Wrestling with climate and transportation; two events on unblocking climate transportation progress

Next week May 16th and 17th, there are two events about how we can catch up and make progress on addressing the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions – transportation.    Learn more in person at the events, and read for context on how California and local cities are wrestling with this issue.

Synchronizing Climate and Transportation Plans
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the region and the state. What transportation strategies make it harder to reduce GHGs, and what can help?  Come learn and discuss how can we make better decisions today that support a sustainable future.

Billy Riggs, University of San Francisco
Michael Boswell, California Polytechnic State University
Gil Friend, City of Palo Alto

Wednesday, May 16, 6-7:30pm
Palo Alto Morrison & Foerster (MOFO)
755 Page Mill Road, Palo Alto
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Electric Vehicles for EVeryone
How is California accelerating the transition from polluting, fossil fuel cars to electric vehicles? Come learn about charging stations and infrastructure, what cars and trucks are available, saving money by going electric, and how everyone can benefit from the growth of electric vehicles.

John Supp, Silicon Valley Clean Energy
Mark Tang, Bay Area Air Quality Management District
Janelle London,  Colutura
Shyam Nagrani, MotivPower
Moderator: Diane Bailey, Menlo Spark

Thursday, May 17th, 6:30-8pm
Redwood City Library
1044 Middlefield Road, Redwood City
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Stuck in place on Transportation

California is a leader on climate progress, and has been making impressive gains in clean energy adoption. But on transportation, including in the Bay Area, we have been falling behind, and most of the transportation emissions are generated by private cars.


Local cities – Palo Alto case study

The bigger picture in California (see graph) is echoed in our local cities, with transportation emissions stalled.

Palo Alto is one of many cities in the area that have analyze their carbon emissions and developed a “Sustainability/Climate Action Plan.”

According to Palo Alto’s analysis, road travel accounts for 66% of the city’s Community-wide Greenhouse Gas emissions (see chart below).  

Palo Alto has an ambitious goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHGs) emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and the city has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions an estimated 43 percent in 2017 from the 1990 baseline.


However, as with the state overall, city has not yet made much progress on transportation GHG emissions.


According to Gil Friend, Palo Alto’s Chief Sustainability Officer, the Palo Office of Sustainability has assessed that in-commuting accounts for 80% of the city’s commute trips, and outbound commuting represents 20% of commute trips, given Palo Alto’s high share of in-commuting.

(Pass-through commute trips, for example, on highway 101 through Palo Alto but not stopping, aren’t counted in the city’s assessment.) For broader regional accounting of climate emissions, a 50/50 split is used between in-commuting and out-commuting. However, individual cities have differing shares of jobs and employed residents; and so assessing the local balance of commuting is important to craft strategies to reduce those emissions.

Based on Palo Alto’s assessment, says Friend, “we are prioritizing two moves to reduce vehicle related emissions: reduce single occupant vehicle travel, and supporting electric vehicles (through education, charging infrastructure, and vehicle incentives)

To address the transportation greenhouse gas emissions, the city has strategies to reduce single occupant driving. The city’s transportation management association is having good early success downtown, and is planning to expand to the California avenue area.


The city also has strategies to encourage electric vehicles by adding more charging stations in public spaces and multi-family housing.


Balancing transportation modes

Recently, Palo Alto City Council decided to increase the cost of employee parking permits, and to use the revenue to fund transportation management association programs to reduce driving, especially for low-income workers.   This is a strong strategy to rebalance incentives to use sustainable transportation. Historically, vehicle parking has been heavily subsidized, while people who work in service occupations and in smaller companies have not been provided with the transportation benefits that help workers reduce driving.

However, at the same time, the city is planning to provide a higher level of funding to add new parking garages in the California Avenue and Downtown areas.  A coalition of sustainability groups has been urging the city to explore cost-effective means to reduce driving, ahead of building costly new structured parking.


Jobs, housing, and commute challenges

Land use poses a number of challenge with strategies to reduce emissions. Palo Alto has many more jobs than employed residents, with about 90,000 people commuting to Palo Alto, and about 30,000 employed residents.


Recent environmental studies in the region consistently predict that adding more housing near jobs is likely to reduce driving and GHG per person. For example, when Menlo Park considered adding housing near Facebook’s HQ, the option with more homes was predicted to generate fewer vehicle miles per person. Similarly, when Brisbane was considering various scenarios for development on the Baylands, the versions that had housing near jobs generated less VMT and GHG.


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Palo Alto’s recently adopted Comprehensive Plan calls for adding 3,500-4,400 new homes near transit and jobs.  However, Palo Alto continues to envision jobs growing faster than housing, with 3 million square feet of office space (including 1.3 million previously authorized with Stanford University Medical Center), which would host 12,000 or more jobs.   In Coastal California overall overall a deep housing shortage is a big contributor to the state’s climate transportation challenges. 

Also, Palo Alto has recently extended an office space cap focused on the transit-served areas downtown, at California Avenue, and on El Camino, while leaving the more highway-oriented Stanford Research Park without a growth cap. Stanford Research Park does have a transportation demand management program and is working to reduce commute trips. However, the area is further from regional transit, and offers fully subsidized parking for commuters, unlike Stanford campus and downtown Palo Alto. Thus, office growth is being steered to an area that has a higher driving rate. 

Since so many of the vehicle trips are in-commuting, with most of the low-to-middle income workforce commuting into Palo Alto, it is particularly difficult for Palo Alto to influence EV purchases by lower-income people who live elsewhere.

These land use issues add challenges to Palo Alto’s goals to reduce transportation emissions.

This blog post is getting long, so we’ll pick up on Mountain View, Sunnyvale and San Jose in a separate blog post.

To dive into these questions – how can we impact the large and worsening greenhouse gas emissions from transportation – and how our cities and regional advocacy efforts can help – please do come join us in Palo Alto on May 16 and Redwood City on May 17.