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Will San Diego Help Stop Global Warming?


Aired 4/25/11

er train can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But the modest goals of state law and urban planning won't do much to get people out of their cars.

— Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego means getting people out of their cars, and that’s already happening in modest ways. Emily Green, whom I met at the Old Town trolley station, said she typically drives to her job in Little Italy.

"But since gas prices have increased so much I try to take the trolley at least once a week from La Mesa to Little Italy which, including the transfer, is about an hour-long ride," she said.

Nilmini Silva-Send and Scott Anders, of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center ...
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Above: Nilmini Silva-Send and Scott Anders, of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at USD, say state law that governs auto emissions will not reduce greenhouse emissions, it will only reduce their rate of growth.

California has passed legislation to persuade more people to choose transit. Today SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, approved a draft document it hopes will move local citizens in that direction and keep us in compliance with state law. Critics, meanwhile, wonder whether San Diego’s plan is little more than window dressing, given the dramatic greenhouse-gas reductions we need to address global warming.

Gary Gallegos, the executive director of SANDAG, spoke with me recently in his downtown office, which is filled with western memorabilia. Perched next to his desk is the saddle on which he learned to ride a horse. Though he’s become San Diego’s preeminent urban planner, Gallegos grew up on ranches along the Colorado-New Mexico border.

The draft document adopted by the SANDAG board is a Regional Transportation Plan that would spend $196 billion on transportation projects in San Diego between now and 2050. It includes a chapter called the Sustainable Community Strategy to reduce greenhouse gases through urban planning and creation of mass transit.

Gallegos said San Diego is on the right track.

"Many of the things that San Diegans have already been doing are going to help us to achieve the target that's been given to us by the California Air Resources Board," he said.

That target comes from a piece of legislation called SB 375. It says that San Diego must reduce greenhouse gas emissions of cars and light trucks by 7 percent by 2020, and 13 percent by 2035. I asked Gallegos to give me an example of what’s being done to meet those goals and he said San Diego is becoming a denser, less-sprawling community. He said, for instance, that 20 years ago about 80 percent of homes being developed or planned were single-family, and only 20 percent were apartments and condos.

"Those numbers have flipped on us,” said Gallegos. “Today 80 percent of the homes being built and being planned for the future are multifamily housing.”

And then there’s the tremendous amount of money dedicated to buses and trolleys in SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan. Close to one-quarter of the total amount is dedicated to new mass-transit projects. That means double tracking the Coaster commuter train and creating several new trolley lines, for example.

But there are some problems with any rosy scenario of vehicle-mile reductions in our future. While lots of money is planned for San Diego transit projects, those won't be completed until freeways expansions take place ... notably the infamous plan to widen I-5 by six lanes.

Elyse Lowe is the director of Move San Diego, and she said getting people out of their cars won't be easy if you're taking steps to reduce traffic congestion.

"If you put a lot of money into your freeways and make it easier to drive,” she said, “and then do transit and think people are going to choose that, you've really dis-incentivized your transit system."

Here’s another point: The law that mandates greenhouse reductions, SB 375, is not very demanding. The average motorist would only have to drive two fewer miles a day to meet its 2020 standards. The law also doesn't call for absolute reductions in emissions, only per-capita reductions. That means rising populations would wipe out any actual progress.

In fact, an analysis by the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) at the University of San Diego predicts greenhouse emissions from private vehicles will continue to rise between now and 2035, only at a slower rate.

Finally, SB 375 isn't much of a mandate because it has no enforcement mechanism. San Diego won't lose any state funds if it doesn't meet the standards. Nilmini Silva-Send, a policy analyst at EPIC, said recent times have shown us there’s only one sure-fire way to get Americans to drive less.

"You can get reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by increasing the price of gasoline,” she said. “So the question is: Are the targets we're setting at the regional level somehow comparable to a rise in the price of gasoline?"

There is one other thing that reduces greenhouse emissions -- hard times. Greenhouse emissions have dropped since 2007 because of the recession. Nobody wishes for bad times.

But climatologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography tell us emissions must peak and start to decline within this decade if we expect to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and limit environmental damage. That’s a long, hard road that will not be traveled by the modest goals of California state law.

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Avatar for user 'Hopsong'

Hopsong | April 24, 2011 at 1:04 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

One thing San Diego could do to reduce greenhouse gasses better than any place else would be to install solar panels on every rooftop. Why can't we change the rules so that SDG&E has to buy our excess solar power back from us?

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Avatar for user 'WaltBrewer'

WaltBrewer | April 25, 2011 at 2:11 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

RTP2050 was rendered for public comment on Good Friday. A resurrection of long discarded mass transit is unlikely however.

It is a fantasy in mid 21st century to expect inconvenient 19th century concept buses and trolleys to replace autos’ overwhelmingly choice early in the early 20th century. This nation’s technology can do much better.

It is a fantasy that RTP2050’s increased congestion by over 20% and 15% reduction in average auto speeds will coerce citizens to nearly double mass transit use.

After spending about 50% of the $196 billion and using valuable land for saturation of San Diego’s developed area for mass transit, and so called sustainable communities, daily travel by autos is still over 90%. So why don’t we just concentrate on the demonstrated feasible auto improvements? That’s where about 80% of the GHG and energy improvement in RTP 2050 come from anyway.

Autos are already at least at par with mass transit for saving energy and greenhouse gases. The 25% improvement for autos that starts in 2016 is only the beginning of feasible ways to cut auto’s energy and GHG to half current values. That preserves on demand direct to destination personal transportation citizens have demanded for decades.

