Transit alone cannot solve the systemic problems behind job inaccessibility

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012
bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road

An actual stop for the #86 bus alongside Route 237 in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

In my last post, I dug into the debate over which approach is better – bringing people to jobs or jobs to people – by examining case studies from San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But, as I noted, the studies I examined assume that the relationship between transit and job accessibility occurs in a vacuum. Things are not that clean in the real world.

Furthermore, one can argue – as Peter Truog and others have – that, while it may make sense to invest in transit-oriented development (TOD) and the “jobs to people” approach on paper, it is impractical. Planning and building fixed transit assets can take a decade or more. Encouraging businesses to relocate along existing transit lines and form new, transit-rich clusters also takes time.

In the meantime, people of color in high-poverty neighborhoods will continue to struggle to access jobs in far-flung suburbs. It must be better then to connect these neighborhoods with existing low-skill, entry level jobs with buses in order to give them a leg up and not keep them locked out of the job market.

There is merit to this argument. Shifting transit systems from hub-and-spoke (radial) networks focused on the central business district (CBD) to a grid system focused on multiple destinations is one effective alternative. The success of Houston’s redesign bears this out.

Research supports the benefits of moving away transit systems away from a radial service orientation to a multi-destination one, as well. Jeffrey Brown and Gregory Thompson, researchers at Florida State, have published several studies illustrating this point. In a 2008 paper (paywall), they found that metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with multi-destination transit systems outperformed those with radial systems for ridership, service productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

With this in mind, I want to examine the economics – both financial and political – of connecting people to jobs with transit in Northeast Ohio. Ultimately, when we explore these broader factors, it becomes clear that, while busing a low-income worker from Central to a manufacturer in Solon may help that individual, it remains insufficient to the problem at hand.

Are we bringing people to jobs or just chasing jobs with transit?

While improving system performance is an absolute good that all transit agencies should pursue, it does not necessarily mean that a city will see improvements in job accessibility for low-income people of color.

Moreover, system redesigns are useful, but transit systems still require minimum levels of population and job density in order to deliver high-quality service and remain cost-effective. According to Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra, job density is more important than residential density. These minimum thresholds of job density simply do not exist in most metros any more, particularly Cleveland.

In a 2009 paper, Elizabeth Kneebone from Brookings traced the outward shift of jobs in American cities. She examined the location of jobs in the 98 largest MSAs from 1998-2006, focusing on three bands around the CBD: a 3-mile radius for the central city, a 10-mile radius for the “beltway,” and a 35-mile radius to define the metro’s sprawl area.

Her analysis showed that just 21% of employees work within 3 miles of downtown, while a plurality (more than 45%) work between 10 and 35 miles away from the CBD. Additionally, she found that jobs were growing fastest in these outer areas; jobs at least 10 miles from the CBD grew 2.5 times faster than those in the beltway ring and 57 times faster than those in the central city.

We may have heard much since the end of the Great Recession about the revival of cities and the shift away from suburbia, but this shift has not occurred for jobs.

Another 2015 report from Kneebone and colleague Natalie Holmes makes clear that the suburbanization of people and jobs quickened during the 2000s. As a result, “by 2010 in the nation’s largest metro areas, the majority of every major ethnic and racial group and the majority of the poor lived in suburbs for the first time.”

The rate of outward growth was faster for jobs than people, though. Kneebone and Holmes concluded that the number of jobs within a typical commute for a resident of 96 major MSAs fell by 7% from 2000 to 2012. Nowhere was this change greater than in Cleveland, which saw a 26.5% decrease in the number of jobs available within a normal commute.

Given these trends and the realities facing GCRTA, trying to bring low-income workers from neighborhoods like Central to employment centers like Solon would be less about bringing “people to jobs” and more about chasing jobs with transit. What’s the likelihood that a new bus route to a suburban job campus will still be useful in 3 to 5 years?

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012

No city saw a larger decrease in the number of accessible jobs from 2000 to 2012 than Cleveland (courtesy of The Brookings Institution).

Whither the job hubs?

And even if you know the jobs would remain stationary in the short-term, which locations should GCRTA prioritize?

Jobs have sprawled to such an extent in Northeast Ohio that few actual job hubs remain. NOAcA has found that fewer than one-quarter of all jobs in Northeast Ohio are concentrated in the region’s 6 largest job hubs, and only one such hub – Cleveland’s CBD – contains more than 10% of jobs. Most parts of the region simply lack the job density needed for new transit investments to secure funding and be cost-effective.

Given GCRTA’s well-documented and ongoing budgetary crisis, shouldn’t it be on the employers in places like Solon to step up and address their own workforce recruitment challenges?

There are several options that they could pursue, on their own or in concert with GCRTA. They could join GCRTA’s new vanpool program, which can help up to 15 people get to work in one vehicle. They could run their own shuttle service, like many companies already do in the Bay Area. They could invest in first-mile/last-mile initiatives like carshare or bikeshare programs to make it easier from employees to get from a bus stop to the worksite. (Because, yes, the 41 and 41F buses already run to Solon)

Each of these options provides some of the benefits of car ownership without placing the steep financial burden upon the low-income worker. Research suggests that owning a car doubles the odds of low-income person finding a job and quadruples the odds that s/he keeps it. Transit, on the other hand, only seems to help people keep jobs they already have.

And if these employers are, in fact, committed to bringing new transit investments to their doorsteps, why don’t they approach GCRTA with public-private partnership options? Perhaps employers in a hub like Solon could use tax increment financing (TIF) and take advantage of the increased property values that fixed transit investments would generate to cover the capital costs.

We can’t fix systemic issues with “imagination”

The problem is not just a lack of imagination and creative solutions, as Peter Truog suggests. In reality, it is much larger than that.

As I’ve illustrated, employers have known for at least 20 years that their outward migration was creating a spatial mismatch between them and potential employees, yet they continued to sprawl regardless. Hell, public officials were discussing this in detail during the 1990s, and GCRTA even created a vanpool program to address it at the time.

Some observers have argued that employers may be relocating to suburbia and exurbia in response to residential sprawl. If that was the case, perhaps facilitating the suburbanization of low-income residents and people of color could actually address spatial mismatch.

Unfortunately, that argument does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. In a 2007 paper, Michael Stoll and Harry Holzer of Brookings examined population and job growth rates in central cities, low-income suburbs, and high-income suburbs.

Residential populations grew at a faster clip in low-income suburbs than in high-income – 36% and 16%, respectively – reflecting the suburbanization of poverty in recent years. In contrast, jobs grew 30% faster in high-income suburbs, suggesting that jobs are shifting towards these more exclusive locales, where few low-income workers live. These location decisions are likely exacerbating spatial mismatch.

Stoll also tackled this topic in regards to race in an earlier study. In this analysis, he examined the relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch in 300 MSAs in the year 2000. He found that, while there is no statistically significant relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for whites, one exists for blacks and Latinos.

