Monday, August 4, 2008

Oregon fighting climate change (someone tell ODOT!)

The more Oregon takes positions like this, the harder it is going to be to justify letting ODOT pretend that it's still 1960 and that the solution to all problems is more of the same (more pavement, more lanes, and more bridges).

"Mobility Standards" -- the genetic code of the traffic planner determined to destroy livable places

One of the smartest things said yet in the discussion of the idea for a third Willamette River Bridge comes from Doug Parrow, a local bicycle activist and member of the "Willamette River Crossing Task Force."
The Oregon Transportation (read Highway) Plan was showing its age on the day it was adopted. While the plan lays out a number of sound-good, multi-modal concepts, implementation of the plan has fundamentally been limited to widening roads. The state Highway Department (I deliberately decline to refer to them as Transportation oriented) has employed the one tool that they consider legitimate--the construction of more lanes and new roads--in pursuit of the mobility standard described in the plan. When these "improvements" are plopped down in an urban environment, all other modes of transportation inevitably suffer. In particular, pedestrians must deal with wider streets and the impossibility of safely crossing at unsignalized intersections. Bicyclists must cross multiple turn lanes if they intend to continue straight through an intersection.

The Willamette River Crossing study serves as a sterling example. I serve on the task force that is providing advice to the effort. During the two years since the inception of the study, the task force has been fed a variety of big bridge configurations that are designed to achieve the mobility standard based on 20-year projections of motor vehicle traffic. According to the planning team, the only way to accomplish this is through the construction of a huge bridge at an enormous cost that would connect to city streets using a maze of freeway style ramps. Only recently, with preparation of a draft-EIS already underway, has the project team begun to develop a low-build, multi-modal alternative. It is hard to imagine that, at this point in the process, the alternative will be anything more than a straw man. Further, even the "no-build" alternative that is in play contemplates that significant "improvements" will be made under the Salem TSP. These "improvements" involve widening roads and the construction of dedicated turn lanes that will inevitably damage walking and bicycling.

The public subsidy that is provided to motor vehicles is enormous. The gas tax would have to be increased to more than $3.50 per gallon to cover the full costs to the highway system of the use of motor vehicles. Local governments have tried to make up the difference using property taxes and system develop charges, neither of which recognize the transportation mode choices that the people paying these taxes make, or send the appropriate price signal to those people. Given the subsidy, some form of rationing is necessary to compensate for the imbalance of supply and demand. A bsent the political willingness to adopt appropriate transportation pricing strategies, we have effectively defaulted to using congestion as the rationing mechanism.

It will be interesting to see how congestion pricing and tolls play at the legislature. To what extent will the public, in particular the trucking industry, be able and willing to substantially increase the amount they pay to use the road system? The percentage of household income spent on transportation has been historically been increasing. It can't continue to do so indefinitely. We are already seeing significant changes in the transportation choices that people are making as a result of the increases in fuel costs to date. We haven't really experienced the effects of peak oil and global warming on prices yet. Given recent legislative history, I suspect that the current path of shifting transportation funding away from a mileage/use based approach toward general taxation will prevail, to the detriment of the planning and delivery of an efficient transportation system.

Certainly the Governor's announced plans are encouraging. However, the way in which the plans are implemented by the agencies is what really matters and the state Highway Department is continuing to redraw 4-lane lines using 6-lane pens in a fruitless and doomed effort to achieve the elusive mobility standard.

Doug Parrow

The waiting calamity

(h/t to Jerry Schneider for pointing this out)

Clip from EV World, written by editor Bill Moore, who attended.

Meeting of the Minds

The 2008 Meeting of the Minds conference wrapped up today here in Portland, Oregon with a sobering assessment of the road head by Toyota's self-proclaimed "grumpy old man," Bill Reinert.

Bill and his colleagues at Toyota -- and their contracted consultants -- have been crunching the numbers on oil depletion, unconventional liquid fuels and water availability and reached a consensus that the planet is going to hit "liquid peak" by around 2018.

