When I lived in Los Angeles, I hated to pay for parking. And not just for the obvious reason of not wanting to part with precious dollars. My feeling was that if I had to put up with so much traffic, emissions, and space dedicated to the automobile, the least I could get out of it was free parking.
And now the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies has put together the gory details on the impact of excessive parking requirements on Los Angeles land use, all in a handy infographic:
The information is pretty disturbing but worth understanding to motivate reform. And the most obvious reform is to reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements for new projects, particularly near major transit stops.
When people think of robot cars, they mostly imagine taking naps, reading a book or phone, or doing work, while the car whisks you to where you want to go. It’s basically a chauffeur for everyone.
But there’s another aspect to self-driving vehicles that doesn’t get as much attention: platooning.
No, not the Charlie Sheen movie. It’s the word for when vehicles can drive in formation on a highway, like geese, via software and hardware technologies, that allow them to tailgate like crazy.
The advantage for other drivers is that it frees up a huge amount of roadway capacity, equivalent in some cases to building a whole new highway (of course, we know that extra capacity just induces more driving in the long term).
But for truckers, it can also mean major fuel savings, which produces environment gains. Mountain View’s Peloton Technology is an early leader in this field. It develops the hardware and software that allow the trucks driving behind the lead vehicle to brake and accelerate automatically to synchronize. As Carolyn Said in the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
Independent tests show the front truck uses 4.5 percent less fuel and the rear one saves 10 percent, Peloton said. Averaging those savings between the pair could result in saving a few thousand dollars per year per truck, Switkes said. Peloton’s pricing is a subscription based on a fraction of the actual cost savings that trucks achieve.
“That adds up quickly for a fleet with 30,000 trucks,” said [Josh Switkes, Peloton CEO and co-founder] said. The types of big rigs it’s targeting rack up 130,000 miles a year. “For a heavy truck, in a year and a half you spend as much on fuel as you did to buy the truck” — some $130,000 to $170,000.
Peloton’s name refers to a group of racing bicyclists who ride in close formation to reduce wind resistance, which is somewhat ironic given the dangers that trucks and other vehicles pose to biking — not to mention that biking is a far more environmentally friendly (and healthy) way to get around.
Still, our society needs trucking for goods movement. So technology solutions that can reduce fuel consumption and therefore pollution, as well as reduce accidents and the need for more highway expansion, are something we should encourage.
The Oroville dam crisis is on temporary reprieve, as the main spillway is holding up so far, allowing enough water release to lower the reservoir to a safe level. But with more rain coming tonight, we’ll find out if dam operators have been unable to draw the lake down far enough to withstand further spillway compromises. In the meantime, residents below the dam have been able to return to their homes.
As I wrote on Monday, if the spillways fail, this could be a monumental environmental disaster for the state. Not only (in the worst case) could it lead to a devastating flash flood, it would undermine long-term water supplies for much of the state and create energy problems as well. As Bloomberg reports, the reservoir feeds an 819-megawatt hydropower plant, capable of supplying about 600,000 homes. It’s the equivalent of two natural gas-fired power plants that may need to be fired up to replace the lost power.
But the policy implications may already be taking shape, as the White House is using the crisis as a justification for a big infrastructure package. Per the San Jose Mercury News story on yesterday’s White House news conference, it may become a rallying cry to build unnecessary dams — and not just repair existing ones:
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the Oroville Dam emergency in a press briefing Tuesday, calling the evacuation of more than 180,000 residents a “textbook example” of the consequences of the nation’s aging infrastructure.
“The president’s been keeping a close eye on the Oroville Dam situation in California,” Spicer said. “The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress.
“Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”
I agree that an infrastructure funding bill is badly needed in this country. We have significant needs and low interest rates, making borrowing to build and repair a smart move. But all signs indicate that a Trump infrastructure bill would mostly favor new, environmentally harmful projects that aren’t cost effective, like more highways, when we should be building more transit and high speed rail and maintaining existing roads rather than expanding them.
The idea of building more dams fits squarely in the former category. Dams are expensive, environmentally destructive, and, as we now are seeing, prone to the occasional failure. We certainly want funds to maintain existing dams, but we shouldn’t be building new ones over far more cost-effective options, like water conservation, recycling, and groundwater storage (as opposed to reservoir storage).
Many agricultural groups in California, and now their ally in the White House, have been clamoring for more pricey dam projects for years. If this Oroville crisis becomes a rallying cry to boost their call for more dams, it would be yet another tragic result.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times made a lot of waves when it ran a piece decrying falling transit ridership. They used what I called a misleading chart to make the decline look worse than it really was.
Now the paper is back with more disheartening news about Los Angeles transit ridership, from transportation reporter Laura Nelson:
Trips taken on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s sprawling bus and rail system dropped again in 2016, by nearly 6%, driven by a continuing slide in bus ridership, according to agency data.