Each 10% increase in the job sprawl index score was associated with a 3.1% and 1.7% increase the spatial mismatch index scores for blacks and Latinos, respectively. The link between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for blacks was especially significant in large Midwestern metros, like Cleveland and Detroit.

Transit alone won’t solve civil rights issues

But, perhaps all of that is in the past. What if you had a particularly woke set of employers who wanted to address that mismatch by encouraging low-income black workers to move closer to available jobs?

Well, you’d likely just run head first into systemic questions of housing discrimination and exclusionary zoning. Dozens of studies and reports from several cities – including Cleveland – have documented our job accessibility crisis for years now. And yet, not only has the problem persisted, it has gotten worse.

Susan Turner, a researcher at Wayne State University, provided a valuable insight into this question with her 1997 study (PDF) in Detroit.

Turner interviewed a number of employers in suburban Detroit who faced comparable workforce challenges. What she found was revealing. Instead of relocating to the suburbs to follow workers, Turner’s interviews suggested that many employers were intentionally moving to such locations in order to avoid black workers and keep their workforces white.

She noted that, while every predominately white suburban firm cited poor transportation as the reason why they couldn’t hire black workers, the firms that hired black workers not only faced these same challenges, they were often located in more remote sites. But they and their employees still managed to overcome these barriers.

Turner argued that her study “challenges the assumption that merely removing physical barriers to places of employment would improve the labor market outcomes of blacks.”

Instead,

Negative racial attitudes aided the creation of the spatial mismatch. Thus, spatial mismatch, while partly due to economic factors related to finding cheaper land for new production processes, also results from persistent racial animosities and discrimination that find their expression through spatial variables.

One anecdote in the study was particularly eye-opening. Turner recounted a story that an urban planning official in Detroit told her. The planner’s agency attempted to set up a vanpool program for low-income Detroit workers in the mid-1990s, but they could not find any interested in employers.

According to Turner, when the planner asked the employers why they would not take part, “most indicated that they did not want to hire black workers, stating ‘Why do you think we moved out here in the first place?’”

Transportation (and the provision of public transit) may be a civil rights issue, but it is not sufficient to overcome these sort of systemic civil rights abuses.

Truog and those who support his view have not engaged with this massive topic. The fact of the matter is, Solon has pursued and continues to pursue exclusionary zoning policies that harm low-income people of color. When developers proposed a multi-family housing development in 2014, residents created the committee against rezoning Solon (CARS). (Side note: that acronym is a little too on the nose.)

These opponents tried to couch their opposition to the apartments under the guise of zoning, but the group’s leader, Don Gallo, was more explicit. He told reporters that the apartments “will not attract the wealthier young people…They will attract riff-raff.”

The ever-present specter of racism, which has only grown more ominous in recent months, continues to plague these discussions.

Conclusion

Ultimately, in my view, a problem this large requires a multifaceted approach.

  1. In the immediate term, employers with workforce challenges in suburbs like Solon should step up and tackle their own problems by implementing the sorts of programs I outlined earlier. Spatial mismatch is a problem that warrants the attention of the public sector, but that does not mean the private sector can wash its hand of it. We’ve spent more than enough public money to subsidize sprawl and then clean up its consequences.
  2. In the short- to medium-term, GCRTA should pursue a system redesign, moving from a radial to a multi-destination service orientation, like Houston and Columbus. This approach would be beneficial for the agency and the region, even if it fails to address job accessibility.
  3. And, in the long-term, the region’s elected officials and planning agencies should devote their attention and resources on TOD in order to take advantage of the benefits that it creates. Not only will it reduce the financial and environmental burdens of sprawl and chip away at job inaccessibility, it can also help firms take advantage of the benefits of industry agglomeration, which would increase their productivity and output.

Fortunately, there is no inherent conflict between 2 and 3. On the contrary, Brown and Thompson, in a 2012 paper analyzing transit in Broward County, Florida, wrote,

Contrary to what many planners believe, developing a multi-destination transit system does not necessarily work at cross-purposes with the planning goal of clustering urban development. One consequence of a multi-destination grid is the emergence of a number of strong routes. Planners develop transfer centers along such routes, and these centers can develop into strong development nodes.

We can begin to address Northeast Ohio’s overarching job accessibility issues. But we cannot do it if we ignore the systemic challenges behind them, and we cannot do it if we fail to take a regional approach. Both of these will require much more than just running another bus to Solon. It will require us to acknowledge and begin to ameliorate the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Don’t believe the lies – Ohio can’t afford to extend the freeze on clean energy

students protesting against sb 310
students protesting against sb 310

Students protesting against SB 310 in front of the Ohio Statehouse on May 14, 2014 (courtesy of Ohio Beyond Coal).

I wrote my first post on SB 310, the legislation that froze for two years Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standards, all the way back on March 31, 2014. That was the day that Senator Troy Balderson (R-Zainesville) introduced the bill to the Senate Public Utilities Committee.

Since that point, I have written at least 14 other posts that touch on this abysmal legislation in one way or another. Given that we’re now well into 2016, the final year of the freeze, I’d like nothing more than to see out this reprieve and forget this whole shameful episode ever happened.

But, this isn’t to be, perhaps because God hates Cleveland and all of us who live here.

One of the elements of SB 310 was the creation of the Energy Mandates Study Committee, a 12-member panel composed of lawmakers from both houses of the legislature. It’s specified task should give you a pretty good idea of its intended outcome (emphasis mine):

Section 3. It is the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that customers in Ohio have access to affordable energy. It is the intent of the General Assembly to incorporate as many forms of inexpensive, reliable energy sources in the state of Ohio as possible. It is also the intent of the General Assembly to get a better understanding of how energy mandates impact jobs and the economy in Ohio and to minimize government mandates. Because the energy mandates in current law may be unrealistic and unattainable, it is the intent of the General Assembly to review all energy resources as part of its efforts to address energy pricing issues.

Therefore, it is the intent of the General Assembly to enact legislation in the future, after taking into account the recommendations of the Energy Mandates Study Committee, that will reduce the mandates in sections 4928.64 and 4928.66 of the Revised Code and provide greater transparency to electric customers on the costs of future energy mandates, if there are to be any.

Naturally, when the group released its biased cost analysis (PDF) of the energy standards last fall (and I say cost analysis, because it’s kind of hard to do a cost-benefit analysis when you refuse to consider benefits), the GOP-dominated panel called for extending the freeze indefinitely:

Until the US EPA provides greater clarity on the operation of the [Clean Power Plan], and until litigation is resolved, the Study Committee feels compelled to extend Ohio’s freeze of the Mandates.

