Showing all posts by Ethan Elkind
Redesigning Bus Networks Won’t Recapture Lost Riders — More Bus-Only Lanes, Lower Fares & Transit Oriented Development Needed

Transit ridership is falling across the country, while driving miles are up.  Much of the change is probably due to a relatively strong economy and low gas prices, plus the impact of venture capital-subsidized rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft.

But what about poor transit service, particularly on buses?  The ridership decline provides opportunities for transit agencies to rethink their bus systems.  But it may not be enough. profiles Columbus, Ohio’s recent efforts on this front:

The Columbus transit agency spent four years and $9.4 million studying its bus network, gathering public feedback and designing alternative routes. All of that work came to a head this May, when COTA switched to a completely new system. It doubled the number of bus lines with frequent service (every 15 minutes or less), deploying many of them along major roads far from downtown. The new routes added or increased service to the airport, shopping malls, a casino and many other job centers. By COTA’s estimate, the number of jobs within a quarter mile (a five-minute walk) of a frequent bus line jumped from 155,000 to 265,000. The number of people who lived within a quarter mile of those lines increased from 116,000 to 219,000. Plus, the agency beefed up service on Saturdays and Sundays. And Columbus did all of it without an increase in funding.

It remains to be seen how effective this redesign will be.

Meanwhile, pre-Hurricane Harvey Houston also redesigned its bus network in the past few years, adding $12 million to the operating budget.  But the results were mixed-to-disappointing: ridership increased 6.8 percent in the first year, with most though from increased light rail trips and 1.2 percent from bus trips (weekday trips decreased).  Ridership during the second year was flat.

So if a redesign is not enough, what needs to be done?  Three things:

  1. Build more bus-only lanes and bus rapid transit lines.  If buses can avoid traffic and beat car travel times, ridership will surge.
  2. Build more housing and jobs around high-traffic bus corridors (and stop building automobile infrastructure in these areas).  The more people living and working near bus lines will boost ridership.  And the more cars are not accommodated, such as through locally mandated parking spaces or garages, the faster bus service will be.
  3. Lower fares.  History has shown that lowering fares is a good way to attract more riders.  The fare decreases could be paid for by congestion pricing on automobile traffic in key corridors during peak commute times.  It’s a double-win: less automobile traffic, more bus ridership.

All of these solutions will require policy action and investment, which means political will to get it done.  It’s harder than a bus redesign but will ultimately provide a lasting solution to the ridership challenges.

End Of California’s Legislative Session Brings Victories On Housing But Setbacks On Renewables

The frenzy is over.  The California legislature finished its session last week and sent its approved bills onto the governor.  Casual observers note the big “victories” on housing:

  • A supermajority vote to raise fees on real estate documents to fund affordable housing;
  • Another supermajority vote to approve a bond measure to go before the voters to fund even more affordable housing;
  • A win for SB 35, to streamline local approvals for new housing in cities and counties that aren’t providing enough of it also passed; and
  • The “sleeper” AB 1568 (Bloom), which will improves infrastructure financing for infill projects under the acronym NIFTI (Neighborhood Infill Finance and Transit Improvements Act).

But as I wrote last week, SB 35 is the one that really gets to the heart of the problem of the housing shortage in California.  The new revenue measures are drops in a seemingly bottomless bucket, as local governments consistently prevent new housing from getting built, particularly in job-rich infill areas.  SB 35 instead starts to deregulate housing at the local level.  California will need much more of that approach to solve this crisis.

Finally, on renewable energy, the state suffered a setback.  SB 100, to increase the renewable mandate to 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2045, was kicked into next year, as was the plan to regionalize California’s grid to encourage more renewables across the west and lower electricity rates for all.  But the stalling of these bills gives the legislature and climate advocates a good place to start on next year’s priorities.

Next up: we’ll see what the governor signs in the coming weeks.

