Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “climate change”

The Pope and Sustainable Transportation

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis caught my attention a while back, when I saw reports that, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he got around town by bus instead of a limo, and encouraged young seminarians to get about town by bicycle.  Thus, I was very interested to read his Encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si.”  The Encyclical ties together a number of important issues related to climate change and its threat to human society and the earth, our “common home.”  I recommend reading it for yourself, but for those without the time to wade through its 180-odd pages, here’s a good synopsis.

Laudato Si shows a good grasp of the scientific consensus on climate change and the threat it poses to humanity, and makes the case that we (i.e., global society) must end our dependence on fossil fuels sooner rather than later.  It is a courageous document, addressed to the entire human family, that urges people to rethink the current throwaway culture that wastes natural resources, pollutes the air and water, and results in profound alienation from nature and from one another.  More than this, it also calls on those in the global north (i.e., U.S. and Europe) to reduce our overall consumption of resources and work for a more equitable distribution of wealth within our own societies and between rich and poor parts of the world.

In this sense, I found the Pope’s message consonant with Naomi Klein’s powerful book, This Changes Everything, in that it looks at the climate crisis as part of a larger interconnected crisis of unrestrained capitalism, runaway consumerism, and inequality.  I may take issue with the Pope’s stance on reproductive rights, but I think he appropriately focuses on the outsized per capita consumption pattern and carbon footprint of people in so-called “advanced” societies like the US.

Exhibit “A” is the idea that everyone should drive around in a 2,000-lb climate-controlled easy chair with a personal entertainment system and that we must sacrifice our cities and our open spaces to promote the continued widespread use of these machines regardless of the ecological, economic, and social damage they do.  The US has the highest per capita carbon footprint of any nation in the world, and the Encyclical points out that it is simply unsustainable to export this model of consumption to the rest of the world. The US EPA calculates that more than a quarter of our national carbon footprint comes from transportation, and this is magnified by the automobile-induced sprawl that exacerbates the problem of distance and dependence on the car.

As part of this larger argument, the Encyclical makes a powerful case for a shift in social consciousness about the way we live and includes specific references to transit and more livable (i.e., walkable and bikeable) cities.  In every world city where public transportation is prioritized, bicycles play a significant role in the sustainable transportation network that helps people get to their destinations.  The reasons for this shift are not only environmental, Francis argues, they are social, as the shift from the automobile/consumerist system enhances human relationships and fosters greater social equity in our communities.

In Ch. IV, Sec. III. of the Encyclical, he calls for “substantial” investment in public transit and critiques the automobile-based transportation model in terms that could have been said by any contemporary new urbanist planner:

  1. “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.”

header-bikesThe shift away from the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) mode of transportation he calls for in Ch. VI, Sec. II. is part of a broader change that prioritizes frugality over consumerist excess:

  1. “. . . . A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

The bicycle represents so many of the values Francis emphasizes in the Encyclical:  it is inexpensive to own and operate, making it accessible to all; it consumes relatively few resources to manufacture or use; its carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the automobile; it’s utilitarian instead of luxurious; it promotes health, happiness, and well-being; and it connects us to our communities in ways that the automobile does not.  When combined with transit, it can reduce automobile use significantly.

The Encyclical speaks powerfully of the ethical dimension of our personal choices—the “little daily actions” we take.  When we ride a bike, take transit, or carpool, we act in such a way that directly affects the world around us.  During a recent forum on the Encyclical Brian Treanor, Professor of Environmental Ethics at LMU and bicycle commuter, noted that while one person bicycling isn’t going to end climate change, it is the larger ethic of the act that carries value, and when combined with efforts to organize for broader social change, makes a big difference.  When we become the change we wish to see, we send a powerful message of hope to all around us.


It is refreshing to see an influential global religious leader who understands the role alternative transportation choices play in reducing our carbon emissions and promoting community, equity, and health at the same time.  I hope other leaders, religious and secular, begin to send the same message.

