Why Elizabeth Warren’s Punt on Light Bulbs Hurts Climate Advocacy

Tackling and overcoming the crisis will require even more fundamental change than dismantling Big Oil.

Warren expounds on climate change at a CNN presidential "town hall."
Warren expounds on climate change at a CNN presidential "town hall."

This story was originally published by the Carbon Tax Center. It is reprinted here with permission.

Forty years ago, the only “screw-in” light bulbs were incandescent. Little-changed since their invention in the late 1800s, “Edison” bulbs were cheap, disposable and staggeringly inefficient. “Small electric heaters that give off a bit of light,” someone once described them. Coal guzzlers, given how much electric current they drew.

Around 25 years ago, compact fluorescent light bulbs entered the market. offering the same illumination as incandescents for far less power. They quickly paid off their higher initial costs with saved electricity. But they took too much time to reach full brightness, their light was unattractive, and the bulbs contained mercury. CFLs were a climate solution, but far from an ideal one.

Sacrifice? Maybe, with CFLs. No way with LEDs.

Finally, a decade or so ago, LED bulbs became available. More efficient than CFLs, non-toxic, long-lasting and beaming brilliant light through dozens of tiny light-emitting diodes, LEDs are about as perfect a means of artificial illumination as can be imagined.  Consumers ate them up.

The widespread switch from incandescents to CFLs and then to LEDs is a big reason that, starting in 2005 and lasting for more than a decade, the U.S. economy held total electricity consumption constant — even as output of goods and services grew 20 to 25 percent. So unprecedented was this “decoupling” of electricity from economic activity that we at Carbon Tax Center produced a report, The Good News, celebrating it and explaining it. (Electricity usage did jump nearly 4 percent last year — Trumpism in action, perhaps? — but has dropped 2 percent this year.)

To be sure, more-efficient light bulbs weren’t the only factor holding down power demand. Digital tech in manufacturing and energy management also helped, as did the emergence of a robust business sector to harness energy efficiency. Ditto the structural shift from heavy manufacturing to service industries, along with a shift to urban living and delayed family formation, which resulted in smaller dwellings with fewer appliances (with the appliances themselves gaining in efficiency).

Nevertheless, the revolution in lighting offers the perfect rebuttal to the notion that energy efficiency — the linchpin of quickly eliminating fossil fuels from our energy supply — somehow entails sacrifice. LEDs produce the same or better lighting with more than an 80 percent saving in electricity. And if they cost more to buy, many utilities offer programs to help cut the customer price.

Which makes Elizabeth Warren’s handling of the light-bulb question during the a CNN “town hall” this week so frustrating. The question offered a fabulous opportunity to push back against the notion that energy efficiency means sacrifice. Alas, she missed the opportunity, as can be seen in this edited version of her exchange with moderator Chris Cuomo:

Cuomo: Do you think the government should be in the business of telling people what kind of light bulb they should buy?

Warren: Oh, come on, give me a break. This is exactly what the fossil-fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That [climate] is “your” problem. They want to stir up a lot of controversy around light bulbs, around your straws and around your cheeseburgers when 70 percent of the pollution and of the carbon we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries. Why don’t we focus there? It’s corruption. It’s these giant corporations that [are] making big bucks off polluting our earth.

To be fair, Warren took pains to say that “there are a lot of ways … to change our energy consumption. And our pollution. And God bless all of those ways.”But her attempt to deflect Cuomo’s question backfired, because she let his implicit equation of efficiency with deprivation go unchallenged.

Moreover, Warren’s “70 percent of the pollution comes from three industries” notion is grossly misleading. Yes, electric-power plants spew carbon, not the person at home, but cutting demand so those plants slow and stop their emissions during the transition to solar panels and wind turbines will require a redoubling of our home-efficiency efforts. (Emulating California would be a great start.) Which means ratcheting up efficiency standards for lighting, appliances and industry.

If we can’t proudly defend not just lighting efficiency but the 40-year collaboration of engineers, environmentalists and regulators that painlessly delivered efficiency to the appliance sector (refrigerators, air-conditioners, dishwashers, heat pumps, etc.), how are climate hawks going to champion the necessary choices that might entail some sacrifice, such as flying less, driving less mindlessly, welcoming urban density and transit-oriented development, and so on?

