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Green Intelligence Live Blogging: "Moving Towards Clean Transportation"
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Green Intelligence Forum 2010 was held in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jeff Wheeler.

The Atlantic held its third annual Green Intelligence Forum on energy and environmental issues on October 26 and 27 in Washington, D.C. The event brought leaders together on issues like conservation, energy, supply chain and manufacturing, alternatives to fossil fuels and water policy. The second day included two transportation-related panels. TheCityFix attended both: one on cleaner transportation, the other on global supply chain issues and air travel. The speakers of the first panel, “Moving Towards Clean Transportation,” included:

They discussed practices, policy and research on how to bring the U.S. into the “modern age” of public and clean transport, much of which hinges on reducing the incentives for personal vehicle use and ownership.

The Power of the Purse

It’s not America; it’s our transport system that’s dependent on oil, said Frankel, a Republican who worked as Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and was appointed by former President George Bush. Frankel was encouraging in his bipartisan approach to U.S. transportation policy. He pointed out that the only sector of the U.S. that is totally dependent on oil is transportation.  Thus, policies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are paramount.

Most innovation in the transportation sector occurs at the state and local level, Frankel said.  This is largely because USDOT grants a sizable majority of its funding to state and local governments. Thus, the key question is how to use the power of federal government, or “the power of the purse,” to drive innovation in clean transportation.

Despite the local nature of transit funding, transportation is the least innovative sector in the U.S. economy, Frankel said.  The technology hasn’t changed very much, but with the right regulations and programmatic changes, the federal government can stimulate practical changes.

The Power of Cross-Sector Partnerships

Federal-driven change in the form of funding isn’t the only way to reach cleaner transport. In the developing world, namely India, public-private partnerships have driven recent successes in public transportation.  According to Lane, these partnerships are essential in cities in India without the institutional capacity to build the type of effective public transportation modes that would be long-lasting and effective. They bring knowledge and funding from the private sector to transportation solutions, which allows cities to benefit from private-sector expertise. Plus, the private sector has more obvious incentives to build efficient and profitable systems. (EMBARQ has been working to build these partnerships. For more on EMBARQ’s work in India, go here.)

On the other hand, in Europe, Otte said, bringing her private sector experience into play, most transportation systems are run under a system called “delegated management” in which a private sector company assumes all the risks, functions and operations of a transit authority.  In the U.S, there are only three cases where private companies alone run the transportation system: Savannah, Ga., a community outside Los Angeles and New Orleans. For more information on this model, read about Veolia’s work in New Orleans.

Transportation that Works for People

Good transportation solutions must work for people. “We need to align the personal optimum and social optimum,” Lane said, pointing to his former work founding a successful car sharing program in Philadelphia, PhillyCarShare, whose mission is to build a nonprofit program that “exceeds the convenience, flexibility and affordability of car ownership.” Even though car ownership is in many ways a prerequisite of being “a fully functional member of U.S. society,” car sharing programs allow people to have cars without paying the upfront and yearly costs of maintenance and insurance. Thus, customers save money but gain access to vehicles. There are many other types of transit solutions like bus rapid transit (BRT) and bike sharing that also serve the end user when developed in concert with other transit options.

Veolia’s approach is centered on the passenger, too, Otte said. Veolia is a private company that operates programs from bus to rail to taxi services, with a focus on sustainable mobility. Transportation systems and service providers should employ technology to make sure there are no gaps and the system is reliable and runs smoothly.  Otte, for example, said mobile phones give people options and more information on public transportation.

To smooth the transition to a more customer-oriented philosophy in the transportation sector, Frankel said innovation should be propelled from the bottom-up rather than the top-down approach that characterizes transportation policy.

A Moving Target: Personal Cars

The panelists seemed to agree that America’s love of cars, particularly second cars, is low-hanging fruit that should be the target of clean transportation policy.

What are the ways to get people to drive less? Frankel believes in clear and effective regulations. These options include a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax that charges drivers more during rush hour, as opposed to, say, a country road drive during the daytime, a gas tax and more stringent CAFE standards. The U.S. public seems to be increasingly more accepting of such policies.

When the focus shifted to electric vehicles, Lane said, “it’s imperative that we adopt new technology but this alone is insufficient.”  Policy signals that integrate transportation with other objectives and behavior adjustments are key to moving the issue forward. Lane reminded us that, globally, a million people die on the road each year; and technology does not solve the issues of social equity, access to jobs and public health issues like obesity.

At the federal level, programs need to be shaped to meet multiple goals. Otherwise, one program stands alone, jeopardizing the effectiveness of other policy measures. For example, congestion pricing won’t work if a city doesn’t have viable alternatives to driving. In the end, the panelists were hopeful.  Mobility in the U.S. does not mean cars gridlocked on a freeway. We have a number of effective models and technology and policy potential to look forward to.

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  • Programs that are perceived to erode freedom (VMT) will only be complied with resentfully, if at all. It would be much better for transportation leaders to pursue solutions that the public will buy into, such as those initiated by Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa in Bogotá. That’s not to say that TransMilenio and ciclarutas are the “right” system for American cities, rather, merely to suggest that the way to effect meaningful change is to construct positive solutions that people will embrace, rather than merely comply with.