Supporting Local Public Radio — KALW 91.7 FM

Matt Ross of HBO’s Silicon Valley shows off his KALW gear before our Monday night interview on City Visions

Whether you live in the Bay Area or not, local public radio stations like KALW, where I host City Visions, offer vital perspectives and reporting during a time where dependable, nonprofit news can be hard to find.  KALW is in the middle of its pledge drive this week and next, so I encourage you to go to and click on ‘donate’ up top on the right to support the station.

As an example of KALW programming, this week I had the pleasure of interviewing HBO’s Silicon Valley star Matt Ross for an hour on City Visions.  He’s a local actor who can share his experiences and insights with our listeners, live in the studio, all because of the platform KALW provides.  It’s an hourlong discussion with the community, and it’s typical of the kind of programming on KALW.

I hope you’ll consider supporting the station.  And as always, thanks for listening to KALW and shows like City Visions!

No comments yet Categories: KALW
Nissan Unveils The New All-Electric But Underwhelming LEAF 2.0

Last week, Nissan became the third major automaker to unveil its second generation electric vehicle, after Tesla’s Model 3 and Chevy’s Bolt.  The new all-electric LEAF is certainly an improvement over the original, which was groundbreaking in its day for being the first mass-market, affordable short-range electric vehicle.  But it’s ultimately underwhelming.

Here is the good news:

  1. The design is much better.  The old LEAF looked like a bug (and not in a good way like Volkswagen).  This version is much sleeker and more appealing to the eye, bringing some needed style (photo above).
  2. The battery range is much improved.  The old range was 85 miles, which went to 105 miles in the last version.  This second generation vehicle can now go up to 150 miles, with plans for a 200-range model perhaps next year or 2019.
  3. The driving features are better.  In particular, Nissan is catching up to Chevy with the “one-pedal drive,” where the car starts braking immediately upon release of the accelerator.  It also has some “lane assist” and automatic braking features, also like the Bolt but well behind Tesla’s self-driving features.
  4. It’s super cheap, compared to other EVs.  Despite the increased range, the price has actually fallen a bit, to below $30,000 (before incentives).  That means that even though it has 80 miles less range than the Bolt, it’s also starting at $7000 cheaper.  I gather that’s the big hope at Nissan, that the car will sell well because it’s cheaper.

But the bad news:

The range is pretty underwhelming, given what the Bolt just pulled off (238 mile average range per charge).  How much money is that extra 45 miles over the last LEAF worth to the potential consumer, when they can get a cheaper, older LEAF with about 85 or 90 miles of range for about one-third of the cost of this car?

So ultimately, besides cost savings, what is this car offering a potential EV consumer?  It’s hard to see, given the sporty Tesla Model 3 soon to hit the market, and the quality, affordable, long-range Bolt already available.

I certainly wish Nissan well and hope the car sells.  But it feels like the company has some major catch-up to do to stay relevant in the EV world.

California Legislative Frenzy On Housing And Energy

California legislators are in the final week of the session, and there’s a scramble on bills related to housing and renewable energy.  Here’s a rundown:


What was supposed to be the “Year of Housing” to address the state’s severe, decades-long undersupply of homes, is turning out to be pretty weak.  There are basically three bills in play, out of the 150 or so to start the session:

  • SB 2 (Atkins) would impose a $75-225 fee on individual California real estate transactions (which requires two-thirds vote);
  • SB 3 (Beall) would authorize a $4 billion bond measure for California’s November 2018 general election ballot (which requires two-thirds vote and then approval by voters); and
  • SB 35 Wiener) to force recalcitrant cities and counties to approve new infill housing projects without discretionary review.

SB 35 is the most promising, although its prevailing wage requirement will make it essentially worthless in under-performing markets in the state.  All three bills are being bundled, and Democrats in the Assembly are skittish about voting for the SB 3 real estate fee in particular.  If SB 2 goes down, will legislative leaders peal off SB 3 and SB 35 for separate votes, which might be successful on their own?  And if they do strip SB 2 from the package, will the other two bills lose support?  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a sleeper bill on housing is AB 1568 (Bloom), which improves infrastructure finance districts for infill projects.  Using the acronym NIFTI (Neighborhood Infill Finance and Transit Improvements Act), the bill would allow these districts to capture future increases in revenue from sources like sales and occupancy taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements up front. It’s up for a floor vote shortly.