That’s why Warren’s punt on the light-bulb question hurts. And the harm has been exacerbated by the enthusiastic reaction of prominent left-green commentators. Rebecca Leber at Mother Jones congratulated Warren for “cutting through the dumbest climate argument,” despite the fact that Warren didn’t cut through the argument, she ducked it. At Vox, Li Zhou wrote that “Warren’s response speaks to how the fossil fuel industry [is] eager to shift the framing of subjects like light bulbs and paper straws in order to put the focus on consumer choice and deflect from the larger issue of reducing pollution,” a take that disconnects the vital matter of electric-generation pollution from the demand that helps give rise to it.

Sure, it’s politically attractive to put the onus for climate catastrophe on giant corporations. But actually tackling and overcoming the climate crisis will require even more fundamental change than dismantling Big Oil.

  • Joe R.

    It’s actually more energy efficient appliances, particularly refrigerators and air conditions, which helped keep the demand for power constant even as the population and economy grew. Those appliances on average used far more than light bulbs. Our old refrigerator used at least 100 kW-hr per month. That’s enough to run a 100-watt light bulb 1000 hours. Or if we assume light bulbs are run 4 hours a day on average, it’s enough to run about 8 100 watt bulbs every night. New refrigerators use less than half what the old models use, and often keep the food colder besides. Air conditioners have improved from an EER of around 8 in the 1980s to slightly over 12 now. That’s a 50+% improvement. While the improvement in lighting efficiency is far more dramatic (i.e. LED bulbs now use 10% to 15% the power of those they replace), lighting was always a smaller part of most electric bills.

    I happen to know a bit about lighting, especially LEDs, as my work often involved them, so here are a few critiques of the article:

    But they took too much time to reach full brightness, their light was unattractive, and the bulbs contained mercury. CFLs were a climate solution, but far from an ideal one.

    One reason the light was unattractive was the relative lack of efficient phosphors with high color rendering index (henceforth termed CRI). Another reason was the decision to try to emulate the very yellow color temperature of incandescent bulbs on the theory that most consumers wanted a replacement that looked similar. Color temperature is a measure of how yellow or white a light appears ( https://ilumi.co/blogs/pulse/86601543-light-iq-color-temperature-and-cri ). Unfortunately, old-school flourescents with low CRI and low color temperature look just awful. They look more like yellow bug lights than incandescents. Low CRI flourescents actually did manage to look passable at higher color temperatures of 4000K and over, which is why that type of light was used in offices for decades. If we had went with 4000K, CFLs might have been more popular. When they finally improved the CRI in the 1990s, and offered a choice of color temperatures (usually 2700K, 3000K, 3500K, 4100K, and 5000K, with 2700K and 5000K being the most common), lots of people went with 3500K and up.

    There was in fact a better alternative to CFLs even in the 1980s, namely the same linear tubes which lit stores and offices. Those could be had in higher CRI versions. They were also usually a little more efficient than CFLs, and had a smoother light distribution. We put them in our basement, my bedroom, and the kitchen over 35 years ago.

    Of course, the real lighting revolution happened with LEDs, and I was in on the ground floor in the early 2000s. Even back then, the first time I saw a tiny 5mm white indicator-sized LED which cost me $3, I said these will take over the world one day. To be sure, for a while LEDs suffered from poor CRI, and getting a particular color temperature was a crapshoot. They were also very expensive, but had huge advantages for portable lighting. That’s why LEDs took over the flashlight market first. The CRI and color temperature problems were less of an issue here. Even though those early emitter had low efficiencies in the area of 30 lumens per watt, they were still often several times more efficient than the incandescents they replaced. They were also vibration proof. As someone who had given up on bike lighting because I got tired of $4 bulbs getting destroyed by hitting a pothole, LEDs were a boon. I started riding with lights again.

    LEDs produce the same or better lighting with more than an 80 percent saving in electricity. And if they cost more to buy, many utilities offer programs to help cut the customer price.

