For the love of God, refugees aren’t the reason people are homeless

No, I really don’t think that’s the case, person who has never been homeless or a refugee.

In the week – God, has it seriously only been a week? – since President Donald Trump signed his despicable, potentially illegal Executive Order (EO) kneecapping the refugee resettlement program and temporarily suspending all entry from seven Muslim-majority countries, I’ve seen a lot people sharing memes, videos, and posts similar to the ones above and below.

The faux outrage struggle is real, I guess.

These items express faux outrage that refugees, who are apparently storming into this country, according to the Tweeter-in-Chief, are taking food and shelter away from homeless Americans, particularly veterans.

I know I shouldn’t treat these entreaties as sincere, because they aren’t. Most, if not all, of the people sharing this type of content have never met a refugee. They don’t view refugees as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. They instead caricature them, as our President does, as barbarians at the gates who are somehow uniquely violent and dependent.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, let’s take these claims at face value. Because, when you do that, my God do they fall to pieces.

During the first seven years of the Obama administration (FY 2009-2015), the United States government spent an average of $1.47 billion per year (page 11) on Migration and Refugee Assistance, once you subtract out the money spent on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs); OCO spending is essentially money spent abroad to stem the flow of migrants/refugees at the source by helping to address the push factors driving people to flee their homes.

For FY 2016, the State Department estimated the federal government would spend a total of $1.48 billion, while this number was set at $1.54 billion for FY 2017. We know that, due to this EO slashing the number of refugees the US intends to resettle by more than half from 110,000 to 50,000, this latter number for FY 2017 will necessarily decrease.

But here’s the thing – the US is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Refugees are not preventing the federal government from spending money on homeless veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has invested billions to tackle the homelessness among veterans since 2009. In FY 2017, for instance, the VA allocated $1.6 billion – more than the government would have spent on refugee resettlement – on programming for homeless veterans. Fortunately, this investment is paying dividends, as the VA estimates that homeless rates among veterans have fallen by at least one-third since 2010. This is excellent news, though much work remains. But if you only decided to care about homeless among our military veterans as a justification to support this EO, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

The same sentiment holds if you are only raising budgetary concerns now, but never said a word when Republicans forced President Obama to implement sequestration, which cut discretionary funding to the VA. Or if you don’t seem to object to Congress forcing the Department of Defense to spend money on technology and materiel the military doesn’t want. If you said nothing about the $1.4 billion spent on defunct and unnecessary Abrams tanks since FY 2015, refugees aren’t the problem. You’re the problem. The same goes for the $30.7 billion spent since FY 2015 on the F-35, which President Trump scored via tweet about during the transition.

If you supported a candidate for President who grandstanded to avoid a primary debate by claiming he was hosting a grand fundraiser for veterans, then only donated money to veterans groups after the Washington Post called him out on it, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you supported President Bush’s ill-conceived adventure into Iraq, which destabilized the Middle East and set the stage for the growth of ISIS. This war is one of the major drivers of the current refugee crisis and many of the ongoing challenges our veterans face. If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support the President’s intention to repeal the financial reforms enacted under Dodd-Frank? You know, the reforms put in place to help guard against the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession? That Great Recession that was built upon a housing bubble that left thousands of people homeless? If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

But we haven’t really even begun talk about homelessness writ large yet. Homelessness, at least among non-veterans, is not an issue that the federal government addresses. It’s tackled primarily at the local level, where your vote and your input is even more important.

So, do you vote in local elections? Do you vote for candidates who support effective policies to tackle homelessness, chiefly those that seek to actually provide affordable rental units directly to homeless individuals? If not, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support local officials and nonprofit organizations that provide housing, whether temporary or permanent, to homeless individuals regardless of whether or not they have substance abuse issues? Or do you force homeless people to go through treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues before gaining access to housing support? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you voted for a Republican governor that refused to expand Medicaid in his or her state. Do you support the current effort by Congressional Republicans to turn Medicaid into a voucher program, which would slash benefits and prevent people from taking advantage of it at the times it is most needed, like during recessions when homeless rates increase? What about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded mental health coverage to millions of Americans? That same ACA which bent the cost curve for healthcare expenses, which are the single largest reason for personal bankruptcies in the US? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

One of the myriad causes for homelessness in many cities is the rising cost of housing. There are a number of factors that affect housing prices, but none is more important than supply. We can help to mitigate price spikes by building more, denser housing units. Even if these units do not sufficient include low-income units – which they should – they can relieve stress on other properties, opening them up for new residents. But local residents, particularly homeowners who stand to benefit from ever-increasing property values, often fight these types of projects. Others still promote zoning restrictions to ensure that “those people” cannot live in their neighborhoods.

Are you a NIMBYist? Do you support exclusionary zoning policies like minimum lot size, height restrictions, and mandatory parking minimums? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

It’s a time-tested American tradition to blame the Other for our problems. If we don’t have enough money to solve all of our social issues, it must be the fault of the last person through the door. But that’s bullshit, and you know it’s bullshit.

Refugees are entitled to our help, support, and investment. They earned it with their blood, sweat, and tears. We have an obligation to defend, support, and care for them. That does not mean that we are unable to protect other vulnerable populations, like military veterans and homeless children. It never has, and, hopefully, never will.

So stop pretending otherwise. If the people sharing these stupid memes want to know whom to blame for our homeless population, maybe they should look in the damn mirror for once.

When it comes to Public Square, where have all the bollards gone?

public square drawings bollards
public square drawings bollards

If you look closely, you will see retractable bollards on Superior, running parallel to West and East Roadways in this rendering from Field Operations (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Last week, Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams sent separate letters to the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Federal Transit Administration acting head Carolyn Flowers, respectively, in which they asked the two agencies to extend the deadline for GCRTA to pay the $12 million fine for closing the Public Square bus lanes.

Both letters emphasized the city’s safety concerns, particularly the threat that someone may use the 600-foot stretch of Superior Avenue to drive a large truck into a crowd of people, as we saw unfold in the tragic attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Chief Williams’ letter, in particular, echoed earlier statements from Public Safety Director Michael McGrath:

Of particular concern is the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists to attack citizens attending public events. Ohio is one of a few states to receive particular attention by federal authorities in the past few months. Opening Public Square to cross traffic allows a determined individual to gain speed traveling on Superior Avenue and divert directly into a crowd gathered on the square.

The threat of terrorism should always be accounted for, as it is an all too common reality in today’s world. But, while Mayor Jackson and his public safety officials keep hyping it time and time again as a justification for closing the Square, they have failed to even discuss alternative options to – say it with me – mitigate this risk.

Let’s ignore, for a minute, whether or not GCRTA or the FTA has any regulatory obligation to address this question, as Mayor Jackson keeps insisting, and take him at his word.

I’ve met the Mayor on a few occasions, and I’ve always found him to be a polite man who is generous with his time and seems to legitimately care about the people he is supposed to serve. So I am willing to believe that he honestly worries about the safety risks. That said, why does he appear so ardently opposed to considering other options, short of closing the Square entirely?

The threat from vehicles is not new

As Chief Williams noted in his letter, there is “particularly concern” stemming from “the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists.”

But we should not be ahistorical and pretend that this trend is somehow new. Quite the opposite. Terrorists have been using vehicles as weapons for decades now, stemming back at least to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

In response, cities around the world have installed barriers to prevent individuals from getting their vehicles close enough to buildings to cause the type of devastation we witnessed in this attack. As New York University professor Marita Sturken described in her book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero:

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing both had high destructive impact because trucks were able to get into or next to the buildings. This has produced and industry in the construction of such devices as bollards and NoGos. Steel or concrete bollards, which now surround the vast majority of government buildings, are designed to stop a truck going fifty miles an hour. Sleek bollards are a now a key feature of security design…While Washington, D.C., has been the site of the most obvious barriers for federal buildings, there are now many projects to situate bollards around tourist sites such as the Washington Mall in ways that are less intrusive and more aesthetically pleasing.

