Monday, March 07, 2016

Viewing local transportation plans through the lens of Climate Change

When asked most folks in the Rochester region would not give up their personal vehicles regardless: “Nothing will replace my car as my main mode of transportation.”(Page 11, Long Range Transportation Plan 2040 (LRTP)). And while public input is important for Genesee Transportation Council’s (GTC)’s plan, the LRTP is funded by the federal government. This is not to suggest that what the public wants right now from its transportation system is much different from the goals of the LRTP, only that the federal government rules:

“Absent a change in priorities at the Federal and State levels, fiscal constraint dictates that we maintain the existing condition and performance of our most crucial assets as best we can, manage the decline of less critical assets and structures without compromising safety, and implement limited expansions whenever feasible.” (Page 5, LRTP)

‘Existing condition’ above is meant to mean our present transportation system—thousands of miles of asphalt/concrete roads and bridges. All created and driven by fossil fuels. But by 2040 our present transportation system could be under a great threat by Climate Change. There will be more flooding, more traffic, and more frequent congestion due to more extreme weather, which in turn will be due to probable increases in lake-effect snowstorms caused by Climate Change. Cold, moist air crossing warmer water from an ice-free Great Lakes will probably produce more stormageddons. In fairness to the present LRTP, the consequences of Climate Change are already baked into the planning.

“In addition, these opportunities represent the ability of the transportation system to meet the challenges of sustainability and climate change adaptation through the use of new materials and design elements that were not available when the facilities were first built or last reconstructed.” (Page 19, LRTP)

However, in a time of Climate Change we must reconsider our priorities. Maybe we ought to think about changing our priorities so that our long-range transportation plans are in sync with a rapidly changing climate. Because Climate Change at the core is a problem of physics, adapting and mitigating to this human-caused new normal in our climate will increasingly rise to the top of our concerns. Extreme damages caused by more frequently occurring extreme weather will quickly overcome our ability to cope. This means we may have to rapidly view all of our planning through the lens of Climate Change. That includes our transportation system.

One of the problems with the LRTP is that it continually sets the table for our present transportation system at the exclusion of other possible transportation alternatives. (It’s not their fault; it’s their mandate at this point.) This means that when we focus our finances and infrastructures on a system that is heavily indebted to fossil fuels, we threaten our ability to shift quickly to another system that isn’t going to warm our planet. Throwing millions, perhaps billions, of dollars into fixing old roads and bridges in order to make them more resilient to extreme weather means you don’t have the means to create a new, more adaptable system, nor an inclination to do so. 

Let me put this another way. This is a quote from the same folks providing money for our region’s long-term planning, our federal government.

Besides being affected by climate changes, transportation systems also contribute to changes in the climate through emissions. In 2010, the U.S. transportation sector accounted for 27% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and trucks accounting for 65% of that total. Petroleum accounts for 93% of the nation’s transportation energy use. This means that policies and behavioral changes aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have significant implications for the various components of the transportation sector. (National Climate Assessment: Transportation.

Our present transportation system is a major cause of Climate Change and at the same time will be greatly threaten by Climate Change. We have a tiger by the tail. We have latched on to a transportation system that will do us in if we don’t find a way to get off it.

If we look at our present transportation system through the lens of Climate Change, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be doubling-down on a system that is doomed and dangerous to our collective existence. If we put all our eggs into one basket, that is, if we put all our monies and efforts into preserving this transportation system, we do so at the exclusion of developing a more climate-friendly system. That is because we’ll run out of time and money to revamp the entire system on a scale necessary to adapt. Remember, we aren’t even properly maintaining the system we have, let alone trying to develop another system that will be in compliance with what we predict about our climate.

Report gives NY's roads, bridges poor grades A C-minus grade is nothing to brag about. But that's the overall assessment earned by New York's infrastructure systems — sewers, bridges and roads, public parks and solid waste — according to the state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The group released its inaugural Infrastructure Report Card during a press conference Tuesday at the Blue Cross Arena. "One-third of New York's major highways are considered to be in poor or fair condition ... creating crippling congestion and climbing operating costs," according to the report card, which gave the state's road network a D-minus. "New York City-area drivers, accounting for half the state's population, each waste 53 hours per year just sitting in traffic." The organization gave New York Ds for its bridges, roads and wastewater. The state's aviation, drinking water, dams and transit systems earned Cs, and its parks and solid waste systems earned Bs. (September 30, 2015) Rochester Democrat and Climate Change

If our present transportation infrastructure is so bad, what other system could we develop? Good question because there is no easy answer. In our present system, even if you choose to bike, or use an electric car that uses renewable energy to charge your batteries, you still need millions of miles of asphalt (fossil-fuel created) roads.

