Monday, September 12, 2011

Federal transportation funding and land use

With proposals for a new federal transportation bill percolating through Congress, it is worth reflecting on one of the larger ironies in the current system of federal transportation project funding. Contrary to popular belief, there is actually substantial precedent within the federal Department of Transportation for the linkage of land use and transportation investments. But that linkage is used as an analytical criterion only by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) under the New Starts program, not by the Federal Highway Adminstration (FHWA) for the federally funded highway projects which have far greater cumulative impacts on the form and sustainability of cities.

As pointed out originally by Edward Beimborn and Robert Puentes in the Brookings Institution’s valuable 2005 book Taking the High Road: A Metropolitan Agenda for Transportation Reform, this is one of a long series of criteria that are rigorously applied to transit projects seeking federal funding, while federal highway funds are virtual entitlements, apportioned to the states by formula with minimal project-level evaluation. The criteria applied to New Starts projects include mobility improvements, environmental benefits, operating efficiencies, cost effectiveness, transit-supportive land use patterns, and even anticipated future land use patterns. Within these general criteria, FTA applies a series of specific measures, which include several that directly serve regional smart growth, such as:
  • Change in regional pollutant emissions
  • Change in regional energy consumption
  • EPA air quality designation
  • Existing land use
  • Transit-supportive plans and policies
  • Low-income households served
  • Employment near stations
    Application of such criteria to federal highway projects, needless to say, would dramatically change the profile of the projects that get approved. Necessary as these criteria are, their application only to transit projects further hampers the development of those projects relative to highways. Furthermore, some transportation funding experts argue that the culture of the FTA is one that seeks to punch holes in project proposals and find reasons not to dedicate scarce funds to applicants, whereas the FHWA is seen as a problem-solver on behalf of its applicants’ project proposals. While undoubtedly a by-product of the relative funding levels available, this compounds the double-standard.

    The more positive flipside of this dynamic, though, is the simple fact that there is precedent within the DOT for the application of such criteria to transportation projects. Were such criteria ever to be required for highway projects, as they must eventually be if we are to achieve sustainability, FHWA could learn a lot from how FTA reviews projects. To get there, we will first have to stop apportioning highway funds to states by formula and instead make highway project proponents compete for funds as transit proponents now must. We should also create processes by which transit projects can be considered directly as potential alternatives to highway projects (a comparative evaluation process that does not currently exist) and enshrine a mandatory preference for the transit projects whenever impartial analysis documents equal or superior overall benefits.

    Scofflaws by Design

    I recently attended an event on bicycle facilities in San Francisco at which Andy Thornley, Policy Director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, gave a great presentation on how our challenge is to design bicycle facilities that work not just for serious cyclists, but for everyone. In order to draw this distinction, he showed a few slides distinguishing between people on bicycles—businessmen and women in work clothes on their way to the office, a mother toting her kids on an Xtracycle—and spandex-clad racers and tattooed bike messengers. One of these compared a “scofflaw,” riding the wrong way up a one-way street, to a “lawmaker,” bike-riding Supervisor Eric Mar. I nodded in agreement. After all, in order to meet our climate goals, we’re going need a significant shift away from driving toward other modes, including bicycling, and cycling is never going to take a bite out of driving unless we re-design our streets to appeal to normal, law-abiding citizens who are currently intimidated by the prospect of riding in traffic.

    Then, on a ride the other day, I ran a red light. And not just any red light: it was a red light at the intersection of Scott and Fell Streets, which is located along one of San Francisco’s most popular bike routes, the Wiggle. 

    The city has done a lot of work to improve this intersection for cyclists. Fell is a busy one-way street running east with a bike lane on the left side of the street, and the city has striped a dedicated left turn lane for the many cyclists who head north on Scott and turn into the bike lane on Fell to head toward Golden Gate Park. However, the city overlooked a crucial detail: the light at Scott and Fell doesn’t stay green for traffic on Scott very long, and there is often a queue of southbound cars heading straight through the intersection that makes it difficult or impossible for cyclists to turn left during the green cycle.

    Most riders seem to do what I did that day, and took an illegal left on red. When I looked around, most of my fellow lawbreakers didn’t look like the bike punk scofflaw in Andy’s presentation. Instead, they were what I’ll call “scofflaws by design:” riders who are generally law-abiding, but who end up breaking the rules on poorly designed streets.

    This distinction between illegal behavior where the traveler is to blame and illegal behavior where the designer is at fault has a precedent in the world of transportation. Traffic engineers distinguish between the posted speed limit and the design speed of a road. The former is a number on a sign, while the latter refers to a set of physical variables, such as the sharpness of curves and the length of sight lines, which determine the maximum speed at which a vehicle can be operated. Though police can hand out the occasional tickets to drivers who exceed the speed limit, if you really want to slow down traffic, you have to change the design speed.