So why did the City of Cleveland and its partners in the Public Square redesign not include concrete bollards, NoGos, or some other form of vehicle barrier along the curbs on Superior Avenue to – you guessed it – mitigate these terrorism concerns?

Vehicle barriers already exist in Cleveland

It’s not as though, like contemporary fashion, these design features have stayed on the East Coast and not yet filtered over to Cleveland yet. On the contrary, we already have bollards, barriers, and planters installed outside of buildings throughout downtown, including City Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Federal Building, and Key Tower, which sits just steps from the newly redesigned Square. We already had the foresight to install them at other sensitive locations, so why not Public Square?

 

Moreover, we have already installed bollards curbside along other public green spaces in Cleveland! East and West Mall Drives run parallel to Mall B downtown. As you can see below, in order to lower the risk that a car could jump the curb from those streets and crash into a gathering on the Mall, officials installed bollards. We’re already doing this.

bollards west mall drive

Bollards, both permanent and removable, abut West Mall Drive, protecting Mall B from vehicles.

We need to talk about the Malls

But, unlike Public Square, not every public green space in downtown Cleveland has raised the same breathless specter of terrorism. Venture just across the street south to Mall A, and you can see that the bollards disappear. The same thing happens when you head north to Mall C. Hell, even if you just go around the corner on Mall B, there are no bollards abutting St. Clair.

 

Each of the Malls runs along wide avenues – St. Clair and Lakeside – that can hold high volumes of traffic moving at high speeds. Each of them includes curb cuts that could allow someone to drive up off the street without being slowed down.

These Malls have been the sites of many large public gatherings, from protests to yoga classes to art installations to the Gay Games Festival Village and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Fourth of July concert. Where was the administration raising terrorism concerns when they were redesigned on the public dime, also to much fanfare? What makes Public Square so uniquely vulnerable?

I understand that the Square has a street bifurcating it, but similar conditions exist just a stone’s throw away.

What happened to the retractable bollards?

More galling, the original design of the Square, which starchitect James Corner unveiled in 2014, actually included retractable bollards at the intersections of Superior and East and West Roadways, which could be raised to close the street for special events. The City and its partners included these bollards in the plan, but scrapped them somewhere along the way.

Whose call was this? What was the justification?

So what’s really going on here?

Even if you take the administration at their word and assume their motives are pure, their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. This raises the question – what is their actual motivation?

Is it the Mayor’s assertion that the City was shocked by how popular the new space was? Are we honestly supposed to believe that the City spent tens of millions of dollars on a new Public Square, under the assumption that a few dozen people would maybe use it sometimes?

Or could it be, as Councilman Zack Reed suggested and Chief of Staff Ken Silliman perhaps accidentally admitted on November 30, that the businesses in and around the Square (including those who helped fund its completion) don’t want “those people” hanging around, waiting for the bus? If this is your real motivation, I urge you to reconsider.

Ultimately, each of these arguments falls apart when you actually hold it under the microscope.

We never should have gotten to this point, where GCRTA is facing a potentially crippling fine. Our elected and appointed officials should be able to demonstrate even a modicum of foresight and planning on issues such as this.

Public Square is an outstanding public space, and everyone should be able to utilize it. But, despite its many excellent features that make it unique in Cleveland, it is not uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

If you want to mitigate this risk, by all means do so. But that does not require closing the Square to buses.

Open Public Square to buses, because bus riders deserve nice things, too

 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or don’t pay attention to debates about public transit and green space in Cleveland (so, 99.9999% of the world), you probably know that the other shoe dropped in the Public Square bus lane debate late last month, when the Federal Transit Administration sent a Notice of Debt to GCRTA for $12 million in funds for the Euclid Corridor/HealthLine bus rapid transit (BRT) project.

This debate has now really come to a head, as FTA provided just 30 days (starting December 20) for GCRTA to pay the full fine or file a formal dispute.

To this point, the fight over the Public Square bus lanes has taken on a number of forms. There was was Mayor Frank Jackson’s claim that the Square was more popular than they anticipated and his fiery assertions that FTA is using the fine to distract from its legal obligations to ameliorate the City’s continued claims of terrorist threats (of course, as Sam Allard has reported, it appears the Mayor completely made these up, but YOLO I guess).

There were those noted the logistical and financial hardship placed on GCRTA from having to drive around the Square, while others have raised the safety risks inherent in forcing bus drivers to take more than 1.1 million additional turns. Tragically, we saw those risks unfold on December 7. Still others made unnecessarily esoteric arguments about marginal emissions due to the decision; seriously, what nerd did that?

Moving beyond the numbers to the people in this debate

But, for the most part, the parties waging this policy battle have not gone into detail on the impacts of dispersing riders who would otherwise transfer or catch their buses in the Square to outlying bus stops. There are two main exceptions to this. The first was Councilman Zack Reed’s – shall we say – entertaining descent into the Cleveland.com comments section during the November 30 City Council Transportation Committee hearing. The second was a story from WEWS, which relayed safety concerns from riders about being displaced from the bus stops on the Square to others which were poorly lit and located.

It’s to this issue that I want to turn now, in light of a recent study (paywall) from the Transportation Research Board, which focuses on how the physical environment can affect people’s perceptions of bus waiting times.

In their introduction, authors Marina Lagune-Reutler, Andrew Guthrie, Yingling Fan, and David Levinson (herein Lagune-Reutler et al) point out that the amount of time transit users spend waiting to ride is vital for shaping people’s perceptions of public transit. Research event suggests that time and service quality are more important for influencing people’s transportation mode choice than financial costs. Accordingly, if a transit agency makes efforts to cut waiting times, or even the perception of waiting times, they can enhance their public standing and potentially increase ridership without undertaking major capital investments.

A wide array of previous research demonstrates that several variables can influence how long people feel they have waited for their bus or train to arrive. A 1993 study from global consulting behemoth Parsons Brinckerhoff – which, coincidentally, GCRTA is paying $60,000 to conduct a study to find alternatives to opening Public Square – in the Twin Cities showed that access to clear, reliable information on waiting times affects riders’ sense of time. According to the study, a lack of reliable service and unpredictable delays can increase the perceived amount of time spent waiting among transit users. Given that GCRTA has continued to cut service, and CEO Joe Calabrese has reported that 43% of buses that transit Public Square are delayed due to the closure, this issue clearly affects bus riders.

A separate 2016 study (paywall) from Fan, Guthrie, and Levinson found that women, in particular, report perceiving longer waiting times at transit stops and stations located in unsafe environments. “At a simple curbside bus stop, a 10-min wait seems to take nearly a half hour.”

In contrast, a 2014 study conducted in Naples, Italy (paywall) by Ennio Cascetta and Armando Cartenì reported that high-quality waiting environments can not only reduce perceived waiting times, they can actually provide “hedonic value” – a sense of pleasure or happiness – among riders, especially women. This research again applies to the case at hand, as women constitute a majority of GCRTA riders, overall, and they account for even larger shares of bus and BRT riders.

gender rta riders

GCRTA riders by gender, by mode. Women account for a majority of all riders, as well as a majority of riders for all modes, other than heavy rail, which is the Red Line Rapid (courtesy of GCRTA).

Capturing the impacts of the transit waiting environment

Lagune-Reutler et al build upon this earlier work to examine how transit waiting environments influenced perceived waiting times at 36 stations in the Twin Cities. The stops were classified according to several variables, including: type (transitway station, transit center, improved curbside stop, or unimproved curbside stop); location (residential or commercial, urban or suburban); and a pleasantness score (low, medium, or high). They analyzed the influence of a number of independent variables, using measures of traffic safety and neighborhood security like posted speed limits, traffic volume, sidewalk characteristics, streetlights, vacant properties, noise and air pollution levels, and tree cover.