Interestingly, Governor John Kasich, who changes his tune on clean energy everytime he opens his mouth, took a brief time out from his quixotic presidential campaign to state that he opposed this idea. And so that’s where things sat for seven months. Nobody showed their hand, at least publicly, and we plodded along towards the end of the freeze.

Then, on Wednesday, I was greeted with this headline in the Columbus Dispatch: “Bill continuing ‘freeze’ on clean energy expected soon.”

It seems our old friend Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) is acting on Study Committee’s recommendations and proposing a three-year extension of the freeze. Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina) informed the Dispatch that he supports the idea.

Here is my official reaction to this proposal:

computer rage

To be honest, I don’t even want to write about this any more. People have already raised just about every argument as to why SB 310 (and any continuation of it) is terrible public policy. We’ve already explained how energy efficiency is the cheapest source of electricity in Ohio; how renewables are driving down energy bills and increasing grid resilience; how clean energy is creating thousands of good paying jobs for Ohioans; how the energy standards have saved ratepayers $2-4 for every $1 invested. None of it has mattered.

So let’s just take a look at the real impact of this bill on the people of Ohio. Maintaining the status quo on electricity generation in this state will have real, tangible impacts on public health and quality of life, even if fossil fuel boosters would prefer to ignore this.

Shortly after the Study Committee released its cost analysis, a coalition of environmental groups released the heretofore nonexistent benefits analysis. Their study examines the impacts of restoring the state’s clean energy standards in 2017 and allowing them to continue through 2029. Though the Study Committee recommended an indefinite suspension of the standards, this outcome seems unlikely in light of Gov. Kasich’s professed opposition. This is particularly the case, given that Sen. Seitz, the most vocal and insufferable opponent of the standards, is only calling for a three-year extension of this moratorium.

Accordingly, I will only outline the foregone public health benefits of this proposal, which would stretch from 2017-2019. (I will just ignore, for a moment, the fact that the deadline for states to submit their CPP compliance plans to the EPA falls on September 6, 2018, smack dab in the middle of this extended freeze.) This benefits analysis assumes that each megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable energy generation/energy efficiency installed in Ohio will displace either 0.4 or 0.6 MWh of coal-fired power, with natural gas generation making up the difference.

While the benefits of swapping fossil fuels for renewables and efficiency compound over time, they are still significant in the short-term. Restoring the clean energy standards would reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the state by roughly 12.5 million tons per year from 2017 to 2019. Moreover, cutting Ohio’s reliance on coal-fired power will also slash harmful air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

co2 emissions with & without sb 221

CO2 emissions in Ohio from 2017-2029, with and without the state’s clean energy standards (courtesy of NRDC).

In 2017 alone, this reduction in PM2.5 levels would prevent 16,900 lost work days, 2,230 asthma attacks, 100 hospital admissions, and 230 nonfatal heart attacks. It would also prevent anywhere from 140 to 370 premature deaths. Adding in 2018 and 2019, these numbers increase to a total of 480 to 1,240 premature deaths, 350 hospital admissions, 7,540 asthma attacks, 760 nonfatal heart attacks, and 57,110 lost work days avoided.

These benefits are truly staggering.  Let’s calculate the economic benefits of the premature deaths prevented. Using the EPA’s statistical value of a human life, which is $9.1 million, we get a total social benefit of anywhere from $4.37 billion to $11.28 billion by 2019. And, again, I’m only talking about the next three years. Extending this out to 2029, as this study does, increases the number of avoided deaths to 2,820, which has a total value of $25.66 billion.

The Ohio GOP may want you to believe that the state’s clean energy standards are raising energy costs, crippling businesses, and killing jobs, but they’re doing precisely the opposite. They can try to obfuscate this by leaving the benefits out of cost-benefit analyses and by including line items on your electric bill showing the supposed costs of complying with these standards.

But when you account for the true costs of fossil fuels in this state, in both blood and treasure, you quickly come to the conclusion that we cannot afford not to implement these standards. So end the damn freeze already.

Ohio won’t save GCRTA, so let’s tax parking to fund transit instead

rta healthline buses
rta healthline buses

RTA HealthLine buses in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

One of the biggest stories in Northeast Ohio right now is the Greater Cleveland RTA’s budget shortfall. It’s probably because of the company I keep, but my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been inundated with posts, comments, and tweets about every new update and public meeting for the past several weeks.

It’s a big story. GCRTA has reported that, in order to balance its books, it needs to cut expenses by $7 million this year. CEO Joe Calabrese and his staff have proposed a suite of route cuts and fare increases to plug this hole. Options include raising the base fare from to $2.50 per ride from $2.25 currently, increasing paratransit fares to $3.50 from $2.25, and curtailing or eliminating bus service along 18 routes. Alternatively, the agency could maintain existing service and increase the normal fare to $2.75 per trip.

Rather than just approving some combination of these options, the GCRTA Board of Directors tabled this discussion at its December 2015 meeting, opting to hold a series of 15 public meetings around the county. The last of these hearings occurred on Wednesday, and the ball is now back in the Board’s hands.

If I had to wager, I would guess they’ll raise fares by $0.50 to minimize the service cuts. Keep in mind that Cleveland has already cut annual bus revenue miles by nearly 40% since 2006, the single largest decrease in the country, according to Jake Anbinder of the Transit Center. Given the nearly overwhelming opposition to some of these service cuts, making it that much harder to get around town seems pretty untenable.

In addition to hosting this litany of hearings, Mr. Calabrese testified before the Cleveland City Council Transportation on Wednesday. He came to distill the agency’s challenges, justify its plans, and hear feedback from the Committee members. For the most part, the tenor from the Council members was pretty standard – they all agreed GCRTA is in a tight spot, they opposed service cuts in their wards, and they pilloried the State of Ohio for not doing its part.

Enough ink has been spilled – including by me – on the sad state of public transit funding in this state, so I won’t belabor the issue. Suffice it to say, as I once did, that I’m not sure it would be possible for Ohio’s elected officials to care less about public transit if they tried. Hell, even if Ohio devoted every one of the $7.3 million it kicks in for public transit to GCRTA, that would barely be enough to paper over its budget hole. The state needs to fund transit, full stop.

We can’t depend on Ohio to fund transit

But, while I don’t like cutting service on the 81 to the Lakeview Terraces or raising paratransit fares, I found myself agreeing most with Councilman Zach Reed. It was strange. I rarely see eye-to-eye with Councilman Reed on transportation issues, but his comments were dead on. He called on local officials to disabuse themselves of the notion that Ohio is suddenly going to find religion on transit funding.

Instead, Councilman Reed broached a subject that most local officials have sidestepped – we need to increase local funding for transit. Currently, GCRTA gets around 60% of its funding from a 1% county sales tax assessed in 1970. But this tax generates far less revenue today than it did in 1970; population loss costs the agency nearly $68 million in funding each year. That could close this budget hole nearly 10 times over.

gcrta sales tax revenue

Sales tax revenue by year (courtesy of GCRTA).

