Wednesday, April 11, 2018

DC’s The Wharf: Bikeways, water taxis, and woonerfs!

I had a chance recently to visit Washington DC’s new “The Wharf” mixed use urban development on the city’s southwest waterfront – and was duly impressed!  The designers have done a fine job of putting together a package of residences, shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues that work well together and fit the unusual (for DC) waterfront location.  Almost the entire development is new, but they have kept the funky old fish market.  The target demographic for the development is not too hard to figure out.  “Portugal. The Man” was playing when I visited (note my careful use of punctuation).
Fuller reviews of the development can be found at Greater Greater Washington (here) and CityLab (here).  The Wharf development’s own website is here.
Transportation access and circulation is appropriately multimodal and hip and urban.  Note below the bikeway, water taxi, and woonerf!  (If you don’t know the latter term, Google it and impress your friends.)
Looking forward to watching The Wharf develop!
Metro:  Waterfront

Monday, March 19, 2018

Carbon pricing legislation falls short in Oregon and Washington

Climate change folks have been in various states of excitement, anxiety, and disappointment in recent weeks as major “carbon pricing” bills came close to passage but fell short in the Washington and Oregon state legislatures.
This stuff gets very wonkish very quickly, so as close as I can get to a TLDR on carbon pricing is this:
·      Climate change experts largely agree that making it more expensive to burn high-carbon fuels (which pump out greenhouse gases, making climate change worse) will encourage reduced use, switching to renewable resources, etc. 
·      There are two ways of putting an extra price on carbon: directly, through taxes, and indirectly, by setting up a “cap-and-trade” system that auctions off permits to sell carbon content. 
·      In North America, British Columbia has the only carbon tax, while several jurisdictions, the largest being California, have cap-and-trade systems.  Either system can be revenue-neutral (as in BC) or revenue-producing (as in California).
Back to the main story: Washington attempted to enact a carbon tax, Oregon a cap-and-trade system.
The initiatives in both states were backed by Democratic governors and Democratic legislators (yes, this is a partisan issue in those places).  Both initiatives also have strong business/labor/environmental/community activist support groups.  In both cases, the legislature didn’t quite have the time and/or votes to get the business done in this year’s session.
What does it mean?
There are a couple of good analytical pieces that sort through some of the possibilities.  (See the story in The Atlantic here, and Think Progress here.)  I would start with a simpler explanation, which is that complicated and controversial bills always take time and effort to push through the legislative process.  (The course of true legislation never did run smooth.)
Both legislatures will very likely re-engage with carbon pricing bills, but probably not until their 2019 sessions.  Stay tuned.
But what do these stories mean for the transportation sector?
Transportation fossil fuels would be covered under both the Oregon and Washington bills, meaning the prices at the pump would go up, perhaps by 10 cents a gallon or more.
And would the transportation programs benefit from these revenues?  Yes, but it’s unclear how much and how many strings would be attached.  Both states have constitutional encumbrances on their motor fuels programs, which would appear to limit the use of whatever money gets funneled into the state’s transportation program.  Ideally (in my opinion) funds raised by carbon pricing on transportation fuels should be targeted toward transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, active transportation (bike/ped) infrastructure, and other “clean transportation” uses.  No one has explained to me how that will happen in Washington and Oregon.
My takeaway?  Transportation folks need to be involved at the beginning of carbon pricing legislative initiatives to make sure that the outcome works to advance the 21st century sustainable transportation system we need.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Tesla solar panels power Dickinson College

Dickinson College, in Carlisle PA, has been a leading edge institution on environmental issues for some time, and has now broken ground on an ambitious solar farm that will provide 25% of campus power needs (story here).
The college has entered into an agreement with Tesla, who will own and maintain the 12-acre array.  How will they prevent the panels from becoming overgrown?  Grazing sheep!
Model developments like these are especially important in Pennsylvania, which for historical (and geological) reasons is more attached to fossil fuels than any other state in the Northeast.
Congrats Dickinson!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Smart Transportation Guidebook is 10 years old!

Happy 10th Birthday to the Pennsylvania/New Jersey Smart Transportation Guidebook!
This remarkable document (full disclosure: I was one of its “fathers”) is a citizens guide to linking transportation and Smart Growth.  The subtitle says it all:  “Planning and Designing Highways and Streets that Support Sustainable and Livable Communities.”
The guidebook was the product of a remarkable collaboration between PennDOT (led by Al Biehler) and New Jersey DOT (led by Jack Lettiere and later Kris Kolluri), facilitated by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC).  Both state DOTs had been struggling for several years with the failure of the old model of building new highways as an answer to congestion and had been experimenting with new techniques of multimodal corridor planning, collaborative planning, linking transportation and land use, and environmental stewardship.  The Smart Transportation Guidebook was a distillation of that learning experience and was intended to stimulate informed, community-oriented transportation planning.
How well has the Guidebook been implemented in the two states over the past decade?  I think the answer has to be a less than enthusiastic “sometimes well, sometimes not so much.”
Are the principles and practices recommended in the Guidebook still relevant and useful?  YES.  (Feel free to discount my opinion a few points for “parental” favoritism.)
I will give just one extract:  the six principles of Smart Transportation:
1.     Tailor solutions to the context.  In the words of the Guidebook, “Roadways should respect the character of the community, and its current and planned land uses.”  The design of a road should “respond to its unique circumstances” and should consider the presence of environmental resources.
2.     Tailor the approach.  Project team members and stakeholders should tailor their approach to the specific need, type, complexity, and range of solutions of a transportation problem.
3.     Plan all projects in collaboration with the community.  Collaboration between the state DOT and local stakeholders is critical and should involve “the integration of land use planning with transportation planning, and a focus on the overall transportation network rather than a single roadway.”
4.     Plan for alternative transportation modes.  Roadway project development should consider the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users where appropriate.
5.     Use sound professional judgment.  The project team should use its best judgment, considering the “specific circumstances” involved.  “The smart solution on some projects may be to seek design exceptions or waivers to allow for true context-based design.”
6.     Scale the solution to the size of the problem.  The project team should look for a solution that “fits within the context, is affordable, is supported by the communities, and can be implemented in a reasonable time frame.”
Can we please do this all the time?
I’m happy to report that the Smart Transportation Guidebook is still available on the New Jersey DOT website (here) and the DVRPC website (here).