But in the end, of the big housing bundle, only SB 35 shows real promise for lasting reform by removing authority from local governments on land use.  The affordable housing money is otherwise badly needed, but it’s ultimately not going to solve much of the problem.  And affordable housing suffers from increased costs due to the same local land use policies that thwart market-rate housing, such as high parking requirements and limits on density.  So much of these dollars will be wasted without broader land use reform.

Renewable Energy

The big bill is SB 100 (de Leon) to boost the renewable mandate in the state to 60% (from 50%) by 2030, plus a new 100% target by 2045.  The goals have broad support, but the details are now creating opposition from utilities. A defeat on this bill would be a big blow, as utilities (despite their opposition) need the stronger market signal and legal permission to procure more renewables now while the federal tax credit — set to sunset soon — is still in effect.

Meanwhile, AB 726 (Holden) to restart the process of integrating California’s grid with other western states is apparently stalling.  Some environmental groups and labor unions are concerned with how it would get implemented. It’s too bad, because a regional grid is going to be necessary to meet California’s long-term climate and energy goals in an affordable manner.  Plus, it could help solidify political support for renewables in the states that join us, by building up a domestic clean tech industry in each of those states.  If it fails this year, climate advocates should prioritize it for next year.

So on both housing and energy, there’s a lot to follow in the Golden State this week.  I’ll blog again on any successful bills once the dust settles.

The Bible Already Described Climate Change — So Why Don’t Christian Conservatives Accept The Science?

America’s Christian conservatives are pretty well known at this point for being anti-climate science and environmental action. As Bernard Daley Zaleha and Andrew Szasz write in Why Conservative Christians Don’t Believe in Climate Change, studies show that:

[T]he higher the level of religious commitment (as measured by self-reports of religion’s personal importance, frequency of religious service attendance, and frequency of prayer), the lower the level of environmental concern. Another recent study showed, similarly, that American Christians, collectively, when considered without regard for denomination, have less environmental concern than do Americans of other faiths or those who say they are not affiliated with any institutional forms of religion.

Now I’m far from a religious expert, but it seems to me that the Bible — specifically the story of Noah — features a Judeo-Christian God with a history of using extreme weather (i.e. climate change) to further his purposes.  Check out this translation of the story of Noah:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

It’s easy to see the parallel with this story to today’s struggle with climate change. The climate crisis is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from burning carbon fuels to power our economy. While a strong economy is a necessity and can be force for moral goodness, it’s also based on greed in a way that the God of the Bible might easily condemn as “wickedness.” Pope Francis has certainly drawn similar conclusions.

At the very least, continuing on this current path without heed for the consequences certainly sounds stupid, in a “times of Noah” kind of way. So wouldn’t this story be an eye-opener (or at least a conversation-starter) for Christian conservatives to think about climate science?

Jesse Jackson took this approach in a recent column imploring for more climate preparedness:

In Genesis, the Bible teaches that God came to Noah and warned him about the coming floods. He told Noah to build an ark — sophisticated infrastructure — to ensure that man and selected animals and birds could survive. There was no nonsense about each being on his or her own. Strong swimmers went down with the weak. Rich mansions on the hill were flooded with the poor huts in the valley. It took infrastructure, planning and preparedness to survive the flood.

I know there are researchers and advocates trying to reach this community and get them involved with climate solutions. But given the plain text of their religious document, I’m surprised it’s such an uphill battle.

HBO’s “Silicon Valley” Star Matt Ross — Tonight On City Visions, KALW 91.7 FM

undefinedTonight on City Visions I’ll be interviewing actor, director, writer – and Berkeley resident – Matt Ross.

You may know Ross from his role as Hooli CEO Gavin Belson on the  HBO show Silicon Valley. He is also the writer and director of last year’s critically acclaimed movie Captain Fantastic, which netted an Academy Award nomination for lead actor Viggo Mortensen.

