Monday, May 13, 2019

Reston VA: An (old) new town with new (old) transportation opportunities and problems

A recent story by Michael Freedman-Schnapp on the Greater Greater Washington blog (here) points out some of the social, housing, and transportation issues that the classic “new town” of Reston, Virginia is dealing with.
As you probably know, Reston has been an urban planning icon since it was founded in 1964.  It is (as the Reston website (here) says) “the largest planned community in Virginia and one of the most renowned planned communities in the nation” with its development based on the values of “open space, recreational facilities, social heterogeneity and aesthetic beauty.”
Freedman-Schnapp points out the weakness of Reston’s transportation network: The town’s master plan and vision are “completely silent on a vision of how a well-designed transportation system can further the preservation of the environment — a notable blind spot of an otherwise eco-friendly ethic. In its place, the county has provided a transportation system that makes it very difficult, if not outright dangerous, to be a pedestrian in Reston.”  His recommendations focus on better pedestrian links around the new Reston Metro stations.
And about those stations: the biggest transportation news in Reston is that the Metro has come to town!  The Silver Line reached its current, temporary terminus at Wiehle—Reston East in 2014.  Two new Reston stations – Reston Town Center and Herndon – are scheduled to open in 2020.  The Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization has published a very thoughtful and comprehensive paper, “Guidelines for Development: Reston Transit Station Areas” (available here), which sets out a plan for getting the best land use/transportation connection out of these stations.  Wiehle—Reston East and Herndon are somewhat limited by their suburban habitats.  Reston Town Center is the big opportunity.  Unfortunately, the station is not actually in the town center.  In an ideal world, the station would be underground, with entrances on Market Street, perhaps at the Reston Town Square Park, stimulating the kind of urban development found in Arlington.  But in the real world, the station is half a mile a way on an aerial platform in the median of the Dulles Toll Road.  This is what you get when you put transit in these outer suburban settings.  Nevertheless, the county planners (in coordination with local officials) have done a good job in planning new connective links and transit oriented development that will “extend and complement” the Town Center.
 I had three takeaways from my own visit to Reston a few months ago:
1.     Reston Town Center is a real downtown, with a lot going on and a lot of potential.  It is definitely “transit ready development!”
2.     The town is (as Freedman-Schnapp notes) very auto-centric.  You may be able to walk to your local village center for a few goods and services, but if you don’t have a car you’re largely stuck.
3.     The Lake Anne village center is definitely cool (I agree with Freedman-Schnapp here).  My own photo of this location is below.
Neither the Freedman-Schnapp piece nor the county planning study touch on how to get people from the neighborhoods to the Metro stations or the Town Center.  To make Reston really sustainable, it seems to me one would want to have some sort of transit shuttle service connecting the “village centers” to the Metro stations, the Town Center, and possibly to one another.  Local transit can be expensive, but this one might provide a good application for automated transit (OLLI anyone?).

Monday, April 29, 2019

Beto’s Green New Deal

I am pleased to see that Beto O’Rourke has proposed his own version of a Green New Deal (summary on candidate website here, LA Times story here).

As I said in a previous posting (here), I believe that the overall Green New Deal concept – vigorously attacking climate change through (1) organizing a massive investment program around green infrastructure and (2) pricing out carbon, with lots of transitional and equity protections – is a sound way to go.

Beto’s version is very similar to the AOC/Markey approach, although with a tighter focus on climate change and fewer “socialist” components, such as guaranteed jobs (not that that will make it any more acceptable to the Grim Reaper of the Senate).

The initiative is basically a laundry list of policy proposals, organized under four broad action statements:
1.     Start Cutting Pollution on Day One and Taking Executive Actions to Lead on Climate
2.     Mobilize a historic $5 Trillion for Climate Change with Investment in Infrastructure, Innovation, and Our People and Communities
3.     Guarantee our Net-Zero Emissions Ambition by 2050
4.     Defend our Communities That Are Preparing for and Fighting Against Extreme Weather

As with the AOC/Markey version, there are general references to infrastructure but not much detail on transportation.  Here  are the major transportation-related bullets:
·      Adopt a policy of “setting a trajectory to rapidly accelerate the adoption of zero-emission vehicles,”
·      “Transportation grants that cut commutes, crashes, and carbon pollution — all while reducing the costs paid by people and communities and boosting access to public transit,”
·      Adoption of a “legally enforceable standard” for phasing out GHG emissions, including a “clear price signal” (presumably pricing carbon through cap-and-trade or similar mechanism), and
·      “Advancing consumer choice and market competition in electricity and transportation” (not sure what this means).
It doesn’t bother me that there is detail missing at this point (my suggestions for starting to fill in the blanks for transportation are in my previous post here).  What’s important is that Beto is endorsing a bold program.  This also leads me to think that some sort of bold climate change initiative is going to become a standard policy component of every major Democratic campaign (I hold out no hope for the Republicans at this point).  An important step forward!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Green New Deal for Transportation

I want to talk today about the Green New Deal and how those of us in the green transportation community can contribute to filling in the policy details in our field.

