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Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange

zoo

Leading up to Earth Day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Time Is Running Out,” lamenting the lack of urgency in the United States to prevent a very urgent problem: catastrophic climate change. Today, Brad Plumer at Vox explained why it may be too late to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that climate scientists have been warning about.

There are many steps we’ll have to take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But one of them is most definitely this: America has to stop spending billions on projects like Wisconsin’s Zoo Interchange and start getting serious about building places where people can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

The Zoo Interchange embodies America’s broken transportation spending system, which former US DOT official Beth Osborne described on Atlantic Cities today as “an entitlement for state departments of transportation to allocate for their own priorities.”

This single highway interchange, aimed at reducing delays for suburban car commuters in the nation’s 30th largest city, costs more than total federal spending on walking and biking annually.

The Zoo Interchange carries 300,000 cars per day. It is “Wisconsin’s oldest and busiest interchange,” according to the state. A big part of Wisconsin DOT’s justification for the Milwaukee interchange is “safety.” According to WisDOT, there were an average of 2.5 collisions a day on the interchange between 2000 and 2005 and nine were fatal.

By comparison, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, Americans make about 112 million walking trips daily. About 4,000 pedestrians are killed annually on American roads.

And yet, Wisconsin will spend more on this one sprawl-inducing highway project than the feds spend each year on all walking and biking projects combined.

Clearly, our priorities are out of whack — way out of whack.

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Transit Union and Sierra Club Join Forces for Earth Day and Beyond

Earth Day is a week from tomorrow. How many people will drive to their local environmental festival without even a second thought to how they got there?

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: ##http://www.carnewschina.com/page/701/##Car News China##

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: Car News China

The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Sierra Club will announce tomorrow that they are joining forces to highlight the connection between transportation and climate change.

Transit is important, “not only to people who ride it but also to everybody who breathes oxygen in the world,” said ATU President Larry Hanley. That’s why the union is strengthening its coordination with the Sierra Club.

“They completely get the importance of mass transit,” he said. “It’s just that we haven’t found ways to formalize our public relationship in the past. That’s what we’re going to do now.”

Transit advocates, including the ATU, have been working to advance the full range of arguments for transit with the Transit Is Greater campaign. The ATU’s new “Transit > Pollution” leaflet [PDF] is all ready to be rolled out at bus stops and train stations around the U.S. and Canada, where the union will be encouraging riders to become more active in the push for better transit. They’ll also be doing climate-themed events with the Sierra Club in May, and beyond that with events they’re calling “Transit Tuesdays.

“We’re working with elected officials and candidates for public office to get out and ride transit with us, to organize riders to contact Congress for a better transit bill,” Hanley said, referring to the pending reauthorization of the MAP-21 transportation bill. They’re also planning a rally May 20 on Capitol Hill, after which members of the ATU and the Transport Workers Union will visit Congressional offices. Sierra Club locals and other community groups from around the country will support that event with phone calls to their representatives.

While initially timed around Earth Day, the partnership launch also coincides with a spike of interest in climate change following the release of a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that issued a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. “Climate change, to those of us who don’t believe in voodoo but believe in science, is a real serious concern,” Hanley said. “We’re watching polar ice caps melt at the same time that our Congress has turned its back on the things that could slow that down — like mass transit.”

Even many lawmakers concerned about environmental issues don’t pay enough attention to the power of transit to allay climate change, said Hanley. “That’s really the whole point of what we’re doing in May and throughout 2014,” he said. “We’re going to remind the ones who should know and alert the ones who don’t about the value of mass transit.”

According to the IPCC report, emissions from transportation could rise by 71 percent from 2010 levels by 2050, while the scientific consensus holds that the world needs to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by then. The transportation sector is projected to be the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

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What Will Our Future Be Like If We Don’t Change How We Get Around?

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: ##http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR246.html## RAND##

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: RAND

How will Americans get around in the year 2030? A recent report from the RAND Corporation lays out two “plausible futures” developed though a “scenario analysis” and vetted by outside experts. While RAND takes a decidedly agnostic stance toward the implications of each scenario, the choice that emerges is still pretty stark.