One More Reason to Ride

There are lots of reasons I ride a bike and take transit whenever I can instead of driving.  Riding a bike for transportation is fun, it relaxes me, it’s great exercise, and it connects me to my neighborhood and my surroundings in a way that driving can’t.  I actually look forward to my commute when I’m riding my bike.  There is no question that these reasons are all important and, as I’ve experienced my world on a bike and transit I have a new appreciation for the pervasive ways we’ve prioritized the private automobile in our design of our cities and our roads.  But there’s another reason riding a bike is important:  the urgent need to address climate change.

Ok, I’m aware the bicycle alone won’t solve the world’s carbon energy and greenhouse gas problems, so I’m not saying it’s the only answer or that it alone is sufficient.  I do think, however, that bicycles and transit must be a major part of the reconstruction of society to shrink our carbon footprint.  As I’ve discussed before, EVs and hybrids—while better than gas guzzlers—aren’t the answer.  If you wanted to design a more wasteful transportation system, you couldn’t have thought of a better way than the automobile.  The idea that every adult must possess a 2,000 – 3,000 lb metal box that sucks up (mostly fossil fuel) energy makes a mockery of sustainability.  By changing the propulsion system from internal combustion to the electricity grid, you might reduce the rate at which those metal boxes consume fuel and spew pollutants, but the overall global scale of energy consumption will continue to rise, especially as that mode of transportation expands to other parts of the world.  The automobile is the nexus of a vicious circle of congestion and sprawl, which is wasteful of space and energy and and creates a feedback loop of more cars-more sprawl-more cars, ad infinitum (well, at least until the carrying capacity of our planet is reached).

I am increasingly convinced that most Americans—even most liberals who agree that something must be done to address the problem—have only dimly grasped the scope and seriousness of the climate change crisis.  Reading the peer-reviewed science on the subject leads to the sobering realization that humanity faces an existential crisis by the end of the 21st century if we don’t fundamentally change our habits of energy consumption.  While the end of the century seems a long way off (I most certainly won’t be around to see it), it is within the life span of a child born today.  In the scope of human history, it is but the blink of an eye.  Yet, most people continue to live—and drive—as if there’s literally no tomorrow.

A recent article by Rebecca Solnit highlights an essential cognitive problem confronting climate change activists who challenge the  status quo.  Many of those in positions of power, even those well-meaning people who recognize the reality of climate change in the abstract, seem not to recognize the scale or seriousness of the problem.  She uses the idea of the burning house as a metaphor for the nature of the emergency we face.  Our house is burning, Solnit tells us, and we’re debating whether to use a bucket or a hose to put out the spreading flames (not to mention those who claim not to “believe” there’s a fire at all).  Here’s the problem: if we wait until the house is entirely engulfed in flames, it will be too late to save it.

She relates the story of how Bay Area climate activists called on the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest from fossil fuel stocks recently, and the board balked at what it considered a “radical” request:

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren.

 Indeed, she highlights a central problem: some of us recognize we’re living on the cusp of an emergency that will affect every human being in one way or another, and some of us don’t.  I’m not talking about the deniers, who live in their own world of wishful thinking.  I mean people who don’t deny climate change, but seem to think some techno-solution will save us and allow us to continue to live as we’ve always done.  Plug-in hybrids!  Electric cars! Hydrogen-powered cars!  Some people are more concerned with what kind of car they’re going to buy in ten years than the fate of the planet.  They can’t imagine not driving all the time, despite the fact that the cumulative effects may destroy the climate by the time today’s children become adults.  Now, that’s radical.

I see this same lack of awareness in some local officials who’ll dither and debate whether to replace a traffic lane with a bike lane, or whether to remove some on-street parking for cars for a bike corral or bike lane.  The world house is on fire and they’re worried about how many extra seconds a bike lane might cost people in cars.  The age of the automobile and cheap oil is coming to an end.  Get used to it.  EVs will not save you.  The massive amount of energy they’ll suck up will have to be supplied to no small degree by fossil fuels, as most energy analysts recognize.  

