How Suburbanization Causes Greenhouse Gas Emissions — Salt Lake City Case Study

We know that city dwellers have a smaller carbon footprint that suburbanites. But now we have a real case study with carbon measurements to document the phenomenon.

14 scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Utah and several other universities set up a network of carbon dioxide sensors across Salt Lake City and its suburbs. The Washington Post reported on the results:

As suburbs have expanded southwest of Salt Lake City over the last 10 years, carbon dioxide emissions have spiked…

It’s the latest indication that suburban expansion takes an environmental toll, with people driving greater distances and building larger homes that use more energy for heating and cooling.

Similar population growth in the center of Salt Lake City didn’t take the same toll, according to the research. Carbon dioxide emissions in the city center were already higher than in nonurban places. But as the population there grew by 10,000 people, the emissions didn’t increase further.

It’s yet more evidence that encouraging urban growth is one of the most important steps we can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s also a reason why supposedly “environmental” organizations like Sierra Club California that oppose pro-infill measures like SB 827 are actually damaging the environment by doing so.

Could The Mushroom Burger Make “Alt-Meat” Obsolete?

Eating beef is an environment killer. I’ve got nothing against cows, but between their methane emissions and the huge amount of corn we grow to feed them, high consumption of red meat is simply not sustainable.

Some Bay Area companies have gotten notoriety recently for pioneering lab-grown “alt-meat” that tastes like the real thing. But maybe a simpler solution is what fast-food chain Sonic came up with: adding ground mushrooms to the burger to reduce the meat content. As NPR reported:

The idea is that mixing chopped mushrooms into our burgers boosts the umami taste, adds more moisture and reduces the amount of beef required for a burger. And reducing the need for beef has a big impact on the environment. According to the World Resources Institute, if 30 percent of the beef in every burger in America were replaced by mushrooms, it would reduce greenhouse emissions by the same amount as taking 2.3 million vehicles off of our roads.

Meanwhile, a related approach is being tried with the old staple of Mac-n-Cheese. Fast Company documented how Annie’s brand mac-n-cheese is now buying pasta flour from farms that use less damaging agricultural practices:

On the Montana farm, Powell-Palm rotates his wheat crop with golden peas, which are also used to make the flour for the pasta, boosting the protein content. A diversity of crops makes the soil healthier than just growing wheat; wheat takes nitrogen from the soil, and peas help replenish it. Livestock also graze in the field on rotation, adding more nutrients to the soil with manure. The farm also uses cover crops rather than letting the soil sit bare after harvest, so the roots of the plants help hold carbon in the soil.

These are promising solutions to a difficult problem. It’s nice to see innovation, but it starts with consumer awareness about the impact of the foods we eat. Given the scale of the emissions challenge, we should all be hungry for more solutions like these.

Free Friday Lunch Panel At SPUR: What’s New for Housing in California in 2018?

2017 was the beginning of a state effort in California to finally address the severe housing shortage here. 2018 promises to be even bigger, with more bills proposed that are finally starting to tackle some of the core causes of the shortage.

Friday at 12:30pm the San Francisco nonprofit SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association) will host a free hour-long panel discussion on what to expect this year in statewide housing policy. We’ll cover SB 827, CEQA, affordable housing, tenant protection, and more.

Joining me on the panel will be:

  • Brian Hanlon / California YIMBY
  • Catherine Bracy / TechEquity Collaborative

The location is:

SPUR Urban Center
654 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105-4015

Unlike SPUR gatherings later in every month, there’s no charge for this first-of-the-month event. Hope to see you there!

Would Google Help Fund High Speed Rail?

Google made headlines recently for buying a huge property adjacent to the future downtown San Jose high speed rail station, per the San Francisco Chronicle:

Google has been in negotiations with San Jose since June for a planned “village” that would feature up to 6 million square feet of office, research and development, retail and amenity space near San Jose’s Diridon Station. The development could bring 15,000 to 20,000 jobs, Nanci Klein, San Jose’s assistant director of economic development, previously told The Chronicle.

