Saturday, December 27, 2008

What Chicago can't do

Chicago, striving to become a “green” city, has just made it very difficult to deliver green transportation options. By selling off -- I mean “leasing” – every single one of its 36,000 parking meters for some fast cash, Chicago can no longer do what other forward-thinking cities have done.

While it might be buried in the fine print of hundreds of pages of the lease contact, it would appear that for the next 75 years, the city cannot remove metered parking to:

• Create dedicated bus lanes (see New York City plans), or trolley lines (Charlotte NC).
• Allocate spaces for car sharing vehicles (see Washington DC and Boston) or bicycle parking (see Portland, Oregon, New York City plans, Paris)
• Create bike lanes (Paris, Portland, New York)
• Make pedestrian-only retail districts

Here is what the deal means for parkers (My comments are in italics):

• Quadrupling of meter costs in two-thirds of the city's meters over the next five years, from 25 cents/hour to $2/hour by 2013.

• Meter rates in the downtown Loop will rise from $3/hour to $6.50/hour over that same time period. Parking meters are generally underpriced across the country so I agree that these likely should be raised.

• Future rate increases (in years 5 through 75) will need to be approved by the city. It would seem that the city alderman needed to hide behind this lease, in order to get these first price increases done. What is the likelihood that they will be able to approve price increases in those later years when they aren’t shielded by the big bolus of cash upfront? nor get a piece of the increased revenue stream?

Here is how the city intends to spend the $1.16b it will receive in cash for the deal:

• $325m to balance the budget over the next 4 years ($50m 2009; $100m 2010)
• $324m for budget “stabilization” for budget gaps. These two added together mean that $649m of the money will be spent almost immediately, leaving the remaining 70 years of this lease without any benefit to the residents of Chicago.

• $400m will be put into a long-term account generating $20m in revenues annually, to “cover” the usual amount of revenues generated by the parking meters. Do we really believe that $20m/year will equal the expected annual revenue from parking meters 15 years from now? How about 30, 45, or 75 years from now?

• $100m in human infrastructure. Not clear what this is. Note that none of the money raised from this parking sale went toward improving transportation infrastructure in the city.

There are several things that really bother me about these deals:

1. Can’t we produce politicians or a public that can accept rises in parking rates without having to hide behind a privatization deal? In both cases there is an increase in fees, but in the privatization deals we lose flexibility over the asset and the management fee that goes to the private sector company, a much worse deal for citizens.

2. Assuming the city is desperate for an upfront lump of cash, isn’t it common for banks to loan money on the back of a guaranteed future revenue stream that is collateralized by an asset? Why the 75 year leases? It just doesn’t seem right to mortgage future generations for our quick fix today – politically easier yes, but not right.

3. And most egregious, is the loss of network control and flexibility over the asset. This parking deal has effectively locked up street use for the entire city of Chicago for the next 75 years! Forget about closing some streets to traffic (as has been done in cities the world over). Forget about changing the use of specific streets and traffic flows (just this last year New York city has changed city streets to accommodate bicycles, pedestrians, chairs and tables, dedicated bus lanes; in Washington DC they have changed some parking spaces into shared car parking; in Portland, Oregon, bicycle parking is substituted for some previously metered spaces). All of these options will be closed for the city of Chicago. And closed for 75 years.


Some quotes:

"I wish we had other options at our disposal to help balance this budget without entering this 75-year concession agreement with one of our most valuable public assets, but we're in the situation we're in, with not many options" Alderman Brendan Reilly told the Tribune.

Alderman Richard Mell described the deal as being a "once-in-a-lifetime shot to grab this pool of money.

Read more!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Advice for Cities & Towns on Green Transport

I sometimes get asked for the quick hits that a local government can undertake that is within their jurisdiction. Here is what I send them:

1. Parking maximums for buildings (all kinds) rather than parking minimums. If the developer is ready to build without parking, their ear is closest to the market, let them do so. This will reduce the cost of housing by as much as 25%, increasing affordable housing within the city. Every parking space built is a magnet for a car, which will then be driving on city streets, increasing our congestion problems. Yes, I know all about residents desire to protect the existing free on-street parking for themselves. See number 2 below.

2. Make residential parking permit rates much higher, and consider monthly fees rather than annual ones. This will make more parking available for those residents that need to park, by getting off the road cars that are rarely used (this is why we need this to happen monthly, so there is incentive to get rid of your car quickly when you no longer use it often.) In northern climates, it is easy to see the enormous number of vehicles that are little used by walking down a street one week after a snowfall and seeing the number of cars that haven't moved in a week.

3. Charge residents for curb cuts just like on-street parking. Their individual curb cut is removing a space available for others on the street. Curb cuts shouldn't be free for residents or businesses.

4. Give a rebate to residents who don't own cars -- they cost the city less money! less demand for ploughing, road maintenance, police and traffic enforcement, reduced emissions, etc.

5. Do bicycle traffic education for every middle school student (and in driver's ed).

6. Offer $200 rebate to kids on their 16th birthday, good only toward a bike purchase (and registration with the local police).

7. Improve bike and pedestrian connections everywhere. Start with routes to school, around the public library, and convenience/food stores.

8. Paint bicycle lanes on as many oversized roads as you can simply by giving the minimum width to cars (usually 10 ft) and allocate remaining space to bikes. Stop your lines short of the intersections and just do the straight-aways. This lets you get 80% of the job done quickly and cheaply, without fiddling with the complex part.

9. Require that businesses that offer parking to employees to "register their commutes" so that there is a database for potential commute ridematching. You can't require agreeing to share a ride, but you can require registration.

10. Consider building municipal parking lots, and make parking in those lots cheaper for residents than on-street parking permits. [This makes parking less convenient, and people will be more likely to leave their house to bike, walk, or T for short errands rather than hop in their car.]

11. Remove on-street parking for every space created in municipal lots. Do better things with those spaces -- bus priority lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks.

12. Consider making play streets in some neighborhoods, by closing them to through traffic with wooden barriers (that are signed with relevant times) during afterschool hours. In New York City I saw this in practice with neighbors opening and closing the street.

13. Consider closing scenic roadways on Sundays when there is reduced traffic (and alternate routes) and making them accessible only to people and non-motorized vehicles.

Thirteen is purportedly an unlucky number. Please add your low cost ideas to the comments.


Read more!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leveling the Playing Field for the American Auto Industry

The failure of the American auto industry has lots of root causes, but the difference in cost structures and buying incentives between US and foreign auto makers surely has a lot to do with the industry’s lack of competitiveness.

Lack of universal health care here means that every car manufactured in this country is saddled with $2100 of health costs that aren’t included in European or Japanese cars.

Comparatively low gas prices mean that American consumers have not had the same fuel efficiency incentives buyers in every other country have had. Sure, Toyota was clever about designing and building the Prius. And fully 35% of Prius sales to date have been in Japan alone, a dramatically smaller market than the US. So just how prescient was Toyota? They were designing and building cars that suited their own domestic market.

Human rights and labor requirements are held to much higher (and more costly) standards by US car manufacturers than by their foreign counterparts, so I’ve been told.

As Congress contemplates a bailout for the auto industry, we should consider correcting the underlying causes. Addressing these would mean the industry has a much higher likelihood for competitive success in the long-term. If we really want a thriving car industry in the country, we need to reduce the burden of health care costs for this industry (and all industries), require the same human rights and labor standards for all cars being sold in this country, and raise the cost of gas in this country so that it more closely mirrors those experienced by European and Japanese consumers, and is more aligned toward our goals of energy independence and CO2 reduction.

