August 27, 2009

Taking the Fun Out of Fighting Global Warming

It is a rare spectacle when broadly respected national organizations and analysts condemn an initiative by some of the most influential players in the Washington establishment. Yet that is exactly what has happened to the Moving Cooler report, authored by the consulting firm Cambridge Systematics, published by the Urban Land Institute and sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

Forcible Removal: Moving Cooler proposes a radical agenda to reduce greenhouse gas emissions pushing people out of their cars, whether forcibly or by making it so expensive they can no longer drive as much as they need to. Moving Cooler would employ such measures as charging home owners up to $400 annually to park in front of their own houses, placing tolls on now-free interstate highways (up to $0.05 per mile by next year) and pushing as much as 90 percent of future development into existing urban footprints, in the vain hope that cutting driving would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a similar amount. In fact, as traffic congestion increases in more densified urban areas, the one-to-one relationship between reduced driving and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is materially diminished.

More Huddled Masses: If this plan, endorsed by at least some in the Administration, occurs densification policies would impose urban growth boundaries and other restrictive regulations. Planning decisions would be removed from counties, cities, towns and villages to regional planning organizations forced to implement federal mandates as a condition of receiving back federal funding, most of which had been taken from their own taxpayers.

These restrictions would force up to 125,000,000 new residents into existing neighborhoods many of whose residents probably think are already crowded enough. Think of it as adding as many people as live and Mexico and Guatemala, without allowing urban areas to expand. All of this would worsen traffic congestion, lengthen travel times for those who can still afford to drive and severely intensify the unhealthful local air pollution that the nation has fought so successfully to reduce over the past four decades. More...

Ignoring Productivity: Alan Pisarski, author of the acclaimed “Commuting in America” series and one of the most respected names in transportation policy issued a cutting indictment on these pages.. For example, Pisarski notes that Moving Cooler does not count travel times, “so shifting from a 15 minute car trip to an hour on transit or walking has no penalty.” In a world where time and productivity are inextricably associated, lost time is lost time, whether in a car, in transit or walking. In the broader economy, lost time is lost jobs, lost income and lost economic productivity.

Misleading Policymakers? C. Kenneth Orski, whose career has included assignments at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and as Associate Administrator at the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (now the Federal Transit Administration) reported in Innovation Briefs that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), an original member of the Moving Cooler coalition, walked away from the study, saying that Moving Cooler overstates the greenhouse gas emissions that can be realistically expected from its strategies, underestimates the potential of more fuel efficient cars and telecommuting and minimizes the returns from improved transportation operations and car pooling, which are already yielding “remarkable” results. AASHTO further charged that the Moving Cooler report “did not produce results upon which decision-makers can rely.” In the polite world (really) of Washington transportation policy, these are damning words indeed.
According to Orski, researchers provided AASTHO with a litany of criticisms including findings that Moving Cooler relied on “assumptions that are not plausible,” analysis that was “flawed and incomplete” and an “invalid” peer review process. Costs were characterized as “incomplete and misleading,” greenhouse gas emission results were “not comparable or plausible” and “many assumptions are extreme, unrealistic and in some cases, downright impossible.” Moving Cooler was dismissed because of its “Heroic assumptions about land use and travel behavior and extraordinary pricing do not come close to the GHG reductions needed by 2050.”

Orski himself characterized the report as containing “flawed analysis and unrealistic assumptions that could mislead policymakers and the public and raise unreasonable expectations about how much progress can be achieved using these strategies.”

There is plenty of reason to be concerned. Already Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) had introduced legislation that would require annual reductions in how much Americans drive. The senators have confused reducing driving with reducing greenhouse gases. They are not the same thing. After all the federal government is dedicating literally billions of dollars to improving vehicle fuel efficiency. The President himself has promised 150 mile per gallon automobiles. There is significant potential for improving the carbon footprint of cars without forcing people to reduce their driving.
Land Use & Transit: Meager Returns: Orski strikes a nerve, especially with respect to the Moving Cooler coalition’s favored policies of densification and transit expansion. Moving Cooler itself produces embarrassingly modest (and probably exaggerated) estimates of the potential for densification and transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Moving Cooler, these combined strategies would reduce greenhouse gas emissions no more than 7 percent from a 2050 base, and woefully short of any meaningful contribution. Not surprisingly, Moving Cooler ignores the fact that banning development on most suitable land around urban areas would raise land prices and thus home prices, a relationship noted by economists from the left, center and right of the spectrum and grudgingly admitted even in smart growth’s most influential advocacy document, The Costs of Sprawl --- 2000.