To be sure, this property would be valuable for Google even without high speed rail, as it’s at the heart of San Jose’s light rail network. But high speed rail will only increase the value, as it would give Google employees high-speed train access to businesses to the south and through the San Joaquin Valley — and eventually Los Angeles.

So the question is: would a property owner like Google be willing to help finance high speed rail, which is badly in need of cash? It’s the old school way of funding trains: leverage the future increases in property values around the stations to finance the transportation.

Given the slow trickle of state dollars and nonexistent federal funds, high speed rail leaders will need to get creative about how to find money to keep construction going. A large company like Google could greatly help with the search.

Anti-Social Internet & Entertainment Addictions Can Save Energy

On Monday night’s City Vision show on teen use of smart phones, researchers discussed how teens are now much more anti-social and depressed as they lack face-to-face contact and surf in isolation. Adults aren’t much better, as many of us get “tech neck” staring at devices.

But there may be an upside: saved energy use and therefore reduced greenhouse gas emissions. As the New York Times reported, all this staying at home has some environmental upsides:

Researchers found that, on average, Americans spent 7.8 more days at home in 2012, compared to 2003. They calculated that this reduced national energy demand by 1,700 trillion BTUs in 2012, or 1.8 percent of the nation’s total energy use.

The lifestyle shift was especially pronounced among 18- to 24-year-olds, who spent an extra 14 days at home and roughly four days less in travel. The findings represent a significant change in lifestyle in less than 10 years. Those fewer travel days are particularly important when it comes to saving energy.

I suppose the same phenomenon might be observed as more Americans switch to “downer” drugs like legalized cannabis, which compared to alcohol might encourage people to stay home more.

We certainly don’t need more isolation and anti-social behavior in our society, but the energy upsides at least provide some consolation. But how about a compromise? If we make our neighborhoods more walkable and transit-friendly, going out for socializing could have a smaller carbon footprint.

But in the meantime, if you stay in this weekend, at least you can feel good about your overall energy consumption, if not your energy output.

Why Are Prominent L.A. Rail Transit Leaders Trying To Torpedo Transit-Oriented Development?

Back in 2008, and then again in 2016, transit advocates in Los Angeles came together to get county residents to fork over $160 billion over 30 years in new sales taxes revenue for transportation investments. A sizeable chunk of that money goes to major transit capital projects, including new rail and bus rapid transit lines.

They successfully secured approval for these tax hikes with 2/3 voter support. But now transit ridership is plummeting in Los Angeles. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, but it’s particularly severe in L.A. While there a few ways to counter-act these trends, the most proven and sensible one is to boost transit-oriented development of all types.

Yet given recent public debate on SB 827, which would upzone residential areas within a few blocks of major transit stops, it’s clear that many of these advocates are not committed to the land use changes necessary to achieve this density. Despite SB 827’s promise to accomplish the very increase in residential density needed to support transit, they remain opposed.

So who are the culprits? Most prominently, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (who championed the 2016 measure) still refuses to support SB 827, despite the recent amendments to address his legitimate displacement concerns. Instead, he stated concern for the area’s single-family homeowners, professing a desire to “protect” these mostly affluent residents from mid-rise apartment buildings near major transit.

And it gets worse. Move LA, the organization that has probably done the most to launch these voter sales tax measures, actually came out against the bill in a joint letter with various community groups. This opposition comes after their executive director Denny Zane already helped sink a major transit-oriented project near an Expo Line station that would have added more than 400 hundred badly needed homes in the area, including 50 affordable units. His main concern at the time was too much car traffic.

Even Sierra Club California used the fear of these land use changes in SB 827 as a reason not to support the measure. Specifically, the organization wants to see a new rail transit line in Sacramento, even though the line will be a massive money-loser without more density around the stations.

Based on these transit advocates’ arguments, it seems clear that many are only focused on one thing: building new transit lines. They don’t seem to care how cost-effective they are, and in many cases they actively don’t want to see much new development around the stations — especially not market-rate housing, and especially not in “quiet” affluent areas that are benefiting financially from these publicly funded investments.

So despite SB 827 being one of the most important pro-transit measures put forth by the legislature in recent years, some key transit advocates seem unlikely to join a coalition in support.