    Likewise, if you want to get normal people bicycling, you have to design your bicycle facilities for normal people. The City of San Francisco has determined that the design speed for utilitarian bicycle travel is a steady 13 MPH, and has timed the signals on an eight-block stretch of bike-friendly Valencia Street accordingly. Contrast that to California Street in Berkeley, which is designated as a bicycle boulevard, but has stop signs every block or two, requiring cyclists using the street to either expend much more energy and travel slower, or roll through the stop signs. The former option isn’t that appealing, particularly to normal people who have places to go and don’t necessarily want to show up all sweaty, so they become scofflaws by design.

    Once I started noticing scofflaws by design, I realized that they’re everywhere—rolling through stop signs, maneuvering through crosswalks in complicated intersections, and hopping onto the sidewalk when a bike lane disappears on a busy street. While I wouldn’t necessarily argue against a police officer ticketing any individual cyclist who risks taking the law into her own hands, I do think that planners, engineers, and designers need to recognize the distinction between plain old scofflaws and scofflaws by design. Understanding where our bike facilities fail normal, law-abiding people is an important first step in designing cities that get more normal, law-abiding people riding.

    If you have examples of bicycle facilities that encourage scofflaws by design, please reply to this post with pictures or links to Google Map views. I’m interested in collecting other examples of cases where our cities turn normal cyclists into lawbreakers.

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Consistency is the key to understanding SB 375

    At public workshops in California’s major metropolitan areas, regional agencies have been getting residents’ feedback on how their regions should grow as they prepare to create the first round of sustainable communities strategies (SCSs) under SB 375. While it’s critical to engage the public in these decisions, it’s also difficult to know how these land use plans matter. After all, any local government will be quick to remind you that regional agencies don’t have any say over land use changes. Many of the planning experts that I interviewed for our report on SB 375 implementation were unequivocal about what does matter: whether the bill leads MPOs, the regional agencies in charge of implementing SB 375, to channel more transportation dollars toward supporting growth in areas where people drive less through their regional transportation plans (RTPs), the multi-decade transportation plans for which SCSs provide the land use scenario. 

    The Air Resources Board (ARB), the state agency that oversees the SCS process, recently released its draft methodology for determining whether an SCS meets regional greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. ARB’s methodology focuses on examining whether the different land use and transportation measures identified in an SCS indeed add up to the GHG reductions specified in the target. This is an important question, but I’d add another, even more important question to the list: do the transportation projects in the RTP support the land use pattern identified in the SCS?

    A more succinct way of asking this in transportation-speak is, “is the plan internally consistent?” and RTPs are required to be internally consistent. However, the way that MPOs usually create RTPs doesn’t do much service to the notion of internal consistency. Here’s how it typically works: an MPO creates a land use scenario through a combination of modeling and stakeholder outreach, and this scenario becomes an input in the computer travel model that the MPO uses to analyze transportation investments. This approach accounts for land use’s effect on transportation, and the travel model will show that not a lot of people will use a road or transit line that connects two areas where there aren’t a lot of jobs or housing. However, transportation can also influence land use if people or jobs move to take advantage of new transportation facilities, and this approach is not well suited to analyzing these reciprocal effects, because the land use scenario can’t change once it’s entered into the travel model.

    The draft RTP/SCS for San Diego that was recently released by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), illustrates the problems with this approach to planning. Its land use and transportation elements each reduce GHGs, but they do so in mutually incompatible ways. The SCS calls for substantial growth in neighborhoods that are close to the city of San Diego and are well served by transit, where residents drive less.  Meanwhile, the RTP funds several freeway expansions on the metropolitan fringe, which reduces congestion and leads to more efficient vehicle travel.  The problem is that these freeway expansions will likely induce growth in the suburbs, drawing people and jobs away from the neighborhoods that the SCS targets for growth and undermining the transit investments that are needed to support new development in these neighborhoods.  Many groups, including TransForm, the state Office of Planning and Research, and us here at CREC, picked up on these inconsistencies, and we didn’t need fancy computer models to do it; in fact, the way that SANDAG reports its modeling results seem designed to obscure the fact that the agency isn’t putting its money where its mouth is.  All it took was a little common sense and the time to slog through a rather opaque document. 

    And therein lies the good news for ARB, which is currently working to shore up its travel modeling knowledge in preparation for evaluating all of these SCSs: in the short term, examining these plans for internal consistency won’t take a lot of technical work.  ARB simply has to include a discussion of induced growth in its SCS methodology and ask MPOs about how the transportation projects that they fund support the land use pattern identified in the SCS.  In the short and medium term, simple quantitative answers based on the growing number of studies on the economic effects of transportation investments should suffice.  In the long term, ARB and the California Transportation Commission need to outline exactly how they expect travel models to account for induced demand and induced growth.  But what’s really important is that ARB signals to MPOs that it is going to go beyond a thumbs-up-or-down approach to evaluating SCSs and begin to examine whether their transportation investments are consistent with how they spend their money.  After all, these investments are where the rubber meets the road, the transit meets the tracks, and the feet meet the pavement.