In the first scenario, oil prices continue to climb until 2030 and greenhouse gas emissions are tightly regulated, as a result of the recognition of the harm caused by global warming. Zoning laws have been reformed to promote walkable urban and suburban communities. Transit use has increased substantially. Road pricing is widely used to limit congestion and generate revenue for transportation projects. Vehicle efficiency standards have been tightened, and most drivers use electric vehicles. This is the scenario researchers at RAND call, rather dourly, “No Free Lunch.”

In the second scenario, “Fueled and Freewheeling,” oil prices are relatively low in 2030 due to increasingly advanced extraction methods. Americans’ relationship to energy is much like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. We’ll own more vehicles overall and drive more miles. Suburbanization will continue. Roads are in bad shape because no revenues are raised to repair them. Congestion is worse. This scenario represents the future if little action is taken to counter the effects of global warming.

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Obama’s Climate Speech: Mostly Mum on Transportation

President Obama announced a sweeping package of measures to address combat climate change today. But with a couple of exceptions, he was largely silent on the third of carbon emissions that come from the transportation sector.

President Obama outlined his new Climate Action Plan in a speech today at Georgetown. But the president's actions to address climate change are hindered by Congressional resistance. Image: Whitehouse.gov

One of the president’s most important reforms is the announcement that he will issue a presidential memorandum to the EPA to develop carbon standards for power plants. Carbon emissions from these sources, unlike other harmful chemicals, have until this point gone unregulated by the federal government.

“Today about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants,” said the president, speaking at Georgetown. “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollutions those plants can dump into the air. None.”

“We’ve got to fix that,” he said.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan establishes a goal of doubling the amount of energy derived from renewable sources by 2020. The plan would also establish efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.

The most substantive portion of the plan related to transportation was the announcement that the president wants to expand new fuel efficiency standards for trucks and heavy vehicles beyond 2018. Those standards, the White House says, are projected to save about 270 million metric tons of carbon and 530 million barrels of oil.

The plan also calls for the elimination of “fossil fuel subsidies” in 2014, which would require Congressional cooperation. Research by the International Energy Agency has shown that eliminating those subsidies alone would reduce carbon emissions 10 percent by 2050, according to the Climate Action Plan.

In his speech, President Obama also made reference to the Keystone Pipeline, saying the State Department has been instructed not to approve the project if government analyses determine it would increase carbon emissions.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, a policy analyst with the Sierra Club, says the Climate Action Plan is mostly a collection of policy fixes the president can enact without Congressional support — such as new emissions standards — which might explain why transportation got short shrift.

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Most Candidates Endorse Traffic Reduction, But Few Offer Plans to Achieve It

Last night’s mayoral forum on sustainability at Cooper Union was the first to attract the full slate of candidates this election season, perhaps a sign that environmental issues now figure prominently in the campaigns’ electoral calculus. Organized by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, the event packed all nine registered mayoral candidates onto the stage, where Brian Lehrer of WNYC guided a conversation that touched on topics ranging from climate change to energy efficiency.

All candidates but Republican John Catsimatidis assured the audience that they believed in climate change, thought the next mayor should take measures to reduce the number of cars entering Manhattan below 59th Street, and would like to see an increase in bicycle commuting.

The latter two points came forth due to a cautious approach by Lehrer, who opted to acknowledge the touchy political subjects of congestion pricing and bike lanes while allowing the candidates to avoid an overt stance. While this put all mayoral candidates but Catsimatidis on the record in favor of the outcomes of bike lanes, bike-share, and road pricing, it left the audience without an explanation of how candidates who have stated disdain for bike infrastructure and congestion pricing would achieve these goals.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion did expand on this discussion by positioning multi-modal transit networks at the core of their sustainability platforms. Albanese renewed his call for fair tolling and the expansion of bike lanes and Select Bus Service to “get as many people out of their cars as possible.” Quinn pitched an expansion of Bus Rapid Transit and an expanded network of ferries to bring East River Ferry-style options to other waterfront neighborhoods. Carrion expressed support for more efficient bus, car, and taxi fleets and pushed for “smart growth, building vertically instead of horizontally, and transit oriented development” within a “holistic” transportation network that prioritizes mass transit, bicycling, and walking.