It’s a disheartening — though clarifying — turn of events. What it means is that the help to save transit agencies from plummeting ridership may not come from advocates for expanding new lines. It will instead come from those who favor more density of homes near transit in general, which is apparently a distinct cause for many in the “transit advocacy” community.

Amendments To SB 827 Would Make It Expensive To Displace Rent-Controlled Tenants & Require Full Compensation

Some opponents of SB 827 (Wiener) — to essentially upzone residential areas adjacent to major transit stops — simply reject the idea of any new housing in their neighborhoods. Others are generally hostile to new market-rate development. But besides those non-helpful objections, the one compelling knock on the SB 827 approach is that the new residential development it would unleash could displace low-income renters.

There’s a clear moral objection to that happening. With the housing shortage and jobs boom leading to high home prices and rents everywhere, low-income residents of rent-controlled units will basically have no place affordable to go if they’re displaced. The bill shouldn’t force some of the most economically insecure and impoverished among us out of their homes.

And displacement also potentially undermines one of the key purposes of the bill: to boost transit ridership. Low-income people are more likely to use transit than higher-income people. So replacing them with market-rate renters or owners could be a loss for the nearby transit system.

That said, I do believe the concern is overstated, as low-income neighborhoods are not likely to be a prime target of developers risking capital on expensive multi-family buildings and needing a high return to justify the expense.

But still, we knew anti-displacement measures in SB 827 were coming, and yesterday Sen. Wiener introduced them. They essentially boil down to two things:

1) Explicit recognition that SB 827 does not preempt local policies preventing demolition of rent-controlled units or displacement of those tenants or requiring affordable units to be built with market-rate ones. This recognition is probably not needed legally, but it’s a handy reminder to critics that SB 827 takes nothing away from locals on the issues of affordability and displacement.

2) Making it expensive to displace residents of rent-controlled units.

This second approach is where the amendments get interesting. Basically, if any SB 827 project displaces these residents, the developer must honor a “Right to Remain Guarantee.” As Sen. Wiener explains in a blog post:

[The guarantee] must, at minimum, provide all of the following, at the developer’s expense:

  • All moving expenses for a tenants moving into, and out of, an interim unit in the area while the project is being built.

  • Up to 42 months of rental assistance that covers the full rent of an available, comparable unit in the area.

  • Right of first refusal for housing units in the new building, and offered with a new lease at the rent previously enjoyed by the tenant in their demolished unit.

So displacement could still happen, but only at significant expense and with displaced residents being “made whole” by the process. It’s essentially a quasi-market-based approach to discouraging displacement. It will incentivize developers to seek to redevelop properties that don’t have rent-controlled units on them to avoid these costs.

In addition, a separate amendment requires a local jurisdiction to adopt a demolition process for rent-controlled units if they don’t already have one, for any SB 827 project to occur.

It remains to be seen whether anti-displacement critics of the bill will be mollified by this approach. But I do think these changes make the bill stronger, without conceding too much of the market-rate development we still need for residents of all incomes in our state.

Why California Legislators Should Be Investigating High Gas Prices

Are oil companies gouging California drivers? And if so, why aren’t legislators looking into it? I blogged this past fall about UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein making the case for possible price gouging and how the California Legislature is not heeding his commission’s advice to investigate.

Borenstein is now back at it, in the face of continued legislative intransigence:

The extra payments since February 2015 have cost California drivers about $15 billion. And if the differential continues at its current level, which shows no sign of abating, it will cost Californians about $3 billion in 2018. Is that small potatoes?

What should California do about the mystery surcharge? First, set up a commission with real resources to investigate the cause. Give them the funding necessary to hire (or borrow from other parts of state government) the very best experts in the oil and gasoline supply chain, and in market economics and competition policy. Then give them the authority to examine all the confidential data from companies that city, county and state offices collect. And compel the executives at those companies to meet with this commission – not the trade association representatives or outside consultants they sent to PMAC meetings — and answer questions, behind closed doors if necessary to protect confidential or competitively-sensitive information.