The authors conducted surveys from 822 transit users to capture the amount of time they felt they spent waiting for the bus or train during July-August 2013 and February-April 2014. They then compared these self-reported times to video footage, which provided actual waiting time for these same participants.

The waiting is the hardest part

Their results showed that, on average, transit users tended to overestimate their waiting times by roughly 18%, stating they felt they waited for a mean of 6.45 minutes, when the actual value was 5.48 minutes. Air pollution and heavy traffic combined to cause riders to significantly overestimate their waiting times. A 2.5-minute wait was seen as 3.88 minutes, while a 10-minute wait grew to 12.13.

Tree cover, in turn, can alleviate this effect, particularly for longer waits. Riders perceived their 10-minute waits as lasting just 7 minutes when surrounded by mature trees. According to the authors,

Generally, the results suggest that the more trees present, the shorter the wait time is perceived by riders, whereas the more polluted and exposed to traffic, the more transit users tend to overestimate wait time. These findings advocate for high-quality urban environments surrounding stops and stations.

This finding provides an important point that has largely been ignored in the Public Square debate to this point. It’s not simply a matter of whether closing the Square to buses will cost more or whether a unified square is more aesthetically appealing. What matters is that transit riders have every right to take advantage of this outstanding public green space, which their tax dollars helped finance, and that doing so will make them more inclined to enjoy their transit experiences.

Mitigate for me, not for thee

Throughout his 20-minute rant against the FTA and GCRTA on December 30, Mayor Jackson kept repeating one word: mitigate.

He was trying to mitigate the risks of terrorism. FTA has an obligation to mitigate safety concerns. The City and GCRTA can mitigate service disruptions. There was no way for him to mitigate the pain and suffering Joan Keundig’s family is experiencing. Mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. But one thing the Mayor did not focus on was mitigating the burden placed upon bus riders who have been forced off of the Square.

The types of transit waiting environments that Lagune-Reutler et al outline, which can mitigate this burden, perfectly describe Public Square.

The bus stations are new, well-lit, largely protected from the elements, and include a transit system map. Bus riders on the Square are surrounded by other pedestrians – both transit users and non-users alike – and, frequently, police, providing additional eyes on the street, which can mitigate security concerns. The stations are flanked by new trees and vegetation, helping to address the tree cover variable. And Superior itself is dedicated for buses and bikes exclusively, mitigating concerns about traffic, noise, and air pollution. (The current arrangement, as I’ve demonstrated, exacerbates those issues.)

Honestly, if you read the description of the ideal transit waiting environment from the study, it just sounds like they’re describing Public Square to you:

First, creating exclusive transit lanes or streets reserved for transit, bicycles, and pedestrians (where feasible) is likely to reduce waiting time perceptions by increasing distances between waiting areas and automobile traffic. Second, the alignment of transit routes and the location of stops avoiding highly polluted areas where possible without affecting travel demand can also contribute to shorter perceived wait times…

The ability of the presence of trees to compensate for the negative effects of pollution and traffic suggests that planting trees or moving a problematic stop to take advantage of existing tree cover can significantly improve the user experience at a reasonable cost. This cost should be compared with other costs of measures able to enhance customer satisfaction such as higher frequency, transit information, and stop amenities.

As I’ve discussed more times that I care to count, public transit in Cleveland is in a crisis. Closing Public Square to buses exacerbates that issue, not only by imposing financial and logistical costs on GCRTA itself, but by making transit less desireable to users.

We spent $50 million in public and private financing to build a new Public Square that, by all regards, is a wonderful public space. Then our Mayor unilaterally decided to kick out the people who have historically used that space the most – bus riders. There is no longer any good argument to retain this status quo, and this study simply adds more weight to this conclusion. Bus riders deserve nice things too.

Does air pollution affect the energy output of solar panels?

beijing smog 2017
beijing smog 2017

Smog engulfs Beijing on January 4 (courtesy of Jim Sciutto, CNN).

This is a very me post, so bear with me. There’s a picture of my cat at the end in it for you if you finish.

In the past few days, I came across two newsy items regarding China that caught my attention.

The first is the time lapse video below from British expat Chas Pope, who lives in Beijing. It depicts the horrific scene of a cloud of smog descending upon the city on January 2.

Beijing has long had well-known pollution issues, but the smog besetting the capital, and dozens of other cities in Northern China in recent weeks, has been historic. While fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels actually fell nearly 10% in Beijing last year, authorities have already issued red fog alerts for 24 cities – a first in Chinese history – so far in 2017. These relatively new warnings are invoked when pollution levels exceed certain thresholds for multiple days. These types of toxic smog events – like the one in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 – are acutely toxic and can kill thousands of people each day.

The second was this section from a Bloomberg article on the falling costs of solar power:

In China, the biggest solar market, will see costs falling below coal by 2030, according to New Energy Finance. The country has surpassed Germany as the nation with the most installed solar capacity as the government seeks to increase use to cut carbon emissions and boost home consumption of clean energy.

Because my brain works in strange ways that even I don’t fully comprehend, these two items fused in my mind to open up a new line of inquiry. We know that China is investing heavily in clean energy in order to curb its air pollution crisis, which kills some 4,400 Chinese every single day. This rapid scaling up of clean energy should help to mitigate some of the major causes for this pollution, namely reliance on coal-fired power plants for electricity and heating.

So we already understand the first side of this relationship – energy produced from solar panels affects air pollution levels. But what about the reverse? Can air pollution also affect the amount of solar energy? Does air pollution generated from fossil fuels reduce the energy output from solar panels?

Can air pollution affect output from solar panels?

On the surface, this question seems pretty straightforward. We know, for instance, that ground-level ozone (O3) inhibits plant growth. However, most of this effect seems to come from the O3 either clogging the stomata of the plants, limiting their ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, or from the O3 chemically reacting within the cells of the plants, damaging them and making them more susceptible to other stressors.

We also know that solar power output is dependent upon environmental factors, including cloud cover, solar irradiance, and ambient air temperatures. Accordingly, it would seem logical that air pollution could also play a factor.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research on this particular issue. That said, what research there is all seems to point in one direction; namely, yes, air pollution can limit solar power generation.

The impact of pollution deposition

One line of inquiry in this field of research centers on the impacts of airborne particulate settling on the solar panels themselves.

Throughout China and much of Asia, including India and Indonesia, the prime air pollutant of concern is PM2.5, which consists of various microscopic particles and drops of liquid suspended in air. Through a process known as deposition, the particles will settle out of the air, either due to rain (wet deposition) or wind (dry deposition).

When this occurs, particularly through dry deposition, the particles will cling to a surface nearby. This effect helps explain part of the reason why trees and other forms of vegetation are so effective at mitigating air pollution – leaves can trap and hold onto pollutants. But deposition can occur on nearly any surface, which is why you’ll hear stories from before the Clean Air Act about how people living in Cleveland or Pittsburgh had to change shirts at lunchtime, since they were soiled by soot and ash.

Logically, these particles can also deposit onto solar panels, if they are in the immediate vicinity. Keeping the surface of a panel clean is essential to ensuring it can capture solar radiation and convert it to electricity efficiently. Any dust from air pollution that accumulates on the panels may reduce power output through a process known as soiling.

Multiple studies have shown that soiling can reduce solar power output. In a 2001 study (paywall) in the journal Renewable Energy, Ebrahim Asl-Soleimani, Shahrokh Farhangi, and M.S. Zabihi examined the effects of panel tilt angle and ambient air pollution on solar output in Tehran.

