for a Green Transport Act.
The Greens, although advocating a “People’s Transport System,” don’t offer a lot of specifics (interesting cross-national perspective: the Greens oppose the new high-speed rail line).
It is refreshing, from this side of the pond, to see all the major parties take serious positions about reducing the carbon component of the transportation system.  The Conservatives state an ambition “for Britain to lead the world in electric vehicle technology and use.”  Labour promises to “position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of ultra low emission vehicles, supporting the creation of clean modes of transport through investment in low emission vehicles.”  The Liberal Democrats pledge to “support the manufacture of low-emission and electric vehicles, generating jobs and exports” and “reform vehicle taxation to encourage sales of electric and low-emission vehicles and develop electric vehicle infrastructure including universal charging points.”
Surprisingly, given the increase in extreme weather events in Britain in recent years, the parties devote little attention to transportation system resilience, although the
Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Greens advocate increased investment in flood management infrastructure.
There’s probably no immediate policy takeaway for the US from these campaign positions – the circumstances of each of these issues has very localized features – but it is clear to me that whoever wins this election will provide a more progressive transportation approach than what we are struggling with here!
(An overview of all the party transportation manifestos can be found here.  Those wanting to dive deeper can find the texts as follows: Conservatives here, Labour here, Liberal Democrats here, Greens here).


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Poundbury at 30

Poundbury, Prince Charles’ experimental new town in southwest England, has turned 30 years old (story here) and deserves a fresh look.
The town is an urban extension of Dorchester (population 20,000) and currently has 3,000 residents and 2,000 jobs.  Its design concept was developed by Prince Charles himself as a way to implement the neo-traditional architecture and planning ideas he set out in his book A Vision of Britain in 1989.  (The book attracted a lot of snark, as does virtually everything Prince Charles does.  See my review of his recent climate change book here.)  Still not built out (not sure why it’s so slow), Poundbury is notable for its walkability, mixed uses, and use of traditional building designs and materials.  Its “retro” look has drawn scorn from modernist architectural critics, although a few are now beginning to appreciate the livability of the town (see Witold Rybczynski’s account from a few years ago here). 
From a transportation standpoint, Poundbury underscores the point that the best transportation is “already being there.”  Residents have access to a wide variety of shops (a local grocery store, pub, florist, photographer, post office, farmers’ market, gift shops, etc.), amenities, and green spaces, all within easy walking distance.  An electric bus carries people into the center of Dorchester, including the train station, although with unsatisfactory (to me) 30-minute off-peak headways.  Cars are permitted, though kept relatively tame (see Rybczynski’s review for details).

All in all, I think Poundbury is a wonderful experiment, and I look forward to seeing its continued growth and success.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BC’s carbon tax: Once again no political opposition

I have written before about the remarkable (at least to Americans) political resilience of the British Columbia carbon tax, and the current general election campaign there underscores that phenomenon (my comments on the last general election here).  Voting is on May 9 (story here) and none of the three major parties contesting the election wants to eliminate or roll back the tax. 
The BC Liberals (despite the name, the most conservative party in the race, and not affiliated with the federal Liberal party) form the current government.  Their platform calls for a continuing carbon tax freeze, which they argue will support the principles of affordability, competitiveness, and revenue neutrality while advancing the goals of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change.
The New Democratic party (basically a labor/social democratic party) anticipate that the carbon tax will need to increase to meet federal targets and promise that when it does, they will use the increased revenue to fund climate change projects and to send “climate action rebate checks” to lower and middle class families.  They want to position themselves as “leaders in climate change solutions.”
The Greens (self-explanatory) want to increase and expand the scope of the carbon tax, while eliminating the principle of revenue neutrality and using at least some of the revenue to fund climate change investments.
My summary may be an oversimplification, but I think the overall picture is clear.  The BC political parties are arguing over how to use the carbon tax and whether to increase it.  No one is arguing for reducing or eliminating it.

Is there a takeaway for US observers?  I’m not sure, but at least it’s refreshing to see political arguments that don’t include the anti-scientific, flat earth viewpoints we see here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Happy Ed Balls Day!

Having mentioned recent British innovations in transportation (here) and sustainable rural development (here) I should mention another British innovation, which is unfortunately not widely celebrated on this side of the Atlantic.

Happy #EdBallsDay!

Strasbourg Tram now extends to Germany!

(Alternative title, Meanwhile on the Continent!)
The Strasbourg Tram, for those that don’t know it, is a very modern, attractive, popular light rail system (or streetcar, depending on who you ask) that connects just about every place in the historic city.  Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament, calls itself the “European City,” and that name takes on even more significance today as the Tram opens a new extension from Strasbourg (France), across the Rhine, to the neighboring German city of Kehl.  The transit extension is filled with symbolic attachments, especially at a time of tension within Europe.  (An earlier streetcar connection was pulled up in 1918, after World War I.)
A good story on the Tram extension is here and a good video here.  Note on the video the various redevelopment schemes that the Tram will tie together.
The Europeans are really good at this sort of thing.  Another study topic for us in the US!
Well done Strasbourg!  Gràtülierung!

