The Right Climate Action can Save Traffic Choked Cities. But There are Dangers.

July 2, 2018

This will be a multi-part post, because the subtect is so huge.

We are already in a transformative moment for cities, depending on what choices are made for transportation in coming years.  Sustainability depends on making cities work as safe, pleasant, and prosperous homes for humanity – and one of the potential barriers is transportation.

Yale Climate Connections:

For Shannon Binns, fighting climate change means not talking about climate change.

Binns is executive director of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit that advocates for smart growth in booming Charlotte, North Carolina. Since founding the organization in 2010, he’s led initiatives ranging from an annual sustainability awards program to a popular competition promoting alternatives to solo driving.

Although sprawl doesn’t generally top the list of cities’ climate mitigation priorities, it has massive implications for greenhouse gas emissions.

“When people think about climate action, they think about ending coal,” Binns said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s only half the battle. A tremendous opportunity is designing our cities in a way that people can move around them efficiently.”

Boasting a strong economy and relatively low cost of living, metropolitan Charlotte added nearly 50,000 people between 2016 and 2017. This rapid growth is expected to continue. While some of the newcomers are moving into new condos downtown, many opt for suburban developments that push the city’s boundaries outward. In 2009, researchers at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte predicted that Mecklenburg County, which is dominated by Charlotte, will be fully built-out by 2030.

For Binns, these boom years represent a critical turning point. Charlotte will either go the way of larger Sunbelt cities, fully embracing auto-dependent sprawl – Atlanta serves as a cautionary tale for many – or opt for denser development and a healthier transportation mix.

To push for the latter, Sustain Charlotte focuses on both top-down action and bottom-up change. There’s a vital feedback loop between government policy and public opinion, the theory runs:  If average citizens consider public transportation, biking, and walking to be inconvenient or socially unacceptable ways to move around the city, for example, they’re unlikely to support government efforts to reduce automobile domination.

As a result, Binns and his team spend much of their time developing public events and messaging aimed at convincing locals that dense, well-connected communities can be more practical – and more enjoyable – than sprawl.

Street Blog:

Here’s one way to understand the story of biking in Sevilla, Spain: It went from having about as much biking as Oklahoma City to having about as much biking as Portland, Oregon.

It did this over the course of four years.

The next question was how fast to build the network. Calvo said he approached José García Cebrián, head of the city’s urban improvement department, with a plan to build 10 kilometers of the network each year for eight years.

No, García told him. García said the entire 80-kilometer minimum grid needed to be built in 18 months.

“He had this vision of the network had to be in place really fast,” Calvo said. “He had the money, he had the will, he had the political commitment.”

One reason: unlike almost anything else a city can do, major biking improvements could be finished in time for politicians to brag about them in their next campaign.

“All of this had to be built before the elections — they had to sell something,” Calvo said.

Everyone knew it might backfire.

“It was a risky way,” Calvo said. But today, he said, delivering bike projects in the first two years of office is “what I advise to all the local governments.”

That’s about how long it takes a major biking project to pay off.

“You have to do everything in the first two years,” he said. “It starts working, and then people see that it works, and then people are supportive of what you did.”

Change is coming in transportation – whether people want it or not, because technology is changing faster than most of us understand.

The driver will be electric, autonomous vehicles.


IN ANN ARBOR, Michigan, last week, 125 mostly white, mostly male, business-card-bearing attendees crowded into a brightly lit ballroom to consider “mobility.” That’s the buzzword for a hazy vision of how tech in all forms—including smartphones, credit cards, and autonomous vehicles— will combine with the remains of traditional public transit to get urbanites where they need to go.

There was a fizz in the air at the Meeting of the Mindssession, advertised as a summit to prepare cities for the “autonomous revolution.” In the US, most automotive research happens within an hour of that ballroom, and attendees knew that development of “level 4” autonomous vehicles—designed to operate in limited locations, but without a human driver intervening—is accelerating.

The session raised profound questions for American cities. Namely, how to follow the money to ensure that autonomous vehicles don’t drive cities to financial ruin. The advent of driverless cars will likely mean that municipalities will have to make do with much, much less. Driverless cars, left to their own devices, will be fundamentally predatory: taking a lot, giving little, and shifting burdens to beleaguered local governments. It would be a good idea to slam on the brakes while cities work through their priorities. Otherwise, we risk creating municipalities that are utterly incapable of assisting almost anyone with anything—a series of sprawling relics where American cities used to be.

The problem, as speaker Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon, explained, is that many cities balance their budgets using money brought in by cars: gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, traffic tickets, and billions of dollars in parking revenue. But driverless cars don’t need these things: Many will be electric, will never get a ticket, and can circle the block endlessly rather than park. Because these sources account for somewhere between 15 and 50 percent of city transportation revenue in America, as autonomous vehicles become more common, huge deficits are ahead.

