Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint from Transportation

This new study  written by researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California  makes a number of excellent points about how policies that facilitate higher density development, encourage alternatives to solo driving and road pricing policies could reduce our carbon footprint.  As California pursues SB375 these issues will be debated in detail.


Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

2 thoughts on “Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint from Transportation”

  1. Living in Los Angeles (aka Greater Hollywood ;-), I am very conscious of living in a city, where the immiseration associated with car-centric higher density, is increasingly intense. Many areas of the city are, literally, choking on highway congestion, but are still not quite dense enough to enjoy the amenities associated with density. Some of the most densely populated areas became slums, when the interurban rail system, which was the original backbone of city development was abandoned after WWII, and remain economically depressed. There are many areas, which stagnate, because traffic congestion limits further development. And, those with a vested interest in lower-density neighborhoods and the associated amenities fight both rail and re-zoning.

    The politics has long been one of stupid, self-defeating compromises and long delays. Even relatively easy projects, bog down. And, the benefits of the big projects are limited. The Red Line was extended into the Valley, but high-density development near the stations was limited. The Orange Line goes toward the LAX airport, rather than to LAX. The use of an open rail right-of-way to the Westside along Exposition has been frustrated by neighborhood groups raising the most absurd claims, as has the extension the Wilshire Red Line along what is already a very densely populated corridor “to the sea” (a nice way of saying, thru Beverly Hills).

    We’ve been closing for more than a decade on creating the possibility of living a good, middle-class life without a car in L.A., but, though the elements have emerged in outline, including an extensive commuter rail network that covers the region, the practical possibility, as a realistic option for many, remains remote.

    The Mayor is pushing an acceleration of transit investment — under the rubric of the 30/10 plan — that might create a tipping point, both in political terms, by fashioning a working political majority to overcome resistance, and by making the rail transit system extensive enough that a high-density city could begin to emerge.

    Whether you see it as an individual choice of lifestyle, or a collective political choice regarding development and transportation systems, there really isn’t a smooth marginal transition available. There’s a phase change, between car-centric and rail-centric, which makes the least desirable place to be, “in-between”. And, that’s where L.A. is, at the moment. And, it is a place, through which many other cities will have to pass, if we are to use higher-density development as an element in reducing the carbon footprint.

  2. Alas, There is no scenario in which the world, dominated as it is by the priests of economic-magical thinking, does not burn every drop of oil and every therm of natural gas.

    Our only hope to lessen the degree of climate chaos that we have unleashed and are continuing to fuel is to focus hard on one and one thing only, getting the world off coal and alternative sources of oill (shales, and especially coal to liquids) as fast as possible. Anything else is simply distraction. On the relevant time scale, whether the carbon is emitted in 2011, 2021, 2031, 2041 or later is irrelevant. A huge fraction of it will still be helping destabilize the favorable climate under which we evolved 1000 years later.

    Every climate scientist knows that our only prayer for getting back to 350 ppm is to go he’ll bent for leather for keeping all remaining coal in the ground and to keep the oil companies away from shales and tar sands and other fantasy oil replacers. Nothing else will do, as all the coal we use will be added to all the carbon emissions from all the oil and natural gas. If we can pull that off, then the price will accomplish all the efficiency gains in transport needed, even as all the world’s stocks continue to be wasted on moving war machines around.

    Thus, there are no grounds for optimism, and those of you with children can apologize to them now, as we are clearly in the mode of taking our driving lessons from Thelma and Louise.

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