    LED efficiency climbed amazingly rapidly. I still remember when Nichia surpassed 60 lm/W in the lab. I even wrote about it: https://www.storageforum.net/forum/threads/nichia-develops-60-lumen-per-watt-white-led.2234/

    This was in May 2003. Those who have the time should read through that thread. It’s like a microcosm of LED progress, with a lot of general lighting info thrown in. We reached 303 lm/W in the lab in March 2014. That’s actually getting close to the maximum theoretical efficiency LEDs are capable of. Production LEDs are now over 200 lm/W. In terms of conversion efficiency of power to light, this is roughly 60%. For comparison, linear fluorescents are up to 30% efficient, CFLs up to 25%, and incandescents 1% to 10%.

    The bigger story though is how rapidly price decreased. They actually don’t cost that much more to buy now. A 3W LED emitter cost me $20 or up in 2005, and it only got 30 to 35 lm/W. Now I can buy 3W LED emitters in low quantities for under $1. They also have better CRI, better consistency (i.e. I can choose the color temperature), and efficiencies of 125 to 200+ lm/W. Now LEDs with CRIs of 90 to 95 are common in all color temperatures. Yes, they’re about 20% less efficient than the usual CRI 80 LEDs in terms of lumens per watt because of the need to have more deep red, but they’re still more efficient than the best flourescents. As a result of these ultra inexpensive emitters, LED bulbs can for not much more than incandescents. This is why I don’t get the entire “government telling people what kind of light bulb to buy” thing. The market is choosing LEDs. Even without the government helping things along with efficiency regulations incandescent bulbs are done. Once LEDs get to the same price or less, even those who buy on purchase price alone won’t want them.

    LEDs are about as perfect a means of artificial illumination as can be imagined.

    That’s especially true once the high CRI versions started coming to market. I replaced the high-CRI 5000K sunlight linear tubes in my workroom with LED tubes a few years ago. Yes, the flourescents were pretty good as far as light quality went but when I put the tubes in I was stunned. They also had a CRI in low 90s, like my fluorescent tubes did, but not everything is equivalent. Fluorescents tend to emit a spiky spectrum because they use narrow band blue, red, and green phosphors. The high CRI ones use a few additional phosphors to try to fill in the gaps but the spectrum is still not smooth. Even when the CRI numbers come out the same, an LED light source will always appear better because it has a smooth spectrum. CRI 82 LED light bulbs to my eye look as good as fluorescents with CRI in the high 80s. So yes, LEDs are about as perfect a means of artificial illumination as can be imagined.

    Anyway, sorry about the long diatribe on lighting. I can write about this stuff for hours.

    On the idea that sacrifice is needed to combat global warming, yes it is, but in my opinion such sacrifice is not necessarily needed in our homes at least. We’ve already should we can have the same standard of living and use less or the same power. We obviously need to decarbonize the grid but that’s invisible to the end user. The sacrifice in my opinion will come mostly in the form of using less mechanized transit, as well as traveling a lot less.

  • Joe R.

    One more thing, I just read the article on the DOE rollback of lighting efficiency regulations. Besides being illegal, in the long run it probably won’t matter. LED bulbs are getting cheaper all the time. Soon even those who buy on price alone won’t be buying incandescent. Also, nothing is preventing states from having their own lighting regulations, as California has already done.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “They want to stir up a lot of controversy around light bulbs, around your straws and around your cheeseburgers when 70 percent of the pollution and of the carbon we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.”

    I guess she really is a Baby Boomer. Lying wins, so she’s lying. We can really have something for nothing, and as for what it costs, “they” will somehow have to make up for it.

    As it turns out, “they” is everyone under age 60, who will also be sacrificed to pay for the Trump tax cuts, Bush tax cuts, Reagan tax cuts, decades of low infrastructure investment, pension underfunding, retroactive pension increases, the recently added prescription drug benefit, etc. etc.

    She can’t claim ignorance.

  • AJ

    Elizabeth Warren seems to want some structural changes to energy production as a way to reduce carbon emissions. Ducking it the question entirely might be wrong, but she is right that paper straws and CFLs are, in 2019, are essentially feel-good measures compared to the massive task of reducing carbon emissions to zero in the next decade and a half.