Cities know this: They’re beginning to look at fees that could be charged for accessing pickup and dropoff zones, taxes for empty seats, fees for parking fleets of cars, and other creative assessments that might make up the difference.

But many states, urged on by auto manufacturers, won’t let cities take these steps. Several have already acted to block local policies regulating self-driving cars. Michigan, for example, does not allow Detroit, a short drive away from that Ann Arbor ballroom, to make any rules about driverless cars.

Coming posts will show what some cities are doing to smooth clogged arteries, and what the Koch Brothers are doing to keep them clogged.


2 Responses to “The Right Climate Action can Save Traffic Choked Cities. But There are Dangers.”

  1. indy222 Says:

    high density saves on transportation vs living in the suburbs, and this is what the builders and other proponents want you to focus on… but we’re not on a path to salvation if you don’t simultaneously forbid suburban and rural building. It’s a lot like the problem with the mantra that renewables will save us all – renewables are merely being added on top of fossil fuels, and you can be sure the corporate interests will make sure they get the maximum $return on existing infrastructure for FF’s. The transition will happen, over time, but what’s needed to save climate in time is replacement, not add-on. Same for densifying cities. I’m not looking forward to congestion adding in my downtown location as high rises go up in the once-quiet beach town.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      The artificially low price of gas is unfortunate to say the least; because of huge subsidies and externalities* fracking gets that dwarf those that renewables receive, we need to change the politics and economics of energy to make the needed reductions in fossil fuel use. But hundreds of coal burners have been closed and now even gas is being used less because of the low and fast-dropping price of clean safe renewable energy. Oil will follow, very likely precipitously, once EVs get the proper support and reach a tipping point.
      Clean safe renewable energy is most of what’s being built in the US and the world now. Increasing efficiency and economic output per unit of GHG and other pollutants because of increased renewables mean the increasing population and economy aren’t resulting in as much of an increase of fossil fuel use as they would be.

      Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar have both dropped more than 95% over the last 20 years, and batteries are following the same curve. Wind has dropped 50% in the last 2 years alone. Each price drop results in more being built as they reduce costs and increase profits in more places, and the more that’s built the lower the price, causing an upward spiral that will accelerate.

      In the developed world there’s already more than enough generating capacity, so it’s a zero-sum game in which every unit of capacity of renewables replaces some fossil fuels (not 1:1 because of efficiency etc. above). Because of our insane economic system, the switch is slower than it should be, but newly-built renewables are beginning to beat the price of even old fossil fuels so it’s picking up speed. Even with the Republicans so firmly in favor of the energy system of the 19th century, and ALEC-written anti-wind and solar bills passing through so many gerrymandRed state legislatures, it will only speed up now.

      The first “floating” wind farm had a capacity factor of 65% its first 3 months—better than both coal and most old gas peakers. It will no doubt be lower in the summer (when solar is strongest) but the trend will only strengthen. The alleged “baseline” coal and nukes are used less and less; they can’t compete with the price of renewables. The downtime makes them even less competitive, so they’re in a death spiral. The bigger wind turbines are the more energy they produce and the higher their c.f. because they’re up in stronger, steadier winds. Cutting edge models are now about 9.5 MW, but a new 12MW GE model is due to be in production next year; it’s also expected to have a cf. of 65%, and blades are being tested for a 50 MW turbine. Their power, c.f., efficiency and price will only improve as they get bigger and are built farther out at sea where wind is also stronger and steadier.

      In many developing countries the lower price and small buy-in of renewables (micro grids or even just a panel or 2 for lights, phone and computer charging, are allowing millions who could never afford electricity to use it. Solar is also replacing diesel generators and dung and wood burning, a tremendous advance that allows forests to remain uncut, dung to improve farm fertility and women and children to suffer far fewer health and developmental problems. This includes clothesline paradox energies like simple solar cookers. The growing demand for energy in developing countries means more can be built without the zero-sum game, but also means they aren’t replacing as much fossil fuel energy yet. It’s building momentum, and a political, financial and public constituency for renewables; allowing a plan to replace fossil fuels; it’s creating infrastructure and abilities to build more.

      None of this is happening as fast as it should, but the rich countries need to go way beyond the commitments they made at Paris and aren’t meeting, to help poor countries increase efficiency and their percentage of clean safe renewable energy. We have 7 years to reduce fossil fuel use by at least 90% and be well along in democratizing, equalizing, reforesting the planet and transforming agriculture and industry; we already face rapidly rising risk of such disasters and tipping points we’re likely to begin to lose our ability to implement solutions at all. If that happens before we’re even fully started, there’s almost no hope for civilization or most life on Earth. Changing the housing stock, landscape, population, psychology, and adaptation to the Earth’s new harsh and shifting climate will only happen over a much longer timespan so we have to do what we can now as fast as humanly possible and make those emission reductions happen.

      * from the secret Cheney energy meeting at the beginning of the Bush the Lesser administrone.

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