If Climate Experts Wrote New York Transportation Policy…

The Paterson plan calls for enormous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. That'll require a total transformation of our transportation and land use systems, represented in blue on the graph..
The Paterson plan calls for enormous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve the targets would require a total transformation of how New York grows and how residents get around.

As Andrew Cuomo transitions into the governorship, David Paterson just handed him a parting gift: a comprehensive blueprint for how the state can tackle its greenhouse gas emissions. The plan, which has been in development since a Paterson executive order in August 2009, goes into spectacular detail about how the state might reach the ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels over the next forty years.

With Paterson exiting the stage soon, the plan carries little weight, but it shows what it would take for New York to tackle climate change with the urgency it deserves. While emissions from buildings are the largest contributor to climate change in New York, the team of experts who authored the report make clear that it will take an all-out transformation of the state’s transportation and land use systems to reach the climate goal. Transit expansion, smart growth, complete streets, and congestion pricing (for New York City, at least) all figure into the plan.

The biggest transportation-related reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would come from a total shift to clean vehicles powered by clean fuels by 2035. Over the next 20 years, moving toward that goal could eliminate 130 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, more than every other transportation and land use proposal combined.

The other big-ticket reduction in the transportation sector would come from a massive expansion of transit. That includes everything from bus rapid transit in every metro area in the state, to new subways and the roll-out of high-speed rail. All that new transit would cut greenhouse gas emissions by a large amount, though the report notes that it couldn’t reduce driving very much in more rural parts of the state.

The transit expansion would cost an additional $25 billion over the next two decades, making it the most expensive transportation-related suggestion. “Achieving these goals would require funding well above what is available today,” the authors write. Of course, the report, which is more scientific than political, doesn’t specify where the funding for this transit expansion would come from.

The biggest greenhouse gas emissions reductions come from changes to how cars are fueled. Smart growth policies offer the state big cost-savings.
Under the plan, the biggest greenhouse gas emissions reductions would come from changes to how cars are fueled. Smart growth policies offer the state big cost-savings and could be an appealing early action for Andrew Cuomo.

Smart growth initiatives, without which the transportation emissions targets would be impossible, loom large in the plan. “Without significant changes in land use and development patterns in New York State, the level of VMT reductions and mode share changes contemplated in the entire suite of transportation and land use policies will be difficult to achieve,” the report states. If New York keeps sprawling, we won’t be able to build well-used transit systems, and increased driving will eat away at fuel efficiency gains.

The report offers two principal strategies to combat sprawl. First, the authors recommend the creation of “priority growth centers” where compact, mixed-use, walkable and bikeable development can flourish. These centers would exist in urban, suburban, and rural forms. Again, the goals here are extremely ambitious. The report calls for half of all new construction to take place in these priority growth centers by 2030 — a tough bar to clear considering the state can provide smart growth incentives but can’t directly regulate land use.

Even so, the plan emphasizes that smart growth initiatives need to be implemented as soon as possible, especially in fast-growing downstate areas. If action isn’t taken quickly, all that new sprawl gets baked into the cake. “Land use patterns are difficult to change once established,” says one understated passage.

Putting growth in the right parts of the state, however, doesn’t get you across the finish line. You also need to take what the authors call “a micro-planning approach by creating specific, people-friendly/oriented network/land use connections.” That means endorsing complete streets, for example. While more compact development makes it far easier to walk to the store, on a terribly designed street it might still be dangerous or unpleasant.

The plan also endorses two policies particularly important for the densest urban environments in the state: congestion pricing and parking reform.

Congestion pricing, the authors propose, should be instituted in New York City with the revenues going to pay for some of their other recommendations.

The plan also calls for a major revision of parking policy across the state. In the downtowns of all the state’s major cities, smarter pricing of on-street parking could reduce a major incentive to drive. Off-street, employers can offer their workers the option of cashing out their parking benefits rather than only offering free parking. The authors suggest that “the true cost of parking should be reflected in municipal development policies and zoning ordinances.”

Neither congestion pricing nor parking reform offers a large reduction in statewide emissions. In fact, they offer the two smallest reductions of any land use or transportation policy. However, a place like Manhattan already has the best transit and most compact development in the country. The most important policies are already in effect, essentially. Congestion pricing and parking reform would push it a step even further and allow the very green, very massive, very densely populated regional core to function more smoothly.