Read more!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Apps for Democracy

Go see Apps for Democracy. It’s what I’m talking about!

1. The DC City government built a platform for engagement. They put up DC's Data Catalog online and invited internal agencies and external free agents – we sometimes call them “people” – to create mashups for $20k in prize money.

2. The city is trying to tap into the excess mental capacity and time of skilled, clever, and innovative people everywhere who want to challenge themselves.

3. Too soon to know what the unintended benefits are, but they are certainly reaping some intended benefits:

• Neighborhood crime
• Historic tour of DC
• Parking garages
• Hospital info

Oh, it has to be incredibly stupid form to put a link in the first few words of a blog. So if you are totally intrigued, now is the time to go check it out again here, a link at the end.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Time for Cooperative Capitalism

Crisis describes our times. The perilous state of the American and global economies, environments, and personal finances have me convinced that we’ve got to start working and thinking more cooperatively.

Last June I began to give public voice to these ideas and approach that has been taking shape in my mind for a long time -- Ann Arbor (June 11 ppt) and at the Personal Democracy Forum in NY (June 24).

For many years I’ve been attracted to the beautiful efficiency and widespread benefits of shared resources (cars, rides, networks). And over the last few years, I’ve been espousing the need for business and government to think more expansively about the web 2.0 phenomenon – where end users create content and value by building on a common platform (eBay, wikipedia, flickr, Facebook being some famous examples). We need to envision collaborative financing (lending circles), collaborative infrastructure (mesh networks), and collaborative consumption (car-sharing). It is time to push this idea and approach as far as it can go. A way to think about this approach is “cooperative capitalism.”

Here is the formula:
1. Identify excess capacity.
2. Build a platform for others to share/engage with this excess capacity.
3. Appreciate unanticipated benefits

My favorite example at a city level is Bogota’s Ciclovia:

1. The Penalosa brothers (Mayor Enrique and Gil, Head of Parks & Recreation) noted that on Sundays traffic throughout the city was very light.

2. Every Sunday from 9am to 2pm, more than 72 miles of roads are closed to car traffic and open to pedestrians and bicyclists. Tens of thousands of residents get out and use the ‘new trails and paths’ every week. Cost to the city for this highly prized and transforming resource? Just the cost putting up and taking down the barriers.

3. Unanticipated benefits include a healthier population, a stronger community, and increased bicycle use every day of the week.

My favorite opportunity at a city & national level (see my TED talk for a big vision explanation):

1. The wireless devices being used for open road tolling (and in the future for congestion pricing and road pricing) cost about $28, are single purposed, closed, and in active use for about 30 seconds a month. That is a lot of excess wireless capacity!

2. Create an open source mesh (ad hoc peer to peer) communications platform that would turn the device in the cars into nodes (routing and repeating data bits). The software could also be used in all wireless devices (laptops, cellphones, pdas, traffic lights, smart utility meters, etc.), creating a mobile internet (collaborative infrastructure). Each person will have paid for his/her own device (collaborative infrastructure financing).

3. While spending what was required to do the task of open road tolling or congestion pricing and buying in a manner that used an open standard, and an open device, we have now made this investment leverageable for any number of innovative uses, created a robust and resilient nationwide network for local data transmission, and laid the foundation for the next economic engine for the US and world economies. I have a lot to say on this topic, best not here. Email me if you want to see the white paper.

We can glean from the above example some generalization principles that the US government should apply to the relevant procurements: require open standards, open APIs, give preference to responders that leverage existing infrastructure, investments, organizations – in other words – value and encourage cooperation among companies rather than reward closed proprietary systems that shut out such opportunities.

Examples at the corporate level would include Zipcar of course, which enables all the idle capacity of cars to be put to good use through its technology platform that makes sharing cars fast, easy, convenient, and cost-effective. Last year I visited Siemens New York office where the bulk of floor space has been turned over to cubicles that are not owned by any one person, but rather used as needed by its nomadic workforce that shows up in New York only periodically – dramatically reducing the amount of office space needed if each one of its employees had their own office. The unexpected benefits of open platforms abound -- users can innovate, or point the way for innovation (see for a new way of thinking).

And at an individual and household level, what can we lend and what can we borrow? What can we buy used, and what can we make sure we put back into the marketplace? Think of eBay as collaborative consumption.

This way of thinking isn’t bad for the economy. Remember that our starting point is that everyone is going to spend as much as they have to spend. We – families, companies, governments -- all have so much we want to accomplish with such limited financial resources that the most logical, rational, profitable, and self-interested thing to do is to spend it as efficiently as we can: maximizing the benefit of each dollar spent, while minimizing the resource consumption. Since we know we are going to spend every cent, let’s get the most possible value out of that spending.

Think of our times. Cooperative capitalism is not just an interesting approach, it is an imperative.


Blog posts are supposed to be short and to the point – that is satisfied by the above. For a little more background on why the current financial crises leads me to move from thinking that these are just interesting ideas, to a much stronger concept of “imperative,” read on.

We are living in a world of very precarious revenue sources at all levels of the economy – household, corporate, and governmental. Americans are at their lowest savings rate since the 1930s. In August, the GAO estimated the 2008 Federal deficit to be $410b, 3% of the GDP. The addition of the $700 billion bailout has the potential to double this to 6%. On October 1, our national debt passed $10 trillion dollars (that’s a 1 followed by an unlucky 13 zeroes).

And yet, despite our incredibly tight – and shrinking – budgets, we face spending imperatives of unparalleled proportions. In the US, the explosive highway and infrastructure building of the 1940s-1970s, are now meeting the end of their 30-50 year anticipated life spans. We have much rebuilding to do, just to stay even, and we have much new building needed to accommodate our growing population and 21st century transportation and communication needs.

We have an energy and climate crisis, that demand we rethink, retool, and build anew our power plants, our factories, our office, our stores, our homes, and our travel patterns. We have a broken healthcare system that without a fix will swallow the budgets of business and government, and then, despite those expenditures, leave many uninsured.

And of course, we Americans live in a world of 6.3 billion people, rising rapidly to 9 billion. And we all know this world cannot sustain the current use patterns many ‘enjoy’ if applied to everyone.

A friend of mine, Juan Enriquez, just gave his 20 minute analysis and prescription last week at PopTech, on the need for the next administration to start a program of austerity. He gives a compelling argument and has some nice visuals. And last week, Bruce Nussbaum blogged for Businessweek an opinion piece called “Zipcar Capitalism, a new economic model?,” an approach the author says he will bring with him to the World Economic Forum this week in Dubai. Both of these argument are running down the same path I am.

Read more!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Openness is Environmental; who’d a thunk it?

So here is the gist of the argument:

Open architecture, open standards, open protocols, and open networks enable the multi-purposing of devices, and encourage and facilitate organic improvement in device and application functionality requires. E-waste is reduced when devices serve multiple purposes, and when useful life can be extended through on-going adaptation and upgrades with software or addition of hardware components.

Closed proprietary systems, on the other hand, do the exact opposite. They are made for discrete purposes, with planned obsolescence, and innovation is limited to insider willingness and insider imagination.

To see some exquisite artistic renderings of consumption, including electronic consumption, check out Chris Jordan's work, from which the photo above is an unworthy clip. There is an important tool -- an Executive Order -- the US government can use, that would have an enormous impact on reducing electronic waste.