Meanwhile, the current and former comptrollers on stage, John Liu and Bill Thompson, offered only passing mentions of the need for improved transit infrastructure to accommodate impending population growth. Former MTA chief and Republican frontrunner Joe Lhota stepped into the discussion with a jab at the aging infrastructure he once oversaw, though he made no proposal to modernize it. This came not long after Lhota offhandedly endorsed the Bloomberg administration’s proposed rezoning of East Midtown, stating that the redevelopment of the business district would replace mid-century structures with more energy-efficient new towers. Lhota left unresolved the question of how to retrofit the aged and overloaded Lexington Avenue subway line to absorb the increased ridership that would come with the rezoning.

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Will Big Highway Projects Have to Consider Climate Change?

Expanding NEPA to include climate impacts and adaptability won't necessarily mean a future free from this. Photo: Macomb Politics

Since 1970, the National Environmental Protection Act has required federal agencies to consider the impacts of their projects on air, water, and soil pollution — but not on climate change.

Until recently, carbon dioxide, which causes global warning, wasn’t classified as a pollutant and so couldn’t be regulated under environmental laws. The EPA in 2009 asserted its power to regulate carbon emissions but hasn’t applied it to NEPA analyses for infrastructure – until now.

President Obama hasn’t made the announcement yet, but Bloomberg reported Friday that he “is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.”

There’s more – projects could also be evaluated according to resiliency in the face of climate change. Would the new infrastructure be destroyed if faced with flooding, drought, or other severe weather? Bloomberg reports that the White House is also “looking at” requiring these climate adaptability and resiliency reports for projects “with 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions or more per year, the equivalent of burning about 100 rail cars of coal.”

Does this mean no more highways?

The conservative National Review’s headline about the changes was, “Did Obama Just Block Keystone?” Columnist Stanley Kurtz speculated that Obama could publicly approve the Keystone XL pipeline and then let the new environmental review process rule it out.

Could the same go for highway projects?

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Study: Electric Cars Not So Green Unless Powered by Renewables

A study by the government of the Australian state of Victoria highlights the limits of electric cars, in isolation, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Australian government researchers say electric vehicles are no environmental panacea. Photo: The Age

The Victorian government’s ongoing “electric vehicle trial” [PDF] found that electric cars powered by coal may actually produce more carbon emissions than petroleum-fueled cars over the lifetime of the vehicle, from manufacturing to junkyard. This is due in part to the added environmental impacts of the lithium batteries that electric cars require.

This is not to say that EVs won’t improve on internal combustion engines. It all depends on where the electricity comes from. The authors found that, taking into account the full vehicle life-cycle, an electric car powered by 100 percent renewable energy — like wind and solar — can begin outperforming gas-powered cars after two years of use.

In the United States, the cleanest sources of electricity are near the coasts, and EVs in those areas outperform the best hybrids, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists released last spring. But in the Midwest and Mountain West, coal-powered energy generation makes EVs dirtier.

Of course, even setting aside the deaths, injuries, chronic diseases, and traffic jams caused by a car-dependent transportation system, vehicle emissions are far from the only environmental cost of cars. To reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, cutting down on the “embedded energy” that comes with sprawling development is absolutely essential. And while cleaner cars can help curb global warming, the wrong incentives for their use can also dump more carbon into the air. To the extent that policies discourage transit, biking, or walking in order to favor electric vehicles, the net effect can actually backfire. Witness Denmark’s incentives to park electric cars in the center city, which undermines the high mode-share for greener modes of travel.

The Australian government has been providing a better incentive, helping gas stations install electric vehicle charging facilities. The city of Melbourne currently has about 30 such stations in the central business district but 10 more are on the way as part of a government trial, reports Melbourne’s The Age.

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Rebuilding New York City for a New Reality

Governor Cuomo has the opportunity to build a smarter and more resilient regional transportation network. Photo: Daily News

“Climate change is a reality… for us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation, and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be short-sighted… I’m hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area but use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter.”

– Governor Andrew Cuomo

Amen Governor Cuomo. Hurricane Sandy should be the massive bucket of cold water needed to rouse New York’s political class into making the multitude of changes required for New York City to survive the rising ocean, and remain a leading global city.

The inconvenient reality is that the water is rising, and New York is a city built on islands. According to New York City’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, New York Harbor has risen about a foot since 1900, and will rise at least another three feet in the next century. If polar ice caps melt — which appears to be happening — harbor waters will rise six feet or more.

There is an enormous amount of work to do. New York needs expansive new flood defenses, including the vast expansion and restoration of storm surge-absorbing wetlands and oyster beds. These “soft edges” will have to be accompanied by some “hard edges,” including sea walls and, possibly, massive surge barriers like London’s Thames Barrier. The debate over the right mix of “soft” and “hard” approaches is now underway, even as some New Yorkers still huddle without power or water in darkened apartments.

Beyond debate is that our vulnerable electrical and transit systems have to be made more resistant to flooding. However, our century-old transit system is creaking along under a huge debt, the next transit capital plan is completely unfunded, and there is no money for flood defenses. Meanwhile, our downstate road network is burdened by a totally backward and unfair toll system that causes costly traffic jams, wastes time and consumes big tax subsidies for bridge and road repairs.

New York can’t have “smart rebuilding” and a dumb, broke transportation system. One of the pillars of Governor Cuomo’s rebuilding plan for the New York City area must be tolling the East River Bridges and access to the Central Business District, and reducing overpriced tolls on outer bridge crossings. New toll revenue from this common sense plan should be dedicated to rebuilding the downstate transit and road system, and toughening it against floods. This “bridge swap” toll plan, first proposed by transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, will also free up hundreds of millions in general tax revenue currently spent on roads for new flood defenses.

Hurricane Sandy was a dire message that New York cannot afford the luxury of political dysfunction and irrational governance. In this crisis, there is a clear opportunity for Governor Cuomo to build a new, smarter, tougher transit and transportation system that can serve as the backbone of his efforts to rebuild the region.

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The Connection That Can’t Be Ignored: Sandy and Climate Change

If there’s any good news to come out of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, it’s that political leaders and the press are actually talking about climate change. At the end of a long campaign season with barely a mention of the issue, it’s a relief to hear some sane discussion of the issue based on the premise that global warming is real.

While climate scientists hesitate to attribute any single weather event to global warming, many agree that elevated temperatures and sea levels conspired to make this storm especially damaging. And the frequency of storms like Sandy will only escalate as global temperatures rise.

We’ve collected, below, some of the most notable statements about the connection between Sandy and climate change, and what it means for the future:

  • Bloomberg Businessweek made the scene of a flooded NYC street its cover, carrying the news that global insurers are beginning to warn about the connection between climate change and extreme weather events. A Germany-based insurer reported that the number of weather-related loss events in North America has nearly quintupled over the past three decades.
  • The Center for American Progress reports that the United States experienced a record 14 extreme weather events that caused more than $1 billion in damage and there have been seven so far this year. Only five states were spared damage.
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wasn’t mincing words on the topic. “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality,” he said Wednesday during a helicopter tour of the damage. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable. There’s only so long you can say, ‘This is once in a lifetime, and it’s not going to happen again.’”

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NRDC Gives Gas Consumption Maps a Helpful Revision

The overwhelming sentiment that greeted our story on the gas consumption maps the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club put out last week went something like this: These are almost useful. Just about everyone agreed that looking at total fuel consumption per county wasn’t very informative without weighing that number against population.

There were problems with doing per-capita fuel comparisons, but after hearing from several sources (including Streetsblog) that it was needed, NRDC’s Deron Lovaas has put out a follow-up post with new maps and charts that have, in my opinion, much more useful information.

First, the map of per-capita fuel consumption:

This per-capita map of gas consumption provides more nuance than the previous map, giving totals per country, but it still doesn't answer all the questions. Graphic: NRDC.

As Lovaas mentioned last week, there are problems with this map too. Some of these places are so rural and lightly populated that massive per-capita fuel consumption just isn’t a big enough problem to worry about, since there are few capitas there. Plus, there’s the problem of through-traffic — in many rural states, most traffic neither originates nor ends up there. So, since NRDC and the Sierra Club designed these maps, in part, to help them strategize where to focus their efforts, this per-capita map is of limited value.

This chart is where it starts getting good. It shows the counties with the highest total gasoline usage and ranks them by per-capita gas usage, showing where there are a whole lot of people using a whole lot of gas:

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