Although year-to-year ridership changes are worth noting, the bigger issue is how Metro has fared over time, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Since 2009, Metro has opened four new rail extensions at a cost of more than $4 billion. In the same period, rail ridership soared 21%, but bus trips — a much larger share of overall ridership — dropped 18%.
Subway and light-rail boardings rose 4.4%, bolstered by the debut of the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions. But those gains did not cancel out a decline in annual bus ridership, which fell 8.9% to 304 million — the lowest in more than a decade.
While it was a bit easy to dismiss last year’s article, at this point I think we’ve reached the point of worry.
So what gives?
Surprisingly, no one seems to have any firm answers. The theories range from weak transit performance on on-time arrivals, poor overall service (convenience of the routes and time spent waiting), passenger fears about safety, a stronger economy that encourage more people to drive, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
To be sure, this is a national trend on transit ridership, as is the trend of increasing vehicle miles traveled.
If I had to guess, I would venture that two trends loom largest: the growing economy and the rise of Uber and Lyft.
With nationwide vehicle miles traveled increasing, it seems likely that much of that driving is coming at the expense of transit ridership. With a robust economy, more people can afford to purchase cars and the gasoline to fuel them.
But the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft should not be understated. Anecdotally, I hear about bus riders who can cost-effectively take Uber Pool or Lyft Line to their destinations, saving a huge amount of time in the process if they live far from their jobs and have to transfer multiple times (or catch the bus at non-commute hours when the waits are long).
For low-income people, particularly those on hourly wages, that time savings can quickly equate to badly needed increases in earnings from more hours worked.
But all is not lost for transit investments. As I wrote last year in an op-ed for the Times, transit agencies still have plenty of options. The big three:
- Encourage the building of more homes and offices within walking distance of transit stops
- Reduce fares
- Focus on building bus-only lanes on major boulevards and highways
Honestly, transit agencies should be doing these things anyway. Maybe the alarm bells about falling transit ridership will finally give them the political motivation they need to start implementing.
Last night, over 100,000 people were forced to evacuate the towns immediately below California’s Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States and the second-largest reservoir in California. Turns out all the rain Californians were begging for have now created a potentially horrific catastrophe.
To recap, the reservoir has finally been at peak capacity with all the recent rains. But the main spillway ended up with a giant sinkhole towards the bottom, which created the danger of further erosion and weakening if more water were to be released. Meanwhile, the auxiliary spillway — basically a concrete lip above an earthen hillside — had never been used in the dam’s 50-year-history.
And yesterday, on the first day that it was tested, it began to fail. See this picture from the local news of the giant fissure carved out below the concrete lip in just one day of use:
Last night, officials were concerned about the imminent collapse of the auxiliary spillway, which meant a 30-foot breach of rushing water down towards Sacramento. The breach could lead, in a worst-case scenario, to the entire hillside getting washed out, draining the entire reservoir in a colossal flash flood.
In short, it could be the worst environmental disaster California has seen.
First, the good news: the immediate threat of spillway failure is now past. Officials are draining the reservoir like crazy, and so far the sinkholed spillway seems to be holding up okay.
But the bad news is that more rain is coming on Thursday and beyond, meaning the dam operators are in a race against time.
It’s hard to overstate how terrible failure of this dam would be. Obviously, hundreds of thousands of people are already affected, having had to rush out of their homes and book motel rooms or stay in shelters, not knowing if or when they can return to their lives and belongings. If major flooding does occur — or worse, total failure — all these towns will be wiped out, and it could even inundate Sacramento downstream.
Long term, the dam is the prime source of water (61%) for the California State Water Project, which supplies water to Southern California and the Bay Area, as well as Central Valley farmers. Losing that reservoir would likely put those parts of the state in an extreme water shortage situation for the long term.
It also has energy implications, as the hydropower generated by the reservoirs in this part of the state equals 2.2 billion kilowatt hours per year — making up a third of the total power generated by the statewide system.
The crisis in Oroville is both a natural and man-made disaster, with significant implications for long-term policy. It’s a natural disaster because of all of the recent rains that have overwhelmed the reservoir system and stressed the infrastructure. This trend will likely continue in an era of climate change, with more severe droughts punctuated by heavy rainfall and runoff from what used to come down as snow.
But it’s definitely a man-made disaster, too. Not least of which, officials were asked by environmental groups back in 2005 to pave the auxiliary spillway, out of concern for exactly this situation arising. As Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reports though, those officials denied the request, apparently out of an unwillingness to pay the tens of millions needed to perform the work.
From a policy perspective, the dam crisis has a number of implications:
- It reminds us once again that U.S. infrastructure is badly in need of repair and replace. The big wave of projects following World War II are now reaching the end of their useful lives or are in need of major upgrades, as the dam now symbolizes.
- Dam failure could potentially undermine the case for more dam projects going forward. In other words, what Fukushima did to nuclear power could now be happening to dams. The public may not want more dams to be built after this crisis.
- Most hopefully, it could bolster the case for more responsible and cost-effective means of dealing with water shortages, such as more water recycling, conservation measures, and storage in recharged groundwater aquifers rather than on the surface.