Even if we were to move to another system not dependent on our present roads and bridges, we would still have to maintain our present system until we are ready to shift to another system. We still need to get around the way we are now until we can get around in some other fashion.

OK, you’re waiting for my magical solution that will solve our transportation/climate issues but..., I don’t have one. Sorry, I know, it’s not fashionable to present a major problem without coming up with a major solution.

Even if I did have a solution, most folks would resist it anyway because they have no intention of giving up their vehicles. They are going to expect that the system that keeps their vehicles moving now to be maintained by their government.

If we move quickly and dramatically to a public transportation system—more buses, high speed rail, light rail, and the like—all this will do is decrease the amount of traffic on our existing roads and bridges. This more favorable than business as usual but it won’t solve the fundamental problem. This, of course, is because these transportation options do not arrive at your home—or anybody else’s. We would still need to be able to walk and bike on something from our homes to whatever system we developed. These measures to lessen our impact on our existing system will buy us time. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are already doing these things with minimal effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

Back in the 1950’s some folks were thinking everyone would have helicopters instead of road vehicles. This might work if helicopters weren’t out of the price range of all but the very rich, and if our air traffic issues wouldn’t soon overwhelm us. Drones aren’t going to work either. However smart and cheap we make them, they are still going to fill our skies if everyone has one. 

Many experts say we can do a lot more to make our present transportation system less vulnerable to Climate Change and less likely to contribute to this warming crisis. We can use active transportation (walking and bicycling) for short distances—about 6.5 miles, which constitutes most of our personal driving. We could increase fuel efficiency; increase gasoline taxes, increase public transportation, decrease building in the suburbs, car pool, and many other things to lighten the carbon footprint of our present transportation system. It is possible that we could change our attitudes about traveling, like conducting online meet-ups instead of meeting in person. Maybe we could send our transportation system deep underground, a newfangled subway or something, where its carbon emissions and environmental disruptions could be better controlled. 

But remember (again), when given a choice most folks will drive their own vehicles, thank you very much. While in Portland, Oregon recently I couldn’t help noticing how many cars clogged the streets in a city that represents one of our country’s most advanced public and active transportation options. Although a lot of folks in Portland could live without a car, they don’t.  

This would seem to settle the case: we have the transportation system we have and so we just have to make this one work as well as we can in a warming world. It’s probably what we will do given our penchant for Freedom at any cost. Even if that’s suicidal.  

But we should ask ourselves, if we properly viewed our future through the lens of Climate Change, instead of the way we would like things to be, how would we plan our transportation system? Just maintaining and making our existing transportation system more resilient seems more like someone making due with a house that keeps blowing over in a windstorm than actually dealing with the problem.

Some guidelines on making a dramatic transformation in transportation might be useful. As developing nations develop, the developed nations could help developing nations leapfrog over our transportation system—like cellphones have eliminated the need for telephone poles and other telecommunications infrastructures. This would curb the worldwide contribution of more carbon emissions from transportation and encourage new enterprises without having to tear down an old system. We could build our cities so that they better accommodate active transportation instead of gas-guzzlers.

We could do a lot of things if we were ready to give up our vehicles, or at least entertain the idea if viable solutions came up. We should at least be willing to lessen the impact of our transportation system on our fragile, troubled planet.

BTW: You have until March 18th to send your comments on how to make our present transportation system safer and more efficient. Please consider mentioning your ideas on transportation in the light of a warmer world, a world where 2040 shouldn’t bring all our present infrastructures to a grinding halt. 

Long Range Transportation Plan 2040 A safe, efficient, reliable transportation system isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. Making the most of the limited resources we have requires thoughtful planning. The Long Range Transportation Plan for the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region 2040 (LRTP 2040) will identify the direction for the region’s transportation system and serve as the framework for future planning and investment through 2040.   The LRTP 2040 Public Review Document provides an introduction to the LRTP 2040 planning processes, includes a summary of customer engagement feedback, a financial analysis with revenues and costs, and draft recommendations based on regional needs and customer feedback. Genesee Transportation Council 

No comments: