Transportation advocates looking to eliminate, or at least reduce, car use for environmental goals

There’s a movement afoot aiming to drastically reduce driving, the need for driving, and the need for parking, all in the name of environmental goodness.  The theory is that reducing vehicle miles traveled will reduce the negative environmental impact (like greenhouse gas emissions) from transportation, and there will be additional benefits on gridlock (less driving means the highways aren’t as crowded) and lower competition for parking spaces.  At the same time our population is growing rapidly, meaning the more enlightened government planners are racing to get ahead of natural increases in car use due to population increases.

It means that, at least in California, the goal is to drastically reduce and in some cases eliminate the prevalence of cars.

Normally on The Long Tailpipe we’re writing about the wondrous virtues of electric cars, and how electrified transportation can help wean us off fossil fuels, hopefully avoiding the looming disasters sparked by peak oil and climate change effects.

The problem is no matter how wonderful electric cars are, they do not solve for a long list of other problems such as traffic congestion, or parking congestion.

I’ve been interested in electric cars for a long time, since at least 1998.  That year I began researching how to build an electric car (because the car companies weren’t doing so), but I had a long commute through the worst gridlock Silicon Valley had to offer.  Sitting in “traffic” crawling at 5-15 miles/hr for 10+ miles at a stretch (I-880 or I-680 south from Fremont), I eventually realized that an electric car is just a car, and that even if all the cars on a gridlocked highway were electric the highway would be just as gridlocked.

The only positive impact from an electric car is emissions and fossil fuel reductions.  These solve for the problems we suffer from using fossil fuels.  A car is a car, and still takes up room on the road and in parking lots.

It’s estimated that for every car there are approximately 8 parking spaces, because of requirements in U.S. Zoning ordinances for certain ratios of parking spaces to building size.  For example the local Target Store will be surrounded by an ocean of parking, and most of the year the parking lot is mostly empty.  Zoning ordinances typically require stores like Target to build parking sufficient to handle the maximum parking demand – namely, December 23-24 – despite the fact it goes unused most of the year.

Ponder if you will, what’s the best use for the excess land tied up by parking lots that sit mostly empty most of the year?  Isn’t this a huge environmental problem?  Huge swaths of land have their potential for productive use smothered by layers of asphalt.  The same holds true when highway commissions widen highways to relieve traffic congestion, only to see the quantity of traffic expand to fill the available lanes.

All this was the topic of a meeting I attended this evening sponsored by Sunnyvale Cool Cities – Growth Without Gridlock.  They gathered a panel of experts from the Mountain View and Sunnyvale governments, as well as a local housing developer and a representative from TransFORM CA.  The topic was how to manage the massive growth we’re seeing in Silicon Valley, while maintaining or improving the quality of life, environmental quality, and meeting various environmental goals required by California State Law.

California, being California, has aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals, as well as goals for reducing other impacts on the environment.

Trudy Ryan of the Sunnyvale city government talked about “Transportation Demand Management” or TDM.  It comprises a range of strategies to reduce car travel, or to redistribute that demand.

A small example of redistributed travel demand is the method I chose to get to the meeting.  I found the traffic on El Camino heavy enough that, rather than drive, I rode the #22 bus to the meeting location.  What would have been a car trip by a single-occupant-vehicle (my car) became another rider on the bus, because of heavy traffic.

Sunnyvale has a “TDM Toolkit” which is supposed to be available on the city website somewhere.  Google found for me a report from 2011 which is a transportation demand management plan for the Mary Ave corridor.  The toolkit helps the City with its efforts in this area.

One specific strategy she mentioned is to change the ratio of floor area to parking lot size.  Lowering this ratio allows retail, office and housing construction to be built with fewer parking spaces than is currently done.

Shrinking the pool of parking spaces has two effects:  a) land can be put to more productive uses, b) it discourages taking trips with a car.

In other words – how many car trips can a given area tolerate?

The next speaker works for the Mountain View city government, and he talked about development plans for the North Bayshore area.  That’s a region north of Highway 101, that’s the headquarters locations for high tech companies like Google, LinkedIn, and Intuit.  Google and its huge growth rate is the big problem faced by Mountain View.

One measure of the traffic that North Bayshore can tolerate is the fact that there are precisely three entrance roads to the area – Shoreline, Rengstorff, and San Antonio Rd.  Every day these three roads are clogged with traffic going in and out.  City planners have refused to allow housing development in that area, so therefore it’s dominated by office parks with Google being the current 800 pound gorilla.  Sun Microsystems used to be the dominant company there, but that was a different era.

The next speaker, Jeff Oberdorfer, represented First Community Housing, a non-profit housing developer specializing in “Sustainable Affordable Housing“.  They’ve focused on developing housing projects (multi-unit-dwellings) with all kinds of LEED and Green features, located next to transit hubs, like light rail stations, and which have other features allowing them to receive waivers from the city to build with a lower ratio of parking than is normally required.

He noted that each structured parking space costs the developer approximately $50,000, and has to be maintained at additional yearly cost.  Therefore, by reducing the number of parking spaces, their costs are reduces and it’s easier for the housing developer to offer affordable housing.  Many of their projects could not be built at the usual parking space ratio, he said.

The last speaker was Ann Cheng, who works for TransFORM CA as the Green Trip program director.

GreenTrip is a certification program meant to be similar to LEED certification, but to certify that a given housing development has features which lead to lower impact from transportation. As it’s put on their website: “GreenTRIP provides a range of tools to developers, cities, and community advocates to help create low-traffic developments that include strategies like free transit passes and carshare membership for residents, secure bicycle parking and bike sharing.”

A primary measurement she, and the others, discussed was the ratio of parking spaces per unit of housing.  Again, reducing that ratio means that, in theory, lots of environmental goodness will result.

There are 15 GreenTrip certified developments in the Bay Area.  These are estimated to mean over $17 million in additional revenue for transit agencies, as well as some number for environmental impact which I didn’t write down.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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