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A vision for the future or a blast from the past?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/16/09 @ 8:29pm

It's déjà vu all over again with the region's transportation planning agencies and their blindspot about climate change. First, it was Akron's turn ? its agency, AMATS, ignored the impact climate change and inevitable federal carbon laws will have on everything from how we use our transportation system to how well it holds up to more extreme weather.

It took public and behind-the-scenes pressure, but word is coming that AMATS will include language acknowledging climate change in its updated long-range plan to be released on the web May 1 (a public hearing will take place on May 7 and the AMATS Board plans to vote on the plan May 13).

Still, admitting we have a problem is only the first step (albeit, a step that Greater Cleveland's transportation agency NOACA is still struggling with). The next steps are to face your problem and embrace solutions. As the Akron-Beacon Journal stated in its March 5 Opinion piece:

Other states and communities across the country have taken the lead. The Federal Highway Administration issued a report last summer about integrating climate change into transportation planning. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has endorsed the Climate Protection Agreement, more than 900 mayors, including Don Plusquellic of Akron (and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson), calling for reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions seven percent below 1990 levels. Now AMATS has an opportunity to do its part.

It's true today that Ohio and federal agencies are not requiring transportation agencies to mitigate or adapt our roads and highways to global warming. It's likely, however, this situation will change, and leading metropolitan planning organizations ? like MORPC in Columbus and progressive cities like Seattle ? are getting out in front by incorporating climate change into their regional transportation plans.   Let NOACA know that you expect the same in the Cleveland area by sending public comments on the plan to: publicinv@mpo.noaca.org.

What does this mean, and how can Northeast Ohio start planning for climate change? It means NOACA must establish measurable goals for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from our transportation sector and begin planning activities to ensure our transportation infrastructure is build to withstand changing climate conditions. Carbon reduction goals largely fall into three categories:

1. Strategies to reduce 'vehicle miles traveled' (VMT)2. Cleaner fuels3. More efficient vehicle fleets

Let's start with VMT-and mass transit. No silver bullet solution to reduce how far and how often we drive exists, but a host of options and incentives are available to transportation agencies. One glaringly obvious need is for more financial support from NOACA to expand our regional public transit system to meet growing demand. RTA, like many urban transit agencies, is dealing with the perfect storm of rising demand for seats on buses and trains and all-time lows in funding. Compounding matters is Northeast Ohio's job sprawl-the disconnect in the region between companies moving to where only cars on highways can reach them and the employee pool living in the city without a car.

Another area for NOACA to consider the impact of climate change in its long-range plan: Include a concrete goal to improve the conditions for biking and walking as a mode-split to VMT reduction. NOACA plans to update its Regional Bike Plan this summer. Goals for VMT reduction should be tied to goals for increasing bike lanes and routes (as well as bike parking facilities). If we're serious about stimulating a more sustainable model of transportation then we need to improve conditions for using bikes and walking to run the thousands of little trips within a half-mile of home and work ? make it safe and convenient for all. Increasing the percentage of trips made in Northeast Ohio by bike from the current .5% to even 2-3% would have more measurable effect on congestion and air pollution even if the vast majority of people continued to use automobiles as their mode.

We must insist our transportation agencies pay attention to the 57% of people in a regional survey who said it wasn't the cold weather, but the safety and inconvenience that was the biggest barrier to riding a bike more often. The most common impediments: better maintained streets; under-educated/violent motorists ignoring the rights of cyclists to use the roadway; education with more "SHARE THE ROAD" signs; lack of safe cross-town routes; and lack of bike lanes in many suburbs. Cycling commuters focused on the basics of transportation-being safer on the road and being ready for work, citing access to showers and secure bike parking at work or elsewhere, like a bicycle station, and the greater ability to find riding partners, through programs like NOACA's ride share website. Read more.

Biking and walking can be incentivized for everyday travel if our regional transportation agency thinks big picture: Meshing land-use and transportation but also energy and environment to reduce trips by car and encourage better infrastructure planning. Once again, look at MORPC in Columbus which has an Energy & Environment director working on these issues and language in its long-range plan to address climate change. NOACA can set a goal that transportation investment is tied to zoning for New Urbanist mixed-used town centers and investments in electrified streetcars. Sacramento, California's innovative work around modeling a light rail line's impact on greenhouse gases offers lessons on how to incorporate land-use and transportation decisions. NOACA can glean Important lessons on managing demand for roads and highways through infill development from this study of Boston, Charlotte and Denver (Why isn't our transportation planning agency, NOACA, applying for and completing these studies?).

NOACA's Board consists of elected officials in suburban and rural areas as well as core cities. A NOACA plan that acknowledges climate change would see the linkages within the metro area as an opportunity to build a web of commuter rail service on existing freight lines linking suburbs to city. NOACA's long range plan needs to make a strong statement about the type of roadways and set serious goals for transit ridership, bike lanes and bike parking. It needs to give serious consideration to the plan from a pair of Conservatives whose vision for addressing climate change includes urban revitalization and casts Cleveland as a model city for rebuilding streetcar corridors.

Which brings us to clean fuels. Washington insiders and dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives Paul Weyrich and native Clevelander William Lind raise an interesting point about the bi-partisan nature of reinvesting in existing infrastructure: "The long-term future of an automobile-dependent society has grown dim," their report Good Urban Transit: A Conservative Model reads. "If we are to do our duty to future generations, we need to bequeath them living, thriving cities that do not depend on imported oil. Prudence demands energy independence, for our cities and for our nation. Building good urban transit based on electric railways promises good long-term results."

Initially streetcars are more expensive than bus rapid transit, but gas prices will rise and rail lines returning to Madison, Detroit, Euclid Heights Boulevard, Mayfield Road, Buckeye, West 25th Street to Pearl Road will ultimately be the more durable investment. And since 30% of our carbon-dioxide emissions come from transportation, electrified rail-and, yes, more hybrid diesel electric buses running on domestic supplies of biodiesel and investments in wind and solar in rail corridors-are the way to a cleaner, more globally stable, fuel.

Now, compare these goals with the recently proposed language in the NOACA long-range plan. While it does mention climate change, and offers a glimpse of how it may address it in the last sentence, it's a small step, albeit, in the right direction.

Enhance the natural environment and ecology of the region by improving air, land and water quality, conserving transportation energy, addressing climate change, and by identifying and preserving existing critical natural resources and environmentally sensitive areas.

There is a strong scientific consensus that climate change is a phenomenon that will have consequences for humankind and the environment. There is also a growing belief that greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector are playing a significant role in contributing to climate change. It is likely that MPOs will be asked to consider climate change by future transportation planning regulations. NOACA's efforts to preserve and maintain existing infrastructure, reduce congestion, promote alternative modes of transportation, and support clean vehicle technologies already actively contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases in the region. NOACA has chosen to update this goal to specifically reflect climate change, however. NOACA considers this to be the initiation of an effort to develop a transportation related climate change policy that may expand upon its existing emissions reduction efforts.

The vagaries of the statement (how much does NOACA actively contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases in the region? How will they know success without metrics?) will not help the region meet its carbon reduction goals. Rather than pay lip service to the impending storm of climate change, NOACA needs tangible metrics for how it plans to address greenhouse gas reductions in the context of the region's challenges and future opportunities.

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