    Maybe if we were in 1985 and talking about going vegan, paper straws and a carbon tax, it’d be great. But ultimately Warren is right to attack the focus on consumer choice when consumers don’t have a meaningful choice to reduce their carbon footprint in the first place for 95% of their decisions. The fact that we’re just now getting to this kind of legislation in the 21st century is shameful.

    But I also don’t think Warren has big enough goals or a good enough plan for our climate. A key piece missing from her plan is encouraging more walking, biking and transit trips. She pays only lip service to reducing one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the USA (transportation) with a vague commitment to public transit and electric cars. There are several concrete, meaningful positions she could take as would-be president or even as a legislator to get the ball rolling on a truly comprehensive shift away from cars and internal combustion engines.

  • AMH

    Interesting. My dad installed some LED bulbs when they first came out (at least 20 years ago) and they emitted a freakish UFO-type glow (must have been 5000K+). I was blown away when I learned about dimmable LEDs. I promptly installed some in my apartment. The first ones I tried were 3000K, but I hated the bluish light. I now use only 2700K. The light is pleasant and there’s no headache-inducing flicker. There are even fancy clear ones that show off the LED elements. Incandescents and CFLs are still available, but I don’t know why anyone would buy them anymore. The only incandescents I have now are in my fridge and oven.

  • Warren is right that we tend to focus on less important issues and ignore the big carbon contributors, but blaming it on industry also misses the point. The largest component of our carbon footprint is transportation, and the second largest agriculture, and these are choices we make every day, how we get around and what we eat. I’m all for everything we and government can do to reduce carbon, but in this case, it really does start with personal choice.

  • redbike

    Worth adding to this discussion: growth of data centers and server farms. These aren’t your 19th and 20th century farms. The not-so-good news: in absolute terms, energy consumed by server farms and data centers has grown from essentially zero at the beginning of the 21st century to somewhere in the mid-teens as a percentage of total energy consumption. The good news: the rate of growth of energy consumed operating and cooling these centers appears to be less steep as more efficient tech (as with LED lighting) is adopted.

    Contrasting / comparing the evolution of lightbulbs with data centers and server farms, while lightbulbs are orders of magnitude more efficient, data centers and server farms represent an entirely new and different use of energy, ramping up from insignificant to the mid-teens as a percentage of total energy consumption in less than 20 years.

    Trying to nudge this thread back to livable streets, what’s unknown (at least to me) is the extent to which energy consumed by data centers and server farms represents less energy expended on motorized transportation (as noted by Joe R.). But make no mistake: data centers and server farms (particularly with their omnipresent diesel backup generators) are a significant 21st century consumer of energy and source of pollution.

  • Joe R.

    One thing worth mentioning is as we transition from spinning disk hard drives to SSDs the energy consumed by data farms should decrease drastically. Also, quite a few of these data farms are located in deserts in the middle of nowhere. They’re perfect candidates for solar power.

  • Joe R.

    My dad installed some LED bulbs when they first came out (at least 20 years ago) and they emitted a freakish UFO-type glow (must have been 5000K+).

    I think you mean CFLs. White LEDs weren’t even invented until 1994, and the first LED bulbs didn’t start appearing until around 2010. Some of the earliest CFLs did have 60 Hz flicker but electronic ballasts eliminated that.

    I don’t know why anyone would buy CFLs or incandescents anymore, either. The CFLs aren’t any cheaper than LEDs at this point. Incandescents just suck, period. They’re less to purchase but you make up for it within weeks in terms of extra power consumption.

    I actually like 5000K for general lighting. It’s close to sunlight. It renders colors naturally and improves contrast. I’m not the only one. I look in windows when I’m walking at night and see a lot of 4000K and 5000K lighting. But at least with LEDs we have a lot of choices available.

  • redbike

    Yep. As I noted, while data centers’ and server farms’ demand for energy increases, the rate of that increase is flattening.

  • Edwin V

    I’m missing why this is on Streetsblog. Not why I support the site. Please stay on topic. Been straying a bit lately.

  • Joe R.

    Except that the way a lot of the country is laid out there is no choice in how we get around. People can’t use public transit if it doesn’t exist. People can’t use bikes if the distances they need to travel are too long thanks to zoning separating different land uses by miles. These are all things that have to be addressed by government at the policy level.