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    How we (under)estimated the GHG reductions due to "Carmageddon"

    Last Thursday afternoon, CREC got an e-mail from a reporter from the Huffington Post, asking us if we could help calculate the GHG reductions due to "Carmageddon," the closure of a 9.9 mile stretch of the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.  As geeky as this is, it made my day: not only is doing a back-of-the-envelope carbon calculation always a fun exercise in whole-systems thinking, but this is also the type of question that, in a better (and probably cooler) world, we'd be asking ourselves frequently as we planned our cities.  Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm to help meet the Post's deadlines, I made a rookie mistake that led me to underestimate the GHG reductions by roughly tenfold.  For those curious about how I arrived at an estimate of a reduction on 1.6 million pounds CO2 due to the 405 closure, and why it should have been closer to 16 million pounds, you can learn more below.

    In an ideal world, we'd know how long the average weekend trip that traveled the closed stretch of the 405 was, and we'd have some guesses about how people would react to the closure: what portion of them would stay home, what portion would make a trip by transit, what portion would drive an alternate route, etc.  But either Caltrans and the other transportation agencies hadn't done their homework, or they weren't willing to share.  So instead I looked for an example of a similar situation--a weekend closure of an important stretch of freeway in a large metro area--and found one close to home: the closure of the Bay Bridge over Labor Day weekend of 2009.  It's not a perfect analogy, because the Bay Area has different land use patterns, higher transit ridership and better transit service along the closed corridor, and because a lot of people leave town on a holiday weekend anyway.  Nonetheless, as my high school physics teacher used to say, it's "good enough for government work," especially since the governments involved weren't sharing their work.

    I remembered reading in a report by Lauren Michele of Policy in Motion that when the Bay Bridge, which represents 1.2% of the freeway lane miles in the nine-county Bay Area, closed, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) dropped by 3.7%.  So this means that for every one percent decrease in lane miles, short-term VMT decreases by roughly three percent (this 3:1 ratio between the percent of change in two variables is called an elasticity).  Based on data from the Texas Transportation Institute, I estimated that the closed stretch of 405 represents about 0.1% of the total "freeway equivalent" lane miles in Greater LA--and that's where I made my rookie mistake.  I arrived at this figure by dividing the 9.9 miles of closed freeway by the total lane miles in the LA metro area (roughly 9400), but most of the closed stretch 405 has 10 lanes, so it's actually around 99 lane miles that were closed, which is around 1.05% of the total lane.  This error then propagated its way through the rest of my work.  Using the elasticity from the Bay Bridge closure, I originally estimated a 0.32% reduction in VMT, but it actually should have been 10 times that, 3.2%... and so on.

    Based on a Brookings Institute report on annual per capita VMT in major metros, I estimated the average weekend VMT in LA at around 520 million, and 3.2 percent of that is almost 17 million.  If you divide this by the average mileage of the U.S. passenger vehicle fleet (20.4) and multiply by the amount of CO2 in a gallon of gasoline, you get a 16 million lb. reduction in CO2.  This doesn't account for the extra CO2 generated by the additional bus service that LA Metro ran over the weekend or JetBlue's bargain-basement flights from Burbank to Long Beach, and as my colleague Bill Eisenstein discussed in the article, all sorts of other caveats apply to this analysis.  But the freeway closure does seem to have had some effect on driving, at least according to LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who doesn't say where he got his numbers from. 

    The biggest challenge with an analysis like this is that climate change is a systematic, global, and long-term issue, but a one-time event like Carmageddon only produces short-term changes in behavior, so it's difficult to come to any meaningful conclusions about whether it combats or contributes to climate change.  That's why CREC focuses on sustainable planning and community design: because urban environments last a long time.  Changing the way that we plan our cities has the potential to yield serious long-term GHG reductions.  By all accounts, Carmageddon seems to have been almost a non-event; people stayed home with their families, enjoyed their neighborhoods, watched the new Harry Potter movie.  But if, during future decisions about how to spend transportation funds, LA residents think back on the past weekend and remember that not driving was actually kind of fun, we may see some long-term benefits to Carmageddon.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    SANDAG: Does smart growth reduce GHG emissions?

    I’ve been looking through The San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) draft environmental impact report (EIR) for their regional transportation plan (RTP). For more information on why this is an important document, see our previous posts on SANDAG’s work, as well as our report on SB 375.  Both the RTP and the Draft EIR are currently open for comment.

    In the draft EIR, SANDAG looks at the impact of several alternative scenarios.  It took a little digging, so I put together a table comparing the GHG emissions under each.  Here it is:

    It’s worth noting that the table shows all GHG emissions, not just those due to transportation, but since transportation accounts for almost 50% of GHG emissions in San Diego County and since the RTP focuses on transportation, I’m assuming that transportation GHG emissions account for the differences between the scenarios. 