According to an EPA study of solid waste: "The production of electric and electronic devices is a very resource-intensive activity. The environmental burden due to the production of electrical and electronic products ("ecological baggage") exceeds by far the one due to the production of other household materials. When these devices become obsolete and are discarded without recycling they leave behind lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous wastes.

In USA In 2005, we generated 2.6 million tons of e-waste in the US, or 1.4% of total discards. Of this amount, only 12.5% of the consumer electronic products in the municipal waste stream were "recovered," This compares to the overall recovery rate of all categories of municipal waste was 32.1% in 2005.” (1)

Even while "68 percent of consumers stockpile used or unwanted computer equipment in their homes." E-waste shows a higher growth rate than any other category of municipal waste in the EPA's report.

Of course, I have to tie this in to my favorite subject: transportation! Long-term policy goals for the US department of transportation include IT for safety, mobility, and convenience applications. These applications will rely on electronic hardware for wireless communications connecting the 240 million vehicles on the road today with network access points across America.

Given the scale and scope of the US transportation system, pervasive throughout America, touching every American family, electronic devices that leverage open architectures, open standards, open protocols, and open networks -- enabling the multipurposing of electronic and wireless investments – can dramatically reduce the amount of e-waste and would be the environmentally preferred solution for safety, mobility, and convenience applications that are intended for large fleets (over five thousand units).

The Presidential Executive Order -- “Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” signed by President Bush on January 24, 2007, instructs Federal agencies to “conduct their environmental, transportation, and energy-related activities under the law in support of their respective missions in an environmentally, economically and fiscally sound, integrated, continuously improving, efficient, and sustainable manner.”

Encouraging open architecture, open standards, open protocols, and open networks is important for this country’s future, one that includes limited resources – elemental as well as monetary ones. We need to get the most out of every device, every investment, and every dollar. Openness helps us accomplish that.

Read more!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

All-you-can-eat vs pay-as-you-consume

Sounds like some frightening cannibal menu, but I’m really talking about pricing models. The wrong plan can have enormous unintended consequences. Take restaurants, for example. Given America’s rising obesity epidemic, all-you-can-eat buffets encourage us to over consume – an undesirable urge. So what does this have to do with cars you ask?

Economists will say that all-you-can-eat is the right way to price when you have lots of excess capacity and the cost to provide that extra unit of consumption very low. This is why cellphone providers offer monthly bundles of minutes. They know that people prefer having a stable monthly bill they can predict. They also know that people typically choose a higher rate plan than suffer the occasional penalty of going over. And then, people use their minutes right up to cut-off point.

The bottom line is that all-you-can-eat encourages more consumption than pay-as-you-go. Depending on the network I’m talking about, I have different opinions, which could make me sound like a hypocrite. When I’m talking about the internet, which I think everyone should have access to and use as much as they like, I usually favor all-you-can-eat pricing: please, consume as much information as you can! Produce as much content as you are inspired to produce! All for one monthly price!

But then, when I talk about cars, I say the exact opposite. We should pay-as-we-consume. We want people to know and experience the real cost of driving for every mile (and place) that they drive, so that they can make rational decisions about whether they should walk, bike, take transit, drive now, or bundle the errand with another trip. There is a reason for my flip flop (I’m in a political state-of-mind these days). There are enormous externalities associated with driving, that because they are don’t have a cost associated with them, make driving that extra mile appear free when it really isn’t. Take congested roads for an example, the cost of adding each additional vehicle is very high to every other person out there on the road. But there is a whole list of other underfunded costs as well: parking supply and demand, highway maintenance, traffic accidents (death and injury), the effects of car-dedicated pavement on land use, water quality, and the ability of other modes and people to share that same space. Can you believe I didn’t even say the CO word? I’m trying to make the point that even if no carbon dioxide were emitted from the engine, driving that extra mile has lots of other serious costs associated with it.

Over the last thirty years, the transportation profession has learned that if you build it, they will come – meaning you can never build your way out of congestion, because the more free roads and parking you offer, the more miles people drive and the more places they drive to instead of taking an alternative mode. In the last four years, the US government has been encouraging states to start making drivers more aware of the actual and marginal costs. In San Francisco, they have just launched an experiment with dynamic parking rates in a large area of the city. The tighter the on-street parking supply gets, the more it costs to park. [Conversely, you are always guaranteed to find a parking space in that section of town, you’ll just pay a lot for it at peak times.] Progressive insurance has just started offering pay-by-the-mile insurance: the more you drive the more you pay; the less you drive the less you pay. It makes sense.

I was reading about a keynote address Shai Agassi gave at a conference put on by Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development. Shai has a compelling story to tell about how he is going to supply electric cars and refueling centers to entire countries (Israel and Denmark have signed up) to reduce CO2 emissions. Electric cars have an important role to play in reducing the 18% of the world’s emissions that come from our cars. Shai is doing some admirable work raising capital, building a business model, engaging partners, and accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles. People everywhere, who have been fretting about how to reconcile our car dependence and energy and environmental needs are loving Shai’s story. This from an article that covered the September 5 conference:

‘But what roused the audience to a level of enthusiasm comparable to the political conventions was the keynote address of Shai Agassi.

But Shai’s program has one element I’d like to see changed. His current plan is to offer drivers a cellphone-like plan. You get the car and x miles per month for a one fixed monthly price. And here is where I’d like governments and transportation planner and business people to take note: This pricing model for the electric cars runs counter to all the other steps transportation planners and city governments are taking. It undermines efforts underway to turn the fixed costs of car ownership into variable ones.

Cars aren’t bad, and electric cars are much better. But, all-you-can-eat buffets shouldn’t be on the menu.

Read more!

Friday, October 3, 2008

“If you are pro electric vehicles, you are pro nuclear power”

This was the case built by BP Chief Scientist, Steve Koonin, at Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week (webcast available here). His case went like this:

• If every vehicle in America were electric-powered, and we achieved three times the energy efficiencies in those vehicles than we get today,

• It would require 50% more electric power capacity than we are currently producing.

• There is no way to meet this demand other than through significant nuclear power supply.

• Therefore, if you are pro electric cars, you are pro nuclear power.

This curious logic was followed by a confession of his later in the panel discussion:

Koonin noted that he had two houses: one in London, and one in California. When he was in London, he didn’t own or need a car. But he had three cars at his California house.

So I present another logic:
• If most people lived in dense mixed use communities that are well supported by a wide variety of transportation options that allow individuals (like London)

• It would require dramatically less energy – regardless of the source – to live happy and productive lives

• We likely able to meet this demand with alternative energy sources over the next 50 years in the time it will take to replace our fleets and refresh our infrastructure if we accurately incentivize individuals, developers, and cities to choose fuel-efficient and low-CO2 options (unlike the energy costs that built the California that Koonin lives in today).

• So if you are pro addressing climate change then you are a price on carbon emissions.

Read more!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Internet is as Fundamental as Hot Water

In July I was part of a press conference supporting a bipartisan campaign Internet for Everyone. I joined Vint Cerf, Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and Tim Wu, among others. It is my firm belief that low cost ubiquitous internet access is fundamental for participation in our society today, a key tool for achieving energy efficiency (smart buildings; dynamic pricing of roads and energy to reflect peak times; and critical to innovation). This one-minute clip of my contribution sums it up nicely. You can join this important movement here.