(Photo below is yours truly with tram, a few years ago.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Garden Villages: More from across the pond

I recently wrote about several progressive transportation initiatives being taken by the Conservative – I repeat, Conservative - government in the UK (here).
 One initiative I didn’t mention (it’s not strictly transportation) is a new round of garden towns and garden villages that are being advanced as a way to ease a housing shortage.  These new developments, which are descendants of the century-old garden city movement, are supposed to be more or less freestanding and self-sufficient rather than add-on or infill.  In theory, at least, they will be environmentally friendly, with lots of green spaces.
The garden “villages” are smaller-scale than garden “towns” and can fit into smaller footprints.  To get an idea of what they have in mind, take a look at Dissington Garden Village in Northumberland (news story here, concept plan here).  This particular development hasn’t gotten planning approval yet, but it showcases some of the features that an ideal garden village should have: walkable/bikeable layout, community facilities, retail shops, employment opportunities (ratio of one job per household), range of housing options built to high environmental standards, internal and external green spaces, and high-quality infrastructure, including fast broadband.

Many of these garden village plans, including Dissington, have attracted local opposition for various reasons (Dissington takes a bite out of a preserved green belt), and each should of course be reviewed on its own merits.  And I understand that the British planning and regulatory regime is much different than that in the US.  But really, we should be doing a much better job of rural planning than we do in this country.  Contrast the garden village concept with the sprawl development that is still so prevalent here.  I think there is much to learn from watching Dissington and its cousins.


Monday, April 10, 2017

California Cap-and-Trade clears a big hurdle (and why that’s important for transportation)

California’s cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has just cleared a big legal hurdle in the state courts (story here).  And this could be important for the transportation sector.
Why?
Unlike some other cap-and-trade programs, California’s very explicitly includes transportation fuels.  And if it proves successful in encouraging cleaner transportation it could provide a model for other states.
Climate change experts and policy makers are looking more closely at the California system for three reasons:
1.     The transportation sector has recently overtaken the electricity generation sector as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in this country.  While GHG emissions from electricity generation have been going down (government regulations, cheap natural gas), emissions from transportation have been going up (cheap gasoline, rising post-Recession VMT).
2.     Although many strategies for transportation GHG reduction have been developed – and many of them have been at least partly implemented – the trend lines are not good and even aggressive implementation of more conventional strategies looks to fall short of science-based targets for emission reductions.
3.     The federal government appears to be out of the game for the foreseeable future, leaving the initiative for climate policy squarely in the hands of the states.
The California program is (not surprisingly) a bit complicated.  A good overview can be found here.
One of the key features of the California program is that it generates significant revenue, which by law has to be plowed back into “green” investments.  (Some people have called a program like this “cap-and-invest” rather than “cap-and-trade.”)  According a recent report to the Legislature (here), in the first four years of the program, $3.4 Billion has been appropriated from cap-and-trade proceeds.  In the transportation sector, this has funded, among other things, more than 100,000 rebates for zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles and more than 200 transit projects. 
At least 25% of the appropriations from the program must be targeted for disadvantaged communities.  California policy makers have decided – I think wisely – that for both practical and moral reasons it’s a bad idea to make rural and disadvantaged communities pay a premium, say in higher gas prices, without receiving targeted investment in their mobility needs.

Is California-style Cap-and-Invest coming to other states?  Perhaps.  It certainly has major potential benefits and should be watched closely as it develops.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Meanwhile, north of the border……

Having compared the most recent British transportation budget (here) to the awful U.S. budget document (here), I thought it would be useful to take a peek at the new Canadian budget (synopsis here).
In truth, it’s not as aggressive as I would have hoped, but there are definitely some steps in the right direction.
While the U.S. budget calls for eliminating the transit New Starts program – and foreshadows cuts in the formula programs – the Canadian budget calls for a greatly expanded program of federal aid for transit capital.  The budget earmarks $20 Billion Canadian over 5 years for Phase II of the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund.  (By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, this would translate to a program of about $30 Billion US a year in this country.)
The transit initiative is an element of a “Transportation 2030” strategic plan (here) which, although not as focused as I would like, includes an emphasis on “clean and innovative” transportation.

We look for more to come, Canadians, especially in these difficult times down south!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Meanwhile, across the pond…..

I wrote recently about the ugliness of the proposed transportation budget in this country (here).  As it turns out, the recent British budget for transportation provides a dramatic contrast – one that should make us shake our heads, or perhaps hope for better days.
The British budget lists 10 transportation programs targeted for increased funding (I won’t go into the differences in budgeting practices.  Suffice it to say that I’m referencing the mid-year UK “Autumn Statement” budget released last November, details here).  The 10 programs (translated into Americanese) are:
1.     Local aid,
2.     Strategic highway bottlenecks,
3.     Technology: EV charging infrastructure, alternative fuels, autonomous vehicles, etc.,
4.     Digital rail signaling,
5.     Oxford-Cambridge Growth Corridor
6.     Highway and rail flood resilience,
7.     Strategic highway studies,
8.     Smart ticketing for transit customers,
9.     Discretionary major local projects, and
10. Rail upgrades and realignment in Birmingham (a la CREATE).
Bear in mind this is from a Conservative government!

I particularly like the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Corridor project, which aims to coordinate new housing with rail and roadway improvements to support this strategic corridor (report here).  I think we call that planning.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Just How Bad is the White House Transportation Budget?

Bad.  Just how bad is unknown, since we don’t have the details.  The budget summary document (available here) proposes a $2.4 Billion, or 13%, cut from baseline funding, but only 5 specific provisions are identified:
1.     Privatize air traffic control,
2.     Eliminate funding for long-distance Amtrak trains,
3.     Eliminate FTA’s New Starts program for transit (for projects not yet at the stage of “full funding agreement”),
4.     Eliminate the Essential Air Service program, and
5.     Eliminate funding for the TIGER discretionary funding program.
These changes certainly don’t add up to $2.4 Billion, and I have no idea how OMB plans to get to that number.  It won’t be pretty.
The 5 provisions themselves reflect the thinking of the 2016 Republican platform, although in less radical (or perhaps only introductory) form (see my comments on the platform here).
Ironically, two of the targets for cuts – Essential Air Service and Amtrak long-distance trains – are subsidies for transportation in mainly Red State “flyover” territory.
The largest and most consequential hit is transit New Starts.  This program is already starved for funds compared to demonstrated need – let alone what we should be doing to build an advanced, greatly expanded public transportation component for a resilient, sustainable 21st century transportation system.

What about the anticipated infrastructure initiative that is supposed to draw bipartisan support?  Certainly there is no money for anything like that here, adding to the suspicion that that initiative will focus on a giveaway of highways and bridges to concessionaires who will fund improvements through very high tolls.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

David Burwell RIP

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of my old friend and colleague David Burwell.
David was a giant in the transportation reform community and had a real impact in changing how transportation happens in this country.  From rails-to-trails, to federal reauthorization, to land use and transportation, to climate change and transportation, he always seemed to be at the cutting edge, using his fertile mind and sharp wit to open up new possibilities.

David was also a real gentleman and a great guy.  We will miss him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Prince Charles on Climate Change

One of Prince Charles’ virtues (he has many in my opinion – for which he gets scant appreciation at home and abroad) is his consistent public commitment to addressing climate change.  Within the limits imposed on him by his royal position, he has been a strong voice for action.  His latest initiative is a book for popular audiences, entitled simply Climate Change (may still be difficult to find in the US).
The book (co-authored with two climate scientists) is a simple, well-illustrated introduction to the topic.  In fact, it looks like a children’s book, but isn’t.  (The publishing genealogy of these “Ladybird Expert” books can be found here.  The next book in the series is on quantum mechanics!)

I’m not sure what impact this little book will have in the UK, let alone this country, but folks who work on climate change communications issues should definitely give it a look.  Maybe Scott Pruitt should read it!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How they do Climate Change in European highway departments

There is often a lot to learn from checking on what our European counterparts are doing. 
A report was just released describing how European highway agencies are addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation and it bears looking at by people in the US who are confronting the same issues.
The report, called Acting on Climate Change, was published by the Conference of European Directors of Roads (a sort of European AASHTO) and is available here.
The authors suggest that mitigation and adaptation are “fundamentally different” and suggest a distinctive approach for each.
With respect to mitigation, they argue that new strategies are needed.  Business as usual planning just won’t meet national or Europe-wide targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Instead of generating typical solutions based on standard forecasting, they recommend using scenario planning and pursuing a wide range of solutions, including more efficient transportation modes, renewable energy, and reduced demand.  Building new roads could, in fact, be counterproductive.  I was particularly struck by their takeaway from a recent IPCC report warning that “infrastructure developments that lock societies into GHG-intensive emissions pathways may be difficult or very costly to change and that this reinforces the importance of early action for ambitious mitigation.”
With respect to adaptation, the authors appear to feel more comfortable taking a practical, engineering approach.  Rather than attempting to put together a theoretical construct, they offer a set of “templates” based on Danish and Swedish experience.  These templates are basically checklists to suggest to national road authorities the climate change adaptation issues they may need to confront.  The template subjects are Management, Improvement, Prevention, and Cooperation.  For each subject they offer a list of topics that should be considered.  For instance, under Management they list Incident Management, Information, Clearing up, and Depot equipment.  Each of these is further broken down into topics.  So Incident management (defined as “How to handle given situations in climate change induced crises, e.g., flooding and landslides.”) includes:
·      Incorporating climate (weather) incidents into emergency planning
·      Drills that include weather incidents
·      Guidelines
·      Call-out services
The report is also laced with fascinating examples from European experience (Norway is developing “Urban Environment Agreements,” which mandate that all future transportation demand be met by transit, walking, or biking.  Sweden has set a goal of having a fossil-free vehicle fleet by 2030.).

Congrats to the CEDR team for a thoughtful approach to providing real-world tools to agencies confronting climate change.