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so you wanna fight global warming, eh?

By enelson
Friday, October 26th, 2007 at 8:01 pm in BART, Bicycling, Buses, Carpooling, connectivity, driving, Environment, Freeways, fuel, Funding, parking, Planning, technology, tolls, Transit vs. driving.

polar-bear-lanes.bmpYou want to stop global warming?

Hmm. Maybe. Sounds good. How?

You can take BART to work.

Not me. Don’t live near a BART station and the BART lots are always full when I drive to one.

You can take the bus to BART.

No. The bus stop is too far from my house. I’d spend 20 minutes just walking there. Then I have to wait for the bus. By that time, I could be at work already.

You could ride your bike to BART.

It’s hilly where I live. I’d get all sweaty. And besides, BART doesn’t allow me to take my bike during rush hour. Any other ideas?

Yes. Keep driving and pay a carbon tax of 23 cents a gallon, pay a rush-hour toll to get into the city and a peak-hour parking surcharge when you get to work.

But I’d be paying, what, five times a mile what I do now to drive?
Yep. But you’d be helping to improve the transportation network so other people can carpool or ride BART, commuter trains, buses and their bikes to work more easily.

And thus I’d be fighting global warming?

That’s a fine plan you’ve got there, but I’ve got friends who drive solo, too.
How many?

Oh, like, 70 percent of Bay Area commuters.

But don’t they want to fight global warming?

Yes, but they also want to get to work in 20 minutes instead of waiting for the bus.

So they’ll just pay more.

They don’t want to pay more.

Isn’t that selfish?

Hello? This is Ah-MER-ih-ca?

This could be the tenor of the conversation that started today at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission/Association of Bay Area Governments conferene conference on transportation.

Hundreds of area transportation officials, transit advocates and environmentalists gathered to hear a bold new plan to fight global warming in a way that would put the Bay Area way out in front of the rest of the state, to say nothing of the rest of the nation.

It’s not just about charging drivers. It’s also about high-occupancy toll lanes, which you don’t have to use or pay the extra toll if you don’t want to or can’t afford it.

The concept also envisions freeways that operate much more efficiently, using more and better metering lights and other state-of-the-art traffic management methods. That’s supposed to cut way back on emissions from cars, trucks and SUVs that now inch along during rush hour.

And it’s about land use: The MTC is going to dole out $10 million, for starters, to selected communities where it wants to focus more compact, transit-friendly growth. It’s not much, but it will help those communities do their urban planning. After that, more money might help realize those plans.

But the political reality here is that the overwhelming majority of Bay Area residents drive to work, alone.

The idea will be especially unpopular in outlying counties that start with S. I mean, Solano County voters wouldn’t even pass a sales tax to fix their freeways. Imagine how they’d feel about something aimed at improving public transit they could never see themselves riding.

But San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the event’s lunchtime keynoter, may have hinted at the magic bullet that could bring a lot of this about:

“We don’t need to ask permission from our federal representatives to do this _ or even from our regional representatives.”

As it happens, the federal government and the Bush Administration couldn’t be happier with the congestion and parking charges San Francisco is planning. Federal transportation funds have nearly dried up, and somebody’s got to pay for future maintenance and improvements.

But most critical is that the people in the urban core, in Oakland, in San Jose, in Berkeley and other commuter destinations, will be far more likely to make the painful changes unilaterally.

Commuters from Fairfield, Gilroy and Tracy would then have the involuntary honor of sacrificing for the sake of the polar bears and Maldive islanders.

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14 Responses to “so you wanna fight global warming, eh?”

  1. Brian Says:

    Your cynical sarcasm is quite disgusting. I have a two year old daughter. Everyday I wonder what kind of world she will be left with. The answer is becoming clear that it will be one irreversibly damaged by climate change (no more Florida, regular drought and water rationing here).

    I have shifted my entire career track to be able to work every day in a field where I can help the climate crisis. Your only response is to sneer at the idea that local governments do common-sense economically beneficial things like actually charging for the use of government provided goods ( yes, local roads are paid for by local governments, not gas taxes, or the magic road fairy). Shame on you.

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Brian, I AM ashamed. I’m ashamed that I can’t take the train every day, instead of most days. I’m ashamed when I’m one of only two passengers, as I was this morning, on a train being pulled by a diesel locomotive from Jack London Square to Oakland Coliseum.

