Show of hands, please: How many of you actually have read all 173 pages of the “Climate Action and Resiliency Plan” that Council approved last Tuesday?
All right, Vice Mayor John Knox White, you can put your hand down.
Anyone else? (Sorry, members of the “Task Force” acknowledged at the front of the document don’t count.)
We didn’t think so.
All kidding aside, we wouldn’t anticipate that the average citizen would slog through the entire document. But, as our readers’ humble servant, the Merry-Go-Round has made the effort.
Admittedly, we were inclined to give up when we read the beginning of a sentence on the very first page: “The end result will be a resilient, sustainable, and vibrant city. . . .” But a quick word search showed that there would be only six more “vibrants” (and only one “robust”) the rest of the way, so we persisted. And right away we came upon a declaration that caught our attention: “Unprecedented levels of behavior change will be needed from Alamedans to reach the deep emissions cuts called for in this plan.”
As we continued reading through the CARP, we concluded that the quoted sentence is more than just a bit of an understatement.
So that became our focus: What do the planners expect Alamedans to do differently to achieve the plan’s goals? How do they propose to get residents to take those actions? Is it realistic to believe that they will? And what will the planners propose to do if they don’t?
Here’s the overview:
The stated goal of the CARP is to reduce Alameda’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below their 2005 levels by 2030. (For the scientifically minded, the “greenhouse gas emissions inventory” in 2030, if nothing is done, is projected to be 376,118 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, abbreviated as MTCO2e. Acronym lovers call this the “BAU” – business as usual – scenario.)
According to the CARP, these GHG emissions emanate primarily from two sources: transportation and building-energy use. (Waste decomposition is the third.) Broadly speaking, to reach the stated goal, the planners want Alamedans to cut back on driving fossil-fuel-powered automobiles and, if they really must continue to drive, swap their gas and diesel guzzlers for electric vehicles. In addition, they want local homeowners and business owners to replace their natural-gas-powered furnaces, water heaters, and appliances with electric ones. And if not enough Alamedans respond in the right way to the “incentives” set forth in the plan, the planners warn that sterner measures – i.e., mandates and fees – may become necessary.
Now for the details:
As the CARP notes, Council already has adopted a Transportation Choices Plan incorporating the agenda Mr. Knox White and his followers have been pushing for years: more carpool lanes, more “facilities for biking and walking,” “improved” bus service, “increased” ferry service, new car and bike shares, “parking management,” and “traffic calming.”
According to the CARP, taking these actions will cut 14,000 MTCO2e from the “greenhouse gas emissions inventory” by 2030. But this is hardly enough to meet the planners’ goal. So the CARP proposes two sets of additional steps that, it says, will reduce GHG emissions by another 41,700 MTCO2e by 2030.
The first is to “encourage mode shift” – which is planner-speak for “getting people to drive less, or not at all.” Specifically, the CARP recommends that the City:
- “Encourage employees and employers to reduce commute trips by telecommuting”;
- Add 10.44 more miles of “dedicated and protected bike lanes” to the 6.1 miles already proposed by the TCP;
- Improve “synchronized timing” of 25 traffic lights;
- Hand out 5,000 more Easy Passes (to be used on AC Transit buses) in addition to the 5,000 already proposed by the TCP, and
- Ban gas-powered leaf blowers.
We don’t have much to say about the third and fifth items. But the other three bear comment.
Start with telecommuting. The CARP posits that, as a result of the City’s hortatory efforts, 25% of Alamedans will telecommute an average of 1.5 days per week by 2030, resulting in a 5.5% reduction in vehicle miles traveled, which is a measure of vehicle usage, and, for these purposes, a proxy for GHG emissions.
Is that realistic?
An Alamedan who works for, say, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency as a Planning Programs Manager might be able to get his work done from his home office for a day and a half every week. But what about the Alamedan who unloads trucks at the FoodMaxx or serves customers at the Boston Market just across the Fruitvale bridge? She can’t do her job by telecommuting even if she wanted to.