Like many major cities with persistent pollution problems, Tehran is surrounded by mountains, which inhibits the movement of air through the city, allowing for pollution to accumulate over time. As a result, the city consistently ranks among the most polluted. Asl-Soleimani and his colleagues compared the power output of a solar panel on two days in December 1999 – one with high levels of pollution and one with clearer skies. They found that “air pollution can reduce the energy output of solar modules by more than 60%.”

John Kaldellis and Alexandra Kokala of the Technological Educational Institute of Piraeus (TEIP), a university in Athens, published a similar study in 2010. From August to September 2009, they conducted an experiment in which they exposed pairs of solar panels to ambient air pollution for different amounts of time. In addition to a control pair, they kept panels outdoors – without cleaning them or exposing them to rainfall – for 2, 4, 6, and 8 weeks.

Athens suffers from many of the same pollution issues as Tehran due to its geography, and particles readily accumulated on the panels during this period. The panels left outside for 2 weeks saw 0.1 grams per square meter (g/m2) of dust accumulation, while those left out for 8 weeks saw 1 g/m2. As the dust accumulated on the panels, over time, the output deteriorated due to falling levels of solar irradiance. At 2 weeks, panel output fell by around 2%. This value climbed to 6.5% by week 8.

Additionally, Miqdam Chaichan, Bashar Mohammed, and Hussein Kazem published an article (PDF) in April 2015 that examined the effects of pollution and dust on solar panel output in Iraq. They compared the output of a panel they cleaned by hand to one cleaned naturally by rainfall and one covered in particles from ambient pollution. Compared to the clean panel, power output fell for the naturally cleaned and polluted panels by 7.6% and 11.9%, respectively. The average efficiency rate of the solar cell on the polluted panel actually fell from 4.8% to just 1.7%, an astonishing 63.7% drop in efficiency.

According to these authors, PM10 and PM2.5 are particularly harmful to solar panels because, unlike larger dust particles, one cannot readily wash them off. As a result, the accumulation of PM can damage the surface of the panel, lowering its efficiency and shortening its lifespan.

Pollution also blocks out sunlight

But deposition is not the only way that air pollution can affect solar power production. Much as cloud cover can reduce the amount of solar radiation that reaches the photovoltaic (PV) cells, so too can heavy smog, like what residents of Beijing are enduring.

Mohammadreza Maghami and colleagues from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) examined this issue in a 2014 article for PLOS OneIn the study, they compared the output from solar panels on the UPM campus before, during, and after a major pollution event throughout Southeast Asia from June 13-19, 2013.

They authors cleaned two solar panels on June 1, then tracked their average output from before (June 1-10), during (June 11-21), and after (June 22-30) the haze, taking power output samples every 30 minutes. As the chart shows, power output plummeted as the haze set in, and ultimately jumped back up after it ended.

power output 2013 haze

Power output from fixed flat PV (FF) and tracking flat PV (TF) solar panels before, during, and after the 2013 Southeast Asian haze event (courtesy of Maghami et al).

While daily average energy output was 8.5 kWh before and 10.6 kWh after the haze, it fell to just 6.5 kWh during the pollution event, a reduction of 23% and 39%, respectively. As the researchers concluded, “the effect on PV generation was strongly dependent on the haze pollution.”

Ultimately, while the literature is relatively sparse, its results are conclusive. Just as air pollution from fossil fuel combustion harms public health and the environment, it also undermines the productivity of the clean energy we are counting on to replace it. Fossil fuels suck.

 

As promised, here’s Gigi.

Gigi being sassy AF.

 

Don’t listen to NEOMG – closing Public Square to buses leads to more air pollution

public square bus protest
public square bus protest

Protestors, including Councilman Zack Reed, call for the opening of Public Square to buses on December 3 (courtesy of Cleveland Scene).

One can generally count on Advance Ohio/NEOMG/Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer/whatever they are going by nowadays to defend vigorously the interests of the entrenched powers-that-be. This outcome particularly holds true when it comes to shiny, big ticket megaprojects.

Regardless of whether or not said megaprojects actually have merit, Cleveland’s largest media conglomerate and newspaper seems all too happy to eschew logic or internal consistency in their quest to carry the water for the region’s political and business elite.

One need look no further than their breathless coverage last week of the “transformation plan” for Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland.com even created a helpful landing page for the proposal, complete with 13 separate stories. Erstwhile good journalists twisted themselves into knots trying to defend a plan that will cost taxpayers some $160 million over the next two decades to bring up to snuff an arena that just hosted the Republican National Convention, in the hopes of “boosting the city’s ability to attract major events, such as political conventions.” Check your logic at the city limits, folks.

With all of that in mind, it is really no surprise that NEOMG/the PD/whatever would happily defend Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s inexplicable decision to close Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses. A lot of ink and words have been spilled on this issue, and I’m not here to relitigate this fight. Instead, I just want to focus on a relatively narrow issue.

Two weeks ago, just days after a contentious City Council hearing on the issue, the PD published an editorial that dutifully parroted the Jackson administration’s talking points on the subject, right down to the hyperbolic fear-mongering about terrorist acts and bus drivers mowing down children in the street.

Putting aside those claims for a minute [which, honestly, we shouldn’t, because hoo boy], there was one particular part that really caught my attention,

Public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations and wheezing block-long buses were prevalent.

When I read that sentence, I think my eyes damn near rolled out of my head and onto the floor.

Forget the absurd claim that “public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations,” which is, obviously, insanely ahistorical. One can easily date terrorism back the first century CE, and the word itself has its origins in Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, which took place two years before Moses Cleaveland even established this city.

Leave aside the assertion that GCRTA employs “block-long buses,” which is preposterous. The average block in downtown Cleveland is roughly 500-600 feet long. GCRTA’s longest buses are…not.

About those “wheezing” buses…

But that’s still not what I want to talk about. While you may want an analysis of the merits – or lack thereof – of the arguments put forward by the administration and its water carriers at 1801 Superior Avenue, I gotta be me. And, as Area Air Quality Nerd, I cannot get past the “wheezing” part of that ludicrous sentence.

Read literally, the PD’s editorial board argues that allowing GCRTA buses to use the dedicated bus lanes on Superior Avenue through Public Square would allow them to belch out diesel exhaust, fouling air quality and damaging the lungs of passersby.

Except that is prima facie absurd. Perhaps the members of the editorial board don’t quite understand how mobile emissions work, but that isn’t it. On the contrary, forcing buses to travel around, rather than through, the Square should produce more emissions, as the buses are forced to drive farther and sit in traffic as they compete for road space with other vehicles. But how much?

Fortunately, I do this sort of thing for a living, so I can estimate the additional bus emissions associated with closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses.

The method to my madness

Let me briefly lay out my methodology. According to GCRTA data, roughly 1,445 buses drive through/around Public Square on a daily basis. Because those buses are not able to access their dedicated lanes on Superior Avenue, they are forced to transit another 0.1 miles around East Roadway/West Roadway/Rockwell, adding some 52,754.5 miles per year. Additionally, because the buses are now in traffic, they must travel at reduced speeds and idle as they wait to get back on Superior Avenue.

Below, I lay out the additional emissions that result from closing the Superior Avenue bus lanes through Public Square. In one scenario, I assume each bus trip is delayed by 2 minutes – the lower estimate which the administration provided at the Council hearing. In a second scenario, I assume each bus trip is delayed by 4 minutes, which, while double the administration’s estimates, is still below observed delays of 6 to 10 minutes from GCRTA riders. The former scenario leads to 17,851 idling hours per year, while the latter adds up to 35,162 hours.

I utilized MOVES2014a, the most recent version of the U.S. EPA’s mobile emissions modeling software, to develop emissions factors per mile and for each additional hour of idling for the GCRTA bus fleet. I then converted total emissions into additional metric tons per year. The results are shown below.

additional emissions public square

Additional emissions from closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses (authors estimates using MOVES2014a).