What is "liquid peak," you ask?

That's when every conceivable form of liquid fuel -- from petroleum to coal-to-liquid to biofuels -- when produced flat-out without any concern or regard for their environmental impact simply can't keep up with growing global demand. In effect, the planet will have run into an energy wall where current technology and policy simply won't cut it any longer. We either turn to other energy sources or we stop growing.

Reinert's graph-laden, lunch-time talk -- "warming" might be a more appropriate term -- put in starker terms what other expert panelists and presenters were saying during the two-day conclave at the Portland Art Museum: that time is of the essence, dramatic changes are needed, requiring enormous political courage, and the world ahead is going to be radically different from the one in which we presently find ourselves.

For example, <>Tim Barnett from the Scripts Institute forecast during the opening day's luncheon keynote speech a 50% chance that Lake Mead will be dry by as early as 2021. As a consequence, much of the American Southwest is going to see a migration towards water, meaning north -- or vast projects to move water from the north. Life in cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix could well be untenable, certainly growth will be brought to a standstill. Without the water behind Lake Mead, there will be no electric power generation, effecting millions of homes and businesses in the Southwest.

Attendees heard numerous references to "peak oil", as well as climate change and the impact these and population growth are having our communities. Increasingly, policy makers, architects, planners and developers are starting to awaken to reality of what has been for many of them just so much theory.

This year, the question of logistics began to be raised. While most of us tend to think in terms of the challenge of switching over to better, cleaner, more efficient cars, they will, in fact, be moot points if there is no sustainable system in place to move the goods that feed the people, much less build the cars. If we can't quickly evolve a more energy efficient logistics system, cities themselves will become unsustainable.

The upside of this is that the people who can make a difference at the grassroots level are starting to recognize the challenges ahead -- hopefully in time. While the federal government seems hopelessly mired in a past that no longer can be maintained, local, county and state/provincial governments are starting to openly discuss these critical issues. Granted, not all of them are and at times, it seems most still haven't a clue there's a tsunami headed our way.

Planning and tax policy are calcified and risk averse at a time when what we need is unparalleled agility and nimbleness that can take risks, quickly learn from mistakes, and adapt.

If there is a model city for that approach, it is Portland. It's far from perfect and nowhere near sustainable, but it's the best model we have, and I am glad my wife and I got to spend a few days exploring it before, during and after the conference.

Watch for future MP3 and video from the Meeting of the Minds conference, especially Bill Reinert's remarkably candid talk.

Volt Death Watch

Anyone who knows Bill, realizes he's not shy about expressing his opinion, be it good or ill. Apparently, his mother never taught him the axion, "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all."

But I like that quality in Bill. We need guys like him to keep us all honest.

So, here are four of his juicer, off-the-cuff remarks to me during the conference.

* Forget trying to get people to charge their cars only during night-time off-peak hours. It isn't going to work; not being able to charge during the day limits the usefulness of the vehicle. In Reinert's pragmatic -- law of thermodynamics world -- utilities are going to have to realize this and adapt, which in my mind means solar and lots of it.

* Even more controversially, he told me there's a "death watch" taking place within Toyota on the Telsa Whitestar, Fisker Karma and... here it comes... Chevy Volt. He -- and apparently his colleagues -- don't think any of them will be built in any significant numbers. The batteries are just too costly. The Whitestar is particularly vulnerable, he explained to me, because Tesla is seeking to double the duty demands on the battery while halving the price of the car. That's a "company killer" in his view.

* He informed me that "you're on the right track" on the lithium supply question, adding that Toyota is working air battery chemistries, including zinc-air -- which William Tahil has been touting for sometime now.

* Finally, he smiled when I talked about the alleged spy photos of the new Prius that are emerging. He said they look a lot like the current Prius because they are the current Prius. They are test mules for the new Prius, nothing more.