Additionally, Councilman Reed was the only person to note another key detail – federal and state transit dollars come with strings attached, including the local match requirement. Local governments need to cough up 20% of the cost of a project in order to spend federal transit dollars. This issue has increasingly become a hurdle. According to ODOT’s transit needs study (see page 46 of PDF), the state is sitting on more than $21 million in transit funding that it cannot disperse due to a lack of local matching funds. We need more transit spending for Cuyahoga County from Cuyahoga County; there’s no way around it.

Granted, continually increasing taxes on a shrinking population to fill budget gaps is a recipe for disaster. But not all taxes are created equal. There are certain levers that officials can pull to help rectify social harms and raise funds at the same time. And since sprawl is among Cleveland’s most pressing issues, taxing land uses that promote it can be beneficial. So let’s tax parking to fund transit.

Cleveland already has a parking tax, but…

First, I’ll note that Cleveland already taxes parking.* In 1995, City Council approved an 8% sales tax on commercial parking transactions in the city. This tax raises roughly $10-11 million per year for the City’s coffers. Or it, would if Council hadn’t passed this tax as part of its plan to finance a new Browns stadium. Cleveland doesn’t actually see a dime of this money, as it just goes to pay off debt from bonds issued for FirstEnergy Stadium. Argle bargle.

The easy way to raise funds for transit would be to simply raise this existing tax. Compared to other cities with this sort of tax, Cleveland’s is relatively low. New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles impose taxes of 18.5%, 20%, and 25%, respectively. Pittsburgh, which has impressively progressive transportation policies, imposes a 50% tax. Cleveland could, say, double its tax to 16% – raising $10 million per year for transit – and remain on par with other cities.

Unfortunately, despite its ubiquity, this tax is flawed. Because it’s assessed on reported transactions, parking lot operators have an incentive to underreport their sales, something that has occurred in Cleveland. Additionally, it can have the unintended consequence of reducing the supply of paid parking and increasing the supply of free parking in city centers.

According to a study (PDF) from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI), “it makes urban centers relatively less competitive compared with suburban locations where parking is unpriced. In this way, commercial parking taxes can increase total parking subsidies and sprawl.” Not only are we wasting the revenues from our parking tax to subsidize a football stadium, the tax itself may be contributing to urban sprawl. Argle bargle.

Taxing parking lots by surface area instead

What other options exist? A number of cities outside of the US – chiefly in Australia and Canada – take a different approach. They levy a tax on the total area of surface parking lots or on the total number of parking spaces. In this way, the tax generates a double dividend; it produces tax revenue while also driving down the demand for parking and reducing congestion.

Following the advice of a study from Eran Feitelson and Orit Rotem, I propose that we implement a tax on the surface area of private parking lots. But this tax would be imposed based on the square footage of each lot at ground level; this would ensure that a surface parking lot like those blighting the Warehouse District would have the same tax burden as a 4-level parking deck with a comparable surface area on each level. Not only would this create revenue and cut into parking demand, it would also push developers towards parking decks, as the effective tax per parking spot falls with each additional level added.

Moreover, the supply of free parking in the region would decrease, as developers would now have a greater motivation to recoup tax expenditures by charging. There is a legitimate risk that hiking up parking taxes could push people away from downtown or other districts within Cleveland. Accordingly, this policy should be implemented at the county level. Doing so would increase the cost of developing in suburban and exurban areas, relative to the city center, because the latter has an existing supply of parking decks and underground lots.

Because this would be applied countywide, it would be essentially a commuter tax imposed on both county residents and those people who live outside but enter the county to work, go to school, shop, see a sporting event, etc. This would help to address the types of equity concerns we face when dealing with similar taxes, like the Sin Tax.

Coincidentally, ODOT actually explored the idea of levying an annual tax on parking spaces to fund transit all the way back in 1993. The agency estimated (see page 20 of PDF) that this sort of tax could generate $187.3 million per year. If we adjust for inflation, that would be equal to $307 million in 2016 dollars. If we conservatively assume that a tax in Cuyahoga County could generate 10% of this revenue, that would still equal roughly $30 million per year.

Excess parking is a scourge for urban areas. It consumes valuable land, encourages driving and sprawl, contributes to air pollution and climate change, increases surface runoff, and harms water quality. On a good day, GCRTA struggles to compete and keep its budget balanced. Parking makes this challenge that much harder. So let’s try to remedy our incentives and tax parking to fund transit.

 

*Credit to Cleveland real estate lawyer and part-time blogger Christian Carson, whose 2014 post helped put me onto this idea.

Actually, fuel economy standards are a great way to tackle carbon emissions

plug-in hybrid prius
plug-in hybrid prius

A Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid vehicle (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

It feels like it’s been ages since I wrote a post taking down something that someone else has written. I get the impression that is what people enjoy on the World Wide Web these days, plus it’s pretty fun to rip apart a person’s specious argument – using peer-reviewed literature and well-sourced facts, of course.

With that in mind, I feel somewhat obligated to address an op-ed I read in the Los Angeles Times on Monday from Salim Furth, a research fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. In the piece, Furth argues that state and federal fuel economy standards are a poor policy tool for limiting mobile greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that they unfairly harm low-income families. Instead, he calls for California state officials to focus their attention on land use reforms that would “allow denser, environmentally conscious construction” to “make residents less dependent on car.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable. I’ve written in the past about how promoting denser, infill development patterns in sprawling metro areas like Cleveland could go a long way towards improving air quality and limiting GHG emissions. To the extent that Furth is calling for these sorts of policies, we are probably on the same page.

Except, when you dig into his argument, it collapses like the proverbial house of cards. As the folks at Climate Nexus argued, “Instead of suggesting policy that would preserve more land to act as a carbon sink, Furth writes that California should instead relax the permitting process so that development is even easier.” And this is exactly what he argues. While it’s true that NIMBY-ism can inhibit the development of denser, multifamily housing (see: Washington, DC), it takes a certain amount of rhetorical gymnastics to assert that the fault lies with environmental regulations. I guess that’s what you get when dealing with stuff from Heritage.

Comparing fuel economy to land use planning

But none of this gets to the central thesis of Furth’s argument – that fuel economy standards are less effective tools for curbing GHG emissions than “streamlined” permitting and “more permissive zoning laws.” Why enforce regulations that cost the average family roughly $4,000 to only mitigate global climate change by a fraction of a percent?

Leaving aside the fact that Furth demands California repeal state fuel economy rules that even he admits were superseded by President Obama’s 2011 CAFE standards, does his main point hold water? Well, he never actually provides a shred of evidence to support his argument, for one. How can we know if the CAFE standards will cut GHG emissions less than land use reform if we don’t have numbers for the latter?