Closing Superior generates more emissions

As you can see, the additional distance the buses must travel (0.1 miles per trip), leads to de minimis emissions. But when you add in the idling emissions, those numbers climb significantly. Carbon monoxide (CO) emissions total 0.71 and 1.13 tons, respectively, based 2- and 4-minute delays, while nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions total 1.96 and 3.16 tons, respectively. Closing the Square also leads to an additional 535.98 and 860.96 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year for each scenario, respectively.

And those emissions have real costs

On the whole, these are not particularly eye-popping numbers. But they do carry real costs and consequences. When the City of Cleveland and GCRTA initially sought federal funding for the Healthline BRT project in 2001, they estimated the emissions savings the project would generate. As the table below shows, the additional emissions from closing the Square to buses nullifies a portion of those emissions.

costs from additional public square emissions

Costs associated with additional emissions from closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses (authors estimates).

The additional CO emissions only takes away slightly more than 1% of the estimated savings; that said, vehicle CO emissions have plummeted nationwide since that point due to new vehicle emissions controls, so that’s not surprising. But the additional NOemissions could wipe away almost half the estimated savings under a 4-minute delay scenario.

These extra emissions carry real social costs. I have also estimate the social costs of the additional emissions, using damage estimates from the Federal Highway Administration. Again, the numbers are not staggering, but they do amount to tens of thousands of dollars in additional social costs tied solely to the Mayor’s decision to close a 600-foot piece of road.

Don’t forget those unknown unknowns

Furthermore, I cannot calculate any additional emissions that may result from the ripple effects of this ill-conceived decision. GCRTA has already cut more bus revenue miles than any other major transit agency, and it recently enacted a two-step fare increase. Add to that a potentially catastrophic budget hit from the loss of sales tax revenues on managed care organizations, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Tacking on another $1.6 million in operating expenses and increasing delays will make the experience worse for riders, possibly driving those who can afford it off the bus and into private cars. Given that GCRTA buses release 19% fewer average emissions per passenger mile than single-occupant vehicles (320 grams vs. 396 grams of CO2e, per my estimates), this outcome would just add even more emissions.

So while I expected the PD to support the Jackson administration’s choice, they should tread more carefully when it comes to verifiably inaccurate statements. There are no block-long buses hurtling through Public Square, belching out emissions. Just the opposite, in fact.

Employers play a major role in shaping commuting behavior

miami rush hour traffic
miami rush hour traffic

Rush hour traffic along I-95 in Miami (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

For sustainable transportation advocates, changing people’s commuting behaviors can seem like our white whale.

While commutes account for just 19% of total personal trips in the US, they play an outsized role in our transportation system, accounting for 27.8% of total vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Their timing is also critical. The concept of rush hour revolves around our commute patterns. In cities like Washington, DC and Los Angeles, rush hour congestion can make life hell commuters, costing them time, money, and sanity. But in cities that are not growing and have no real congestion issues normally, these rush hour periods are particularly important.

For a city like Cleveland, commuting patterns directly influence the transportation infrastructure we end up with. The influx of drivers heading to and from work each day provides justification to expand our already overbuilt road system, which has serious impacts on development patterns, travel choices, and mobile emissions. If we could smooth these demand spikes by reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on the road, we could potentially upend this vicious cycle, which justifies the continued addition of freeway lane miles to the system.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we’ve made little, if any ground in this area. In 1960, the Census Bureau reported that 64% of Americans drove to work; they did not differentiate between driving alone and carpooling at the time. Another 12.1% of commuters used public transit, while just under 10% walked. By 1980, thanks to OPEC oil embargo, 19.7% of Americans carpooled, and the drive alone number stayed at 64.4%, even as public transit use fell.

But by 2014, these trends had reversed; 76.3% of Americans drive alone to work, while just 5% take transit, and 3.4% walk or bike. To date, our efforts to get people to stop driving alone to work have failed spectacularly.

Commuting: What is the role of employers?

Part of the problem with these efforts is that we have focused far too much on the individual. Commute mode decisions are a two-way street (pun intended). They depend not only on the whims of the individual, but also on employers’ decisions. People don’t just decide to drive to work in a vacuum. Their universe of choices are shaped by a number of endogenous and exogenous factors, including things entirely in the control of their employers.

This thought really crossed my mind recently while I was reading an article on electric vehicles (EVs) by Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Mims noted the vital role that employers can play in normalizing EVs for their employees:

Placing charging stations at workplaces, where cars spend much of their time, will be uniquely powerful. When a workplace installs a charging station, employees are 20 times as likely to buy a vehicle with a plug, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In light of this fact, it’s important to consider what, precisely, employers can do to influence the commute patterns of their employees.

Earlier this year, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability and NOACA partnered together to launch what they called the Commuter Choice Challenge. The goal of the program is “encouraging Northeast Ohio organizations of all shapes and sizes to take action in sustainable transportation.”

While some people may scoff at the idea that we should reward organizations that provide pre-tax transit passes to their employees, there really are a number of steps employers can take to foster mode shift. Collectively, this effort to provide alternatives and enhance the efficiency of our transportation system is known as transportation demand management (TDM).

Changing jobs and the importance of signalling

One of the simplest things that an employer can do is to act as a knowledge broker and paragon for their employees. For most people, commuting is a habit – once people start driving to work everyday, it becomes very difficult to shake them out of it.

Because commuting is a habit, there are only so many potential points at which an intervention is likely to succeed. But habits become weaker when your personal circumstances change. This context tends to shift most abruptly after major life events, such as moving or changing jobs.

In a study published earlier this year, Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee, and Steve Melia from the University of the West of England explored how these life events affect people’s commutes. They found that, while one-fifth of all British commuters change their mode from one year to the next, car commuting is far stickier. Just 8.6% of car commuters changed away from driving, and the mean duration of their commute mode was 6.3 years, twice as long as those for public transit (3.0 years) or active transportation (3.2 years).

Targeting new hires can be a highly effective way to disrupt the stability of car commuting. The odds that a person will switch from driving to alternative modes increases 2.5-fold when people change jobs. This highlights the importance of providing new hires with comprehensive TDM options and information, not just a parking pass. Demonstrating from day one that your workplace acknowledges and supports non-SOV modes helps to normalize them for employees. Signalling is an important part of behavioral change.

Pull factors matter…

If employers wish to reduce their SOV share, they need to provide a suite of incentives to get them out of their cars. These pull factors can come in a variety of forms, from reduced health insurance premiums for people who use active transportation to subsidized transit passes.

Considerable evidence suggests that these sorts of TDM packages can go a long way. In a 2005 study, researchers from the U.S. EPA examined the impact of the Agency’s Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC) program, which recognizes employers that encourage, educate, and incentivize their employees to try alternative commute modes.

The researchers compared the commute patterns among employees using the BWC programs to the average commuter in these same Census blocks. They then modeled the impacts of these commute patterns to see the associated reductions in gasoline use and mobile emissions. According to the authors:

The results of this survey indicate that where employers provide employees with incentives to commute by means other than driving alone, significant percentages of them take advantage of these benefits. Comprehensive benefits packages such as those enjoyed by commuters in the BWC group, with financial incentives, services (such as guaranteed ride home, carpool matching, etc.) and informational campaigns, appear to produce reductions of trips, VMT, pollutants, and fuel consumption of around 15 percent even under conservative assumptions.

Another 2012 paper from Virginia Tech professor Ralph Buehler found that providing bike parking, showers, and locker rooms increases the odds that employees will bike to work nearly 5-fold. Clearly pull factors, such as financial incentives and facilities investments, play a central role in this equation.

But push factors – especially parking – matter more

But, as with anything else, changing commute behaviors requires both push and pull factors. And the latter are particularly key, as the single most effective strategy that an employer can use to reduce SOV share is to remove parking subsidies.