In the meantime, let’s hope state officials can stabilize the dam and release enough water, and that mother nature cooperates by bringing more slow-melting snow to the area rather than flooding rainwater.
No clean technology is more important than the battery (or energy storage more broadly, given that batteries are just one — albeit critical — version of storage). Batteries will soon help power almost all of our vehicles with cleaner electricity instead of fossil fuels. And they’ll help store our surplus renewable power to clean our electricity grids.
The PBS show NOVA just ran a fascinating episode on the subject, called The Search for the Super Battery. It features interviews with UC Berkeley colleagues Dan Kammen and Venkat Srinivasan, as well as car company representatives and other industry leaders. As far as shows on batteries go, this one is pretty fascinating and accessible and well worth the watch:
Happy Friday viewing!
Two weeks ago I had an opportunity to discuss the history of Los Angeles Metro Rail in a presentation at UCLA, sponsored by UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of History, and Institute of Transportation Studies.
For those who couldn’t attend (or did attend and want to relive the magic), a video recording is now available, albeit with shaky audio the first 12 minutes or so:
And for a written description, UCLA News ran an article describing the talk last week.
Of course for the long version, I recommend reading the book.
The Trump presidency could have one significant silver lining in the fight against climate change. With most federal action likely to be negative on climate, it will motivate states and cities to take the aggressive action needed to curb emissions through innovation. Gone now is the fiction that the federal government will take the steps necessary to address the full scale of the challenge.
Of course, the Obama administration helped in critical ways, such as through stringent fuel economy standards and boosting investment in solar panels and electric vehicles, among other needed technologies. The Clean Power Plan, likely to be killed soon by Trump’s EPA, was a decent start but not nearly sufficient for what scientists say is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. But given federal politics, none of these steps were likely to be sufficient on their own.
So now is a good time for the “coalition of the willing” of states and cities to see what they can do on their own, without the political drag facing federal action. The California-led Under 2 Coalition is a good example of this collaboration at the international level among subnational jurisdictions willing to take strong action.
Here in the U.S., states could do a lot together, such as creating a common carbon market through cap-and-trade, jointly investing in clean technology research, and sharing grid resources to encourage more renewable development at a cheaper cost and with fewer emissions.
But there are constitutional limits to multi-state action. My Berkeley Law colleague Dan Farber describes these limits on Legal Planet, and he remains mostly optimistic about what states can do together while passing constitutional muster:
There are some legalities that have to be observed in designing regional efforts. The biggest issue is whether Congressional consent to a regional agreement is required under the compact clause, which provides that “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress . . . enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power.” This language might seem to require congressional consent to all forms of cooperation between states. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has interpreted the compact clause quite narrowly.
Basically, states want to avoid having to get congressional approval for their multi-state actions, given the negative politics at the federal level. But, as Dan summarizes, as long as states create multi-state programs that aren’t binding on individual states, create superseding regulatory power, or negatively impact federal actions, they can proceed without congressional approval.
It actually gives states lots of leeway, which they should start using as soon as possible.
Superbowl ads are fun to watch, but they can also give us a window into public opinion. Corporate America is of course very tuned to public attitudes and unlikely to run messages that upset their core buyers.
With that in mind, I was heartened that Kia ran an ad during Sunday’s game that seemed to accept the science of climate change. The bit comes at the end, when comedic actress Melissa McCarthy tries to “save the polar ice caps”:
Granted the ad doesn’t make clear the connection between human activity and melting ice caps, but even just acknowledging the problem for a mass audience is encouraging.
Meanwhile, another ad related to climate change indicates that Toyota is definitely all-in on it’s plans for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as an alternative to petroleum-fueled vehicles:
As I’ve blogged before, I think these passenger vehicles and the hydrogen fueling infrastructure needed to power them are basically a waste of money. Sales figures are incredibly weak and dwarfed by battery electric vehicle sales, and it’s an energy inefficient way for people to get around.
But the investment in airing a Superbowl ad shows Toyota is serious. We’ll see how the sales figures shape up as a result. But in the meantime it’s at least another reminder for a mass audience that technologies exist to solve the climate problem Melissa McCarthy was trying to address. Only with hopefully a less painful result.
America’s trust in the media is at an all-time low. As the media environment fragments and political leaders, including the president, routinely disparage the press, what are the consequences of a weakened media for our democracy? What can the press do to restore trust? And how should Americans evaluate the news going forward, to stay informed and engaged in our political process?
- Sally Lehrman, director of the Journalism Ethics Program and the Trust Project at Santa Clara University
- Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and professor at the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley
- Janine Zacharia, Carlos Kelly McClatchy Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communications at Stanford University, former Jerusalem Bureau Chief and Middle East Correspondent for the Washington Post, and chief diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News in Washington
And if you can’t access the airwaves, anyone with wifi can stream the broadcast here. Please email or call in with your questions for the show!