Read more!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rock Band Tours by Bike

Great music, great idea, and great execution. Check out this 4 minute video. As Kipchoge Spence, the person behind this idea, wrote me:

"In 2007, the Ginger Ninjas became the first band in the history of rock and roll to tour by bicycle, unsupported by automobile. On a 5000 mile odyssey from their home in Northern California to the pyramids of Southern Mexico, they promoted transportation cycling while also exploring the frontiers of pedal-generated electricity, using their own bikes to power a hyper-efficient sound system. The audience took turns getting on stage to pedal the bikes to make the sound, taking crowd participation to a new level. Originally conceived as a one-time adventure/statement/experiment, the band became addicted to low-impact touring, and now does so exclusively.

The Ginger Ninjas' mobile human-power stage is the first of its kind in history. Coupling super efficient digital amplifiers, lightweight components, and generators attached to working bicycles (as opposed to purpose-built stationary bikes), the system allows a band to play off-grid anywhere, wall outlet or no, and to also carry the system to a gig on the same bicycles (Xtracycle sport utility bicycles). This enables a new kind of completely self-sufficient bicycle touring, sans automobile support. On the band's most recent tour, the system and touring style enabled them to avoid generating close to 60,000 pounds of CO2, or 95% of what a similar sized band creates in a similar tour."

We're hoping GoLoco can partner with them on their next tour in the U.S.
great 4 minute video describing 2007 tour

Read more!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gore is Right and Did it Beautifully

Lest you assume that everything Gore says, I agree with, you would be wrong. In his speech delivered in Washington DC yesterday, he said all the right things. But I was incredibly disappointed and frustrated that he didn’t say these things when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in October, and he didn’t say these things when he addressed leaders from 190 nations at the climate talks in Bali in December. I just couldn’t understand his reticence, and I was mad at him. He knows better. And his speech yesterday proves that. He said all the important things, and he delivered the message much better than I ever have.

His complete speech can be found here.

What are these mysterious “right” points?

He enumerates a wide range of national and global problems and says “But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we’re holding the answer to all of them right in our hand. The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.”


“Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.”

Yes. Critical is the 10 year time frame for significant reductions. What I found politically clever is that he has set a goal that has better meaning and resonance than the ones I’ve talked about: getting world-wide CO2 emissions down within this time frame. His goal is what is required to achieve my goal, and his is so much less scientific and opaque.

“I have long supported a sharp reduction in payroll taxes with the difference made up in CO2 taxes. We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. This is the single most important policy change we can make.”

Yes, yes, yes. Way to go Al! He is the only American politician/ leader/ environmentalist (what is he?) that has had the courage to say this. NRDC, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Congressmen and Senators have all wimped out on this point. As I’ve said many times before, Cap and Trade solutions will not cut it. Pushing for “politically viable” solutions that don’t solve the problem is just pointless. I respect his courage for doing and saying what all those others wouldn’t. Previously, only a few scientists have had the nerve to speak out on this point (see Jim Hansen post).

Gore does embed this little tax line about 20 minutes into his 27 minute speech, and he doesn’t repeat it. And that is no doubt politically astute, but he is quite clear “this is the single most important policy change we can make.”

And so he concludes:

“Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years.”

I challenge the next President, Congress, Governors, and Mayors to have the same courage and commitment.

Before the Bali talks, Gore’s climate action organization sent out emails asking for signatures to support his plan. I got the email, and searched everywhere for the plan. I never found one, and I never forwarded that email or signed on. But this is a plan I support whole heartedly, and I encourage you all to sign on so that our leaders can get to work with your important support.

Read more!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

10 Things to Like about $4/gallon Gas

Wow. I am so impressed with Amanda Ripley, who wrote this story for Time magazine. She offers sympathy about the suffering and expands on this list:

1. Globalized jobs return home
2. Sprawl stalls
3. Four day workweeks
4. Less pollution
5. More frugality
6. Fewer traffic deaths
"If gas remains at $4 per gal. for a year or more, expect as many as 1,000 fewer fatalities a month, according to professor Michael Morrisey at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associate professor David Grabowski at Harvard Medical School, who calculated that estimate for TIME. That means annual deaths could be cut by almost one-third — a public-health triumph."

7. Cheaper Insurance
8. Less Traffic
9. More Cops on the Beat
10.Less obesity
"A permanent $1 hike in prices may cut obesity 10%, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars a year, estimates Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro."

To read it yourself, see the full article.

Read more!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Should Brave Men Die So We Can Drive?

This is one of the headlines used on public service announcement posters during World War II to encourage conservation of fossil fuel. This 2 minute compilation shows how times and values have changed. While we look back at old tobacco ads with horror "Doctors agree that smoking BRAND NAME is the healthiest choice," these ads generate some nostalgia for doing the right thing.

Other headlines include:
"oil is ammunition"
"all fuel is scarce...plan for winter now"
"have you really tried to save gas by getting in a car club?"
"Is your trip necessary?"

This group of ads shows how energy conservation is patriotic. In this election year, and in the next administration, we would do well to encourage Americans to think about their most deeply held values -- a safe, secure, and sustainable future for us and our children. It is high time to push out a new round of PSAs to complement policy at the state and national levels.

Read more!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What Does It Cost to Drive?

The IRS formally increased the number it uses for cost per mile car travel, from 50.5 cents per mile, to 58.5 cents per mile. The question for drivers is -- are you sharing that cost or sucking it up all by yourself?

I recently did an analysis of AAA 2007 cost data for driving. I wanted to understand how much the rising cost of gas is actually changing the real costs of driving. [These aren't quite real costs since they don't include any of the externalities associated with driving like global warming, protection of oil resources, asthma, car accidents, among others.] AAA numbers are averaged over five years, assuming you own the car for the first five years of its life.

Today, with gas at $4 a gallon, looking at the two extremes of car types, it costs

$18.60/day for a small sedan ($6,795/year)
$31.00/day for an SUV or pickup truck ($11,309/year)

This covers travel of 41 miles per day (15,000 miles per year), average for Americans.

When -- not if -- gas goes to $5 a gallon, it'll be

$21.66/day for a small sedan ($7,906/year)
$33.32/day for an SUV or pickup truck ($12,161/year)

What was particularly interesting to me is how the rising price of gas has transformed the variable costs of driving. When gas was $1/gallon, it was only 9% of the total cost of owning and operating a small sedan. Today, at $4/gallon, gas ranges between 28 and 30% of the cost of operating a car. When it is at $5/gallon, that'll be 32-35%. With such high variable costs, people are really having to think twice and three times about when and how they drive. [see blog entry on changed driving behaviors]

This is so much money!!!

Back in 2006, 17% of household income went toward cars. I ask myself: if the median household income in the US is $48,000/year, what percent of income is going to car transportation today? A recent study found that in households with cars, they own on average 2.28 cars per household. Now comes some very murky and suspect assumptions, just to get it into the ballpark. Those households are unlikely to have 2.28 new cars, so what if we just round down and say 2 cars that are 0-5 years old are going to stand in for 2.28 cars of unknown age. And that households will have one big car and one little car, which is kind of like saying they have 2 average-sized cars.

OK, if we accept these bad assumptions, the answer to the question:

What percent of household income is going today to car transportation when gas is $4/gallon?




Another way to look at this is to use a a report written in September 2005 by Mark Singer of the Consumer Federation of America. His estimates of gas prices for 2005 were about $1.80/gallon. For prices found between 1995-2003 (his baseline) he found little elasticity in demand. Here is his table:

We know that $4/gallon seems to have been a tipping point for demand. And $4 is more than double $1.80. But what if we imagine that people today are spending about double on gas, taking into account some reductions in demand? That would put low income groups spending 20% of their incomes just on the gas.