    What I’m not ashamed of is injecting a little realism into a debate that tends to be driven by some very passionate people, such as yourself, who have little patience for the vast majority of commuters and their reasons for driving.

    I don’t scoff at the need to reduce the number of vehicles out there on our freeways. But I do poke fun at the idea that we can just pass a law and make people take transit all day or trade in their quarter-acre parcel in Livermore for an apartment at the Fruitvale transit-oriented development.

    Do I have the magic bullet? Do I have all the answers? Of course not. But I do believe that if we want people to change their commuting habits, we have to make the urban environment more habitable, we have to make public transportation more convenient and we have to accept the reality that Americans are going to drive personal vehicles as long as they can pay to operate them. That means making it possible for people who live in sprawling Fairfield to drive to a train station with enough parking to accommodate them even at the height of rush hour. yes, it’d be better if the could ride their bikes to the train station, as I do. But we can make it easier for people to do that. We can also foster better transit connections.

    As our communications bring us all closer together, it will also allow us to live and work farther apart. That will mean more telecommuting, more people with wireless connections on trains and, unfortunately, more people living in Sonoma driving to Silicon Valley a couple days a week.

    You can’t just lock all these people up or hold their heads under water. Democracy is a messy thing that allows the majority to decide what everybody can and can’t do. You have to find ways to people’s lives easier through more sustainable lifestyles, and then they’ll come around to your way of thinking.

  3. Michael Krueger Says:

    People choose to live far from their places of employment because they can obtain more land and better housing for less money. The land and housing cost less because they are in the middle of nowhere. Before the age of the automobile, such land was essentially worthless because there was no way to get to it; in other words, the increased transportation costs (measured in time and money) offset the decreased land and housing costs. Now that it is our federal, state, and local governments’ policy to ensure nearly unlimited access to cheap gasoline and an ever-expanding system of roads, we as a society heavily subsidize the transportation costs of those who choose to live in far-flung areas, especially once the external environmental costs are factored in.

    The obvious and dramatic effects of pricing on behavior are all too often overlooked. As long as it is cheaper for people to live in the exurbs, drive alone to work, and park in the city center, plenty of people will continue to do it, regardless of what wonderful transit lines and transit-oriented developments we build. I hate to admit it, but merely making alternatives available and convenient is not enough by itself. The pricing of the different transportation modes needs to reflect their true cost, including the impacts on society and the planet. Even though it may not be possible to calculate the true cost exactly, it’s entirely possible to use fees and taxes to adjust the relative costs enough to achieve the desired outcome. For example, raising the gas tax or instituting a congestion charge and then using the money to fund public transit makes the environmentally degrading modes more expensive and the environmentally friendly ones cheaper.

    This isn’t just a theory, either; it’s already working in places like London. The fact that Ken Livingstone was re-elected after instituting the congestion charge in London gives me hope that a democratic society can choose to move toward environmentally friendly transportation by making driving relatively more expensive. Nor is London an isolated example. The fact that high gasoline taxes were enacted and persist in Japan and other democracies throughout Europe proves that it is possible for democratic governments to make tough, unpopular decisions. Because we still refuse to make such hard choices, the United States has twice the greenhouse gas emissions per capita of these other industrialized democracies.

  4. Mike Says:

    I’m pissed off that so many people choose to live far from their work so they can have larger homes that comsume more electricity (=burning more gas) and send out more tailpipe emissions. I take transit but I still have to deal with the consequences of your commute. Why shouldn’t the city centers force you to pay congestion charges so that you come somewhere close to paying your fair share?

    Long distance driving commuter lifestyles are subsidized by road construction, utility distribution systems that have socialized costs to all customers, and military policies that are designed to ensure your continued access to oil. Why shouldn’t I expect you to pay five times as much? You’re basically stealing from me already.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Mike, you got a room for rent? You like dogs? I’ll turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, and we can ride the bus together.

  6. Mike Says:

    I don’t get the last comment. No I don’t have a room for rent because I rent. But I do like dogs, for whatever that is worth. I ride a bus to a train to a bus every day (well, sometimes I walk rather than one of the busses). The weather is nice where I live so I never use the heat.

    I don’t see why that matters.

    My last comment was a bit angry- and may have misrepresented my own point- sorry.

    My argument is that suburban commuters do not pay their fair share due to subsidies. I don’t see what’s wrong with imposing carbon taxes or congestion charges that would put a more accurate price on suburban life. Maybe then more people would choose to live closer to where they work. Or people might choose to work closer to where they want to live. Either way, it isn’t as if those freeways are actually free- we all pay for them; we just don’t all use them to the same extent.