The Green New Deal has stimulated lots of discussion, although perhaps there has been more heat than light in much of that discussion.  As I have said previously (here) I support the concept of the Green New Deal, believing that it provides an excellent framework for formulating the work that needs to be done to guide our nation through the dangers of this century while improving the lives of our citizens and advancing our values. 

Right now, the Green New Deal is a name, a congressional resolution setting out broad goals and objectives, and a miscellaneous set of documents.  Supporters of the Green New Deal recognize that it is a unifying concept, not a program, that now needs detailed policy work in a dozen fields.  It’s time for those of us in the transportation policy space to begin that work for transportation.

As I noted in my previous posting, the transportation provisions of the Green New Deal (as represented in the Congressional resolution, H. Res. 109, available here) are limited to a broad goal with only three specific strategies mentioned: 
“overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in – (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.”  This goal – which I think can be restated as “decarbonize the transportation sector” – will require thinking about a variety of issues, including some not mentioned or implied by the language of the resolution and related documents.

So let me do a quick review of some of those issues to – hopefully – help advance the discussion.  As I am presenting a generally “can do” assessment I will from time to time refer to the “no can do” arguments, which I think are best articulated by Eric Adams in his article in The Drive entitled “Here’s Why the Green New Deal’s Bold Transportation Ideas Are All But Impossible to Pull Off” (available here).

 Electrifying the passenger vehicle fleet
The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t actually set a target for electrifying the passenger fleet but it specifically calls for investment in EV manufacturing and infrastructure.  And it is clearly a key element in getting to a “zero net GHG emission” state by 2050.  This goal is nothing new and many of us have been working on it for several years.  Can we get to a completely decarbonized passenger fleet in the next 30 years?  Adams (my “no can do” advisor) is skeptical, citing a report that estimates that only 14 percent – at best – of passenger vehicles on the road will be electric by 2030.  And, he adds, assuming we can ramp up the manufacture and sale of EVs, how do you turn over the huge existing fleet?  In my view, although the task of electrifying the passenger fleet is big, it isn’t particularly complicated.  We pretty much know how to do everything that needs to be done.  It’s largely a matter of scaling up.  What are some of the ways ahead?
·      Subsidies and more subsidies – This is a proven way to move the market.  (And no, I have no compunctions about “picking winners and losers”.)
·      Carbon pricing – Many states are exploring “carbon cap and invest” and similar techniques for making fossil fuels more expensive and using the revenue gained to advance clean energy.
·      “Cash for Carbon Clunkers” – Adams suggests this (perhaps sarcastically?) but it worked in the Stimulus program and it can be easily scaled up to deplete the old inventory of internal combustion vehicles.
Other issues?  Yes, environmental justice (poor people drive clunkers for a reason), transitional hardships, urban/rural equity, etc.  More work to do!

Electric vehicle infrastructure
Electric vehicles need charging.  Although most EV owners charge their vehicles at home and battery range is improving rapidly, many people in the field believe that an extensive public charging network is needed (this includes me, but by no means everyone in the field – still a debated issue).  My view is that providing an extensive network of publicly accessible rapid chargers, especially on the Interstate and National Highway System networks, will enable easy intercity travel by EV owners, assuage “range anxiety” by potential buyers, and demonstrate a solid government commitment to making EVs work.  Adams (no can do) cites a report which estimates that a vast number of chargers (both home and public) will be needed and that “some sort of magic” may be required to make that happen.  I am unpersuaded.  I can cite another report (link here), which estimates that a relatively small number of strategically placed charge points can make a national travel network possible.  I believe that a vigorous national program to build a rapid charger network, perhaps spurred by making FHWA funds available at a 100% rate, can put that network in place fairly rapidly.  That strategic network, combined with the development of a smart electric grid, faster charging technology (for instance, see here), more and better home storage batteries, and improved car batteries, can solve the charging problem.

