Car-Loving California Deals with Climate Change

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

The dirty little secret is out: We are degrading our planet at an accelerating pace and the reasons are not primarily celestial as a dwindling group of skeptics would have us believe.

Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions go together, so says a mounting body of evidence coming from the vast majority of eminent scientists worldwide, and those pollutants are man-made.

The issue is apparently important enough to have merited an urgent call for action by President Obama in his recent talk before the United Nations—a first before that body by a head of state.

California, however, is several steps ahead of Washington thanks to visionary actions by its own leaders—one a Republican, the other a Democrat, who avoided the partisan bickering that has killed any meaningful environmental reforms in Congress.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger secured part of his own legacy signing into law the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006—or AB 32 as it is better known—which imposes the toughest greenhouse gas reductions in the fifty states requiring emissions to be dialed back to 1990 levels by 2020.

Governor Jerry Brown followed up with a law mandating that a third of electricity generation must come from renewable sources though more ominously the state has so far reached only 23% of that goal.

The activation of the state’s Cap-and-Trade Program—designed to improve energy efficiency in key sectors, enables complying entities to sell off allowances (permits) in excess of those they do not need which can then be resold on the market. To date the state has sold $2.2 billion of CO2 allowances.

California becomes the first state to put a price on emissions. Some predict this will lead to a rise in gas prices. Others do not see this as much of a disincentive for reasons I will mention shortly.

There are numerous factors cited for the sudden dramatic shifts in the world’s climates that are producing global warming and severe weather patterns. Included are rapid deforestation in places such as Brazil and Mexico which results in less carbon absorption, numerous wildfires abetted by California’s drought that is nearing historic proportions, and of course the steady burning of fossil fuels which releases CO2, methane and other toxic heat-trapping hydrocarbons.

It should come as little surprise that a leading culprit behind this despoliation of our air and water is the beloved automobile and the millions of exhaust pipes spewing gases on our roadways every day. It is estimated that 40 percent of all emissions come from transportation sources.

Factories, power plants and electric utilities account for a comparable percentage of emissions and at least 17 states, excluding California, still rely on coal—the dirtiest pollutant– as a principal source of energy.

However, California is at the epicenter of the nation’s car culture. According to latest figures there are 32 million gas-guzzling registered vehicles of all types clogging the state’s streets and highways which logged approximately 333 billion miles and that number is expected to increase by at least 25 billion miles in six years as the state’s population also increases.

The 70,000 or so electric vehicles that have yet to gain widespread popularity along with the hybrids that debuted several years ago and even a growing number of vehicles powered by natural gas are still no match for this “dirty” fuel-driven armada.

According to the California Air Resources Board which has the responsibility for implementing the states’ climate control regulations, in order to achieve the promised emission reduction levels, the 450 million tons of carbon emissions unleashed annually would have to be pared down to 425 million by 2020. By 2050, Governor Brown has announced, the goal is “something in the neighborhood of 75 million tons.”

That’s a tall order impossible with current technologies and not easily achieved given the insatiable demand for gas and oil and a seeming reluctance to make the necessary investments in cleaner energy either in the public or private sectors that could alter the economic paradigm.

The State’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a component of the cap-and-trade program, is intended to support projects that reduce pollution. However, in a deal that the governor struck with the legislature, $250 million of those funds are earmarked for the controversial bullet-train system with a quarter of all future revenues earmarked for the same project. In 2013 $500 million of cap-and-trade dollars were “borrowed” to balance the state’s general fund budget.

California has pioneered in methods to achieve greater energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. But the automobile industry does not seem to be in any hurry to make changes and transportation planners, regional agencies and county governments lured by the promise of federal funding meager as it may be continue to push for the laying of more pavement while touting the benefits of public transit.

That does not sound like a formula for solving gridlock, especially when the vast majority of voters who are motorists if, given a choice, would no doubt opt to see potholes filled and more car lanes added before voting for costly bond measures to subsidize rail construction and fancier buses.

Nor is a quick solution forthcoming even if Governor Brown’s legacy dream of a high-speed bullet train system linking northern and southern California can become a reality. It faces numerous legal and environmental hurdles with a completion timeline extended now to 2030 at a projected cost of $69 billion and rising.

How much ridership any such system will attract is certainly open to question and whether it will impact the nightmarish freeway jams that Los Angeles and Bay Area motorists must endure daily is speculative at best.

Statistics compiled in August by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway Transit District which oversees the iconic span bringing traffic into and out of San Francisco are instructive.

The average total monthly vehicle trips across the bridge in 2005 were 38,796. Latest figures show 38,752 such trips—a statistical draw.

In 1990, 24 years ago, the average daily vehicle trips were 120,276. Today, 44 years after the inauguration of bus and ferry services, that number is 110,000—a somewhat negligible 8.5% reduction!

The average daily bus trips have actually fallen from 32,000 in 2000 to 22,000 today, while the daily ferry ridership over the same is period is not quite 7,500—a modest increase that has not offset the loss in bus ridership. Nevertheless the ferries and buses serve only a small percentage of the overall North Bay commuter population.

Since the bridge is an on-going commercial enterprise (as are most bridges with high traffic volume), the need for adequate toll revenue to replace aging vehicles and equipment, to cover repairs and maintenance and to pay employee salaries and pensions is a constant.

Even though construction costs were fully amortized decades ago, the economics dictate policies that will attract more car users, not less.

In comparison, it’s recently retrofitted companion, the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge which is considered the area’s workhorse, averages 270,000 vehicles per day! Even with an over-demand for BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)—the highly successful commuter train system linking the East Bay and the Peninsula with San Francisco—car volume across the span is on the increase and the $6.8 billion spent on the remodel may one day look like only a down payment if the western portion undergoes similar modernization.

In short, while bicycle enthusiasts have grown more vocal and demonstrative in claiming a piece of the road and the ride-sharing upstarts such as Uber, Lyft and Side Car are also making their presence known to the chagrin of the taxi cabs, they join the busses, trains and ferries as secondary options for the normal commuter and happy alternatives for tourists.

None pose an immediate threat to bump the venerable automobile from its perch atop the transportation pyramid. As such, if and when a cleaner, healthier, less congested, less costly energy future arrives, it will get here with cars, driverless or otherwise.

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