Cheaper, Quicker, Safer: Green Transportation for All

By Liz Stanton

Cross-posted from Liz Stanton Consulting’s Public Goods Blog.

Getting ourselves, our kids, and all of the material goods of our economy from point A to point B resulted in 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in 2015. That’s 35 percent of all U.S. carbon pollution and 6 percent of global carbon emissions—just from U.S. transportation. Worldwide, transportation is responsible for one-seventh of all greenhouse gas emissions. To keep global temperature rise below 2°C (or even below 3 or 4°C) we’ll need a vast, all-encompassing transformation. Incremental changes—a little bit better gas mileage, a few more people taking public transit—aren’t going to cut it. Staying below 2°C, and thereby avoided a climate catastrophe, will require us to completely reimagine our way of getting around.

A new report from the Frontier Group does a good job laying out a detailed agenda for decarbonizing the U.S. transportation sector. The report discusses not just the policy reforms needed to achieve the basics—electrification of all vehicles paired with decarbonization of the electric grid—but also the more transformative, and therefore more difficult and more amorphous, changes that will be needed. Here are the parts that we don’t talk about enough:

· Changing the way we design our cities and towns: Much of the U.S. urban and suburban landscape can be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate without a car. Walkable cities, safe paths and dedicated lanes for biking, and public transportation that makes sense in a suburban setting are all essential to decarbonizing transportation.

· Changing our choices and behavior: Harder still, it won’t be enough to change the built environment. Car travel is the norm in most neighborhoods. Building safe reliable alternatives is a start but getting people to make different choices will require a societal shift in expectations.

Change is under weigh. Today, the cost of an electric vehicle is on par with that of a gasoline-power vehicle, and powering an electric vehicle costs less per mile than paying for gasoline. In a few states, non-profit groups are helping electric vehicle buyers to band together to get significant discounts from car dealers to make these vehicles even more affordable, like Refuel Colorado and the soon-to-be released Drive Green for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. (Stay tuned! Mass Energy’s Drive Green program is slated to begin in early November.)

Changing middle-class families’ vehicle purchases from gasoline to electric is a first critical step of many. To really make a difference in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions electric-vehicle adoption needs work in concert with the other shifts discussed in the Frontier Group report—greening the electric grid, smart urban and municipal planning, and changes in norms and expectations—and also resolve a few thorny issues.

First, to achieve total decarbonization of transportation public policy and technical innovation need to reach beyond cities and towns into rural America. We need solutions that fit the needs and constraints of rural families and businesses. Lower transportation costs would be a tremendous boon to rural communities. But the technologies that work for urban dwellers simply cannot accommodate transportation needs in sparsely populated areas.

The second challenge for decarbonizing transportation is making greener options available to low-income families. Public transportation systems need to reach all neighborhoods, operate consistently and efficiently, and be affordable. Poor communities clustered nearby to highways or industrial sites are some of the least walkable urban neighborhoods, and public transportation systems are rarely designed with the aim of connecting low-income housing with jobs, schools, and shopping. Whether living in the city or the country, driving is often the only or best option for many families, and buying a new car on credit is a privilege reserved for the middle class.

Making public transit and electric vehicles accessible to low-income families is no small task. But it’s a challenge that—if met—holds tremendous opportunity for reducing poverty in the United States. With good policy design, green transportation has the potential to be cheaper, quicker, and safer for all families.

Thursday Links: “Fix Our T,” SEC, TPP, etc.

Fix-Our-T-Petition(1) Fix “Our” T:  On my walk from Boston’s South Station to the D&S office this morning, I encountered an army of people in red “Fix Our T” t-shirts asking commuters to sign a petition to “Fix Our T.” (The “T” is Boston’s public transit systems, including a subway, buses, and commuter rail.) When I asked one of the petition-wielders what it was all about, she mumbled something about “increasing transparency and accountability.” I said that wasn’t enough information for me to sign anything, and asked if she had any handouts. (Lots of other people were just signing–people are really fed up with the T, especially after terrible service this winter in the wake of multiple blizzards!) She gave me a flyer which revealed that the petition was to “tell Beacon Hill [the state legislature] to work with Governor Baker and fix our T” and to “to adopt the responsible bipartisan reform proposed by Governor Baker.”

It turns out that the website mentioned on these people’s t-shirts, www.FixOurT.com, was put up by a group called the Coalition for a World Class public Transit System. It is made up of area chambers of commerce (the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, Metro South Chamber of Commerce, etc.), industry organizations (Massachusetts Lodging Association, Massachusetts Restaurant Association, Massachusetts Petroleum Council (!)), and free-market, pro-business lobbying organizations (the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation). The list of “solutions” to the T’s problems is mostly bland and meaningless, but key items tip their hand as anti-union (“Provide greater accountability and transparency for the T’s governance and management practices to ensure the entity is efficiently and effectively run while employing a productive workforce”) and against increased funding for the T (“Ensure that the T balances its operating budget without the need for ever-increasing state assistance each year”). So it’s pretty shady to be asking commuters to sign a petition without revealing that this is a big business group with an agenda that many commuters would disagree with.  (As my co-editor Alejandro Reuss likes to point out, nobody ever suggests that the military should “balance its operating budget without the need for ever-increasing state assistance each year” they way fiscal conservatives seem to think actual public goods like Social Security, public transit, or USPS should.)