Change can be overwhelming, but it starts small.  Resolving to replace one car trip a week with your bike or transit is a good place to start.  Advocating for better transit and bike infrastructure in your community is another.  Recognizing that the answer to our transportation issues is not more parking lots, more sprawl, and more freeways, but less.  Supporting the creation of car-free streets and spaces in our cities, de-privileging the automobile in our transportation funding priorities, charging drivers the full cost of their bad habit, and using the revenue to fund transit and infrastructure improvements for biking and walking.

The good news about this is that these alternatives can make our cities more livable, healthy, and as Charles Montgomery argues, happier places.  These small changes add up and make a big difference.  Using UC Berkeley’s carbon calculator, I discovered that by using my bike and transit for many of my commuting trips and local errands instead of my car last year, I reduced my household’s overall carbon emissions by 42%.  While my commute is less convenient than it was when I drove my Corrolla all the time, I’m less stressed and healthier now that I’m taking the bus and my bike and I save money.  It makes me realize how much the car-dependent lifestyle negatively impacts our quality of life.

Our house is on fire and some of us are sounding the alarm bells.  The reconstruction of society along sustainable lines must begin sooner rather than later.  This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is about life, period.

Car-Centered Culture at CalTrans

Bicycle and alternative transportation advocates often lament that state and local departments of transportation (DOTs) seem locked in a time-warp with regard to road design.  Many DOTs continue to privilege the level of service (LOS) to automobiles, regardless of how it impacts the safety or ability of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  In short, they continue to design roads for cars, as they have since the 1950s, despite the fact that multimodal transportation solutions are essential if we are to address the interconnected problems of gridlock, road safety, public health, pollution, sprawl, and climate change.

Thus it was with some interest I read a new report assessing how well CalTrans is meeting the multimodal needs of California in the 21st century.  The report’s authors, to put it bluntly, excoriated CalTrans, accusing the agency’s transportation policies of being woefully “out-of-date” and the department itself ossified by a “culture of fear” that looks with suspicion on innovation.  The report accuses CalTrans of operating under “an anodyne mission that might have been written in the 1950s.”  CalTrans, said the report’s authors, continues to privilege automotive LOS while ignoring other measures of multimodal road usage, and has failed to align its policies with California’s laws encouraging transportation design that reduces dependence on the automobile and GHGs.  Indeed, the report noted that the word “sustainability” does not show up once in the department’s most recent guide (indeed, the word was apparently struck from the final version).  Perhaps most damning was the picture painted of a culture in CalTrans not only resistant to change, but apparently hostile to it.

This reaches into every community, insofar as CalTrans’s Highway Design Manual is frequently followed by cities as a standard for roadway design.  The current HDM does not incorporate modern best practices that enable cities to design roads to accommodate multiple road users, such as bicycles.  The report notes that, according to CalTrans’s HDM lane widths are set too rigidly, often preventing innovative road designs that might better accommodate bicycles:

The “mandatory standards” for lane width and shoulder width are high—12-foot minimum lane widths are generally required, with 11‐foot lanes allowed in a few limited circumstances. In contrast, off high-speed limited access highways, current best practice nationally calls for lane widths of 10‐12 feet, depending on the context. (p. 30)

The report’s authors also note that CalTans standards prioritize high automobile speeds on such roads, despite the deleterious effects on other non-automobile road users:

The manual’s approach to motor vehicle design speed, which does much to determine the character of a road or street, favors high speeds without regard to their impact on other modes. (p. 31)

The report’s findings are significant for a number of reasons.  First, wider lanes have been shown to induce motorists to drive faster, which increases road danger, and creates an intimidating environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.  For example, on Sierra Madre Blvd., a divided road in Pasadena (under the jurisdiction of Pasadena DOT) with 12-foot wide lanes and a substandard (4 ft-wide) bike lane, the traffic speeds are posted at 40 mph.  The wide lanes encourage high traffic speeds, making the road less safe and intimidating for bicyclists when drivers zoom by, despite the bike lane.  It is no wonder more youth and families don’t ride their bicycles to nearby Pasadena High School and LaSalle High School or to nearby shops.  The report also notes that CalTrans’s standards effectively discourage communities from installing protected bike lanes through innovative use of curbs, bollards, planters, or other barriers that would insulate bicyclists from high-speed automobiles.