    This table highlights two issues that I find troubling:
    1. SB 375 is supposed to reduce GHG emissions below business as usual, but the “no project” alternative, which only includes the six highway projects and five transit projects that are already under construction in San Diego County, achieves the most GHG reductions of any scenario in 2050.  From an SB 375 standpoint, if the RTP doesn’t reduce GHG emissions compared to building nothing, why spend all this money—particularly on the many highway projects contained in the RTP.
    2. Concentrating growth in existing downtowns and in mixed-use areas that are walkable and well-served by transit is a key strategy in reducing GHG emissions—in fact, this is one of the rationales for SB 375.  However, under SANDAG’s analysis, scenarios that assume a land use pattern that concentrates more housing and jobs in regional centers does not achieve additional reductions when using the same transportation network (compare Scenarios 2b and 2a, 3b and 3a, and 4 and 1).  According to SANDAG, fast-tracking transit also does not reduce emissions (compare Scenarios 3a and 1).

    I can think of three possible explanations for these issues:
    1. The tools that SANDAG uses to analyze these plans do not adequately account for smart growth land use strategies or for transit service, and instead focus overwhelmingly on moving vehicles, so they underestimate the potential of transit and land-use focused scenarios to reduce GHG emissions while overestimating the impact of the highway projects in the RTP. We’ve written previously on other aspects of the RTP that suggest that this is the case, and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation has concluded that SANDAG’s travel model does not adequately account for the potential for high-quality transit service to lure people away from driving, particularly for high income riders.
    2. SANDAG’s current policies to improve transit and encourage smart growth are ineffective in reducing GHG emissions.  It could be that the RTP’s transit projects and the Smart Growth Concept Map focus more on achieving political goals by distributing transit services and growth equitably across the region instead of concentrating them in the areas where they make the most difference in order to reduce emissions and curb driving. 
    3. The San Diego region is so sprawling and auto-dependent that even the most aggressive feasible transit improvements and land use changes only make a marginal difference in GHG emissions.
    My guess is that all of the above play a role in the real explanation for why even the most ambitious smart growth scenarios perform so poorly, and why the no project alternative performs so well relative to the RTP. 

    But that’s the problem: it’s just a guess, because there’s so much inconsistency and so little transparency with how we analyze GHG impacts.  The standards for reporting GHG emissions in RTPs and EIRs are different, so SANDAG’s RTP reports transportation GHG emissions in lbs. CO2/day, while the EIR focuses on overall GHG emissions in MMT CO2/year, so it’s difficult to compare the results.  And even though SANDAG’s EIR acknowledges that Scenario 5, the “slow growth” scenario, just outsources San Diego County’s transportation emissions to neighboring sprawl areas in Riverside County, the EIR still recognizes Scenario 5 as the environmentally preferable scenario, because it reduces environmental impacts--at least, in San Diego County--by exporting growth.  Clearly there’s a lot more work to be done in reconciling the EIR process with the state’s planning priorities.  The regional agencies that write RTPs often don’t help the situation by masking the real impact of these plans with aspirational language and specious performance measures.  For example, SANDAG’s RTP uses the percentage of growth located within its Urban Area Transit Strategy Study Area, which basically includes all of the urbanized area in the region, as an indicator of transportation-land use coordination, rather than, say, the percentage of new growth located within a half-mile of a high-frequency transit stop, which SB 375 uses as the definition for a transit priority project.

    The resounding defeat of Proposition 23 during the last election confirmed Californians’ commitment to avoiding catastrophic climate change.  Though planning sustainable communities is crucial to meeting the state’s GHG reduction goals, a lot of people still don’t get the connection between how our cities are planned and how hot the world gets.  MPOs need to clearly and honestly communicate how RTPs progress toward GHG reduction targets.  The Air Resources Board and the other state agencies need to create consistent, effective standards for modeling and reporting GHG emissions, and for bringing the EIR process in line with these changes.  Only then will we get the kind of public awareness and support that lead to the federal transportation reforms that are ultimately necessary to spur a widespread shift to sustainable community planning.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    New report on SB 375

    I'm pleased to announce that we've released a new report on how California's regions can create more sustainable communities through Senate Bill 375, California's new law that aligns regional land use and transportation planning toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The report, Leveraging a New Law: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions under Senate Bill 375, describes the key factors that will determine whether SB 375 ultimately results in more efficiently planned communities that enable Californians to drive less or merely in another well-meaning but toothless planning exercise.