What’s particularly peculiar about the legislative inaction on this topic is that legislators are about to face a political hammer for passing last year’s SB 1 (Beall), which raised the gas tax and vehicle license fees to help pay for backlogged repairs to our crumbling transportation infrastructure. In response, opponents are mobilizing a recall campaign against state senator Josh Newman of Orange County over the vote and also to repeal the legislation by voter initiative (the initiative would also prevent any new gas tax increases from passing without a vote of the people).

So why won’t legislators seize on this issue to 1) show that they care about high gas prices and 2) see if there truly is industry malfeasance taking place? If the latter, that would give them a pretty big political win to help defend the SB 1 measure. After all, wouldn’t voters be less likely to complain about a few extra cents in gas taxes for road repair when it’s the industry that is gouging them by much more? And in turn, it’s the legislature that has helped save drivers gas money through an investigation?

At the very least, it seems like both smart public policy and politics to heed Borenstein’s advice.

The Dangerous Downside of Technology for Teens — City Visions Tonight At 7pm, KALW 91.7 FM

Is there a dangerous downside to growing up with smart phones and social media? Today’s teens are glued to their phones and virtually connected to each other like never before. And yet the rates of teen depression and loneliness are skyrocketing.

Join me tonight at 7pm on City Visions to discuss whether smartphones are destroying a generation of kids. My guests include:

  • Sue Porter, PhD, Dean of Students at The Bay School of San Francisco
  • Jean Twenge, PhD, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen: Why Today’s Super Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.
  • Colby Zintl, Vice President of External Affairs at Common Sense

Listeners in the San Francisco Bay Area can tune in at 91.7 FM, or you can stream it on-line. Please call or email with your questions in the meantime or during the live show. Hope you can tune in!

The Pro-Transit-Oriented Housing Coalition Takes Shape

One of the interesting side benefits of SB 827 (Wiener), to allow mid-rise apartments to be built near major transit stops, is that it’s revealing exactly which interest groups have a stake in preserving the status quo of housing dysfunction and shortage.

Given the depth and breadth of the housing shortage, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of entrenched interests who benefit from this status quo. The obvious are the wealthy homeowners in coastal cities and their elected official allies.

But also in that corner are advocates for low-income renters in specific, transit-rich neighborhoods, either out of genuine concern over displacement but sometimes out of ideological hostility to market-rate housing, at least without being able to extract as much money out of it as possible for affordable units. They want to make market-rate development hard and expensive to build, so they can use that byzantine process as leverage to get a few additional affordable units built. But this is ultimately a self-defeating bid to boost affordable housing only for those few lucky enough to win the affordable housing lottery. Meanwhile, overall housing production lags, hurting low-income residents the most.

On the “pro” side are developers (who stand to profit from loosened zoning), the YIMBY groups (largely led by millennials frustrated at high housing costs), and a mix of pro-housing and climate advocates.

But in an interview with, California YIMBY executive director Brian Hanlon pointed to another member of the pro-coalition: inland California representatives:

A lot of folks who represent more exurban areas, Inland Empire and parts of the Central Valley, they’re going to love this bill, even though it’s not going to allow more homebuilding in their areas. I spoke with one member in the legislature who just said, “I am sick and tired of these hypocritical, rich coastal liberals talking this good game on the environment, passing tax breaks for their rich constituents to buy Teslas, while not building any housing in their district. They’re displacing their middle-income people to my district, where they’re now driving an hour-and-a-half or two hours each way to get to work.”

You’re going to have some interesting alliances on this bill — folks like Ting, Skinner, and Wiener, who genuinely care about the environment and the housing crisis, along with members who represent outer districts.

Meanwhile, I still hold out hope that some of the low-income renter advocates will come around, once anti-displacement language is included in the bill. As Hanlon alludes to in the interview, the concerns particularly in Los Angeles around inadvertently weakening existing affordable housing policies are likely to be addressed through future amendments.

But in the meantime, SB 827 is finally lifting up the rock that keeps all of the dysfunction in California’s housing policy in place, with its attendant economic, environmental, and quality-of-life harm. The fight won’t be easy, but at least it’s finally getting started.

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