In the US, some 95% of US commuters receive free parking at work. The provision of this benefit can increase the SOV rate for commutes by up to 50%.

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, the godfather of parking research, has explored the effects of curbing this parking subsidy. In a 2005 report, he outlined the benefits of implementing a parking cash out program, by which employers provide commuters with the option of receiving a cash incentive equal to their parking subsidy if they don’t drive alone to work. Such programs allow employees who really want to drive to work to continue getting discounted parking, but it also incentivizes alternatives for those who would rather try them.

Shoup’s research in California found that cash out programs can cut SOV share by 17%. A separate study from Daniel Hess, also of UCLA, concluded that by charging $6 per day for parking, Portland was able to cut its SOV share by 16%.

Getting parking right is even more important than these numbers show, however. The lure of free parking so strong that if an employer rolls out a TDM program but fails to price parking, the latter will simply crowd out the former. As Dr. Shoup put it, “Advocating ridesharing while offering free parking is like denouncing smoking while offering free cigarettes.”

A separate paper Buehler and his colleague Andrea Hamre explored this issue. Their research showed that providing free parking increases the share of commuters who drive alone, regardless of what other incentives the employer may provide. Without free parking, 75.9% of Washington, DC area commuters would drive alone. Free parking increases that share to an astounding 96.6%. Providing subsidized transit and incentives for active transportation, while also supplying free parking, only takes that SOV share down to 86.8%.

As the authors concluded, their research “suggests that benefit combinations that include free parking either overwhelm or render insignificant the positive effects of benefits for public transportation, walking, and cycling.”

Location, location, location

But even the most comprehensive TDM packages will struggle to overcome another factor that employers can control – their location.

Often times, sustainable transportation advocates focus on the negative effects of residential sprawl, but neglect workplace sprawl. Just as people in the US have spread farther and farther outward, so too have employers.

Consider Northeast Ohio. The region boasts five major employment hubs, like downtown Cleveland and University Circle. Yet, combined, these hubs only account for less than one-quarter of all jobs in the region. The rest are distributed broadly across the five counties.

This outcome poses a major challenge to TDM. Transit ceases to be viable when households and destinations are sprawled out. The same holds true for active transportation. No one is going to choose to walk 10 miles to work in an exurb without sidewalks.

The Clark, Chatterjee, and Melia study illustrates this clearly. If a worker’s commute increases from less than to more than two miles, the odds that s/he will switch from active commuting to driving increases 30-fold. The research seems to indicate that two miles is a key threshold; most people simply will not bike to work if their commute is longer than that.

According to the National Center for Transit Research, location may be the most important variable in the commute equation. No matter how strong the TDM package or how much the organization supports alternative modes, locating your office in the middle of an exurban office park locks in your employees’ commute options.

Ultimately, I think we have focused our attention too narrowly on the individual commuter for too long. Research has shown time and time again that the most effective TDM strategies target the employer first, as that is the critical leverage point.

Large institutions that claim to support sustainability need to back up their words through their actions when it comes to commute options. It’s not enough to simply post an annual sustainability report or get your buildings LEED certified if you subsidize parking and locate your office in exurbia. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution in the US. It’s time for employers to act like it.

Fun with Cleveland bike lanes!

ontario bike lane after

I don’t even know where to begin with this one.

Earlier this summer, shortly before Republicans invaded Cleveland, the publicly-funded downtown Hilton Hotel opened to much fanfare and self-congratulatory praise. The hotel’s completion coincided with the repaving and restriping of Ontario Avenue – which runs adjacent to the structure – from St. Clair to Lakeside. The project included the addition restoration of an on-road, striped bike lane, the first and only one located in downtown Cleveland (unless you include the stretch on the north side of Superior from around West 6th to the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which, don’t).

Here’s what the lane is supposed to look like, courtesy of bike messenger and Twitter-er-er-er Dave Schalmo (@Courier429). You can see the valet parking signs conveniently placed in the middle of the lane, perhaps suggesting that the people at the Hilton weren’t too thrilled about the placement of said lane.

ontario bike lane before

The bike lane on Ontario Avenue along the Hilton Hotel (courtesy of Dave Schalmo).

Well, that was then. The below is now. I guess that someone decided downtown didn’t need that pesky bike lane any more, because Dave posted this picture earlier today:

ontario bike lane after

In Cleveland, we buffer our curbs and our valet parking zones (courtesy of Dave Schalmo).

But that wasn’t even the best part of all of this. No, for that, you have to check out the response from the Hilton’s official Twitter account:

hilton response ontario bike lane

Yes, painting over a bike lane magically turns it into 2 bike lanes! Also, down is up, and left is right (courtesy of @HiltonCleveland).

If I had to distill the Dadaist shitshow that is Cleveland’s transportation planning into one tweet, you better believe that’s the one.

Update: Yes, I think that the Hilton is trying to claim that, by adding sharrows to Ontario, the City has doubled the number of bike lanes. Of course, that’s nonsense. It painted over the actual bike lane and added the sharrow, which is not a bike lane. Where I’m from, (1 – 1) x 0 = 0, not 2.

Everybody loves protected bike lanes

doo dah parade bike
doo dah parade bike

The not remotely funny entry in question from the Columbus Doo Dah Parade (courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch).

It’s generally taken as an article of faith that drivers and cyclists don’t get along. I can’t count the number of times that I have been buzzed, honked at, or sworn at by people in passing cars or that I have seen it happen to other cyclists. And, if I’m honest, I’ve responded to drivers in kind.

If you’ve ever read the comments on almost any article about biking issues or project (pro tip: don’t), you quickly discover that, in the darkest reaches of society, certain drivers harbor homicidal fantasies about running down cyclists in the streets.

These secret perversions came into the light of day during Columbus’s Doo Dah Parade on July 4, which featured a supposedly “satirical” participant driving an SUV with a damaged bicycle, a mangled dummy, and a sign that read “I’ll share the road when you follow the rules.”

Despite that fact that, as Bike Cleveland rightly points out, the overwhelming majority of cyclists also drive, the world is simply a different place from behind a windshield than it is from behind a set of handlebars. And people tend to act accordingly.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if driver sand cyclists could actually get along? Well, maybe not get along per se, but at least see eye-to-eye on certain things. Like bike infrastructure.

Maybe protected bike lanes are the path to peace

Typically, this isn’t the case. Cyclists push for more investment in bike infrastructure, while drivers, in turn, demand more spending on road construction and maintenance. It’s all too common to hear drivers swap down suggestions for bike infrastructure by claiming it’s a waste of money because no one bikes anyways. Or that it’s diverting money from gas taxes that should be spent on roads. Sure, both of these arguments are misguided, but I’m not going to relitigate those fights here.

Instead, I want to focus on a recent study (paywall) from Rebecca L. Sanders, a transportation researcher at the Toole Design Group, which appears in the September issue of the journal Transportation Research Part A.

According to Sanders, hers is the first study to ask drivers about their preferences for roadway design when it comes to sharing the road with cyclists.

She and her colleagues sent out a survey to 1,177 people in the San Francisco Bay Area in July 2011, asking respondents to rate their level of comfort on a series of different commercial road designs when driving near cyclists or cycling near near cars going 25-30 miles per hour. The various road designs included no bike infrastructure, sharrows, on-road bike lanes, and separated bike lanes. Sanders then followed up by holding a series of focus groups with respondents to get additional information.

The results of the study were clear.

There are only two roadway designs for bicycling that evenly appeal to all groups, regardless of cycling frequency: the two barrier-separated bicycle lane designs…

In other words, while drivers and cyclists disagree on almost everything, they can both agree on the value of investing in separated/protected bike lanes. More than 80% of respondents in every user group agreed that separated lanes make cyclists more predictable on the road, which “runs counter to the idea that bicycle lanes only benefit bicyclists.”