Washington, I think we have a problem.

Americans need options to traveling around by car all by themselves. Some of those options can happen fast (GoLoco! and for those lucky enough to live in cities feet, bike, transit, train); some will take longer (changing where we choose to live, work, shop, creating dense mixed use communities, adding more transit of all kinds, reducing fossil fuel dependence on all motorized modes).

Next Mr. President: are you listening?

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The Most Important Thing to Read on Global Warming

James Hansen, the US’s leading climate scientist, to whom I turn for climate science, spoke to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, and the National Press Club on June 23 2008. His entire talk is only 4 pages. Read it. If you don’t think you'll get to it -- or maybe to inspire you to do the reading -- I’ve excerpted some of the high points.

These are Jim Hansen’s words:

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year…Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years….

Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation…

Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly… If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They yield continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy source….

Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits.

We import food from halfway
around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public. A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend3 is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry.
The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our
products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly…

We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and
dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success…

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.”

Robin’s words: We can’t get sidetracked by cap and trade agreements. They may be "politically acceptable" but won’t produce the results in the time frame required or redirect the economy as needed. We need carbon taxes “incentives” as fast as is politically possible. We should all do everything we can to make sure our next president understands this clearly. See for ways to make your voice heard and see what others are doing.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

$4/gallon gas may be a magic number

After years of not caring, Americans are changing their ways, and quickly.

1. Changed driving habits. From the New York Times:

“In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease — the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.”

2. Shopping closer to home. Consumers are beginning to question the "savings" gained from driving long distance to malls.

3.When buying cars, shirking the worst offenders. GM sales of SUV and trucks were down 25% in April, and down 37% in May over the previous year.

3. Buying houses where driving can be reduced. David Stiff, an economist who analyses housing prices nationally found that "even as overall sales volume drops, relatively stronger demand for housing will limit price declines in neighborhoods with shorter work commutes, better schools, and easier access to parks, recreation, and retail centers...Prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover." This effect can be seen in New York, metro Washington, Detroit.

4. And finally, choose jobs that are as close to home as possible, accessible by public transit, or can be walked, biked, or telecommuted to. These trends might be harder to spot in such a short period of time. But quoting from a Wall Street Journal article: "A poll earlier this year by California State University, Sacramento, found that high gasoline prices were the No. 1 concern in the area and that 12% of respondents had changed jobs or moved in the past year to shorten their commute to work."

Employers, retailers, developers, planners, governments take notice. Lifestyles that reduce dependence on costly gas – producing even more costly CO2 emissions – are in demand. Those who have been able to make changes quickly, have done so, and more and more people will make these changes as the opportunities present themselves.

If you think you can't afford to make these changes, do the math. It'll cost more to not be energy efficient when gas prices reach $5, $8 and $10/gallon. We all - individuals, companies, and governments -- have a huge budget to work with: the impending increases in fossil fuel prices that they will have to suck up, if we don't reduce demand for it now.

Thanks to Keith Collins who made this case beautifully clear in his presentation at the MassImpact symposium.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rant about the Urgency of Action

I wrote this for International Design Magazine, where it appeared in the June 2008 issue.

You’re in a deflating raft. You have 4 minutes and 30 seconds until the black storm on the horizon reaches you. Only some of you can swim. Do you: a) organize time-intensive swimming lessons? Or b) ask everyone to fix the leaks nearest them with the repair kits they have in their pockets?

Curiously, when it comes to climate change, where the states are worse than bleak, the answer seems to be swimming lessons: Invest more in alternative energies. Establish higher standards for fuel efficiency in cars. Invent carbon-capture technology. Force big businesses to come up with plans that will change the way they do business. None of these measures is capable of effecting change in the here and now.

Many of us know that we’re currently facing 50 percent species loss this century; five meter sea rise this century; and 10 to 20 percent reductions in corn, wheat, and rice yields – despite a more than doubling of population – this century. But way too few of us have paid attention to the timetable required to avoid this possibility, as laid out by the U.S.’s two leading climate scientists. James Hansen director of NASA’s Space Goddard Institute, released a new paper in March that says we have close to zero percent change of avoiding “catastrophic effects of climate change” if we continue with “business as usual.”
And in his report to the UN last September, John Holdren, director of the Wood’s Hole Institute, projected that we could improve those odds to 50 percent if we begin curbing emissions by 2015. If you ask me, 50-50 odds of facing major worldwide catastrophe are unacceptable.

Regardless, with heads firmly embedded in the sand, we continue to focus on what the scientists tell us needs to be accomplished by 2020 and 2050. And because there is no action at the federal level, cities and states, and companies and universities and institutions, are one by one setting 2020 and 2050 goals for CO2 reduction. Even presidential candidates give us these benchmarks, and talk about capping and trading emissions so that power plants will figure out a plan and make new investments that will start reducing their emissions.

But in fact we have only two to three years to get worldwide CO2 emissions to stop growing and begin their downward crawl if we want to improve our odds of averting disaster. Which means we only have to change our ways enough to avoid the 3 percent annual emissions rise driven by “business as usual,” and then next year we need to reduce our rate by 3 percent again. It isn’t that hard. Just focus on the ways you consume energy.

The difference between long-term strategies and immediate behavioral change can be easily visualized using the example of cars. If everyone in American bought a fuel-efficient car when it was time to replace their current model, 10 years from now (well beyond our critical period for action), demand for fossil fuel would be reduced by 5 percent. But if we shared 1 out of every 20 trips, we would reduce demand by 5 percent this week.

So turn your heat down 2 degrees, turn your air conditioner up 2 degrees. Feeling just a teeny bit uncomfortable? Pick half the species in the world –humans, animals, vegetables, insects – and imagine them gone. Don’t drive for single errands, don’t drive if the place you are going is less than a mile away, ride with a friend once a week. Mildly put out? Imagine the worldwide suffering of even fewer basic food staples than exists today. Use the dishwasher and dryer only for full loads. Hang your laundry on a line! Walk or bike more. Don’t like having to think about energy all the time? Imagine the political and economic unrest that will result from the immigration precipitated by a 5 meter sea rise.

We all have life-raft repair kits in our pockets. Put them to work.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The future of gas stations?

Beautiful photos of abandoned gas stations from a slide show assembled on the New YOrk Times. It does make you think.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Every day is already a gas tax holiday

The cost of gas has tripled in the last few years, Goldman Sachs is predicting oil at $200 a barrel, and the economist Paul Krugman makes the case for why this isn’t a speculative bubble. Given that reality, what’s a country to do?


Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain’s recommendations for a gas tax holiday this summer begin us down this road. As it stands now, we are already experiencing a gas tax holiday, every day of the year. Our gas taxes have 42% less buying power today than when established in 1993, which is why our road infrastructure is in such sorry state of disrepair. Imagine trying to keep your own life in good working order with 42% less buying power.

And indeed, filling up the gas tank is taking a significant bite out of the average family’s household budget, and is forcing difficult choices among those with the lowest incomes.

Is subsidizing the answer? It might be, for some very small slice of Americans. Which doesn’t mean it should be for all Americans.