Fortunately, there exist a number of studies and reports that dig into the potential for land use reform to mitigate climate change. At the local level, several of these analyses have come from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are federally-mandated agencies that conduct transportation and environmental planning activities for urban areas.

Back in 2008, California lawmakers passed SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which requires every MPO in the state to develop a sustainable communities strategy (SCS) that outlines its approach to meeting its GHG emission reduction target. These targets are established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). To what extent can land use planning by MPOs contribute to these these goals? And do the projected reductions in GHG emissions exceed those from fuel economy standards?

In a word, no. CARB estimated (PDF) in 2010 that regional transportation and land use policies can only account for one-sixth of the GHG reductions generated by federal CAFE and low-carbon fuel standards through 2020. That proportion will likely increase after 2020, as the full effects of those long-term policies are realized, but they still pale in comparison. Given that Furth is writing about California, you think he’d be aware of these data.

Evidence from outside California

Findings from MPOs in other states back up CARB. Washington, DC’s MPO found similar results (PDF). The region’s leaders set a goal of reducing GHGs 80% versus a 2005 business as usual (BAU) scenario by 2050. According to their analyses, enacting new land use and transportation policies at the metro level can only make up 3.3% of this 80%. Increasing CAFE standards to 99 could account for 30% of the reduction, however, making this approach 10 times more effective. While raising CAFE standards would likely lead to something of a rebound effect by making driving cheaper, the results are still impressive.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PDF) – Seattle’s MPO – has also modeled the potential GHG savings from various policies. They found that more compact development and better pricing transportation could cut GHGs by 6% and 9% compared to BAU, respectively. Emissions control strategies, like stricter fuel economy standards and the electrification of the vehicle fleet, have the potential to cut GHG emissions by 25-43%, depending on how aggressive they are. Even in the more conservative scenario, these standards outperform land use controls. The benefits of land use policies take an outsized role in Seattle, as transportation accounts for two-thirds of the city’s total emissions, because it’s electric grid is so much cleaner than the national average. Accordingly, Seattle is the best case scenario for Furth’s argument, but it still falls short.

ghg savings from different scenarios

Potential GHG reductions from various policy instruments under different scenarios (courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Council).

 

And just to hammer my point home further, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) published a comprehensive report on this topic back in 2009. The authors modeled the impacts on GHG emissions from 2000 to 2030 and 2050 under two scenarios, which assumed that 25% and 75% of all new housing would be be built in compact development areas, respectively.

While scenario 1 only sees GHG emissions fall 1.3-1.7% by 2050, while scenario 2 bumps this number up to 8-11%. But, again, tightening CAFE standards wins the day. The study finds that adding aggressive fuel economy requirements to scenario 2 can increase the GHG reduction potential up to 39-51%. The report states, “In short, over the longer time frame (i.e. to 2050), the impacts of continuing improvements in fuel economy beyond 2020 on energy use and CO2 emissions significantly outstrip those from more compact development.”

As is so often the case, an op-ed emerging from The Heritage Foundation is tripped up by the think tank’s old nemesis – math.

In the effort to cut GHG emissions and battle climate change, we don’t need to privilege better land use planning at the expense of tighter fuel economy standards. We need to harness every policy tool at our disposal, and these are two great tastes that taste great together. While it’s true that better fuel economy can undermine some of the GHG benefits of compact land use, we should clearly pursue these approaches in tandem. For, in the long-run, more compact, mixed-use development and more efficient vehicles are both important tools for improving air quality, reducing transportation costs, revitalizing our neighborhoods, enhancing public health, and battling climate change.

Here’s how oil, population, and trade affect disaster aid flows

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Vox that examined how media coverage of certain natural disasters – or the lack thereof – can significantly affect both the likelihood of a country getting relief assistance and, if it does, the amount it receives.

I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that media coverage is the only, or even the primary factor driving disaster aid decisions; far from it. In fact, there is a fair amount of research that shows how political considerations may be the key issue dictating aid considerations.

Disaster relief is a two-way street

One important factor to consider, as I alluded to in my Vox piece, is that relief aid decisions are a two-way street. Just as donor countries determine whether or not they want to provide support, affected countries can also control whether or not they request it. Without this formal request, the United Nations cannot issue a Flash Appeal, and donor countries will have no way of getting their financial, logistical, and human resources on the ground.

So why would a country hit hard by a disaster actually refuse to accept help? In a 2010 study (gated), Travis Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, argued that, for countries transitioning from autocratic systems to more democratic ones – known as anocracies in political science parlance – “aid refusal…is at its core a political act” meant to show that the country’s leadership is able to handle the disaster recovery process on its own.

A recent example of this phenomenon happened in Burma, which I detailed in a 2013 paper (PDF). Cyclone Nargis struck the southern portion of the country in May 2008, killing more than 138,000 people. But rather than accepting offers of support from the international community, the country’s ruling military junta went to great lengths to keep the humanitarian community out. It waited several days to accept international assistance, and even then it only did so on the condition that it strictly control every aspect of the process. It took a full 3 weeks for then-leader Than Shwe to allow the international community to conduct a relief and recovery effort.

Why Burma’s leaders rejected humanitarian assistance

If you view this episode in a vacuum, the junta’s actions make no sense. Why on earth would they actively refuse support, given their clear inability to help their own people?

But, when placed in context, as Nelson argues in his study, things become clearer. Burma, which had existed on the fringes of the international community for nearly two decades at that point, had valid reasons to be wary of offers of support from Western states. These same states had spent years actively undermining and isolating the junta. Moreover, Western leaders took a number of provocative steps in the days after the cyclone that likely delayed the response effort further. The United States anchored a Navy battleship just miles off the Burmese coast, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner threatened to invoke the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as a means to forcibly initiate a response effort.

One can almost – almost – forgive the junta for fearing that Western governments might use humanitarian actions as a cover for furthering regime change. As Burma expert Andrew Selth has written, “Even paranoids have enemies.”

It’s important to point out that, in accordance with Nelson’s study, the Burmese government had recently initiated a political reform process. Nargis hit just one week before a long-anticipated referendum on the country’s new constitution, a critical part in the junta’s years-long process to slowly and partially democratize the country.

I should also note that, regardless of how irrational the junta’s fears of foreign influence may have been, they actual proved to be somewhat prophetic. Thein Sein, the country’s current president, headed up the regime’s response effort and worked closely with the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This positive interaction between Sein and his international counterparts likely hastened the country’s political transition.

The politics of disaster aid

But now we need to consider the political concerns behind the other side of the equation – donor decisions. What accounts for the fact that the US provides relief after less than 1 out of every 5 disasters?

In a 2009 working paper for the World Bank1, Guenther Fink, an international health economics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Silvia Redaelli, a senior economist at the Bank, explored these factors.