    It’s also much the same with what we eat. We should have a lot more food grown locally to reduce the transportation carbon footprint. Instead, we import it from thousands of miles away because it’s cheaper for the food distributors. Here again we need policy to change this. We need to tax carbon, at least for transportation, so it no longer costs less to buy food in low wage countries and transport it to the US. This will also create jobs at local farms. The price of food my rise slightly. Or maybe not.

    We also need to work on getting the most carbon intensive foods out of our diet. This doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating meat. Instead, it means figuring out less carbon intensive ways to produce meat. Cloning cells and growing them in trays sounds promising. The end product will be far more sanitary. It can be grown anywhere you have water and power, which means you can even grow it in cities, making the transportation costs negligible. You won’t have to grow acres of hay or corn to feed animals. Most importantly, you won’t have to kill a sentient animal, or keep these animals penned up under horrible factory farming conditions. The last part would get even PETA on aboard with this. I don’t know how far along we are with this, but it’s an area the government should fund research into.

  • I don’t disagree with what you say, however, even if there is a blue wave and a green new deal, it is going to take time and a lot of money to fix these structural problems. Everyone who is not low income, however, does have the ability to make different choices. People move several times during their adult life, but to date, working and living in close proximity has not been one of the criteria people use. It could be, and would have immense benefits, not just to carbon, but to livability and quality of life. We need to invest the money it will take to give lower income people the same choices that middle and upper income people have. But while we are waiting for, and working to bring about, these fixes, there is much we can do based on personal choice.

  • Joe R.

    In line with what you said, telecommuting has a huge, untapped potential to disconnect where people live from where they work. You could potentially work for a place located on the other side of the planet. We can strongly encourage this by giving companies tax breaks for every remote employee who never comes on site. To date companies have had all kinds of excuses for not making telecommuting more widely available. My guess is the primary reason is that bosses can’t watch over their charges all day. However, so long as the work is getting done I don’t see why that matters. In the end for a lot of jobs you’re being paid to perform a specific function, not to be a warm body in a chair for 40 hours a week. So long as the function is done properly, it shouldn’t matter how many hours you work. As for other potential issues, like the supposed need for face-to-face contact, I think there’s just a learning curve dealing with remote workers which employers are reluctant to spend time on.

    I worked remotely on a very complex project for a few years as a consultant. While there were a few issues with not being able to take advantage of their lab setup, I was able to duplicate most of the lab functions at home. In the end the project was enough of a success for them to take it to commercialization, which unfortunately meant I was no longer needed.

  • Telecommunting is the answer for many white collar jobs, but service jobs are an increasing proportion of the work force, and many are held by lower income people. I want a situation where lower income people can live and work in proximity.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The problem is the American mentality, the result of the way Americans have been conditioned to consume, and are broke.

    LEDs are in fact better and cheaper — the long run. How many Americans think beyond the next paycheck?

    Look at consumer goods across the board. The cheap stuff that wears out fast (long before the credit card bill is paid off) and “aspirational luxury” crap is available.

    Solid products that maybe cost a little more up front but end up cheaper because they last a long time and can be repaired? That was middle class stuff, and we are no longer a middle class country.

    I want my “consumer durables” to last 20 years. People think I’m nuts.

  • Joe R.

    The answer to that is probably employer-provided housing near the work site, or even in the same building. Since market rate housing near a lot of service jobs is unaffordable to low-income workers, I’m not seeing any other realistic alternative. We just need to change zoning laws so commercial or industrial can also have residential.

  • Agreed. Workforce housing is good. Zoning, at least as we currently have it, is bad.

  • Komanoff

    You may want to check your facts/sources. The specter a dozen or so years ago of server farms becoming giant energy guzzlers never really materialized. My sense is that they are no more than 2 percent of U.S. electricity consumption, which would make them less than 1 percent of U.S. energy consumption.

  • Komanoff

    Chris Cuomo’s debate question wasn’t about what consumers have to do. It pertained (in its not fully coherent form) whether *gov’t* should regulate and even bar certain types of energy use. Warren’s answer should have been Yes, in instances when those types are vestigial, wasteful and unnecessary. She had a chance to hit it out of the park, and instead trotted out a feel-good, simplistic response.