    As Ezra Rapport, the Executive Director of ABAG, said in a talk at the Commonwealth Club earlier today, successful regional planning in a home-rule state like California is ultimately an act of political will--it's not something that can be legislated.  SB 375 creates several opportunities for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to foster alternatives to driving and encourage development in vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods that are well-served by transit.  It's ultimately up to MPOs--and the local elected officials that make up their boards--to take advantage of these opportunities, but given the long-term, abstract nature of regional planning it can be hard to understand whether or not they're doing this.  In order to clarify the issues surrounding SB 375, we interviewed over 50 planners from across Calfiornia and conducted an in-depth financial analysis of current regional plans.  Our report offers recommendations to MPOs and the state on how to leverage SB 375 to reduce sprawl that smart growth advocates can use to evaluate the first round of regional growth and transportation plans subject to SB 375 that MPOs will be releasing over the next several years.

    The biggest carrot that SB 375 offers to local governments in exchange for implementing regional land use plans is the promise that MPOs will allocate more transportation funding toward the areas that these plans target for growth.  One of our key findings is that MPOs only control 10 percent of statewide transportation funding, and 15 percent of funding for capital projects.  This share is unlikely to be sufficient to fund a large-scale shift in growth patterns, especially since MPOs consider much of their funding committed, either to projects funded by local sales taxes or to "fair-share" distributions among local governments.  In order for SB 375 to work, MPOs must create regional plans that outline clear goals for regional growth, and pass supplementary policies that prioritize funding to projects that meet these goals. 

    In a previous post, I evaluated SANDAG's draft regional plan against the recommendations contained in our report.  I'll be keeping an eye on regional plans as they come out--check back for updates.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011

    Five points on California's first draft RTP/SCS

    As my colleague Eliot Rose notes in our previous post, the first draft Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) under SB 375 has been released by SANDAG, the San Diego-area metropolitan planning organization (MPO). SB 375 is California’s first effort to link regional transportation planning with land use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so many eyes are upon SANDAG’s new draft document as an important trendsetter for implementation of this landmark law.

    A number of things leapt out at me on my first read of the document, mostly centering around a key table (Table 2.2 on pages 2-6 and 2-7) comparing performance measure outcomes for the RTP/SCS in 2050, a “no-plan” alternative for 2050, and the present day (defined as 2008 for modeling purposes). SANDAG included many performance measures in this table, but I focused mainly on the core issues of SB 375 and GHG reduction – namely, the CO2 levels per capita, VMT and mode shares. Five points of note:

    1. VMT per capita (line 14) is essentially the same in the current-day and RTP/SCS 2050 scenarios, and are only about 5% higher in the no-plan 2050 scenario. This means that plan implementation would do essentially nothing over the next 40 years to reduce per capita driving in the region from today’s levels, and is only marginally better than doing no plan at all.

    2. A clear implication of point (1) is that the RTP/SCS is not relying on VMT reductions to meet its regional GHG reduction targets under SB 375 for 2020 and 2035. It does indeed meet those targets, according to Table 3.1 on page 3-3. In fact, according to line 20 in Table 2.2, CO2 emissions per capita drop from 28.1 lbs/day today to 18.9 lbs/day in the RTP/SCS 2050 scenario. Strikingly, however, these emissions also drop to 19.9 in the 2050 no-plan scenario. That is a 29.2% drop in CO2 emissions by 2050 without the RTP/SCS, which is faster than the extrapolated pace of SB 375’s regional targets. (The RTP/SCS would result in a 32.7% decline). This suggests that SANDAG believes it would meet the SB 375 targets without even implementing the RTP/SCS.

    3. One possible explanation for how the region will achieve these reductions without reducing VMT is that SANDAG is planning for substantial improvements in avoiding congestion and increasing vehicle speeds. Indeed, these are a major thrust of the RTP/SCS. However, as noted in point (2), most of the CO2 reductions are occurring even in the no-plan alternative, which has much greater congestion than the RTP/SCS scenario (see line 10 of Table 2.2 on page 2-6). It is not immediately apparent within the document how these outcomes square with one another.

    4. A background memorandum dated May 14, 2010, and presented in Technical Appendix 9, partially explains how SANDAG developed its SCS/RTP scenario. As part of that process, SANDAG analyzed CO2 emissions for its current RTP, not only for today but for the years 2020 and 2035. That analysis showed that the current RTP will reduce CO2 emissions by 8.8% by 2020 but by only 5.4% by 2035. The memo explains:
    Per capita emissions in 2020 are lower than the 2005 base case due to balanced transportation capital investments and balanced growth in jobs and housing throughout the region. However, per capita emissions increase from 2020 to 2035 due in part to a disparity in employment growth and housing growth that begins to emerge after 2020 as employment clusters in the South Bay and North County Inland areas grow more rapidly than housing.
    This result shapes much of what appears in the draft RTP/SCS, including the fact that the RTP/SCS scenario achieves 14% reduction of CO2 per capita by 2020, but only 13% by 2035, and just 9% by 2050. This seems to be related to the issues in point (1) and (3) above, as well as the points in Eliot’s previous post. If the RTP/SCS were achieving CO2 reductions through fundamental improvements in the transportation system and regional land use, one would expect these improvements to accumulate over time. But congestion reduction and improved vehicle speed tend to be short-term improvements, which will diminish in effectiveness over time.