Yet, on Sierra Madre Blvd., there is plenty of room on the roadway to widen the bike lanes, making them safer and encouraging more people to ride.  Measuring the road width, I produced a mock-up of that section of road (top image, shown below), using the open website streetmix.  Note that as currently configured, the bike lane forces the bicyclist into the “door zone” of parked cars on the right as with little room to protect her from the speeding traffic on the left.  Not only that, the current road design actually provides a wide buffer along the center divider, and not the bike lane.


On the other hand, if the lane widths were reduced to 10 ft, or even 11 ft, as allowed by the most up-to-date transportation design manuals used in some other states, it would provide at least three additional feet that could be used to widen the bike lane and perhaps provide a painted buffer between cars and bikes, increasing safety and comfort for all (see same street view modified below).  However, as long as California’s state standards prescribe 12-ft lane widths, local governments will be loath to change.


I ride the above route to school with my daughter every week, and I would like the street to be safe enough for all the high schoolers who live nearby to ride their bikes to school.  It would reduce traffic, reduce pollution, reduce GHGs, and improve the health of the community.  This road could easily be redesigned, with no inconvenience to motorists, other than perhaps slowing down 5 mph.  But we need state and local DOTs in California to get their heads out of their a—–, uh, get with the program.

The independent reviewers recommend a significant change in the culture of CalTrans away from the auto-centered perspective that has dominated the department since the 1950s:

Modernization of Caltrans will require a difficult conversation about the conflict between mobility, as conventionally understood, and sustainability, which is not yet well understood by the department at all. Mobility [for CalTrans] has meant facilitating more and faster travel, particularly by automobile. While sustainability … means looking for ways to meet Californians’ needs without increasing auto travel and speeds. (pp. 39-40)

The report’s diagnosis certainly confirms my own frustrating experience with an out-of-date, auto-centered street infrastructure in most of the communities where I ride.  But its diagnosis raises the hope that things may be changing.

EV Boosterism

Is the injunction to “buy an electric car” the best solution we can come up with for dealing with climate change?  Not only does such advice tacitly encourage more driving, it utterly fails to consider the drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (rather than just gasoline consumption) we should be striving for.  It seems to me a bit like offering an alcoholic a “light” beer, because it’s got lower alcohol content and the assumption is that your comfortable drinking habit will be slightly less destructive in the short run.

Steve Scauzullo, a respected transportation and environment reporter for the Los Angeles News Group, authored an opinion piece acknowledging the reality of climate change and urging his readers to take action.  So far as it goes, I applaud him for his willingness to at least try to tackle this subject and present it to his readers.  He advises readers to reduce “heat islands” (i.e., parking lots), use lighter colored roofing to reflect light, and “drive an electric car.”  Anything else? How about taxing carbon? Driving less by taking public transit? Pledging not to vote for flat-earthers who deny climate change? Nope. Just buy a new car and keep living like you’ve always lived.

Scauzullo’s article doesn’t even mention the less-glamorous transportation alternatives of transit, bikes, or walking, and the relatively small changes to our infrastructure needed to make that happen  Not even a cursory nod.  Too bad, because those simpler alternatives, in addition to reducing GHGs, would also reduce traffic deaths and injury, reduce traffic congestion, and result in a more active, healthy lifestyle (all of which are big money-savers for society).  Moreover, driving less is something everyone—regardless of income—can do now.  You don’t have to wait until you have $35,000 for an EV or until there’s a charging station at your office.  We can take public transit to work, walk, or ride our bikes for many of our shorter trips.  Start one day a week—just one—and work up from there.  It gets people weaning themselves off the car, and prepares them to think about mobility beyond the resource-intensive and costly automobile system.