Indonesia gives us an example of what this path holds. That country has been subsidizing gas for its population for years, initially certainly with good intentions of helping ease the cost of a perceived necessity. This year, Indonesia anticipates that these subsidies – 40% of the real cost of fuel -- will eat up 13% of its federal budget, more than it spends on education and health care. When the government reduced these subsidies in 2005, riots ensued. Yet projections around gas prices are forcing the Indonesian government to sensibly reduce is subsidization a seond time. It is expected to announce another reduction in the subsidy shortly, resulting in an immediate 25-30% increase in gas prices.

I think we would all agree that an overnight 25% increase in fuel prices is going to be a real shock to their economy. But it is the right thing to do. Better yet is to never start down this path. It isn't helpful, not in the short run, nor in the long-run. More on that in the next post.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Which cars get the best mileage?

We all use the Prius (45 mpg highway) as the short-cut reference for a fuel efficient car. The folks at Honda must be ripping their hair out at the relative silence yet equal performance of the Civic (also 45 mpg). And the Mini Cooper, with its award winning ad campaigns, should surely be taking advantage of its incredible mileage (36-40 mpg). And for me, the fact that the Pontiac Vibe, a car I know little about, is in the top ten was a revelation.

Note to policy makers and car buyers, as I've said before, don't give special treatment to "hybrids." More than half the cars on this list have regular engines. Fuel efficiency is the key, and even more relevant is passenger miles per gallon. More than seventy-five percent of car trips carry only one driver. The most expedient way to improve fuel efficiency is to move more people per gallon consumed. [I have to reference GoLoco here, our best-in-class ridesharing site.] It takes 25 years to turn over the US fleet of passenger vehicles to get the full benefits of the new CAFE standards. But we could get those benefits this week if more people would share rides.

Here is the top 10 list link from AutobeTel.

Here is an interesting article about how buying high mileage used cars is actually the most CO2-minimizing path (if you are going to buy a car).

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Get Real On Global Warming Goals

This article I wrote originally appeared in the Boston Globe on 4.22.09.

REJOICE, cry, or get motivated? After seven years of pretending global warming isn't a real issue, President Bush finally announced a national goal. Let us rejoice. The goal? "To stop the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025."

It's enough to make you cry. Who are his advisers? Clearly not the leading American climatologists who would have told him that leveling emissions by 2025 misses by over a decade that first and most critical milestone to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change.

If we want to improve our chances of averting this century the extinction of 50 percent of the species or dramatic drops in grain yields or devastating sea level rises, we have to get worldwide CO2 emissions to start a real decline as fast as possible. Scientist Jim Hansen says that if we wait until 2018 to "stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions" then we have close to no chance of avoiding catastrophic effects. Scientist John Holdren tells us that if we plateau in 2015, our chances of averting these catastrophic effects are down to 50 percent.

All of us are caught in what could turn out to be a death spiral. Politicians suggest a roadmap of politically acceptable solutions that promise CO2 reductions in the palatable distance because they believe the public won't accept what is really required. The public, not yet adequately informed, looks to politicians to tell us the scale of response required and how to achieve it. Leadership won't lead, and the people aren't clued in.

Cap and trade is the current approach on Capitol Hill and in presidential-candidate platforms because it puts the burden of action far from consumers (voters), even managing to overlook the 20 percent of emissions that come from our personal cars. Under cap and trade, major point sources of CO2 emissions - power plants and energy-intensive factories - will take important and necessary steps to reduce emissions by retrofitting their plants and factories. But unless there is a magic wand out there that can be waved over each smokestack, retrofits and new facilities can't possibly come online in the time frame we are talking about - now, and within two to three years. Cap and trade solutions just don't cut it.

Bush's speech did have one brilliant idea that should be adopted immediately. He said that the country needs to create incentives that should be 1) "carbon-weighted to make lower-emission power sources less expensive relative to higher emissions sources," 2) "technology-neutral because the government should not be picking winners and losers in this emerging market," and 3) "long-lasting."

A carbon incentive needs to be applied immediately to everything that emits CO2. The more you emit, the more you pay. This will encourage people to choose options that produce the least amount of emissions.

The changes needed to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the next two to three years aren't Draconian. We need to reduce our CO2 production by 3 percent this year, and 3 percent each subsequent year. If we cut one of every 20 car trips, or share one out of every 10 rides, that's 1 percent of all CO2 emissions.

And so let's get motivated. We need to stop growth in CO2 emissions not by 2025, or 2018, or 2015, but by 2011. The individuals, businesses, states, and countries that accept this reality first will have a head start on the solutions needed to thrive and succeed, in the new low-carbon economy this century demands.

Politicians need to stop offering solutions inadequate to the task. Americans are strong, brave, and smart. Not only can we take hard truths, we demand them. We want to win. We want to be leaders in this new world. Give us carbon-weighted incentives and watch us lead the world.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Where will bike-sharing work?

OK, Paris was and is terrific. Car traffic was manageable; bike lanes abound; everything is close to everything; and each block of the city is a nice one to be out riding on. So where else will it work?

Places that have safe places to ride. Paris has spent the last 4 years working out dedicated bike routes throughout the city.

Places that don’t have too many hills.
I know that San Francisco is looking into bike sharing for their city. After my no-bike experience at the top of a not very big hill, I just can’t imagine the size of the bribe it is going to take to encourage people to return bikes to the top of SF hills – or what percentage of bikes will have to be trucked around and how many times a day.

Places where there is great transit.
At least as Velib works now, you can’t absolutely positively count on a bike being available. If you can’t count on it, then it is out for commuting, out for important errands, and becomes a kind of nice novelty. That will dramatically diminish its use.

Places where we aren’t weather wimps. I couldn’t say places with nice weather, because I know those Danes use their bikes in every possible climate. I guess it will depend on the culture of those who live in the city whether or not they will ride when it is dark, cold, drizzly, hot, muggy.

Places that commit to a large number of bike locations. It really mattered that the bike stations were everywhere. At first I was irritated that Velib didn’t have printed maps available to show where the stations were, and that it was too dangerous to wing it. But I was wrong. I could depend on finding a station with just a little bit of circling. I didn’t need a map or big green V’s marring the beautiful Paris streetscapes shouting “here.”

Places that are beautiful – certainly a plus. The pleasure of being out and seeing the sites was a big encouragement. Velib quickly became my top and preferred mode of transportation: virtually free, fast, convenient, safe-ish (I would have liked my helmet), beautiful. As a single (sans enfant) person, why travel any other way?

Read more!

Details of the Velib deal and operations

(as of March 21, 2008, 8 months after launch) Details on stations, communications,bikes, utilization, contract. Here is Velib link, note you can change language in top right corner.

Stations: Each Velib station is positioned along a section of sidewalk, or a carve-out from curbside parking. Typically, these are not on the prime thoroughfares, but on the smaller streets that abut them. There is a 6 foot high kiosk and 10 or 20 knee-high locking stations cemented into the ground. You reserve the bike at the kiosk, choosing a specific bike (the parking stations are numbered), and then push the button on the station of your chosen vehicle and it releases.

Communications: The kiosks communicate using GPRS to the server. The bikes themselves have no electronics. One half of the stations get connectivity through one cell phone company; and the other half through another, with the idea being that if one cell provider goes down, at least half the bikes will still be accessible. In their third day of operations they had a 2-hour outage. Since then, all has been well.

Have sturdy-ish front basket, three speeds, front and back fenders, chain guard, front and back lights powered by generator, lock, very hard seat, up-right riding stance.

Utilization: 60-90,000 trips daily in winter; 150-170,000 trips daily in the summer. This is about 7-12 trips per day. 97% are less than ½ hour (cleverly accommodating almost all trips you would do in the city). Almost 200,000 people have signed up for annual memberships, reaching their estimated goal for first year four months early.

