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.