Clean, affordable, accessible public transportation
Most folks in the climate change fight believe that a better, more extensive transit system is an essential part of the portfolio of GHG reduction measures in the U.S.  Improved transit also has big transportation equity implications, as the poorest segments of society depend heavily on buses to get them to jobs and other essential destinations.  And of course better transit can support more sustainable settlement and development patterns.  Unfortunately, the Green New Deal debate has arrived just as public transportation in this country is in a crisis.  First, chronic funding shortfalls have caused the level of service to decline in most places.  Second, this decline in the level of service, combined with the rapid rise of Uber and other alternative modes, has caused ridership to fall.   Third, these factors, together with increasing capital costs, hostile legislatures, and an ideological assault funded by fossil fuels interests, have stalled or killed transit expansions in most places.  Yeah, not good times.  Fortunately, many of these factors can be turned around:
·      Funding – The answer for a funding shortfall is……..more funding!  Significant funding is needed at the federal, state, and local, both for capital and operating.
·      Ridership diversions – Some people believe that the rise of transportation delivery companies (Uber, etc.) spells the end of mass transit.  I side with the Jarrett Walker position that the actual geometry of cities (density) means that they won’t work well without the means to move large numbers of people efficiently along corridors, in other words, transit.  Transit systems, of course, need to deliver faster, more convenient services to fill their role successfully.
·      Cost of expansions – We need to make a lot more money available for transit expansions while at the same time dramatically improving project delivery and cost control.  More rapid transit lines in separated rights-of-way are absolutely needed to make cities thrive.  A prime example is the city of Baltimore, where the proposed Red Line light rail line would provide major leverage toward revitalization of that troubled city.  Killing that project (as has been done, at least for the moment) may have condemned it to decades of failure.
·      More buses – Comparatively, buses are cheap.  When run with upgraded service, as Bus Rapid Transit, they can outperform private autos and approach light rail speed and service and can be good candidates for automatic operation.
·      Electric buses – What can be done right now?  Flood the country with electric buses!  These are just now approaching market competitiveness and are ripe for robust government subsidies (see my posting on the topic here).

High-speed rail
OK, this is a tough one.  In the heyday of high-speed rail planning, following the Obama Stimulus, several projects looked promising in the near term.  Now, with California HSR imploding, no project looks promising.  Upgrading the Northeast Corridor, if not yet to full HSR standards, should definitely be in the top tier of a Green New Deal transportation program.  At the national level, the future is murkier.  If willing candidates are found, perhaps some of the 2009 initiatives can be relaunched (I’m talking to you, Wisconsin).  Beyond that, I think there will be some years of planning before there is anything like a national program.

I won’t attempt to sort through all the issues affecting goods movement in this country.  I’ll just say that this is an area where we need to count on technology to help us deal with greenhouse gases.  Fortunately, that technology is on the way (or at least almost on the way.)
Delivery trucks:  Electric power beginning to work here.
Long-haul trucks: New electric rigs debuting (my comments here).
Rail: Hopefully hydrogen fuel cells (my comments here.)

This subject has attracted lots of attention in Green New Deal talk – although it’s not even mentioned in the resolution!  Some of the associated documents have mentioned the high GHG emissions associated with air travel and suggested that high-speed rail could replace some or all of that travel demand.  I talked a bit about the problems with HSR above.  The U.S. is a very big country, and while you can make a strong case for rail replacing a lot of air travel in 300-mile-long corridors, it’s hard to see that working for 3,000-mile trips.  I’m afraid we’re going to have to look to new technology to help us out here.

There is a widely shared view in the transportation community that we need a massive investment in infrastructure in this country to restore our systems to a state of good repair, to address unmet needs, and to prepare for the future.  Many – but not all – of these needs can easily be classified as Green New Deal.  Some thoughts on the connection between the Green New Deal and broader transportation infrastructure questions:
·      Fix it first—A lot of money needs to be spent on bringing elements of our legacy systems to a state of good repair.  This work doesn’t always advance the Climate Change fight, but it needs to be done.  Funding generated for the Green New Deal must not draw resources away from these bread-and-better needs.
·      Resiliency—The Green New Deal for transportation should include goals and strategies for making the system more resilient to Climate Change and the associated extreme weather events.  This subject doesn’t seem to have attracted much discussion, but it is vitally important.  The work that needs to be done under this heading includes hardening of facilities, elevating roads and bridges, and building redundant facilities.
·      Materials—More work needs to be done in the research and development of materials (concrete, asphalt, etc.) with reduced GHG impacts during their production and application.  I’m looking forward to seeing more “smart” materials!