As the authors note, humanitarian aid is often seen as a different animal than official development assistance (ODA). Whereas donor countries have always attached political conditions to ODA, that rule has not applied for emergency aid. Instead, “donor governments perceive emergency aid as political unconditional.” In principle, it should be apportioned according to the greatest need.

But, as Fink and Redaelli demonstrate, donor countries have consistently failed to live up to these principles. In the study, they explore the factors driving the delivery and amount of aid after 449 rapid-onset disasters. They explored the amount of aid provided in the aftermath of these events based on information from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair’s (OCHA) Financial Tracking System. To control for political considerations, they add a number of independent variables, including population size, GDP per capita, Freedom House rankings, trade openness, the distance between donor and recipient state capitals, whether or not the recipient country exports oil, and how closely the donor and recipient country’s UN voting patterns line up.

Population density, oil exports, and trade openness all affect aid

They find that both the number of people affected and killed increases the likelihood of aid delivery, by 10-13% and 20%, respectively. But, more than that, political factors seem to drive the decision making process. Donors are 25-30% more likely to support their former colonies, and Western countries are far more eager to support oil producers.

Interestingly, donor countries appear more apt to contribute to disaster-affected countries that are not already aligned with their political interests. Unlike with ODA, which donors seem to use to reward their allies, humanitarian aid seems to be a tool to build better political relations. As the authors note, “If the acquisition of international consensus is on donors’ political agenda, emergency aid may well be a more visible, cheaper and more flexible tool to reach such a consensus than traditional development assistance.”

These political issues also mediate the amount of aid provided. When disasters occur at least 1,000 kilometers away, aid values are halved. In contrast, politically non-aligned states see 200% more aid, while former colonies can expect to receive 5 times more.

The correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.

But Fink and Redaelli dig further into the data and find that the five major donor countries – the US, Germany, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom – are all motivated by different interests. While the US tends to support democratic regimes, Norway is actually 14% more likely to support more autocratic countries. Germany, for its part, is 66% more inclined to provide aid to neighboring states, while Japan shows an interesting affinity for densely populated countries. And, reminding us all that the sun never set on the British Empire once, former colonial bonds increase the UK’s aid probability by nearly 30%.

The study includes two additional findings. First, the US, UK, and Norway are more likely to support oil exporters by 24%, 35%, and 39%, respectively. Secondly, the authors note evidence for a “bandwagon” effect – when more of these big 5 donors contribute to the relief effort, the total number of donor countries increases significantly.

Unlike other research, the paper also explores what factors drive private disaster aid flows. Nongovernmental donors appear more inclined to support poorer countries and are 16% less likely to provide aid to countries that get high marks for trade openness. Interestingly, private donors do not seem responsive to either the number of fatalities or whether the disaster-affected country exports oil.

Ultimately, as Fink and Redaelli conclude, “While the evidence of the various biases varies significantly across countries, the correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.”

I should note that note everyone agrees with this thesis. Nelson, for his part, authored a 2012 study (gated) that found while these types of political variables do play a role in aid discussion, “humanitarian variables are consistently significant predictors of disaster aid provision.”

So while this debate may not be entirely settled, the fact remains that the international community has a long way to go before it meets the principles laid out in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and reiterated the 2011 Busan Partnership. If we hope to shift from a donor-recipient relationship to a true partnership, developed countries will need to more closely balance their underlying political considerations when apportioning disaster aid.

* Dr. Fink published a version of this paper (gated) in the May 2011 edition of the journal World Development.

Cleveland is finally raising its parking rates, but they’re still way too low

cleveland parking meters

Parking meters in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

William F. Buckley, the legendary publisher of The National Review, famously wrote that “a conservative is someone who is standing athwart history, yelling Stop.” If that’s the case, I guess that makes Councilman Zack Reed a dyed in the wool conservative – at least when it comes to parking – as he continues his crusade to keep Cleveland’s parking policies trapped in the 1960s.

If you recall, Councilman Reed is the person who pushed through legislation in 2008 to make on-street parking free on Black Friday throughout Cleveland, depriving the city of thousands in forgone revenue, year in and year out. Well, he’s at it again.

At its weekly meeting last night, Cleveland City Council approved legislation to raise parking rates in the city, as Leila Atassi explains. The legislation will increase downtown parking meter rates to $1 per hour from $0.75 per hour and raise the daily and hourly fees at city-owned parking lots by $1. Additionally, the city now has the ability to charge up to $30 per day for special event parking, up from the current $20 rate.

Every member of the City Council voted in favor of the bill, save one. Yes, Councilman Reed played the role of self-appointed champion of the people by voting no, arguing that the rate hikes are just another way to “gouge” the “hardworking, middle class folks” of Cleveland. Councilman Reed’s one-man battle to stand athwart history might be noble, if it had any basis in reality.

According to Michael Cox, the Director of Public Works, Cleveland has not raised parking fees in the city since 1989. Our parking policies are, quite literally, a relic of the Cold War era. The city’s parking rates are dramatically lower than those of comparable cities. Compare Cleveland’s rates to Pittsburgh, for instance. Effective January 1, Pittsburgh has charged $4 per hour for on-street meter parking in the downtown core; rates throughout the rest of the city vary from $1-3 per hour (with the exception of the Carrick neighborhood, where the hourly rate is $0.50).

Even with the new increase, Cleveland will only charge $0.75 per hour near hospitals and schools and $0.50 per hour in neighborhoods with meters. Pittsburgh has also had a residential permit parking system in place for 34 years, something that Cleveland has only recently even begun considering. Cincinnati, for its part, charges anywhere from $1.75-2.25 per hour in its central business district.

Cleveland’s failure to increase its rates in a quarter century has significantly decreased their real value. Due to inflation, the $0.75 a Clevelander paid to park in 1989 would be worth just $0.40 today. In fact, the new increase still fails to keep up with the rate of inflation. For the hourly rate to have the same value as $0.75 did in 1989, we would need to charge $1.42. It’s no wonder that the Division of Parking has been running in the red for years.

If Councilman Reed was really concerned about protecting the interests of working families in Cleveland, this should outrage him. The fact is that, because we have failed to raise parking rates, the City has had to prop up the Division of Parking by spending money out of its general fund. Every dollar that we spend to keep parking rates at below-market value is a dollar we cannot spend on our crumbling roads, improving our schools, or shoring up public safety services.

Moreover, approximately 75% of people attending Browns, Cavs, and Indians games hail from not just outside of Cleveland proper, but from outside of Cuyahoga County. This was a major issue in last year’s Sin Tax renewal campaign. Accordingly, by artificially suppressing parking rates, Cleveland residents are effectively being forced to subsidize the suburban sprawl that has hollowed out this region for decades. Cleveland simply cannot afford not to raise the cost of parking in our city.

This legislation is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the 16 Council members who voted in favor of it. But we still have a long, long way to go if we hope to rationalize parking policy in this city.