At least the Boston Globe got it right about the petition with this story: Business Groups Lobby in Favor of Baker’s MBTA Plan. All these pro-business organizations give the lie to the claim (however technically true) on the group’s Facebook page to be a “nonprofit organization,” and also makes you wonder what they mean by “Our” T.  It reminded me of a Short Run from our April 1975 issue that we republished in our Nov/Dec 2009 35th anniversary issue:

You Make It Work (April 1975)
The Reader’s Digest editorial staff is preparing a year-long series of articles defending the U.S. economic system. The Business Roundtable, made up of top executives of 150 major corporations, is paying $1.2 million for the series, which will run under an “[advertisement]” label in each month’s Digest and will be placed in 50 college newspapers as well.
The chairman of the Business Roundtable public information committee, which will supervise the series, is Vice President Paul M. Lund of AT&T. The title of the series is surprisingly up front (emphasis added): “OUR Economic System—YOU Make It Work.”

(2) The SEC:  Rootstrikers has a new report out about how compromised the current head of the Securities and Exchange Commission is, Mary Jo White, the SEC, and the Revolving Door. It is a great follow-up to Elizabeth Warren’s June 2 letter to White criticizing her performance at the SEC, and it is a great riposte to the notion that White would be someone Wall St. wouldn’t want to “mess with.” From the executive summary:

A deeper dig into White’s career indicates that not only has White’s tenure at the SEC
been troubling, it has been a disappointment very much in keeping with her
professional track record. Her defenders are right in one very important regard: White
has in fact led the SEC exactly as one might expect she would based on her career.
White’s career serves as an emblematic example of what is problematic about the
revolving door; indeed, she is also a proponent of the revolving door in her hiring and in
her personal statements. Her position on the SEC leads to an insolvable dilemma: her
lengthy and lucrative ties to Wall Street (Section A below) lead to justifiable calls for
frequent recusal, and her frequent recusals (see Section F) lead to frequent deadlock in
the commission, preventing adequate enforcement. White’s tendency to hire people
for high ranking jobs at the SEC who are likely to avoid stringently enforcing laws
protecting society from the dangers of the insiders and large banks for whom they will
go to work for next (see Section E) is emblematic of her ideology opposing strong white
collar criminal enforcement (see Sections (C) and (D)).

Here’s something from Bloomberg Business about the report:  SEC Chair’s Conflicts Fuel Sympathy for Wall Street, Group Says.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg Business also reported (here) that the SEC could act as soon as August 5th to (finally) implement a Dodd-Frank rule “that will force public companies to publish a ratio that compares the chief executive officer’s reported pay with that of their typical worker.”

What I find hilarious about the resistance to this rule is that corporations, exhibiting that “can’t do attitude,” have been whining about how much time it would take for them to calculate the pay rate of the “average” worker (with the median pay). But the Stanford University Engineering website has a delightful piece explaining how a doctoral student there, Michael Ohlrogge, figured out a way to do it using statistical sampling:

He began to contemplate how the SEC might use statistical sampling to calculate the required median compensation at a reasonable cost. His quantitative training in engineering had taught him that highly accurate statistical estimates could be derived using relatively small samples drawn from large populations. On the other hand, his legal training taught him that the SEC has broad discretion in interpreting and implementing such laws as it deems appropriate.

“You can actually get a very accurate median estimate by sampling as little as one-half of 1 percent of a company’s workforce, even for massive multi-national companies,” Ohlrogge said.

Ohlrogge submitted several comment letters to the SEC, building his case for statistical sampling. He analyzed legal precedent to argue that, despite there being no specific mention of statistical sampling in Dodd-Frank, the SEC would be justified in using sampling. Then, relying on his engineering skills, he crafted the sampling technique companies could use to estimate median income.

Well done.  You can bet, though, that the corporations wouldn’t have found it so burdensome to figure out if they thought they could profit from it (vs. the pay ratio promising to expose the ludicrousness of their executives’ pay).

(3) TPP:  Just two items to pass on about the TPP:

(4) Rana Plaza Victory:  To end on an up note:  we have been covering the efforts to get clothing retailers whose goods were being made in the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, in John Miller’s articles After Horror, Apologetics, and After Horror, Change? (his columns in our last two Sept/Oct annual labor issues). Finally, change has arrived, as announced by the International Labor Rights Forum:

The International Labor Rights Forum is thrilled to announce that two years of campaigning, with over one million people participating, has succeeded in securing $30 million in compensation for the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse – the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry.

“This campaign victory would not have been possible without the hard work of workers’ rights groups and labor unions on the ground in Bangladesh, and activism from a wide array of allies around the world who held more than a hundred store actions and demonstrations at corporate headquarters,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

Maybe we’re overcoming the dynamic Barry Deutsch documented in his cartoon for our March/April 2014 issue:

0314toon--500x483

That’s it for now.