  7. Nancy Says:

    I would like to have a short commute, for my own sanity as well as to reduce my impact on the earth, but it’s a higher priority for me to have a job. Every couple years, whatever company I’m working in decides to reorganize itself by abruptly dumping half or more of its workforce, leaving a bunch of people needing to find a new job quickly. Of course when I’m job-hunting I try for something close to home, but if I happen to find an opportunity an hour or two away, I take it, and hope to find something nearer later.

    Some people who are relatively unattached have the luxury of being able to move to a new apartment close to whatever job they take. But that doesn’t work for a family with two or more jobs, children in schools, friendships with the neighbors, and a well-worked vegetable garden.

    I think sometimes as I pass commuters going the other way that there should be some way for us to swap jobs, so they could be productive in their towns while I’m doing the same thing in mine. And I wonder whether employers would be willing to consider swapping employees — they’d get points for doing something “green” and they’d get a less-stressed workforce.

    Somehow the long-term solution for sustainable living will have to include more stable employment centers, and/or a lot more effective telecommuting.

  8. Reedman Says:

    Real estate tax policy plays a part in commute patterns. Or more precisely,
    in providing an incentive to commute a longer distance to a new
    job instead of moving closer. Two examples:

    One of the side-effects of Prop 13 is that people who own
    homes are encouraged not to move if their job moves. If I sold
    my house and bought an identical one closer to my job, my property
    taxes would more than double.

    Many municipalities (Berkeley, for one) want “a piece of the pie” every time
    a home changes hands, so they have substantial ‘transfer fees’. Once again, if you were
    to change jobs and change to an identical home nearer your job, you would find
    a local civil servant with their hand in your wallet taking a percentage.

  9. Dot Says:

    I appreciate the tone of this blog — any discussion of commuter options has to be
    realistic about how people live, meaning what they do in reality, not what they
    “should” do. There is often a very ideological slant to these discussions, what
    I’d call “environmental evangelism” that is so overbearing that it winds up being
    counterproductive, because it refuses to be objective. Eg, look at the phenomenal
    backup at the Bay Bridge toll plaza — I would never put myself thru that unless it
    were desperately necessary, but obviously many people do, and not all of them
    are addicted to driving — some must need to drive. So the question is, “What would
    enable more people to take transit?” — that would be realistic, rather than self-righteous.
    (and btw, the text won’t wrap)
    As for people who buy home way out yonder — it’s not just selfishness, or a mad
    desire for a giant house, it’s mostly COST — obviously. People can’t afford homes
    close in, and chances are, they’d much prefer a shorter commute if it were possible.
    Also, fyi, more density close in will NOT prevent urban sprawl — only an enforceable
    urban growth limit will do that, and odds are good that it will never happen.

  10. miked Says:

    It’s cost AND quality. I doubt the mortgage payments for a home in Stockton or Vacaville are lower than rent in Berkeley or San Mateo- the difference is that the nearer places have small apartments as opposed to larger homes. If your minimum standard is a stand-alone home to own (a reasonable desire from a personal and financial point of view) then cost does force many people to make long commutes. Unless people break out of the mindset that they need a single family home, we need to look at longer distance transit options, like giving BART frequency to Caltrain and Caltrain speed and frequency to Calitol Corridor and ACE.

  11. murphstahoe Says:

    At rush hour, the frequency of Caltrain is comparable to the East Bay ends of the BART lines. Between 6:59 and 8 AM there are 6 trains leaving SF 4th and King. And the average speed of several of those runs (Baby Bulets) is faster than BART. Certainly in the urban corridor in SF there is a very high frequency on BART, but that is only a function of multiple lines merging. If you are coming from Dublin, your frequency is only every 15 mins.

    Caltrain would run more trains midday if the demand were there. 10 years ago service midday was hourly, now it is every 30 minutes, a function of demand.

  12. miked Says:

    I think evening service is more in demand than mid-day service for Caltrain. Also, Caltrain at SF is various lines merging- it’s the express, limited, and local trains all stopping in the same place. As I understand it, Caltrain plans to electrify and once that is done they can provide more frequent service to more stops.

    My larger point is that transit to everyone’s front door won’t work if lots of people live in stand alone single family homes. Park and ride can work, and that can decrease congestion and emissions.

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