Why we need to link disaster risk reduction to the sustainable development goals

disaster mortality since 1990
disaster mortality since 1990

Trends in disaster mortality since 1990 (courtesy of the Global Assessment Report 2015).

I know I said that my next post would be on the Syria climate change & conflict paper; that’s coming next, I promise. But I wanted to finally get around to cross-posting this piece I wrote for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction first, because it completes the logical chain I started in my last post – climate change feeds into DRR which feeds into sustainable development.

As we enter the year 2015, we approach the final target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In many regards, the MDGs have been successful. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 47% to 22% by 2010; the global burden from HIV/AIDS and malaria has been ameliorated significantly; and more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean water.

Despite these successes, the international community has been unable to halt environmental degradation. Though MDG 7 called for integrating the principles of sustainable development and reducing biodiversity loss, the destruction of critical ecosystems, such as wetlands and tropical forests, continues apace. Additionally, global carbon emissions have increased by 34% since 1990. Failing to stem this tide will could reverse many of the gains made through the MDGs. As Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last April, “Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future.”

It is for this reason that the international community proposed developing a set of so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the Rio + 20 Conference. These SDGs will pick up where the MDGs left off and further embed the principles of sustainable development and environmental protection.

But, just as we cannot hope to promote sustainable development without addressing climate change, we cannot expect to achieve the SDGs without tackling the threat posed by disasters. The number of disasters worldwide has spiked in recent years, increasing from roughly 100 disasters per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2000-2010.

Strangely, a consensus appears to have emerged among some economists that disasters may have limited macroeconomic impacts and can actually be beneficial in the long-run. According to this theory, disasters tend to have a stimulative effect for economies by sparking large-scale reconstruction efforts and attracting financial support from the international community.

From an economic perspective, there are several shortcomings to this theory. It assumes that disasters are exogenous events, rather than part of the normal political and economic order. It is also assumes that disasters significantly alter the existing economic order. Yet, low- and middle-income states lack the capacity to replace their productive capital on a broad scale. Moreover, most developing countries lack the necessary human capital to maximize such new technologies. Accordingly, even when disasters provide a boost in the short-term, economies should ultimately return to their pre-disaster state.

More importantly, this theory ignores the political economy of disasters, which disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable. Disasters tend to undermine the social, political, and natural capital upon which vulnerable groups depend to make their livelihoods. For one, they can severely damage the natural capital upon which most low-income households rely. It can take years, if not decades, for this capital stock to regenerate. The specter of frequent disasters also makes low-income agricultural households more risk averse. In Ethiopia, this threat has reduced economic growth by more than one-third. And disasters can create significant, long-term consequences for the most vulnerable groups. Women living in camps for disaster survivors may find themselves at an elevated risk of physical and sexual violence. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher than the rate before the storm.

Taken together, disasters can undermine the vital coping mechanisms of low-income households. Consequently, they may become locked into debilitating poverty traps. Households need to maintain a minimum asset threshold in order to provide for their needs and retain the ability to move up the economic ladder. Evidence suggests that a large number of households fell below this threshold as a result of asset destruction during Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and the 1998-2000 droughts that affected Ethiopia. Such environmental shocks may lock poor households into spirals of poverty and degradation from which they may never escape.

It is for these reasons that the international community must embed the principles of disaster risk reduction into the SDGs. Failing to account for the deleterious impacts of disasters would undermine this enterprise and risk stymieing further progress on poverty alleviation. Moreover, as we enter a greenhouse world, the risk from climate-related disasters and environmental change will only become more apparent. The time has come for the world to mainstream disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation into development planning. The risks of not acting are too great to ignore.

What is the real cost of freezing Ohio’s clean energy standards?

oec clean energy infographic
students protesting against sb 310

Students protesting against SB 310 in front of the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday, May 14 (courtesy of Ohio Beyond Coal).

I have asthma. According to the CDC, I am one of 831,787 Ohioans and 25.9 million Americans living with this condition (PDF). That means that 1 out of every 12 Americans is living with asthma, up from 1 out of 14 in 2001.

While people who may not have firsthand experience with this illness may not understand, asthma is far more than just an inconvenience. I’ve heard and seen children with asthma describe feeling like fish out of water when they are suffering an attack. It’s terrifying to not be able to get the air you need. While I don’t think I was ever really in any acute danger, the fact remains that 185 children and 3,262 adults died of asthma in 2007.

As much as I hate to admit it, asthma came to define much of my childhood. From the day that I was diagnosed at either 5 or 6 (I can’t remember the exact date), my severe asthma was omnipresent. Many of my memories from this period involve such episodes, including the role that my mom played in helping me deal with these attacks. Growing up, my mom routinely worked 60-hour weeks and stayed until 3:00 a.m. or later every Tuesday night to edit her newspapers. Despite this, she was always there to listen to my lungs to see if I was wheezing; to pick me up from school or practice if I had an attack; to ferry me to and from the the ER when I needed treatment; and to sit next to me in the hospital for the long hours while I underwent tests, got chest x-rays, and did my nebulizer treatments.

I vividly remember my first major asthma attack. It was the spring of 1993, and I started having breathing trouble towards the end of the school day. The attack only got worse throughout the afternoon, and when my mom got home from work around 6:00 p.m., she immediately drove me to the ER at Fairview Hospital. We sat in that ER for hours before a doctor could see me and for several hours more before they were able to admit me for care. My mom stayed with me right until they took me up to my room for admittance at 3:30 a.m. I ended up spending three days in the hospital for treatment and observation (thankfully, it was the only time that I actually got admitted for asthma). This is just one of the thousand acts of kindness from her that I can never fully repay.

Fortunately, as I got older, I began to grow out of this severe asthma. Today, I am able to live a normal life without worrying about when my next attack will come. But, at the same time, I know that the threat remains, and I have my emergency inhaler on hand, just in case. I was reminded of this quite vividly back in the fall of 2005 when I went in for routine surgery. The procedure required me to go under general anesthesia, so the doctors intubated me. But, after the surgery, when they tried to remove the tube, I suffered a severe bronchial spasm that cut off my breathing. My blood-oxygen saturation levels plummeted into the mid to upper 60s (normal levels are 95-100%), and I ended up spending the next 24 hours in the ICU, an experience I recommend avoiding, if at all possible.

I have no idea how much my asthma diagnosis ended up costing my parents in medical bills and lost time at work, but I imagine the amount was substantial. I did see the medical bills that came in during my stay at the ICU and, even with insurance, they were staggering. For the millions of Americans who suffer with asthma everyday, many of whom do not have insurance, this diagnosis is a real burden. On average, asthmatics spend $3,300 in medical costs each year. According to CDC numbers, asthma costs total $56 billion in direct medical costs, lost school and work days, and premature deaths. Everyday in this country, 36,000 children miss school and 27,000 adults miss work due to this condition.