Ross will discuss what inspired him to create this unusual, thought-provoking movie, as well as reflect on Silicon Valley – the place and the show – and perhaps offer insight into who the characters are modeled on.

You can tune in live at 7pm on 91.7 FM in San Francisco or stream it on the web. Feel free to send me your questions in advance — I hope you can join the conversation!

Amazon’s New Headquarters Could Turn Some Key Red States Blue: A City-State Analysis Of The Potential Move just announced that its seeking a city for its second headquarters, outside of Seattle.  Could an influx of Democratic-voting tech workers to a city in a red state be enough to turn that state blue?  I ran through the list of reported city contenders and their respective state vote tallies below.  My goal was to find out which city, if chosen, would have the greatest effect on the state’s (and therefore the nation’s) presidential politics.

The bottom line, as you’ll see below: Democrats should be rooting for Amazon to move to Tucson, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, which would flip those states from red to blue (or in the case of Pennsylvania and Michigan, back to blue).

But first: the criteria for Amazon and the potential job numbers.  According to the Chicago Tribune:

Whichever city wins Amazon’s “HQ2” will host up to 50,000 workers with salaries that could reach $100,000 annually.

The company said it’s aiming for a metropolitan area of at least 1 million residents, opening up, theoretically, a few dozen cities in the U.S., from New York to Tucson, Ariz., and a handful more in Canada. It’s unclear whether Amazon would consider a bid from a Mexican city.

But the employment — and therefore the voter — numbers could be far bigger than that. As the SF Chronicle reports:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the company plans to make the second headquarters — dubbed HQ2 — “a full equal” to its Seattle home base [which employs more than 340,000 people].

And any new Amazon home would also bring additional tech workers from other companies that would locate nearby to do business with Amazon. In short, the headquarter decision could result in a major influx of educated tech workers who could greatly affect the state’s voting results, given that tech workers vote Democrat by potentially large margins (as Nate Silver documented in 2012).  The key would be for Amazon to locate in a city that could grow just enough relative to the number of Republican-leaning rural residents.

So for this exercise, I assumed that the Amazon move would eventually result in 300,000 tech workers moving in (less than Seattle’s current headquarter count and including potential workers from other tech companies).  I also assumed their voting rate would be 80%-20% Democrat vs. Republican, which would roughly track the financial contributions from this sector, as a proxy for their voting habits.

That means the Amazon move could bring 240,000 new Democratic voters to the state, along with 60,000 new Republican voters.  The net gain would be 180,00 new votes for the Democrats.

Could that be enough to turn a state from red to blue?

We should first note that in 2016, Trump beat Clinton by 306 to 232 electoral votes, leaving a gap of 74 electoral votes for Democrats to regain.  No single state switch will reverse that gap.  But a switch in one sizeable state could alter the presidential calculations going forward.  Demography is destiny.

Here are the reported city candidates and the potential impact of an Amazon move on their state election results, based on the 2016 election (I left out the blue state candidate cities, because a move there would simply improve existing Democratic majorities):


Tucson, Arizona
The state has 11 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 1.25M votes
Clinton 1.16M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 90,000 more votes to flip the state.
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would be enough to flip the state to blue, leaving 90,000 extra Democratic votes.

Detroit, Michigan
The state has 16 electoral college votes
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 2.279M votes
Clinton 2.268M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 11,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would be more than enough to flip the state to blue, leaving a cushion of 169,000 extra Democratic votes.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The state has 20 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 2.970M votes
Clinton 2.926M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 45,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would be more than enough to flip the state to blue.  It would leave a cushion of 135,000 extra Democratic votes.


Kansas City, Missouri
The state has 10 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 1.594M votes
Clinton 1.071M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 520,000 more votes to flip the state.
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough to flip the state to blue.  It would cut the Republican lead by about one-third though.

Nashville, Tennessee
The state has 11 electoral college votes at stake.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 1.5M votes
Clinton 870K votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 650,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough to flip the state, but it could cut the lead for Republicans by about a quarter.

