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Stark Divisions Between Dems and GOP on Climate Impacts of Transportation

How polarized are the two political parties on key questions about transportation policy and climate change? As you can imagine, the answer is “very.”

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (CA), ranking member of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Photo: Wikipedia

California Senator Barbara Boxer. Photo: Wikipedia

The senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — California’s Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, respectively — each wrote an opinion this week for the Eno Center for Transportation about a proposed federal rule to require state DOTs to measure their impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Boxer is the ranking Democratic member of the committee. Her column applauds the move to measure the climate impacts of state and regional transportation policy:

Establishment of a performance measure for carbon pollution is critically needed now. Since 1970, carbon emissions produced by the transportation sector have more than doubled, increasing at a faster rate than any other end-use sector. By requiring transportation agencies to track carbon emissions, we can evaluate whether transportation investments are effective in meeting the goal of protecting the environment.

Senator Jim Inhofe (OK) is chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Meanwhile, Committee Chair Inhofe challenged the legitimacy of the rule:

The goal of the laws I co-authored is to improve the safety and advance the modernization of our roads and bridges. FHWA’s proposed GHG regulation would divert the limited time and resources of States and local governments away from this goal to pursue instead the administration’s unlawful and overzealous climate agenda.

Yes, the “overzealous agenda” of transparently documenting how much carbon pollution is caused by billions of dollars of spending on transportation.

FHWA regulators will be wading through these and many other comments in the coming months as they produce a rule that may or may not require states and regional planning agencies to finally measure their impact on the climate.

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State DOTs to Feds: We Don’t Want to Reveal Our Impact on Climate Change

State DOTs don’t want to report on how their spending decisions affect greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Andrew Boone

Every year state DOTs receive tens of billions of dollars in transportation funds from the federal government. By and large, they can do whatever they want with the money, which in most states means wasting enormous sums on pork-laden highway projects. Now that U.S. DOT might impose some measure of accountability on how states use these funds, of course the states are fighting to keep their spending habits as opaque as possible.

At issue are proposed “performance measures” that U.S. DOT will establish to track whether states make progress on goals like reducing traffic injuries or cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. For the first time, state DOTs will have to set targets and measure their progress toward achieving them. It is strictly a transparency initiative — there are no penalties for failure to meet the targets.

Nevertheless, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), doesn’t want to expose the effect of state transportation policies to public scrutiny. AASHTO has released a 110-page comment [PDF] on U.S. DOT’s proposed performance measures, rattling off a litany of objections.

Here are a few highlights:

AASHTO doesn’t want to measure greenhouse gas emissions

In a meeting with federal officials in May [PDF], AASHTO leaders opposed a rule that would require state DOTs to measure their greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists and even some state DOTs support this rule (there is some diversity of opinion within AASHTO). But the AASHTO leadership really dislikes it. In its comments [PDF], AASHTO said it doesn’t believe the feds have the “legislative authority” make state DOTs track carbon emissions.

Read more…

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U.S. Transportation Now Belches Out More Carbon Than U.S. Electricity

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

For the first time in almost four decades, the nation’s tailpipes now spew out more carbon emissions than the nation’s smokestacks. It’s an indication of how slowly the American transportation sector is rising to the challenge of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Over the past 12 months, carbon emissions from cars and trucks have exceeded carbon emissions from electric power — the first time that’s happened since 1979, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Emissions from the electric power sector, where coal is on the decline, are trending downward, while transportation emissions have actually been increasing in recent years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Compared to 2014, emissions from the transportation sector are up 6 percent this year. By contrast, carbon emissions from electric power declined 23 percent.

Federal transportation policy has tended to deal with air pollution largely by focusing on better fuel economy standards. But more must be done.

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Will U.S. DOT Get Serious About Climate Change? Here’s Cause for Optimism.

Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

A new federal rule may change the way states measure the environmental impact of highway sprawl. Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

Last fall, national environmental advocates sat down with officials from U.S. DOT to talk about how federal transportation policy can address climate change.

There is wild variation between state transportation departments when it comes to green transportation policy. Some of the more sophisticated agencies, like California’s and Oregon’s, are starting to factor greenhouse gas emissions into their transportation plans. Most are content to keep on expanding highways and supporting development patterns that are disastrous for the climate. There are no federal incentives to nudge states in a better direction.