This design is also key for attracting potential cyclists, as their level of comfort drops precipitously once you remove separation from the road design.

Majorities of both casual cyclists and non-cycling drivers were uncomfortable with sharrows, in turn. And contrary to the belief that just striping a bike lane is sufficient to ending driver-cyclist conflicts, nearly 40% of non-cyclists and potential cyclists think that traditional, unprotected bike lanes signal to drivers that cyclists don’t belong on other streets. This result would seem to undermine the arguments of vehicular cycling advocates.

Sanders concludes,

The findings presented here suggest alignment between drivers and cyclists for roadway designs that can meet the needs of both user groups while sharing the road, with both groups preferring greater separation on multi-lane roadways.

So, maybe drivers and cyclists really can get along, at least if we have barriers between us. I get that Robert Frost was being ironic, but maybe good fences do make good neighbors, at least on the roads.

Do ‘ozone action days’ actually inspire people to act?

robert wyly cleveland pollution
robert wyly cleveland pollution

Industrial pollution obscures Cleveland’s cityscape in this 1960 photo from Robert Wyly (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

“Ozone: Good up high, Bad nearby.” So goes the U.S. EPA’s catchy (?) refrain to help people distinguish between (good) atmospheric and (bad) ground-level ozone.

Fortunately, we have gotten some good news on the former in the past few days. A team of researchers has concluded that we are finally building up more good ozone; that is, the massive hole in the protective ozone layer over Antarctica is finally beginning to heal thanks to the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. It seems like the ozone layer may be on course to fully recover by the middle of the century.

Unfortunately, the news is not as great on the latter front, as we are also seeing an increase in ground-level ozone. On Tuesday, NOACA issued an ozone advisory, warning residents of Northeast Ohio that ambient levels of ground-level ozone may reach harmful levels, which U.S. EPA defines as those above 70 parts per billion (ppb).

As I’ve documented before, the number of these advisories has dropped significantly over the past decade; however, this summer’s hot, dry weather has stymied that downward trend somewhat. Tuesday marked the seventh time this year that ozone levels in the region exceeded 70 ppb, and NOACA encouraged people – particularly sensitive populations like the elderly and those with respiratory conditions – to limit their time outdoors during afternoon and evening hours in order to minimize their exposure. These types of warnings are commonplace; officials in some 230 metropolitan areas release similar advisories.

Air quality alerts as a call to action?

In a number of areas, these advisories are dubbed action days, highlighting the fact that the agencies see them as a call to arms around ozone pollution. Air quality officials are pushing citizens to not only limit their personal exposure to pollution but also to take steps to reduce the amount of ozone precursor emissions within the region. NOACA, for instance, encouraged people to carpool and take public transportation on Tuesday.

It was with all of this in mind that I read a recent post from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), a non-profit group in the New York City metro area that promotes sustainable transportation and alternatives to car dependency.

In a post titled “Air Quality Alert Days Should Be a Call for Better Streets, Not to Stay Indoors,” Emma Kilkelly, TSTC’s Communications Assistant, chided the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) for telling residents to limit their time outdoors, rather than changing their transportation modes away from cars. Kilkelly wrote that “this type of messaging addresses only the symptoms, not the cause of air pollution.”

It’s worth examining this argument further. Do ozone alerts focus on minimizing exposure at the expense of promoting sustainable transportation? Is it actually harmful to tell people to avoid high levels of air pollution? And, if you assume these two points, would using ozone alerts to promote active transportation and public transit actually work?

Now if all of this seems like unnecessary semantics, that’s because it is. But I’m a huge nerd who did all of this research, and this is my website God damnit, so I’m going to write about it.

But air quality agencies are already doing just that

First, it’s pretty disingenuous to claim that air quality agencies are not already encouraging people to change their transportation patterns on ozone action days. The very agency that Kilkelly critiques, DEEP, does this. To be fair, she acknowledges this in her post, so the argument rings a bit hollow, prima facie.

Second, there does appear to be value in encouraging people, especially those most vulnerable to the deleterious impacts of high ozone levels, to limit their exposure. We know that short-term spikes in ground-level ozone levels can have significant impacts on public health.

In a landmark 2004 study, Michelle L. Bell and colleagues from Yale University studied the changes in mortality rates tied to daily fluctuations in ozone levels across 95 U.S. cities. They found that for every 10 ppb increase in daily ozone levels, all-cause mortality rates jump by 0.52% during the following week. That number goes up to 0.67% for a 20 ppb increase, which is quite common on ozone exceedance days. And this effect is even more pronounced for elderly Americans. Mortality rates for Americans aged 65 to 74 go up 0.7% for each 10 ppb spike in ozone.

Do air quality alerts benefit public health?

Accordingly, limiting the amount of time that people from higher-risk groups spend outside during the late afternoon and early evening hours can benefit their well-being. But does encouraging people to shift the time that they exercise or go outdoors – so-called avoidance behaviors – actually work?

This answer appears to be yes. Economists Alison L. Sexton Ward and Timothy K. M. Beatty published a paper (paywalled) last year studying this very question. They found that, on air quality alert days, individuals do engage in avoidance behaviors.

Overall, people limit the amount of time they spend outdoors engaged in vigorous physical activity by 18%. The number is even higher among the elderly, who reduced the amount of time by 59%. A similar study (PDF) from Australia noted that cyclists reduce the amount of time they spend biking on air quality alert days by 18.2% for commuting and 38.2% for recreation, respectively.

But can they drive mode shift?

Third, the question of efficacy remains. If air quality agencies devoted all their public outreach efforts to promoting mode shift on ozone action days, would they suceed?

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests they wouldn’t. Several agencies have tried this approach for years. San Francisco, for instance, operates the Spare the Air Program, which encourages alternative commute modes and subsidizes transit passes on exceedance days. The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Multiple studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of Spare the Air. A 2009 study from W. Bowman Carter and Matthew Neidell noted (PDF) a small increase in transit ridership on ozone action days, but it was statistically insignificant. Stephen Sexton, in turn, argues (paywall) that ozone alerts may actually push some transit users to drive to work in order to limit their exposure to higher pollution levels. His review of the program found an increase in both transit trips and VMT.

As a result, Spare the Air apparently “has the perverse effect of increasing car trips,” making it, essentially “a pay-for-pollution program.”

Studies from other cities back up these results. Calvin Tribby and colleagues, for example, looked at the impact of air quality alerts on traffic volumes in Salt Lake City from 2001 to 2011. They concluded (paywall) that “messages regarding air quality and voluntary reductions in vehicle trips are not only ineffective at reducing traffic but apparently increased average daily traffic levels.” Their work again suggests that normal transit users shift to driving in an attempt to limit their personal exposure to pollution.

All told, the weight of the available evidence contradicts Kilkelly’s central argument. While ozone action days may drive people to take certain actions, they are not necessarily the actions she (and I) would like to see. Instead of criticizing air quality officials for encouraging people to take avoidance behaviors on exceedance days, we should acknowledge the limits of what their pleas can realistically achieve.

While ozone alerts are highly unlikely to cut down on VMT, they can and do provide a clear public health benefit. Let’s focus our attention and advocacy on those actors who can actually influence the nature of our transportation system in the long-run. Criticize the underlying system that forces your friendly area air quality planner to issue these advisories in the first place, not her/him for doing so.

Does sprawl make the urban heat island effect worse?

urban heat island effect by city
urban heat island effect by city

Cleveland experiences the fourth strongest urban heat island effect in the United States. Could our sprawling development patterns be to blame? (courtesy of Debbage and Shepherd, 2015).

A few weeks ago, NASA officially announced that the record-breaking, “Godzilla” El Niño event that dominated much of our weather over the past year plus had finally come to an end.