Austin, Texas
The state has 38 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 4.685M votes
Clinton 3.878M votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 810,000 more votes to flip the state
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough to flip the state to blue.  It would cut the lead by about one-fifth though.

Bonus Analysis: Boise, Idaho
Note: this city does not fit Amazon’s reported criteria for a move, but the city has the makings of a future tech hub, given the low-cost of living and proximity to a lot of outdoor recreation.
Idaho otherwise has 4 electoral college votes.
2016 presidential election results:
Trump 409K votes
Clinton 190K votes
Democrats therefore need approximately 220,000 more votes to flip the state.
Verdict: The 180,000 new votes from an Amazon move would not be enough, by just 40,000 extra votes, to flip the state to blue.  But it would make a significant difference in Idaho politics.

Bottom line: if Amazon moved to Tucson, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, it could potentially flip those states to blue in 2020.  A Boise move would come close to flipping the state, falling short by 40,000 votes.  And a move to Kansas City, Nashville or Austin would chip away at Republican voter leads in those states by the following: one-third in Missouri, one-quarter in Tennessee, and one-fifth in Texas.

So for those who care about politics, Amazon’s move could have a significant effect on the 2020 election (not to mention House and Senate races, which would need to be covered in a different post).

Now that’s the kind of prime delivery that would make Democrats happy.

How To Pay For Energy Efficiency Retrofits — Evening Event At Berkeley Law On Thursday, September 21st

California has ambitious goals to make our existing buildings more energy efficient, through improvements such as wall and ceiling insulation and efficient appliances and fixtures.  We simply cannot meet our long-term climate goals without more progress on this front.

But these smart investments require upfront money, and it’s not clear yet how the state can make easy financing available.  As SB 350 (De Leon, 2015) requires California to double the energy efficiency of existing buildings by 2030, large-scale private sector investment will be critical to financing these energy retrofits.

Join UC Berkeley and UCLA Law for an evening event at UC Berkeley Law on Thursday, September 21st, from 5-7pm to discuss these issues:

Keynote Address: Commissioner Andrew McAllister, California Energy Commission

Panel Presentations:

  • Carmen Best, Independent Energy Efficiency Advisor & former California Public Utilities Commission supervisor
  • Cisco DeVries, Founder and CEO, Renew Financial Group LLC
  • Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

Following up on our 2016 report from the two law schools, Powering the Savings, these speakers will focus on what metering technologies and new policies will be needed to unlock this large-scale financing.  We’ll cover recent innovations, new policies, and promising success stories on metered energy efficiency that the state can build on to achieve these ambitious and necessary climate and energy goals.

Please RSVP today as space is limited.  If you can’t attend in person, you can also livestream the event (registration required).   Hope to see you there!

Webinar: Net Economic Impacts Of California’s Major Climate Programs On The Inland Empire, Tuesday Sept. 12th At 10am

Following the state legislature’s landmark approval extending California’s cap-and-trade program through 2030 by a supermajority vote, Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & The Environment (CLEE) and our research partners have completed the first comprehensive, academic study of the economic effects of existing climate and clean energy policies in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

Together with UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, and working with the nonpartisan nonprofit Next 10, the study found that between 2010 to 2016 the Inland Empire received:

  • an estimated net benefit of $9.1 billion in direct economic activity and
  • 41,000 net direct jobs, some of which are permanent and ongoing and many of which resulted from one-time construction investments.

Join the report authors as we discuss our findings on a webinar next Tuesday.  We’ll cover the impact of cap and trade, the renewables portfolio standard, distributed solar policies and energy efficiency programs and their effects on the Inland Empire’s economy to date and going forward, as well as what these findings mean for other regions of the state and beyond.

In addition to yours truly, the webinar will feature:

  • Betony Jones, UC Berkeley Labor Center 
  • F. Noel Perry, Next 10

The webinar will run from 10 to 11am on Tuesday, September 12th.  Register now to join the discussion!

Next Page