Environmental advocates saw an opportunity in the 2012 transportation bill, called MAP-21. U.S. DOT was in the process of drafting new rules, mandated by MAP-21, requiring transportation agencies to assess their performance on several fronts. By having state and regional transportation agencies track and report progress on objectives like reducing traffic fatalities, the thinking went, improvements would follow.

Transportation-related carbon emissions seemed like a logical metric to include, so the environmental advocates made their case to U.S. DOT. They lined up letters of support from the Minnesota, California, and Pennsylvania departments of transportation, from 16 members of Congress, and from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, among others.

“To their credit, the [Obama] Administration, they put this out there as one of the items that they want to work on,” said Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations leading the campaign. “It’s a legacy item for this presidency. It’s part of the climate agenda.”

In April, U.S. DOT released a 400-page draft of proposed federal rules to assess states’ performance on congestion management. Appended was a short, six-page section posing 13 questions about how the agency should measure climate impacts.

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U.S. DOT Blows Chance to Reform the City-Killing, Planet-Broiling Status Quo

The Obama administration purportedly wants to use the lever of transportation policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently said he’d like to reverse the damage highways caused in urban neighborhoods, but you’d never know that by looking at U.S. DOT’s latest policy prescription.

U.S. DOT has drafted new rules requiring state DOTs to track their performance. Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, U.S. DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

Is U.S. DOT teeing up a lot more projects like Houston's Katy Freeway? Photo: Wikipedia

U.S. DOT isn’t taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Photo: Wikipedia

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning U.S. DOT’s effort.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, U.S. DOT “whiffed,” writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There’s nothing with any teeth here. Instead — in a 425 page proposed rule — there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a “dog-ate-my-homework” excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic Congestion

There was also some hope that U.S. DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don’t rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule “would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that’s narrow, limited and woefully out of date.”

Read more…

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Rodriguez on Car Free NYC: Climate Change Is a Call to Action on Transit

This Friday is Earth Day, and to mark the occasion, City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez is spearheading the “Car Free NYC” initiative. The idea is to raise awareness of the connections between climate change, vehicle emissions, and access to transit. More than three dozen large employers have signed on to encourage their workers to walk, bike, or ride transit to work instead of driving — and that coalition continues to grow.

Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, left, and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, center, discuss transit concerns on a tour of transit-strapped central Queens. Photo: David Meyer

Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, left, and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, center, on a tour of the old Montauk Line tracks in central Queens. Photo: David Meyer

In addition, there will be three car-free zones in Manhattan: Wadsworth Avenue between 173rd Street and 177th Street, in Rodriguez’s Washington Heights district; Broadway between Union Square and 23rd Street; and the streets surrounding Washington Square Park.

Streetsblog joined Rodriguez last week on a walking tour of the old rail line in Maspeth and Middle Village that local Council Member Elizabeth Crowley wants to resurrect as light rail (the LIRR discontinued service in the late 1990s due to low ridership). We spoke about his goals for Car Free Day, how he’s been spreading the word about it, and that bill to give members of the press exemptions from parking rules.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What do you hope to be the overall impact of this year’s Car Free Day?

This is about having a conversations about the need to reduce cars. My goal is to see a reduction of cars by 2030 from the 1.4 million car owners that we have to one million. The way our city can accomplish that goal? Through the educational part. We need to encourage as many New Yorkers as possible to understand that we have a good system of mass transportation, with the buses, train, and ferries, but at the same time we have to identify transportation deserts throughout the five boroughs, especially in the outer-borough areas, where we can still do better connecting those communities through mass transportation. I believe we’ll see some car owners decide to park their car and use mass transportation that day.

The second thing is that New York City has always been on the frontline; what happens in New York City is usually followed by other cities in our nation and throughout the world. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than saying we will reduce emissions [and] we will discuss how we can release New Yorkers in the future from depending on their car?

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U.S. DOT Wants States to Disclose Climate Impact of Transportation Projects

The Obama administration wants state DOTs to report on the climate impact of their transportation policies, reports Michael Grunwald at Politico, and the road lobby is dead set against it.

Dallas' "High Five" Interchange. Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

As part of the implementation of the MAP-21 federal transportation bill, U.S. DOT officials are preparing a new rule that would require states to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and report their progress, according to Grunwald.

It’s the same idea behind similar rules requiring states to track progress on traffic congestion and walk/bike safety. No penalty would apply to states that fail to attain their goals, but the rule would increase transparency and enable advocates to hold transportation agencies accountable for their climate performance.