Let’s consider his suggestion to reduce heat islands.  Unfortunately, it fails to consider why we have constructed so many parking lots in the first place.  Indeed, the big box store in the middle of a huge asphalt parking lot is the perfect ur-symbol (and symptom) of automobile-centric sprawl.  The asphalt jungle is what it is primarily because of the desire to design the built environment exclusively around the automobile for the last 80 years.  Switching to EVs won’t do a damn thing to reduce the demand for huge asphalt parking lots.  Best case scenario from this bit of advice is that a bioswale and a few trees might make the Wal-Mart parking lot a couple of degrees cooler as you load your eSUV full of more disposable plastic crap (much of which is made from petroleum and shipped halfway around the world, ballooning its carbon footprint), but it’s not going to cool the planet’s climate.  Moreover, if we assume that the rest of the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants follow our lead and want their own EVs and Wal-Marts, the result will be the creation of a lot more heat islands the world over, not to mention the spread of an unsustainable mega-consumerist lifestyle.  Shouldn’t climate change advice at least question the ecological appropriateness of the whole big box-in-the-middle-of-a-parking lot mode of development for the planet?

Likewise, his suggestion to “cool your roof,” like the parking lot idea, is unlikely to halt the rise of global CO2 levels.  The main reason for lighter roofs is to cut air conditioning usage but, on a macro-economic scale, it could have the opposite effect on overall  energy use if people and businesses invest their energy savings in additional production and consumption.  Case in point:  Wal-Mart has been painting its roofs light colors, and even installing solar panels on some of its super stores to save money on electricity, but its CO2 emissions are still going up.  What gives?  Well, it is a business model based on endless global growth, for one, and when it ships and sells more crap, its carbon footprint goes up.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on Mr. Scauzullo.  Maybe his third suggestion to “drive an electric car” will be the mega-idea that really sets us on the road to the 80% reduction in overall global GHG emissions by 2050 that climate scientists think we’ll need to achieve to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Fossil fuels (i.e. gasoline) when burned produce more GHG than other fuels and much more than alternative fuels. For example, power plants running on natural gas produce half the amount of GHG than those burning coal. Also, in California, 33 percent of all power will be from alternative-energy very shortly. This means, by 2020, one third of all electric car drivers will produce zero GHG.

Ah, yes.  EVs will save the planet.  OK, I get that EVs produce less GHG per mile than gasoline-powered motor vehicles, but, like most arguments about EVs this one neither considers the scale of the automobile system nor its overall carbon footprint.  Let’s understand this: understood as a complete system, there’s no such thing as a “zero GHG” automobile.  No such thing as a “green car.”

Let’s just do a little back-of-the-napkin calculation, shall we?  Now, let’s assume, as Scauzullo does, that we’re going to have wind/solar power for 33% of California’s energy supply by 2030.  But what happens when tens of millions of California drivers switch to EVs (and let’s assume they drive the same mileage as they do now)? Let’s also assume many of California’s 6 million trucks and millions of buses also switch to electric power.   The monumental increase in electricity demand from tens of millions of EVs might make California utilities happy, but it will also stretch the limits of even renewable resources at peak demand.  The increased overall electricity demand could, I suppose, be met with nuclear power generation, but that has its own set of problems, and let’s not pretend it’s “green”.

EV proponents rarely step back and extrapolate the global energy demand of literally billions of EVs, either.  Let’s consider what happens to global energy demand once the car culture spreads to China, India, and the rest of the world.  Let’s not forget, under this expanding global consumerist future, humanity would still need to generate massive amounts of electricity to power industry, including a larger global automobile industry making EVs for the world’s billions of consumers.  Recently, an energy analysis by the International Energy Agency concluded that global demand for electricity will rise faster than the growth of renewable energy.  Thus, even with new renewable supplies the IEA concludes, global CO2 output is expected to rise by 20% by 2030, despite the fact that climate scientists say we need to reduce CO2 output by 80% by midcentury.  Help me understand how the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants driving EVs will square that circle.  Maybe EV proponents assume the automobile lifestyle is ok for us (wink), but not for them.