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Electric ferries!

Ferryboats aren’t very useful in most parts of this country, but where they are, they can be very useful, carrying lots of people (and vehicles) to places that are difficult or impossible to get to by road.  One of the problems with ferries (in addition to being slow) is that they are smelly, fossil-fuel hogs.  The answer?  Electric ferries!
Washington State DOT (where ferries really are important, and in fact are considered part of the state highway system) has just announced that they will begin converting their older boats to electric power (story here).  They will swap out the old diesel engines – due for overhaul anyway – with modern battery-powered engines. 
The Norwegians have been using a prototype electric ferry for a few years, with great results, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and operational efficiency (story here, video here, picture below).  They report that the electric ferry Ampere, which has been in operation for nearly three years, has cut emissions by 95% and operating costs by 80%, compared to conventional boats.
Good luck with your new venture WSDOT!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

New York regional plan endorses carbon pricing for transportation sector

The Regional Plan Association, a major non-profit planning group based in New York, has included a recommendation for carbon pricing in its latest regional plan.  Publication of the “Fourth Plan” for the New York region – the first was in 1929 – is a big deal in the New York area and its recommendations are bound to be influential with policy makers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.   (RPA website with links to the plan here.)
The carbon pricing recommendation – “Reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a cap-and-trade market modeled after California’s program” – aligns with a growing body of opinion in the Northeast. 
Specifically, the recommendation calls for:
·      Expanding the existing RGGI (Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) cap-and-trade program to include transportation fuels,
·      Using the proceeds to fund low-carbon infrastructure and activities such as transit, electric vehicles, hardening of at-risk facilities, energy rebates for low-income communities, and natural carbon sequestration, and
·      Linking up with California, Ontario, Quebec, and future jurisdictions who have similar programs.
Carbon pricing is just one of 61 recommendations in the Fourth Plan, but it’s one that can provide great leverage toward the Plan’s goals of a more sustainable, fairer, healthier, and more prosperous region.
(BTW, first step already taken:  New Jersey is back in RGGI!  See RPA's story here.)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How to get to “green taxes” for transportation

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.
There is a lot of discussion these days in climate change circles about the benefits of “green taxes” (e.g., carbon taxes) for promoting desired behaviors while raising funds for governmental activities.  And of course in transportation circles there is always talk about the need for more money.  So it is not surprising that people in the overlap of those circles are looking into green taxes for transportation.
So, you might ask, what percentage of the American public would support, for instance, a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, with the revenue “dedicated to transportation projects to reduce global warning”?  The answer is 54 percent. 
This question is part of an ongoing survey research project which folks at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University have been carrying out for seven years.  (The report can be found here.)
Despite the noise you hear about Americans hating taxes, the research shows that a majority of Americans support gas tax increases when they are dedicated to transportation goals.  The gas tax option gaining the highest support – 78 percent – is for a 10-cent increase with revenue “spent on projects to maintain streets, roads, and highways.”  And support for gas tax increases has been generally trending up during the seven years for most of the options presented!
A follow-up piece of research  (to be published) dug into the data collected over all seven years of survey data to inquire whether there are any demographic characteristics associated with support for green taxes (the “dedicated to global warning” and two related ones).  The specific research question was whether support for green taxes was related more to “place” (urban vs. rural) or “people” – other identifiers.  The short answer is “people.”  The results showed that “it may not matter as much where you live as who you are.  No matter where you live, you are likely to support transportation taxes if you are younger, female, Hispanic, and identify as a Democrat.”
And one more research update on taxes from TRB: California has had a remarkable history of successful local sales tax referendums for transportation.  These Local Option Sales Taxes (LOSTs!) now generate $4 Billion a year for transportation.  In the 40 years since this phenomenon got started, approval rates have been well over 50 percent.  And under the rules, a two-thirds supermajority is required for adoption!  Thanks to grad students at UCLA we now have a much better understanding of how these things work (to be published).  The main takeaways (my interpretation):
·      People will support taxing themselves for transportation when the objectives are clear (and popular),
·      Approval rates go up over time when the local jurisdiction (counties in California) delivers on the previous program,
·      As a matter of practical politics, the mix of projects in successful referendums is tailored to meet local needs (and aspirations), and of course geographical balance,
·      People are willing to invest much more in transit, even in places where current transit usage is small,
·      Bus transit tends to be a drag on the likelihood of success relative to fixed-guideway, and
·      “Maintenance” is a much better draw than “operations.”

Bottom line: There is a broad reservoir of potential public support for “green” taxes that benefit clean transportation.

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!