    5. And that leads to the final point. As many have noted, SB 375 has no strong mechanism for re-shaping regional growth patterns. RTPs plan transportation systems that meet the needs of a given regional land use pattern – a pattern that is determined by disparate local municipalities acting independently of one another. This RTP is no different, even though it includes an SCS and must meet a CO2 reduction target. If local municipalities in the San Diego region continue to make land use decisions that perpetuate sprawl and automobile dependency, there is ultimately little that the RTPs or SCSs will be able to do to make sustained progress against climate change.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    How sustainable is SANDAG's SCS?

    I’ve been spending the last month wrapping up a report on the critical steps that metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) can take in order to implement Senate Bill 375. The report examines how MPOs can leverage the opportunities presented by SB 375 to effectively create more livable communities, reduce sprawl, provide better alternatives to driving, and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and we’ll be posting it on our website soon. Meanwhile, MPOs continue to work on their next regional transportation plans (RTPs), which are required to include a land use plan, the sustainable communities strategy (SCS), that works alongside the transportation improvements in the RTP to reduce GHG emissions by concentrating new housing in areas where people drive less. SANDAG, the MPO for the San Diego metro area, just released their draft RTP, which is the first plan subject to the requirements of SB 375. There’s a lot in SANDAG’s RTP to applaud, including its focus on transit and the fact that it meets ARB’s GHG reduction targets. However, in the process of creating this report we found that complying with SB 375 is a different thing than actually using the opportunities that the bill presents to produce substantive changes in the way our communities look and the way that we get around, and SANDAG’s RTP illustrates this gap. I took a look at the RTP to see how it performs with respect to two of the key recommendations in our report.

    The draft RTP is open for public comment through mid-June if you wish to weigh in.

    Recommendation #1: MPOs should include clear goals for future land use changes in their SCS.

    According to Appendix D, page 33 of SANDAG’s RTP: “The 2050 Regional Growth Forecast is based primarily on local land use plans, many of which have been updated in the past four years, and also includes draft plan updates and more robust redevelopment assumptions within existing plans.” In effect, this is how MPOs have created local land use scenarios for the past several decades, and it’s the approach that gave us the sprawling metro areas that we have today. Local plans don’t adequately consider regional impacts such as congestion or air quality, and are often based more on economic aspirations—more big-box retail that brings big tax revenues and costs less to serve, less housing—than on regional realities. The California Transportation Commission allows that MPOs can deviate from local planning assumptions local plans in order to account for regional economic trends, prior regional “blueprint” land use plans, or for the gap in the time horizon between local plans, which cover 15 to 20 years, and the RTP/SCS, which in SANDAG’s case goes out to 2050.

    SANDAG’s draft SCS does not seem to take advantage of many of these opportunities. Though the plan calls for areas that are well-served by current and planned transit, such as San Diego and Chula Vista, take on fair shares of the region’s housing growth between now and 2050—44 and 11 percent respectively—unincorporated areas of San Diego county, which are generally far from transit and low-density, still take on 10 percent of the region’s housing, even during the period between 2035 and 2050, when SANDAG is free to make more assumptions because this period is outside the horizon of the county’s updated general plan. And there are plenty of reasons, from shifting demographics to rising gas prices, to assume that this housing will not be as desirable in the future. Yet SANDAG’s SCS only houses 53 percent of the region’s growth in Smart Growth Opportunity Areas identified in its blueprint plan, while the remaining half goes to the suburbs, much of it in unincorporated areas.

    Source: SANDAG, 2050 Draft RTP, page 3-3

    According to SANDAG’s projections, the GHG reductions in its RTP start out substantial and then taper off. SANDAG’ explains that this is because “greenhouse gas emission reductions from compact land use, [sic] and alternative transportation modes will be outpaced by regional growth." This doesn’t have to be the case. If the SCS and RTP pursue a land-use strategy that houses most new residents in areas that have progressively better transit service and higher density and mix of uses, GHG reductions should compound over time. This is one of the assumptions upon which ARB’s GHG reduction targets, which get more stringent over time, were created, and an MPO can meet this assumption by creating an SCS that proactively addresses regional land use patterns. SANDAG doesn’t estimate the relative effectiveness of the GHG reduction measures in its RTP, but based on the numbers my guess is that the large initial reductions are due to congestion relief from the new freeway lanes, some of which are managed, that SANDAG is building over the short term, and then they taper off as new cars fill that capacity. If that’s the case, this is not the type of planning that’s going to create more sustainable communities over the long term—it’s greenwashing the status quo.

    Recommendation #2: MPOs should review “committed” projects and fast-track those that reduce emissions.