Setting aside the inevitable traffic congestion that will come with an increase of motor vehicles on California’s roads (another thing EV-lovers don’t contend with), let’s think about the inefficiency of this mode of energy consumption.  Because more than 90% of a motor vehicle’s power goes to moving the mass of the vehicle itself, not its passenger, any transportation system designed around the private automobile is an enormous waste of precious energy.  Even if the energy is renewable, wouldn’t it be far wiser to use the megawatts for electric transit (buses, streetcars, LRT)?

The carbon footprint of an electric car is not merely that which it emits from the tailpipe, but the overall footprint of its production, use, and disposal.  Calculate the global carbon footprint of the iron and other metal mines, lithium mines for billions of batteries, and, yes, the petroleum for the large quantity of plastics in each EV, and the other sites of resource extraction needed to produce raw materials for the manufacture of literally hundreds of millions—if not billions—of EVs annually.  Next calculate the carbon footprint of the smelting, refining, and manufacturing operations necessary to make those billions of EVs, then the transportation of all of them to market, not to mention the exponential growth of the GHG-intensive concrete and asphalt industries to pave the way for the billions of EVs globally.  I’m not even touching here the problem of toxic waste disposal of all those batteries when they need replacing.  Bottom line: the amount of electricity and the resource extraction necessary for everyone in the US (let alone the globe as a whole) to continue the automobile-based lifestyle may very well negate the marginal short-term advantage of buying EVs.  Look, I’m not saying gas guzzlers are better, I’m saying if we want to really tackle climate change, we’re going to have to move the conversation beyond cars, period.

We’re going to need to radically alter our lifestyle in the coming decades if we’re serious about tackling climate change, and sorry to tell you car-lovers, this will mean significantly shifting away from the automobile-based lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey from your car addiction, but you should see the EV as your transition, kind of like methadone for a heroin addict.  It only works if you understand that our children’s children will eventually have to kick the entire habit to survive.  On the plus side, you’ll begin to see that not only is life possible after car addiction, you’ll lose the nasty side effects (traffic, noise, sprawl, obesity, and 35,000 highway deaths annually).  Will cars still be necessary for some things for a while?  Of course.  But a redesigned transportation system that focuses on moving people, not cars can eliminate the need for a car for many people, most of the time.  Such change won’t happen immediately, but in the coming years we can begin a serious transition.

When more people start kicking the car habit, we can invest in our transit system so it becomes an even more attractive alternative for getting to work, school, and shopping.  We can encourage businesses to locate near transit and access for bikes and pedestrians.  Then we won’t need so many of those heat island parking lots.  Maybe we can actually turn some of those empty Wal-Mart parking lots into beautiful community gardens.

We’ll also be healthier as people get out of their cars and walk or bike more, and, when we restripe more of our streets to accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and transit first (as many European countries are doing today), we’ll make our transportation system safer for everyone.  The cost of doing so will be less than the cost of providing expensive EV-charging stations, and it will be more socially equitable, because people of modest income won’t be forced to spend the tens of thousands of dollars necessary on an EV in order to get to work or school.  Best of all, we’ll be able to use the earth’s resources and that precious renewable wind and solar energy for things we really need.

We need journalists, teachers, ministers, and other community leaders to tell the truth about the significant changes in our lifestyle necessary to combat the globe’s rising GHG emissions.  It’s doable, and actually less expensive than feeding an insatiable automobile habit.  The good news is, it is not only cheaper, but more healthy than the car-based lifestyle.  Sadly, many people—even liberal environmental journalists—may still be in denial.

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