This climate plan doesn’t have any sort of binding power or even an abstract commitment from the state to eventually follow its specific recommendations, though Paterson’s executive order does promise to reach that 80 percent reduction somehow. Even so, it could serve as a blueprint for the new administration to follow as it tackles climate change and a yardstick against which to measure future environmental efforts.

For the fiscally conservative Cuomo, the report also makes clear that a number of these efforts will actually help the state’s bottom line. In particular, by reducing the cost of new infrastructure, the smart growth initiatives save the state billions over time. If Cuomo wants a way to burnish his environmental reputation without compromising on fiscal discipline, there’s no better place to start.

  • Steven Faust

    Yesterday the NY Times summarized solutions:
    “…calls for doubling the state’s sources of renewable energy by 2030,
    setting stricter efficiency standards for all buildings,

    *shifting private transportation toward electric vehicles

    * and supporting the creation of jobs in research on energy technology
    and in clean energy industries. ”

    So does this report support REAL Zero Emission vehicles/transportation?
    Electric vehicles are nice, but bicycles and walking are the real zero?

    We should be asking for things that change bottlenecks into gateways for walking and biking.
    A great start would be completing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by installing the two bicycle/pedestrian paths it was designed for:
    10 percent of the car traffic over the VNB travels less than 8 miles door to door – well within bicycling distance – 50 minutes.
    How many vehicle miles, many hours now stuck in car congestion, can cycling over the VNB on a bike path reduce? This could impact 6-1/2 million car trips a year.

    Reopen the path on the Goethals;
    Reopen the GWB path after Midnight;
    Build a path on the Throgs Neck Bridge;
    Ban Rumble Strips on non-limited access highways used by bicycles; and
    generally do good things to encourage safe bicycle and pedestrian travel.

    Is this too much to expect as part of reducing emissions by “only” 80 percent?

  • Shemp

    It’s true that the state doesn’t regulate land use directly, but the state can make deals with town governments that have no ability to do any real planning. Most town planning offices in NY State are a clerk or two looking at applications for subdivisions or porch extensions. A lot of towns would welcome resources for visioning and master planning, and the state has a lot (relatively) of authority and money that can help bring towns to the smart growth table. But the initiative to create such a framework has to come from the top. There’s always the legislative route as in California, but then there’s always the Legislature.

  • tom

    The repeated message in this report is 300K upstaters are moving downstate, or out-of-state. A million people are moving into NYS urban areas(guess which one). Big changes need to happen: cross harbor tunnel, water-borne cargo movement, incentives to commute on transit, and the state is broke. That’s the reality.
    Biking ain’t gonna’ do it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The state is broke. That’s the reality. Biking ain’t gonna’ do it.”

    That reality is why biking, dynamic carpooling and telecommuting will have to do. I e-mailed the authors to mention biking and dynamic carpooling, which they didn’t seem to explore.

    More and more government money will be going to the retired, and the debts they ran up. We are going to be much poorer as a state and nation, and if NYC is richer, it will only be because it attracts a higher share of the better off and prices out more of the less well off. The extent of the damage is uncertain, because they having finished doing it.

    We’ll be lucky to keep what we have, and very lucky to get some of the improvements (Second Avenue to 125th, East Side Access) already underway.

  • The point that Larry is making is that shrinking population benefits rich people, who can afford to pay extra for their civic benefits (parks, libraries, transportation) and the elderly, who are also comparatively rich. In order to keep New York State’s cities affordable for nonrich, nonold people, we need to reduce the cost of living by encouraging carpooling, cycling and telecommuting so that nonrich, nonold people can afford to pay the higher taxes and fees for services left to them by the present Generation Greed.

  • Paul Dougherty

    Get bike racks on New York City, Nassau County, Westchester County bus lines.

  • Make public transit fare-free, frequent, safe, and clean.

  • To design and develop systems capable of moving millions of people per hour based on highly-modular-lighter-than-human-weight-vehicles with less than 1% the environmental footprint of cars would probably cost about $1 billion; which was about the cost of designing and developing the second Volkswagen Beetle.

    This would be a major advance in global human mobility and much more importantly the battle against climate change.

  • Chris

    @gecko, you’d still need a place to park them. Personally I think you’d be better off having a zip-car type model where people rent the type of vehicle you’re describing only when they need it. I’d still love to walk and bike around in the city. It’ll be nice to see a day when there are fewer and fewer noxious-gas spewing autos on the streets.

  • Nassau Nell

    Biking ?

    I don’t see a lot of bikes in December, january and February in New York State.
    I guess for 3 months nobody will go to work ?