    The RTP process allows for a fair amount of flexibility: although an RTP includes a fixed list of projects, it often doesn’t specify the order in which projects will be completed. Same goes for transportation sales taxes such as the San Diego area’s TransNet, which is administered by SANDAG. This means that MPOs have an opportunity to reduce GHG emissions by prioritizing projects that support smart growth, while delaying others until they are amended or omitted in a subsequent version of the RTP or until a sales tax measure allows for amendments. However, many MPOs limit their own flexibility by considering a large number of projects, as well as many funding sources to be “committed,” and not subject to discretionary decisions during the RTP process. 

    SANDAG points out that this RTP is much more focused on transit than the previous one, and indeed transit accounts for about 45 percent of the overall plan expenditures, compared to 32 percent for roads and highways. However, this does not present a clear picture of SANDAG’s priorities, because it accounts for dollars spent by local governments and Caltrans, and because many funding sources, particularly those that go toward transit operations, can only be used for one purpose, so they’re not really discretionary. SANDAG’s analysis of different investment scenarios for its RTP (see page 13 of Appendix D) included roughly $43 billion worth of transit and highway projects—the type of projects that SANDAG funds—and $32 million of those are included in TransNet or otherwise committed. Of those committed projects, 63 percent go to highways and 37 percent go to transit. Granted, SANDAG does not have the ability to remove sales tax projects from its expenditure plan, and SB 375 specifically exempts sales tax projects from consideration during the SCS process. However, $10 billion worth of SANDAG’s committed projects are not tax-funded, and even those that are draw in money from other discretionary sources that SANDAG allocates. There is no reason that the agency can’t elect to reconsider committed projects in light of SB 375, particularly those in its Early Action Program, which are the first in line for funding. MTC, the MPO for the Bay Area, just passed a policy narrowing its definition of committed projects and funds, which potentially frees up more money to apply toward meeting its GHG reduction targets. This type of policy can be an important step in taking early and aggressive action to reduce GHGs.

    Friday, April 29, 2011

    One verb away from regionalism?

    In the age of SB 375, much attention in California is being focused on the Regional Transportation Plans that (among other things) program the use of federal transportation dollars within the planning areas of California's 18 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Under SB 375, in California, these RTPs must now include a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) that, along with the RTP, demonstrably reduces the emission of greenhouse gases to meet defined targets by 2020 and 2035. Thus, to some extent at least, federal, state and regional transportation funds will, for the first time, be spent in the service of reducing regional climate impacts.

    Less commented upon is the fact that the federal Code of Regulations has long contained standards for the preparation of RTPs that include some surprising provisions. Title 23, Section 450.316 outlines what the Federal Highway Administration expects of these RTPs, including analysis and consideration of:

    * "Consistency of transportation planning with applicable federal, state and local energy conservation programs, goals, and objectives"

    * "The likely effect of transportation policy decisions on land use and development..."

    * "The effects of all transportation projects to be undertaken within the metropolitan planning area, without regard to the source of funding [including]...alternative investments in meeting transportation demand..."

    * "The overall social, economic, energy and environmental effects of transportation decisions (including consideration of the effects and impacts of the plan on the human, natural and man-made environment...)"

    So why do we continue to get sprawl-inducing freeway construction as the backbone of our regional transportation systems? Part of is, of course, is that the regulations merely require planners to "analyze" or "consider" these issues, which is far different than requiring that anything be done about them. So, could we simply strengthen this language to require that RTPs must identify and plan for the transportation solutions that actually fulfill these objectives, rather than merely considering them? Are we "one verb away" from substantive regionalism in the U.S.?

    I suspect not. While strengthening this language would certainly help, and should be part of a reform agenda for federal transportation spending, it remains true that the regional transportation plans rely on local land use plans to determine what populations and land areas need to be served by transportation infrastructure. As long as those plans continue to program low-density, single-use development, the RTPs will follow with the only transportation system that can effectively serve that land use pattern -- freeways.

    In the end, it is the fragmentation of land use authority, and the enormous profits to be made from greenfield land conversion, that are the primary drivers of sprawl. While stronger transportation planning regulations would help, it is not likely that they will overcome those forces on the own.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Thinking about job sprawl

    The Public Policy Institute of California has recently released a new policy paper entitled Driving Change: Reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled in California. The paper assesses the prospects for successful implementation of SB375, California's 2008 law that requires regions to achieve transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions reductions from land use planning measures.

    A central argument of the paper is that SB375's emphasis on facilitating increases in residential density around transit as a means of reducing VMT may be misplaced. Instead, PPIC argues that it is job densities around transit stops that are most strongly associated with transit use, and hence reductions in VMT. One plausible reason for this relationship may be that it is "relatively easy for workers to drive or bike from home (where their cars or bikes are) to a transit stop or station, but not as easy to drive or bike from a transit station or stop to their workplace" at the destination end of the trip (p6).