I want to give just a few final thoughts on how and why the Green New Deal can be accomplished. 

Perhaps the best argument I have seen for the Green New Deal – and certainly the best defense against the barrage of opposition – is the recent piece by David Roberts on Vox (available here).  The title says it all:  “This is an emergency, damn it: Green New Deal critics are missing the bigger picture.”  Roberts’ central point is that the Green New Deal represents the “courage and fresh thinking” we need to address the Climate Change crisis on an urgent basis.  The various critics “seem oblivious to the historical moment, like thespians acting out an old, familiar play even as the theater goes up in flames around them.”  He believes that the political energy generated by supporters of the Green New Deal may be the only way to jolt the U.S. political system into taking the actions needed.

I certainly agree with the need for a sense of urgency, and I suggest that we remember the real success that was achieved under the Obama Stimulus Plan.  I believe that if we had sustained that level and overall shape of a transportation program on an annual level, much of what we are seeking to do would already have been achieved.  Although “one off” and thrown together in a hurry, the Stimulus demonstrated that a high level of funding – especially when tied to high aspirations – can produce great results.

Finally, if this work is as necessary and urgent as many of us believe it is, we just really need to figure out how to do it.  My favorite analogy is the famous CO2 scrubber scene in the Apollo 13 movie (which actually happened), in which engineers had to figure out how to solve a problem using only what materials and techniques that they had at hand.  Let’s do it.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Yes we need a Green New Deal (and no, it isn’t funny)

The “Green New Deal” has come into sharper focus with the publication of a draft Congressional resolution (not yet formally introduced and numbered at this writing, text available here) by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey which, if adopted, would set out the principles for further legislation. 
(If you aren’t familiar with it, “Green New Deal” is a label given to the idea that the U.S. should embark on a massive investment program to build a green economy that wards off the looming disasters of Climate Change while creating new jobs and promoting social equity.)
The Green New Deal is probably creating more excitement in the right-wing media than anywhere else, with coverage alternating between outrage (socialism!) and mockery (especially of their favorite cover girl, OCA).
In my opinion, the Green New Deal makes great sense as an organizing concept for a whole bunch of stuff that we need to do and can do that will make us a better, fairer, more prosperous, and more sustainable nation, ready for the climate travails coming in the second half of this century.
The goals of the Green New Deal, as set out by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey in their resolution, are:
“(A) to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers; (B) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; (C) to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; (D) to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come – (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and (E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
Scary stuff, huh?
What does this mean for the transportation sector?  The goal set out by the resolution is:
“overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in – (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.”
Obviously a lot more can be said and needs to be said about how transportation fits into the broader picture.  But I’m glad the concept of the Green New Deal is providing a focus for the debate on how to prepare for Climate Change – a subject I don’t find very funny.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Bethlehem for the win!

Congrats to the movers and shakers of Bethlehem for winning the 2018 “Commonwealth Awards” for Smart Growth development in Pennsylvania.  The Awards, given out annually by 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania (full disclosure: they have been a client of mine), showcase the best development in the state. 
Bethlehem is a real success story.  Stuck with the largest brownfield in the US in the aftermath of Bethlehem Steel’s closure, they have built on their strengths and turned around their weaknesses, now calling Bethlehem – with some justification – “the coolest small city in America.”
Some keys to their success: casino money (Sands) carefully targeted for redevelopment, a transformative mayor (John Callahan, one of the honorees), active colleges (Lehigh, Moravian), supportive business and civic groups.  As Callahan pointed out, there was no guarantee of success and many cities with similar challenges have failed to overcome then.
The old Bethlehem Steel brownfield site is now home to the Artsquest Center (website here), the Christkindlmarkt Christmas market, concerts, and more.  The impressive old Bethlehem blast furnace complex (“SteelStacks”) has been kept as a monument to the past and a focal point for the future.
Some of my favorite new projects:
·      Southside Commons – A new apartment complex for Lehigh upperclassmen and grad students, linking the university to the Southside business district (link here)
·      Five10Flats - Another new apartment complex on the Southside, this one offering “upscale urban living,” complete with a Starbucks, fitness center, rooftop terrace, and an indoor dog wash (here).
·      South Bethlehem Greenway – A rails-to-trails multi-use greenway connecting many of the Southside activity centers (here).
Congrats to the civic leaders of  Bethlehem for their efforts and congrats also to 10,000 Friends for their continued leadership for Smart Growth in Pennsylvania.