  • Joe R.

    Solid products that maybe cost a little more up front but end up cheaper because they last a long time and can be repaired? That was middle class stuff, and we are no longer a middle class country.

    I want my “consumer durables” to last 20 years. People think I’m nuts.

    You’re not nuts. I think the same way. In fact my brother was talking about this last week. He mentioned how things made 50 or 75 years ago are often still working just fine. For example, I’m still using a washing machine made in 1973. It’s easily repairable. Unless the tub physically rusts out I’m not seeing any reason to scrap it for something newer. I finally bought a new fridge in late 2017 but not because the old one broke. It was over 39 years old at the time, still working OK, but it was a power hog. I still have it in the basement unplugged for storage, or as a backup fridge. I doubt the new fridge will make it to 39 years but it’s a fairly high-end model and has worked perfectly so far. I usually look at reviews. If most people are happy with it, then I take a shot.

    The problem is nowadays it seems you can’t get any goods designed to last at any price point. Often the more expensive stuff is as you say “aspirational luxury crap”. The guts are often not much better than the cheap stuff, but they slap a few cosmetic touches on it, along with a designer label, to justify the high price tag. They’re not making durable items nowadays because people seemingly don’t want them. They upgrade their phones or laptops every few years, so where’s the sense in making these items last longer or be easily repairable. Same thing with appliances. People buy new ones because they’re “tired” of the old ones, not because they broke. In truth they’re not designed to last much past the point where most people get tired of them anyway.

    There is, however, one reason to still buy CFLs. LEDs burn out in enclosed fixtures. Learned that one the hard way.

    Look for “designed for totally enclosed fixtures” on the package. Also, when was the last time you put an LED in a totally enclosed fixture? This will become less and less an issue as more efficient LEDs are hitting the market. Just as an example, a 75 watt LED replacement from a few years ago used maybe 15 watts. This translated to an efficiency of ~75 lumens per watt, or in terms of percentage roughly 23%. That means of the 15 watts going in, 3.45 watts came out as light, and the other 11.55 watts stayed in as heat.

    Now let’s looked at what exists today. Same light output, but power use is only 11 watts. By definition, the same amount comes out as light, leaving only 7.55 watts staying in as heat. Or put another way, efficiency in terms of lumens per watt only increased by 33%, but heat production decreased by about 35%. Soon 150 lm/W products will hit the markets. The same bulb will draw only 7.33 watts, and produce only 3.88 watts of heat. Efficiency doubled compared to the bulb of a few years ago, but heat production was cut by 2/3rds.

    LED efficiency increases reduce heat production in two ways. First, the higher efficiency means you’re using less power to produce the same amount of light. Second, it also means a higher percentage of that power is turned into light, not heat.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Everyone who is not low income, however, does have the ability to make different choices.”

    Right. Before talking the talk, people have to walk the walk. Hypocrisy is the rationalization those who don’t want to can use against “green” politicians.

    How do things change in a free society? Bottom up, starting with early adopters, and spreading from there. Passing a law to force people to do things should be the last piece.

  • Joe R.

    Here’s a nice piece comparing LEDs to other light sources, complete with spectra:

    https://www.dial.de/en/blog/article/efficiency-of-ledsthe-highest-luminous-efficacy-of-a-white-led/

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Besides being illegal.”

    What’s with all these executive orders? I realize Congress is a disaster, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. should have an emperor.

  • Joe R.

    That’s exactly what Trump wants to be. If he gets a second term, he’ll have four years to change the laws to make President a lifetime position, and to give the President/emperor power to appoint his/her successor. My guess is Ivanka will be next in line for the “throne” when Trump steps down or dies. “The King is dead. Long live the queen!”

    The whole scenario reminds me of this:

  • isabell

    After 5 yrs I chose to abandon my previous occupation which improved my daily life… I initiated doing a job through internet, for an association I discovered on-line, for some hrs regularly, and I make money much more than I made on my old occupation… Last payment I got was 9000 dollars… Brilliant point about this is that I have additional time for my friends and family. Try it out, what it is about… earn35kpermonth.am-geilsten.de

  • cjstephens

    Indeed. And too much of this is why I don’t support Streetsblog financially.

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