They have to move about 18% of the bikes using a small truck with a flatbed trailer attached. This corresponds roughly to the commute into Paris in the morning and the reverse commute back out. You can understand this movement of bikes here.

The advertising deal with Paris
(I didn’t read the contract; this is information from Albert xx, the person at JC Decaux who is in charge of this project). The city of Paris aggregated all its street advertising (primarily bus shelters and some flat stand-alones) into one single bundle, as well as eliminating 20% of the existing advertising (no doubt the least visible spots). Companies were asked to bid on the contract. In addition to the amount the city would normally get for selling its advertising space, the city required that the bidders sweeten the deal the building and operations of bike-sharing for the city of Paris. The contract is for 10 years.

I see this as something of a clever bribe: You want our prime city’s prime eyeballs? We want our cut of the revenues plus Velib. There is a long story about how the bid (and rebid) unfolded, with the result that Paris got a promise for 20,000 bikes. Decaux’s previous bike efforts, in 8(?) other cities only totaled 12,000 altogether. So Paris got a deal on a totally different order of magnitude, which corresponds to the value of Parisien eyeballs relative to those in other cities. This makes me realize that there are very few cities in the world that are likely to be able to extract as large a “bonus” as Paris did.

Decaux says it spent 90 million euros in 2007 on Pairs: to build Velib and swap out the flat-panel stand-alone advertising for new ones that rotate three different ads. One friend, Eric Britton, tells me that when DeCaux reinstalled the new panels, it rotated some of them that were parallal to the curb, to become a right angles with the curb, obstructing the sidewalk. Decaux claims it was only able to pull off this deal by installing the rotating sign boards which bring in three times the revenue because they support three times the advertising.

Remarkably, from contract award to Velib launch, only 4 months passed. As many as 700 people were at work on the project last year. They are down to 400 staff people now. While there are plenty of things you can imagine that would improve the system, I have to give them enormous credit for pulling off a system that is 85% right is just four months. Over time they will hopefully tweak and improve the system. In fact, starting this week, they will be offering a 15-minute “credit” for people that return bikes to 40 stations they have identified as chronically under-biked. And surprise, surprise, many of these stations are at the top of the hills.

Oh, Decaux has experienced way more vandalism and theft than it had in any of its other cities. No doubt (hopefully) they will figure out to minimize this problem.

Read more!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Success of Paris bike-sharing

Or Robin eats humble pie.

For years and years, people have asked me if Zipcar were going to expand into bike sharing, or did I want to get involved with a bike sharing start up. Each and everytime I thought, why? What’s the point? Anyone who wants one can pick up a used bike for as little as $30. And the market for tourists is handled by bike rental.

Then, Paris launched Velib (roughly translated as Bike Free) last July, put 16,000 bikes throughout the city in groups of 10 and 20. It has been a roaring success.

Last week I was in Paris and used it every day, several times a day. I took the Metro only four times. Velib is great! Here’s why:

• You can get a bike in front of your house and go to a park.
• Lock the bike into a nearby Velib parking space way faster than it is to find a good spot for your own bike and lock it up.
• Wander through the park and come out the other side. Grab another bike, and keep going.
• Stop at the grocery store that doesn’t have Velib parking. Use the lock that is attached to the bike to lock it up while you shop (ugh, a real pain compared to the push-in locking at the Velib stations).
• Take the subway to a friend’s house for dinner and decide to ride a bike home because it is faster. It has front and rear lights powered by your feet.
• Ride a bike into work. End the day with a meeting away from the office. Take another bike home.
• Push it into the nearby Velib spot, buy some take-out, and go up 7 flights to your apartment. Don’t worry about rain, storage, maintenance, or parking.

Cost: 1 euro for 1 day; 5 euros for 7 days, 29 years for a year. That’s it if you keep your trips around town to under 30 minutes. And my trips always were.


Down sides:

Bike Upkeep: There was an inexcusable (from my operational point of view) number of dead broken bikes on the racks that had clearly been sitting there – tires ripped out; broken baskets and fenders, or smashed by hoodlums. Wise people check front and back tires, brakes, lift up the rear wheel and give it one pedal, and look for chain guards (I ripped my pants the second trip because it didn’t occur to me that every bike wouldn’t be intact). If the bikes don’t stay in good working condition, Velib will no longer be mobility contender.

Bike Availability Unpredictable:
On Sunday I rode to the top of a hill to visit Pere Lachaise cemetery. As predicted, when I got to the top of the hill and the closest Velib station, my bike proved to be the only one there. After I’d had my fill of famous dead people’s graves, I went to get a Velib for the return home. Of course, my bike was gone and that station was empty. The kiosk has a print map of the Velib station you are at, and shows you all the adjacent stations. Over the next 30 minutes (and snow flurries were coming down) I walked to four more stations. At each one I found: 2 dead bikes, 5 dead bikes, 5 dead bikes, 2 dead bikes. When I got home, I went to a website not maintained by Velib -- that has hacked their data. It shows you a map of Paris with:

green balloons (both bikes and parkings spaces available),
red balloons (racks completely filled with bikes, no space to park), and
black balloons (no workable bikes).

Gosh, wish Velib had that live data available at their kiosks!

My lesson from that day, and from the other days, is that with practice you will learn the pulse of bike and parking availability for your common routes, and adjust your use of Velib accordingly. If I’d been smarter, the obvious thing to do on finding no bikes at the top of the hill was to walk to the closest downhill station. I stupidly stayed on the top of the hill (7 black balloons mapped there on a cold Sunday afternoon). This means that I might or might not be able to rely on Velib for commuting to work. In general, I think Velib will work best in cities that have great mobility redundancy: the Velib’s weren’t at the top of the hill so I hopped on the Metro, no problem).

Read more!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Privatized roads are like casinos

Privatized roads are like casinos because we know that the owners will take their cut, meaning that it is not an even deal.

I learn from an article in the March 17, Wall Street Journal "Letting the Market Drive Transportation, Bush Officials Criticized for Privatization" that:

"the Government Accountability Office warned that tolls on privatized roads are typically higher than if the roads remain under public control, because of the need to generate steady profits for private investors. The report said the federal government needs to better protect the public interest."

Exactly. Read the GAO report that came out in January (which I couldn't find in my internet search) or my earlier scintillating blog on this topic.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Should Casinos Subsidize Car Travel?

The Governor of Massachusetts has asked state legislators to seriously consider encouraging the building of several new large casinos in the state in order to raise revenues, the majority of which will be used for transportation shortfalls. I'm thinking there is another way to solve this financial crisis that guarantees a triple win. Ding, ding, ding!!!! Let's be winners!

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Mesh Networks on Transportation: will it work?

A monthly magazine for technical types, Baseline, has a long article about me and the idea of using mesh networks in the transportation realm.

The article is well researched and interviews people across the industry. A sad omission is the lack of named attribution to Andrew Blumberg, my colleague who has done all of the work on privacy protection. The article also puts the cost of the in-car boxes too high by a factor of two.

My favorite is the closing paragraph:

“I see Robin as one of the global thought leaders of transportation technology,” Villa says.

Allies in the open-source community are hopeful.

“It’s completely doable with the technology that’s available today,” says Sascha Meinrath, research director for the Wireless Future Program at The New America Foundation, a Washington public policy institute and think tank, a leading expert on community wireless networks and a member of the Meadow Networks board.