The road building lobby appears to hate the idea. From Grunwald’s piece:

Nick Goldstein, vice president for regulatory affairs with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, warned that a mandate for agencies to set climate targets could be used as a pretext to discourage highway construction at a time when America desperately needs better infrastructure. He suggested the Obama administration has embraced an anti-asphalt mentality.

The draft rule has yet to be released by U.S. DOT. Once that happens, it will be subject to a period of public comment, and that feedback could shape the final form of the rule.

The climate rule is definitely one to keep an eye on. We’ll post more details as they become available.

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If NYC Builds the Streetcar, It Will Run Right Through Flood Zones

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Map of streetcar route: NYC mayor’s office. Map of flood-prone areas: FloodHelpNY.org

As others have noted, the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar route would run right through city- and FEMA-designated high-risk flood zones. This raises questions about how the streetcar infrastructure and vehicles would be protected from storm surges, as well as the general wisdom of siting a project that’s supposed to spur development in a flood-prone area.

Yesterday, reporters at City Hall’s streetcar press conference asked how the city would plan for future flood events along the streetcar route. Neither de Blasio nor the city officials at his side could explain how the streetcar plan would specifically address flooding — no details were given about where the vehicles would be stored or how the power supply would be shielded. Instead, the mayor started out by taking a very wide view of the situation.

“This city is deeply committed to the goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050,” the mayor said. “This is one of the ways we do it — get more and more people onto mass transit. Get them out of their cars. Use transportation that does not create harmful emissions. That’s why the BQX is such a powerful idea in terms of the environment to begin with.”

De Blasio then argued that the city’s flood resiliency efforts, which includes some measures to fortify areas like Red Hook against future storms will ensure that waterfront neighborhoods are sufficiently protected. “We’re going to be in a very different situation than we were a few years ago when Sandy hit,” he said.

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The New Climate Villain Is Cheap Oil

Long-term climate prospects brightened somewhat in 2015. Pope Francis put climate care on the moral and political agenda. President Obama rejected the Keystone XL dirty-oil pipeline. Denialist heads of state were routed in Canada and Australia, and their brethren in the U.S. faced growing ridicule. To cap it off, nearly 200 nations signed the UN Paris accord, committing to cutting emissions. Meanwhile, U.S. coal use took another double-digit plunge. And U.S. electricity generation from zero-carbon photovoltaic solar cells continued to soar and has now grown 20-fold in just five years.

Alas, there’s one bummer in this rosy picture, and it’s a big one: cheap gasoline.

After years of steady gains, average gas mileage of new vehicles purchased in the U.S. fell last year by nearly a mile per gallon, according to data from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

Through September, total miles driven in the U.S. were up 3.5 percent — the biggest rise in decades.

Cheap gas is driving both trends. The average price of gas sold in the U.S. through October 2015 was 25 percent below the 2014 price — the steepest drop in at least 70 years. Americans responded precisely as predicted in Econ 101: by driving more and dumping sedans for SUV’s and pickups.

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How Much Can Bicycling Help Fight Climate Change? A Lot, If Cities Try

A new study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy attempts to measure the potential of bikes and e-bikes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Buenos Aires has been ambitiously building out a network of well designed, separated bike infrastructure. If this kind of commitment were employed worldwide, the environmental and financial repercussions would be enormous. Photo: ITDP

Buenos Aires has been building out a network of protected bike infrastructure. If this kind of commitment were employed in cities worldwide, the climate benefits would be huge. Photo: ITDP

ITDP’s conclusion, in short: Bicycling could help cut carbon emissions from urban transportation 11 percent.

The authors calculated the carbon emissions reduction that could result if cities around the world make a strong, sustained commitment to promoting bicycle travel.

In a scenario where 14 percent of travel in the world’s cities is by bike or e-bike in 2050, carbon emissions from urban transportation would be 11 percent lower than a scenario where efforts to promote sustainable transportation sidestep bicycling.

The ITDP scenario calls for 11 percent of urban mileage by bike by 2030 before hitting 14 percent in 2050. For many big American cities where bicycling accounts for a small share of total travel, that may sound like a high bar — and that was part of the point. The ITDP targets will require a significant public policy commitment. But the goals are achievable and aren’t as daunting as they might seem, the authors say.

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