But somehow leaders and activists can't seem to absorb the lesson after trying unsuccessfully for 25 years to reincarnate mass transit: transportation is not an end in itself. Mobility is the important part of the Region's productivity, and requires the on demand fast direct to destination travel provided by autos.

Instead we have slogans about “coercing the public from cars” and emotional arm waving about those nasty freeways’ impact on health and quality of life. No rationale or replacement that preserves mobility and social travel preferences. Projected daily traffic growth alone in about three years is greater than mass transit’s tiny share.

RTP 2050 boasts of offering choices; travel mode choices that is. We can’t afford them. Long ago citizens overwhelmingly made the critical choice for the productive personal transportation autos provide.

But indeed looking down the road, there is a bigger choice offered by the comment period before it is too late:
1), Embrace higher energy and GHG savings with “greener” but smaller and lighter autos in residential and industrial developments reflecting marketplace determined densities as population increases 40%. That requires RTP 2050 significant mass transit reduction away from nearly 50% to concentrate on its core support for non drivers, and limiting additions to a few dense destination pairs where commuting can be provided efficiently. Or,
2), Live with RTP2050’s permanent long term congestion, lower speeds, and tolls to discourage solo driving. Modify lifestyles for many in mass transit oriented developments of multiple residential-industrial purpose buildings.

The report and instructions for comment are at 2050.

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Avatar for user 'appledude'

appledude | April 25, 2011 at 4:19 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

The people have spoken again and again - including me! Quit trying to get me out of my car! We have done so much over the years for "the environment" - I chose a 6 cylinder Mustang instead of an 8 when I bought my 99 - the engines are so much cleaner than that of the 66 Chrysler I remember - which already had some pollution control devices on it - though not much. I give people rides frequently home from work, look at rolling resistance when buying tires, drive slowly on the freeway when practical (no one else around) -
I also question the "savings" on the mass transit bottomless financial pit - how many people are riding, and what is the cost of operation? The cost of fare keeps going up and up - yet when I have tried riding "mass transit" it simply sucks! It takes forever to get anywhere you need to go - is not comfortable with all of the starting and stopping - and I don't feel safe.
One of the the greatest things about America is supposed to be freedom - when I read old AAA mags about what travel used to be like in the early 1900's, I value greatly the freedom of the open road, and being able to get from one end of San Diego county to another fairly quickly.
When I purchase a car again, gas mileage will definitely be a factor - if I stay in California, my next car may well be a hybrid. I would love to see bike lanes in the towns and cities which are totally separate from car traffic - when I have time I don't mind walking in town to places. But we the American people have spoken, we love our cars, they are much more efficient than the used to be, so much less pollution than they used to emit - and we are going to be forced into mass-hell - I mean, mass-transit!

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | April 26, 2011 at 8:38 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

To reduce global warming is to first change attitudes about how we live, part of that can be through education, and the other through the force of the cost to continue operating in the world the way we already doing.

Cars are becoming more efficient and cleaner because the people want that, at least more people seem to be wanting that. I'm still suprised however at the number of large trucks and gas guzzlers that pass me by with only one person in them. Of course whenever you mention someone's mode of transportation their hackles go up and they get really defensive. They feel it's their "right" or somehow their identity.

But I for one would really prefer that we were not dependent on energy from the Middle East. I feel by reducing our energy usage from there we are not only cleaning up our environment (if we made better choices) but also working for our own national defense. So being greener is not only smarter - to me it's also very patriotic.

Of course to be fair no matter how clean or efficent cars become that won't solve San Diego's congestion. Even widening roads only works for a while and then they become more congested than before the improvements - another subject I guess.

San Diego wasn't planned out well as a place to live and work. I can think of many places I've been that were, Portland Oregon for example, Singapore, Tokyo.. and many others. But if you've never had that experience and not willing to investigate it, you tend to just accept that things are as good as they can be.

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Avatar for user 'brixsy'

brixsy | April 26, 2011 at 9:55 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Cars spew CO2, require the paving over of nature for parking lots and roads, use up massive amounts of resources to make, worsen air quality... I could go on. By using cars, we are putting people in nations prone to climate change in danger; we might literally be taking their lives just to get to our destination quicker. No one should not feel entitled to their use as if it's their right; that just seems so brash and self-entitled when you consider all the harm that comes to society (see above). Traffic will keep piling up, no matter how wide you expand the freeways. We need to make public transit more pleasant, and NOT invest in car travel. We have spent trillions of dollars to please drivers of cars, in infrastructure, etc... That is quite enough money sunk into such a wasteful and polluting method of travel.

People need to see that driving is not sustainable, so if freeway expansion is frozen, and traffic jams become a regular thing, people will take the trolley / bus. Of course, provided that we get our organizations coordinated and actually make a workable system, instead of the usual half-a**ed effort.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | April 28, 2011 at 11:20 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

The conversation here seems to focus on whether our choice of car transportation is inevitable and should form the basis of strategies to reduce global warming. I personally doubt that we can maintain a system of individual transportation, such as we have, and not do tremendous harm to the environment. Even if (let's imagine) we can shift all cars to use non-fossil fuels, you still have the environmental problems mentioned by Brixsy... parking lots and roads taking over our urban environments and the many environmental impacts that entails. You can't shame people into taking mass transit or walking if they don't want to. But our choice seems to be either government intervention to get people out of their cars (a carbon tax?) or some dramatic event like the total depletion of petroleum reserves or the kind of disastrous environmental damage that is impossible to ignore. Individual freedom is what America's about, but you do have to pay a price if you want to continue environmental damage. That's simple economics.

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