As the Tomas Rivera Institute said in a report decrying the barriers to home ownership that California’s similarly restrictive land use policies impose on Hispanic and Latino households: “While there is little agreement on the magnitude of the effect of growth controls on home prices, an increase is always the result.” (Note 1).
Transit and High Speed Rail? Cross Them Off the List: Moving Cooler endorses significant expansion of transit service and establishment of high speed rail systems, but its own data speaks to the contrary. The maximum necessary cost for removing a ton of greenhouse gas emissions is $50, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Moving Cooler’s data puts transit expansion at more up to 20 times the $50 standard ($900) and high speed rail at 14 times the standard (more than $700). To put the matter in context, if the nation were to spend as much per ton to reach the Waxman-Markey “Cap and Trade” legislation’s greenhouse gas reduction target, the annual bill would be more than $5 trillion, more than one-third of the gross domestic product of the United States. With all of the talk in Washington about cost control and reducing the budget deficit, such extravagantly expensive strategies like transit expansion and high speed rail should be crossed off the public policy list.

And, indicative of the implausible greenhouse gas results noted by the AASHTO researchers, Moving Cooler excludes the greenhouse gases emitted in construction. This leads one to wonder if there are “good” greenhouse gas emissions (like from building high speed rail) and bad greenhouse gas emissions (like from driving). Construction emissions can be very substantial. For example, it has been reported that construction emissions from proposed high speed rail lines in the United Kingdom would offset any reductions achieved in daily operations compared to airplanes
Incompatible Bedfellows: Pitifully, Moving Cooler attempts to associate itself with a highly respected study by McKinsey & Company and The Conference Board that concludes significant greenhouse gas reductions can be achieved by 2030 at less than $50 per ton. Moving Cooler cites itself as “companion piece” Yet, the McKinsey/Conference Board study specifically rejects the high-handed social engineering proposed by Moving Cooler, indicating that its strategies would involve “maintaining comparable levels of consumer utility,” which they defined as: “no change in thermostat settings or appliance use, no downsizing of vehicles, home or commercial space and traveling the same mileage annually relative to levels assumed in the government reference case” (Note 2).

The Mantra: Moving Cooler chants a mantra about how automobile fuel efficiency will improve, but that continued growth in driving will largely cancel out those gains. However, to do so Moving Cooler lumps automobile and other light-duty vehicle data in with railroads, trucks and buses.

In fact, the Energy Information Administration of the US Department of Energy projects a 13 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and other light-duty vehicles by 2030, and that is before accounting for the more stringent fuel economy standards adopted by the Obama Administration a few months ago. Further, Moving Cooler buries its laughingly ineffective and expensive policy favorites, smart growth, transit expansion and high speed rail, among a panoply of other strategies that would account for the “lion’s share” of the emission reductions it anticipates.
The Real Agenda? As Pisarski indicated: Maybe the saddest part of it all, the authors appear not to take global warming or energy security very seriously at all. Rather these public concerns are just a convenient hook, the cause du jour, on which to hang their favorite solutions. Given this apparent reality, it is probably not surprising that two of the three Moving Cooler cover pictures are from Europe, which the smart growth movement has worshipped for years.
The Moving Cooler strategies would not only force people to live in ways they would not voluntarily choose, and for scant gain and no reason. Moving Cooler’s radical measures need to be rejected forcefully. There are better, more effective and far less intrusive ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

That would, however, probably take the fun out of fighting global warming for those whose real intent is telling others how to live.

Note 1: “Growth controls” is a synonym for smart growth strategies, such as urban growth boundaries and development impact fees.

Note 2: The 2007 government reference case used by McKinsey and The Conference Board assumed that per capita driving would increase more than 50 percent between 2005 and 2030. Later estimates have reduced that figure.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”

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