    If indeed this conclusion is valid (and PPIC cites three recent publications by prominent experts or research bodies supporting it), it has implications that go far beyond even those suggested here by PPIC. Within the planning world, the problem of sprawl has overwhelmingly been framed in terms of residential development patterns, while far less attention is devoted to the location of jobs. Numerous books and papers have examined the origins of residential sprawl in zoning policy, mortgage lending, cultural values and a host of other interlocking social forces. Many fewer have examined the forces driving the dispersion of jobs into suburban locations.

    What might be gained by an increased focus on reversing job sprawl? Well, for one thing, it may be an easier task than reversing residential sprawl. Job location decisions are made by far fewer individuals than comprise regional housing markets, and those individuals are at least potentially easier to coordinate. Business leaders are often more civic-minded than many people assume, and there is a rising appreciation in the business world of the value-enhancing characteristics of dense urban professional networks.

    Re-densifying jobs may also ameliorate the more subjective argument that sprawl fosters social fragmentation and alienation. In older American cities, people used to work (and shop) downtown. Arguably, much of the sense of publicness people apparently experienced in those times derived from people's repeated journeys to work and retail through bustling and diverse city streets. Even in small towns and older suburbs, despite low-density housing, there was a physical center dominated by shopping and workplaces that nearly everyone in the community visited routinely, often multiple times per week. Indeed, one could argue that, with the exception of industrial-era immigrant neighborhoods, Americans have never lived at dramatically greater density than they do now -- but often did work and shop in very much more public settings than they do today.

    Higher-density urban living is growing in popularity in America because the nation is changing demographically to include more single young professionals, childless couples, and two-career families that prosper best in large job markets. Planners should continue to seek ways to provide these people the housing products they need and want -- but also should give more serious and sustained thought to where they and their compatriots work each day, and how they travel there.

    Saturday, February 19, 2011

    Estimating cities’ share of GHG reductions in California

    In preparation for implementing Senate Bill 375, California’s metropolitan areas recently proposed regional greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets that reflected how much they could feasibly reduce transportation emissions over the next few decades.  This was an important step in reconciling urban planning with climate action.  However, given that we face irreversible, catastrophic climate change if the world doesn’t reduce its emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a target that Governor Schwarzenegger committed California to with Executive Order S-3-05, the question to ask may not be how much can cities reduce emissions, but instead how much do they need to reduce emissions?

    In the past, America has used technology to fight its environmental battles, and many expect that technology will also solve the climate challenge.  California has led the way in mandating cleaner technologies in order to meet its interim goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 with policies that reduce the carbon content of gasoline by 10 percent, require utilities to generate at least 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and institute new efficiency standards for passenger vehicles.  But even if technology continues to evolve at the pace set by these measures through 2050, cities will still need to reduce their emissions by almost 60 percent in order to meet California’s 2050 GHG reduction target.   

    Even in the sector that has been the focus of policy makers and have seen the most progress in reducing emissions—passenger cars—cities will be responsible for reducing GHG emissions by an additional 20 percent.  

    These reductions will likely come from planning and building communities that allow people to live more efficiently. 

    Over 250 local governments have created or are in the process of creating climate action plans.  Unlike state and federal policies that focus on technological improvements, local climate plans generally focus on creating communities that allow residents to live more efficiently.   The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) recently created GHG emissions thresholds for land use projects by figuring out how much existing policies could reduce emissions, and then assuming that urban planning would be responsible for covering the gap between what existing policies could account for and the state's 2020 targets.  We simply assumed that the policy reductions calculated by BAAQMD would continue out to the year 2050, and compared them to the State's 2050 GHG reduction goals.  This is a simplistic method of creating projections, but it leads us to some pretty ambitious assumptions, including:
    • Transportation fuel will contain 72 percent of the carbon that it does today.  This is roughly the equivalent of shifting from gasoline to ethanol derived from sugarcane, which is one of the most efficient ethanol fuel stocks.
    • Passenger vehicles will consume 18 percent of the fuel that they do today, and the average car on the road will get 105 MPG.
    • Electricity would have one-sixth the carbon content that it does today.  For Pacific Gas and Electric, which provides electricity for most of the Bay Area, this would mean supplying electricity generated from 91 percent renewable energy, with the remaining nine percent coming from natural gas.
    • The average home would consume 46 percent less energy than it currently does; which would mean that all new homes get built to maximize energy efficiency, and all existing homes receive the maximum possible efficiency retrofit. 
    • Over four million homes—roughly 30 percent of the state's projected number of single-family homes in 2050—will have rooftop solar arrays.

    Even with a pretty astounding rate of technological improvement over the next 40 years, good community design will still need to reduce GHG emissions by over half.  Compare that to the 2035 targets that ARB recently set for California's largest and fastest-growing metro areas, which range from 10 to 16 percent.  Planners and policy makers at both the local and state levels will need to focus on achieving more aggressive land use changes if California is serious about fighting climate change.

    We'll be posting the full report on our website soon--stay tuned.