“There’s pretty much no scalability limit and no throughput limit. We’re 80, 90 percent of the way there. It’s just a matter of finding a municipality, a company, a patron willing to fund this.”

Hey, it's my blog and I'll blog it if I want to :)

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

You can't spend it if you don't have it

There was an article in the Boston Globe today about Gas costs forcing drivers to cut back.

"Until then, Stone said, she hadn't thought much about gas prices or filling the tank of her Acura, which she did a least twice a week. Now Stone, 55, a teacher, limits hergas budget to one fill-up or no more than $25 a week. She carefully plans her travel, sticking to the shortest route and avoiding spur-of-the-moment side trips.

When she fills a prescription, she shops for food at a supermarket around the corner. Other times, rather than driving across town, she walks to the small grocery store near her home. When she needed light bulbs and other items recently, she stopped at a hardware store along her route and spent a little more, rather than driving farther to a supermarket where prices were lower."

In just a matter of weeks, not only has Ms. Stone got her household budget under control, she has also halved her CO2 emissions. If everyone in America followed her example, we would reduce US CO2 emissions by a whopping 10% ! This month. We would also reduce the trade deficit, dramatically improve our “energy security,” and eliminate the endless debate over drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.

What I found interesting in the article was that there was no talk about how cutting back had required difficult sacrifice. Rather, those interviewed talked about adjusting their habits to take efficient travel into account.

"Towle, 44, now limits herself to one fill-up a week. She puts off buying more milk until she needs a bigger shopping trip. She used to drop her 13-year-old daughter off at basketball practice, make the 15-minute drive back home, then return to pick her up at the end of the 90-minute session. Now, she waits at the school."

Ridesharing, going loco, is another tool for the adjustment, and a pleasant one at that. I know my 14-year-old finds the carpool to and from her rock-climbing practices a valued part of her social life.

According to US Department of Energy numbers, the last four weeks have shown a flattening and a decline (depending on the location) in demand for gas, the first time in many years. The Globe article attributes these recent reductions to consumer realization that these high prices are here to stay, and so they need to adjust.

I think there is a different reason. Very high prices in home heating fuels drained low income Americans of their cash reserves. This happened in the fall. With Christmas, we saw credit card nonpayment surging. MacDonalds also saw a decline in revenues throughout the fall. With their credit pushed to the limits by heating needs and Christmas, and luxuries like eating-out reduced, petrol has finally risen to the top of the discretionary spending list for many Americans.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

99 years: the Road to Financial Wellville?

Over the last thirty years, it feels like the worst of our political system has driven our financing of transportation infrastructure. No one has had the political will to raise gas taxes, established in 1993, and therefore grotesquely inadequate. [Who among us would be satisfied with a 1993 budget for our own households?] And many of the significant infrastructure projects that have been financed by Federal funds have risen to the top based on politics rather than merit.

The result is that every state’s transportation infrastructure is in financial crisis. One of the proposed – pushed – solutions coming out of Washington is to privatize public highways and bridges. This is a solution that ducks the fundamental problem of a broken financing system, and gives states another few years to avoid the central problem.

[Quick definition: road privatization is when a section of road is transferred to a private company for a term of contract, typically in exchange for an up-front payment and a fraction of future toll revenues. The private company is responsible for all road maintenance and repair and has prescribed abilities to increase tolls over the years.]

I’m told by a colleague who does this sort of thing (Henry Lee at Harvard) that my issues could be solved with the right contracts. Perhaps. If that is the case, here are the major problems with privatizing public roads as it is now practiced (Indiana and Chicago) and hopefully these snakepits can be avoided:

Term of Contracts Too Long. These privatization contracts have enormously long terms – 75 and 99 years. That is just too long in the extremely dynamic world in which we live. One of the bankers brokering these deals told me his primary job was to make sure the contract could accommodate any eventuality. Then he went on to deride me that he couldn’t “predict the future.” Exactly. So don’t make the contracts so long. How about 15-20 years?

Loss of Network Integrity. One of the beautiful things about all networks is that they are connected. When you put a chunk of it under someone else’s control – even 2% -- the system as a whole is devalued and the network loses future flexibility. For example, over the course of 99 years, you might decide to take advantage of the extended rights of way to run fiber optic cables, or decide that certain sections would make great wind farms (NIMBYism wouldn’t be an issue). Implementation of these ideas would be dramatically complicated by having a separate owner for a piece of the ROW.

Private ROI trumps Public Good. Over the course of 99 years (yes, I’ll repeat that clause again and again), it may turn out that it is in the public interest to find a higher user for the ROW than the contracted revenue stream it gets from the private company. For example, it might be in the public’s interest to convert a lane to a high speed bus lane or light rail in order to maximize people throughput per vehicle or lane, or to minimize CO2 emissions per person. This desire would run counter to the private owner’s focus solely on vehicle count.

Valuation of Assets too Low. In a 99-year contract, you’ve basically discounted the future down to nothing, meaning you have basically sold the asset (yes, yes, I know the state gets it back after 99 years). But the lump up front sum -- that is so incredibly appealing to states ($3.85b in Indiana; $1.8b in Chicago) -- is nothing like what it would cost to actually build these stretches of highways or bridges from scratch. The costs of amassing the land and the rights of way alone, would be cost as much, even before we add in construction costs. These deals are selling off – sorry, “leasing” – our public assets at a fraction of their value. See commentary re Indiana.

One of the very sad facts about road privatization, is that the public is ill-informed about what it means. The carrot of the large sum of cash upfront is tantalizing (and programmed to be spent in usually less than 10 years leaving 89 years without the carrot), and the rising tolls is presented as a non-issue over a short fixed period of time. But as residents of Toronto discovered after they privatized a highway, tolls were eventually raised and so they complained. It should be interesting for politicians to note that they can't hide behind the private sector company doing the dirty work: most Torontoans put the blame squarely on the government that cut the deal. In a January 2008 article in Governing magazine, the same is said of the Governor of Indiana, who privatized a significant part of that state’s highway system and lost control of his state house in a subsequent election.

At the end of the day, we have to and will pay more to drive. The private companies will increase the tolls, or the government can do it. The path of doing nothing is what we have followed for the last few decades. The question for the public, and for states contemplating privatization: What serves the public interest in the long-term? Say, over the next 99 years.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Biofuels Bad; Efficiency Good

A recent article in the popular press (New York Times) reporting on the scientific press (Science) laid out the researched case that many of us had intuited. Use of biofuels will result in increases in CO2 emissions because of changes in land use -- increased deforestation -- despite vows to guard against it.

Biofuel crops grown in the US on previously plowed fields result in a decline in yields of whatever was planted there before, increasing the price of that former crop (soybeans, corn). Therefore:

• new land is deforested in other countries to plant this displaced crop which now has an economically more compelling value; and

• new land is deforested in other countries to plant the biofuel itself, which of necessity has a higher value than the crops it is displacing.

A nice quote puts the order of magnitude into perspective, from the New York Times article:

The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. “So for the next 93 years you’re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions.”

Another negative, which doesn't contribute to global warming but does contribute to global suffering, is the effect of higher prices of basic staples (corn and food oil) on the very poorest among us.

Using biofuels that are not a bi-product of some other crop (sugar cane stalks, for example) is just plain a bad idea. Conservation is the best alternative fuel in the transportation arena that we have in the near term. And of course, I have to say it, a carbon tax would go a long way towards encouraging (enforcing?) the judicious use of fossil fuels.

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