  • J. Mork

    You can buy a lot of warm clothing for what you would otherwise spend on a motor vehicle.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Biking? I don’t see a lot of bikes in December, january and February in New York State.”

    You don’t see the immigrants riding to low wage service (to you) jobs in Nassau because they can’t afford cars, Nassua Nell? No wonder they keep getting run over at night. Someone give them lights.

  • “Neither congestion pricing nor parking reform offers a large reduction in statewide emissions.”

    That is because they are talking about congestion pricing only in NYC and parking reform only in downtowns.

    They would get larger reductions if they were willing to look at GPS based congestion pricing in the entire state (or at least in the entire NYC metropolitan area) and pricing for all parking (including a ban on free parking at suburban shopping centers, which lures people away from downtowns).

  • tom

    Congestion pricing will not diminish emissions enough to make a difference, drivers without the bucks will be replaced almost entirely by drivers with the bucks. Just read the proposal. The plan needs them all to pay for the needed expansion to public transit.

    What makes you believe that the advocates who haven’t been able to convince city legislators of the to-die-for benefits of CP will be able to convince exurb and upstate legislators of the benefit of taxing their own constituents. Give me you best pitch!

    Be sure to apply for the witness protection program before you advocate publicly charging for ALL parking.

    While you’re at it let us know something about the revenue stream that will pay the cost to expand and maintain all these enhanced bike facilities that are planned.

    (Trick question, there are no revenues from biking. Sorry.)

  • StevenF

    Tom #14 – interesting set of questions.
    Yes, there is little revenue collected directly from cyclists.

    But #1 – there is insufficient revenue collected from motorists.
    Drivers pay between 60 and 70 percent of the direct costs of the street and highway system via dedicated taxes, tolls and fees. All those charges for the car, gas and license, still don’t add up to the costs. The difference is made up by the rest of us, through sales, income and real estate taxes, whether we own a car or even drive.
    If the richest drivers, or drivers who get their office to pay the congestion price, and often lease the car and the parking space, too, then the city and state get back at least part of the missing revenues that drivers are not paying.

    But #2 – There is little revenue from bicycles, but there is also much lower costs to supporting bicycles, particularly if you look at the total costs including the land needed for parking and the external environmental costs. Cars need 10 to 20 times the land for parking, this is an opportunity cost for land that can be otherwise put to use. There is less roadway needed because things are closer together. Less impact on roads, air, fuel, medical – less serious crashes and better health from exercise.
    Coordinated with transit, plentiful bike parking at stations, bikes on buses and trains and safe travel to and from stations, bicycling becomes a viable efficient way to travel relatively long distances for commute trips. It answers much of the winter problem, because the bike part of the trip is short and quick, about the same time it takes to warm up the car seat before it’s parked for the day at the rail station.

    Turns out that the car is not much of a bargain, in fact it’s a looser, and the bike has a lot more savings than you think.

  • #9 Chris, “@gecko, you’d still need a place to park them”

    Park what? Do you understand what is being described.

  • #unepnews India Steers Full Speed towards Low Carbon Transport http://ow.ly/19Wfs6

  • tom

    Let me explain what lead me to focus on the costs of biking in NYC.
    I attended a panel discussion on transportation at the Puck building last month and I mentioned to someone there who focuses on municipal costs and benefits that if it weren’t for Rudy Giuliani’s cutting the welfare rolls there would be no money for the bike paths. Without any hesitation he responded that the problem for the City now was how to figure the size of the loss of transit revenues due to all these bikers forsaking the MTA for their bikes. This must be done before that number increases through expansion of the existing network. Greater utilization of a bike network may mean an underutilized, and underfunded, public transit system. The public ultimately pays for both.
    I have seen spreadsheets illustrating the costs of construction and out-year maintenance of bike routes(I have not seen any costing out of the new bike ‘tracks’).
    Always in the discussions on this venue I see claims of great benefits of biking, but never is there any detailing of costs. Of course, someday someone with the responsibility and authority must ask this question.

  • Yes, bikes compete with transit, which loses money – especially when capacity problems force the MTA to build relief lines. They also compete with cars, which also lose money, especially when you include the costs of pollution. What’s the problem with that?

  • The difference is that people who decline transit to claim their place on the public street with bicycles are being uppity, while motorists and taxi passengers who decline transit are maintaining their ancestral station.

    But in Copenhagen, someone with authority and responsibility did ask the question of how much uppity cyclists cost the city, and the answer was that their city profits $1.10 per kilometer cycled.



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