But while the monster has returned to its hibernation deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, its impacts have already been and will continue to be felt across the United States. Around the same time that it made this announcement, NASA also revealed that April and May were the warmest such months on record in the US, meaning that every month since October 2015 has broken the existing record for that month. This eight-month streak of heat is, obviously, unprecedented. To date, the average temperature in 2016 is 1.9°F (1.08°C) above the average for the 20th century, making it a full 0.43°F (0.24°C) above the mark for the first five months of 2015.

You remember 2015, right? The warmest year on record? Well, not for long. NASA scientists are already more than 99% certain that 2016 will break that record, just as 2015 had claimed the mantle from 2014.

The impacts of 2016’s extreme heat

The extreme heat is having clear effects. It is contributing to wildfires consuming wide swathes of the West. Ozone levels are higher than normal across the country, as high temperatures foster the development of harmful, ground-level ozone more readily. So far, Greater Cleveland has already experienced six days when ozone levels exceed 70 parts per billion (ppb), the most at this point since 2012.

But the most acute impact of high temperatures heat-related mortality, a subject that I’ve written about considerably. Extreme heat is the deadliest type of disaster in the US, killing more people than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined each year. As I’ve discussed in the past, climate change is only exacerbating this issue; the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that the global death toll from extreme heat rose by around 2,300% from 2000-2010, compared to the previous decade.

change in disaster deaths by decade

The change in the number of deaths, by disaster, from 1991-2000 to 2001-2010 (courtesy of WMO).

Nearly all regions have seen a spike in dangerous heat, but the risk of heat-related mortality is not distributed evenly. While an individual’s vulnerability to extreme heat is the function of a number of factors, one of these is where s/he lives. Generally speaking, those of us living in cities are at greater risk due to the so-called urban heat island (UHI) effect. I won’t go too far into the science behind the UHI effect; suffice it to say that the combination of dark surfaces, a lack of urban trees, and the production of waste heat from various sources like air conditioners increases the temperature of cities, relative to rural areas. According to the U.S. EPA, the temperature of a large city can be more than 20°F higher than surrounding rural areas under the right (or wrong?) conditions.

Last September, Forbes published an article examining the scale of the UHI in various cities throughout the US. Strikingly, it included a map (see above) stating that Cleveland has the fourth strongest UHI effect in the country. Now, if you’re one of the literally tens of people who has inexplicably read something I’ve posted on this site, you may be familiar with my general dislike of sprawl. I’ve discussed research linking it to population decline, limited social mobility, climate change, and poor air quality, among other things.

So, I wondered, could Cleveland’s strong UHI effect be the result of our development pattern? Given that sprawl affects so many important phenomena, it seems reasonable to assume it would have an effect on UHI, right? To the peer-reviewed literature! [Cue 1970s Batman transition music].

Is suburban sprawl actually linked to the urban heat island effect?

At first glance, it may seem odd to posit that suburban sprawl would play a role here; the phenomenon is called the urban heat island effect, after all. But a handful of studies strongly suggest that sprawling development patterns do, in fact, exacerbate the UHI effect.

Two of the most convincing papers come from Brian Stone, Jr., a professor at the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning and an expert on urban environmental planning and climate change.

In a 2006 study (paywalled) that he coauthored with Jon Norman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stone examined the link between land use patterns and the UHI effect in Atlanta. The researchers broke properties into groups based on four variables: extent of impervious surfaces, lawn and landscaping, tree canopy, and the number of bedrooms per residential structure. This categorization enabled them to study the magnitude of surface warming produced by property type.

Stone and Norman concluded that the size of residential lots – in other words, residential density – was closely tied to black body flux, a measure of surface warming. As one moves from the highest density lot type to the lowest density, the amount of surface heat released increased 6-fold. Other land use features closed tied to suburban and exurban development – namely large lawns – also exacerbate the UHI effect. A one unit increase in the area of a plot covered by lawn and landscaping increases the net black body flux by 0.51 units.

As the authors conclude,

The results of this analysis provide compelling evidence that the size and material composition of single-family residential parcels is significantly related to the magnitude of surface warming in the Atlanta study region. Specifically, smaller, higher density parcels were found to be associated with a lower net black body flux than larger, lower density parcels…

[The] results of this study support the hypothesis that lower density, dispersed patterns of urban residential development contribute more surface energy to regional heat island formation than do higher density, compact forms.

Connecting sprawl and the UHI across cities

On its own, one study does not prove the relationship. Fortunately, Stone followed up with a 2010 paper that he co-wrote with Jeremy Hess and Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington, which studied the connection between urban sprawl and the number of extreme heat events (EHEs) in 53 cities from 1956-2005.

To measure the relationship, they took the correlation between the mean annual change in the number of EHEs from 1956-2005 and the sprawl ranking for each of the cities in 2000. Whereas the most compact cities experienced 5.6 more extreme heat days in 2005 than in 1956, that number was 14.8 for the most sprawling cities. In other words,

The most sprawling cities experienced a rate of increase in EHEs that was more than double that of the most the most compact cities…These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that urban sprawl contributes to EHE frequency.

Exploring some competing research

Now, I should note that there is other research that does not jibe with Stone’s work. Last year, Neil Debbage and Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia took another look at urban form and the urban heat island effect. Using a different measure for UHI (the difference in average rural and urban temperatures) and a different measure for urban form (an index measuring various variables of city shape, contiguity, and land uses), Debbage and Shepherd studied the degree to which city configuration affected urban heat in the 50 largest US metro areas from 2001-2010.

Contrary to Stone, Debbage and Marshall found that both more compact and more sprawling cities experience a stronger UHI effect, provided they are highly contiguous. That is, the contiguity of urban form may matter more than its composition; designing cities so that they are made up of either cul-de-sacs or skyscrapers as far as the eye can see makes them more vulnerable to extreme heat. According to the authors,

A ten percentage point increase in the spatial contiguity of high-intensity urban development, the equivalent of shifting roughly from Orlando to Seattle, was predicted to enhance a city’s average UHI intensity by 0.4°C…[In turn] a ten percentage point increase [in low-intensity urban development] was predicted to enhance a city’s annual average UHI intensity by 0.3°C. Therefore, as suggested by the bivariate analysis, both low and high-density urban land uses appear to amplify the UHI effect if they are high contiguous.

Importantly, Debbage and Marshall note that, while compact development may not solve the UHI on its own, it does provide a litany of other benefits, from improved air quality to better public health. Accordingly, urban planners may want to promote less contiguous, higher density urban development by designing networks of smaller green spaces, expanding the urban tree canopy, and installing white and green roofs throughout cities. A 2014 study by Stone and colleagues found that implementing these types of policies can offset projected increases in heat-related mortality due to climate change by anywhere from 40-99%.

Wait, so does sprawl make the UHI effect worse?

So what can we take away from all of this?

First, yes – the evidence does suggest that sprawl exacerbates urban heat islands. Low-density, suburban-style development increases the amount of impervious surfaces, which raises lowers the surface albedo of urban areas. It also increases the amount of excess waste heat that cities produce, as larger houses require more energy. And sprawl typically leads to forest clearance for development, reducing the extent of the urban tree canopy. All told, these factors increase the amount of heat cities generate, and they prevent this additional heat from dissipating rapidly at the urban fringe.

Second, the fact that sprawling development patterns are not the only type urban form that increases the UHI effect may not be as relevant as it may seem. While dense urban areas may also promote UHIs, they also make it easier to address both the causes and effects of heat-related mortality risks. Residents of dense cities produce fewer carbon emissions per capita, mitigating climate change. And the economies of scale in these dense neighborhoods increases the efficacy of mitigating extreme heat; opening a cooling station or installing shade trees are more effective in these areas, for instance.

All told, we can add the urban heat island effect to the list of social problems that sprawl makes worse. Maybe we should rename it the (sub)urban heat island effect?