My past (and present) as someone living with asthma has made me an advocate for clean air. We know that air pollution is both a root cause of the condition and a proximate trigger of asthma attacks. And that’s what pisses me off so much at SB 310. By crippling Ohio’s clean energy industry and protecting the fossil fuel industry, it will directly contribute to more asthma attacks and more chronic pulmonary diseases. This bill will carry a high cost in blood and treasure for our state.

It’s great to focus on how this bill will destroy jobs and harm a thriving clean energy industry in the state (which I’ve done), but SB 310 proponents just counter with their BS “war on coal” retort, a completely disingenuous argument that is, nonetheless, powerful in this state. But it’s another thing entirely for proponents of this bill to hear about the ways that it will directly affect the health of thousands of Ohioans and just not even give a shit.

Yesterday. the Ohio Environmental Council released this infographic showing the benefits of the state’s clean energy standards during 2013:

oec clean energy infographic

Source: Ohio Environmental Council

Using these numbers and EPA incidence factors, we can roughly calculate the economic and health benefits of the clean energy standards in 2013 alone. According to 2011 EPA standards, every ton of NOx, SO2, and PM2.5 has has the following benefits:

incidence factors for power plant emissions

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Accordingly, using these numbers, the reductions in NOx and SO2 emissions saved 3.5 lives, 267 lost work days, 59 asthma attacks, and 2.5 non-fatal heart attacks last year alone. And, based on Lepuele et al.’s economic benefit estimates, these standards had a health-related economic benefit of $208,620,000 in 2013.

But these numbers don’t even take into account the social benefit of the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by the standards. The US government currently uses $37 per ton as its social cost of carbon emissions. Accordingly, given that these standards saved 1,061,300 tons of GHGs in 2013, they created an economic benefit of $39,268,100. In total, using these conservative estimates, Ohio’s clean energy standards generated an additional economic benefit of $247,888,100 in 2013 alone.

These savings are not included in other analyses, but they are real, and they affect the lives of ordinary Ohioans everyday. The facts are clear – a vote for SB 310 is a vote for more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, more work and school days missed, more trips to the ER, more premature deaths, and more of the carbon pollution that is driving climate change. These are the the stakes.

If SB 310 proponents really wanted to show the real cost of these standards on Ohioan’s electric bills, as they claim, they should include a provision in the bill that requires the inclusion of these numbers. Somehow I doubt that would go over too well.

How much will SB 310 cost you?

sb 310 costs

Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy and Ohio Advanced Energy Economy  just released a new report that demonstrates how SB 310 will raise electricity rates in Ohio. Find out how much more you will have to pay from 2015-2016 if the legislature freezes Ohio’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards.

[CP_CALCULATED_FIELDS id=”6″] [CP_CALCULATED_FIELDS id=”7″]

*Calculators use estimated additional cost of electricity for residential and commercial users in Ohio from the OAEE/OPAE report. The report uses Public Utilities Commission of Ohio data, which is based on 750 kWh per month for residential customers and 300,000 kWh per month for commercial customers.

Maintaining road quality is good for the climate & the budget

cleveland potholes
cleveland potholes

Driving down West 117th has been a real adventure this winter (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

It’s not exactly a secret that Cleveland’s roads are in rough shape right now. The city’s streets are pockmarked with potholes of all shapes and sizes, most of them enormous. The Scene recently parodied the issue, writing

After driving into a massive pothole at Clifton Boulevard and West 117th Street last week, Lakewood resident Harold Dreifer has now begun to live there. He tells Scene, “There was just nowhere else to go. It was a long fall down here; I decided that I may as well set up shop.”

While the City claims that this year has been relatively average, it does seem to be admitting it has been overwhelmed by the problem, as evinced by the fact that it is paying a private “pothole killer” $225 per hour to patch city streets. I have no doubt that I had to repair two flat tires last week in large part because of the fact that driving down my street is like driving down a Connect Four board lain on its side.

connect four

Connect Four: great for leisure, not so much for road surfaces (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Obviously much of this road quality issue stems from this year’s relatively brutal winter. January’s polar vortexes gave way to Cleveland’s 5th coldest February since 1964. This winter has produced 10 days with temperatures below 0°F, the most in three decades, and 66 days with at least a trace of snow (through February 28). The persistent cold and snow, followed by continual freeze-thaw cycles, provides prime conditions for potholes. It weakens the pavement, leads to continued plowing, and prevents road crews from repairing potholes in timely manner.

But other factors beyond the weather have conspired to create this problem. Since taking office in 2011, Governor Kasich has balanced the state budget on the backs of local governments. Over the past four years (two biennial budget cycles), the State of Ohio has pilfered roughly $1 billion from the Local Government Fund, the primary pool of state tax revenues available to municipalities. The 2012-2013 state budget alone cost the city of Cleveland $45 million in foregone tax revenues that could fund vital city services.

In this era of slashing government revenue to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest Ohioans, it’t not surprising that road maintenance has gotten short shrift. While investing in public infrastructure construction and maintenance can create jobs and generate a wide array of other benefits, it’s also extremely expensive. According to data from a 2008 report by Nicholas Lutsey, maintaining road surface quality, or “strategic management of pavement roughness” in academ-ese, is much less cost effective than other transportation sector options, as shown in the table below.

transportation sector cost effectiveness

Cost-effectiveness of various transportation sector policies. Note that lower numbers – particularly negative values – indicate more cost-effective options (courtesy of Wang, Harvey & Kendall).

But incorporating the value from reducing greenhouse gas emissions can change these ratios. According to Ting Wang, John Harvey, and Alissa Kendall, authors of a recent article with the incredibly captivating title “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through strategic management of highway pavement roughness,” maintaining road quality is an excellent strategy for tackling climate change.

Road maintenance can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector because pavement roughness causes vehicles to lose energy as waste heat. As the authors note,

Because an improvement in smoothness immediately affects every vehicle traveling over the pavement, the cumulative effects on GHGs can be substantial in the near term.

According to their research, implementing optimal road maintenance strategies in California could reduce GHG emissions by 0.57-1.38 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year in the state. The maximum value is similar to the annual GHG emissions of 300,000 passenger vehicles or, using the State Department’s extremely flawed analysis, the Keystone XL pipeline. Accounting for GHG reductions and total user costs, the cost effectiveness of maintaining pavement quality goes from $416 per ton of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), a net loss, to -$710 to -$1,610/tCO2e, a major net benefit. Accordingly, incorporating the climate benefits of proper road maintenance can make the practice 2.75-4.9 times more cost effective for governments.

President Obama ordered federal agencies to incorporate climate change into their planning and policy making activities last fall. As this research demonstrates, this approach is a sound one, and municipal governments should follow suit.