With all the new high-end residential developments, Alameda may indeed be marching toward supplanting Piedmont as an enclave for the professional class. But we’re not there yet, and, according to the 2017 American Community Survey, 5,629 Alamedans still work in “service occupations.” These folks ain’t potential telecommuters, now or in 2030.
Moreover, even if an Alamedan wants to work from home, she won’t be able to do so unless her employer lets her. The CARP suggests “eliminating double taxing and providing employer tax incentives” as ways to persuade employers to allow telecommuting, but it’s not clear what tax relief the Alameda City Council – as distinguished from the state Legislature – would be able to provide.
And, of course, our elected officials could offer such relief only to businesses subject to their jurisdiction. According to a study done in 2015, just 27.1% of employed Alamedans work on the island; the rest are commuters. What can our elected officials or staff members do to get these off-island employers to allow telecommuting?
“Outreach,” say the planners. With all due respect, we suspect that, if Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft or the new “Sustainability Coordinator” proposed by the CARP could even get through to the right person at a large company, they’d have an uphill battle convincing the executive to change corporate policy in order to accommodate the employees who live in Alameda.
We also harbor doubts about the extent to which the CARP’s other proposals for inducing “mode shift” can be expected to reduce GHG emissions. Sure, if we got everyone in Alameda – or at least a lot of us – to walk, bike, or take the bus or ferry to work (or some other necessary destination) instead of driving, emissions would go down dramatically. But will building more bike lines or offering more Easy Passes do the trick?
Here’s the problem: There are quite a few people who use their cars because it’s the only realistic mode of transportation available to them. The City could stripe a bus lane on every street and stick a bus pass in every mailbox and these folks won’t be able, even if they’d be willing, to leave their cars in the garage – and it therefore would be a mistake to count on any reduction in GHG emissions from this group.
Consider, for example, the roughly 25,000 Alamedans who work outside the city. Some of these people will be able to get to their jobs by a two- or three-segment commute that doesn’t require them to drive a car: walk, bike, and/or take a bus to a BART station or ferry terminal; ride the train or boat, and then, upon disembarking, walk, bike, and/or take a bus to the store or office. The woke folks in this group may be disposed, for the greater good, to undertake such a journey – but the less enlightened (or less patient) won’t be.
And what about the roughly 3,750 Alamedans whose employers are located outside Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties? They don’t have a similar bike/walk/transit option available: Unless they work for Google or another company that runs its own buses, it’s likely they’ll need to use their cars, at least part of the way, to get to their jobs.
Consider also the 11,659 Alamedans who are 65 years old or older (a demographic with which, unfortunately, we’re becoming all too familiar). Some of them (us) are still physically capable of walking to a bus stop or riding a bike to the grocery store. But not everyone is. And some of them (us) are lucky enough to have a primary care physician whose office is located in Alameda. But not everyone is.
How is the 75-year-old woman with a bad hip supposed to get to her Kaiser orthopedic specialist in San Leandro? Well, if she checked Google maps, she’d find that she could walk to a bus stop, take the 51A bus, then BART, then a shuttle, and 52 minutes later (in non-rush hour) she’d arrive at the hospital. If she drove, her car would be emitting carbon dioxide all the way, but she’d be taking fewer stressful steps – and she’d get to her doctor’s appointment in only 14 minutes.
The second set of recommendations made by the CARP for reducing transportation-related GHG gas emissions involves electric vehicles (“EVs,” to the cognoscenti), an area not covered by the TCP. The planners recommend five actions intended to get Alamedans – and the City itself – to swap gasoline- and diesel-powered cars for EVs:
- Increase availability of EV charging stations citywide;
- “Promote purchase” of “low-emission vehicles” (aka “LEVs”) and “zero emission vehicles” (aka “ZEVs”);
- “Continue programs to encourage” new EV purchases, such as a $2,000 per vehicle rebate on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price;
- “Continue to encourage” businesses to install EV charging stations;
- “Electrify” the City’s vehicle fleet.
According to the CARP, if the City implements these strategies, 7,378 more EVs will be on the streets of Alameda by 2030 (which will represent 12% of all vehicles in the City) and GHG emissions will be reduced by 20,484 MTCO2e.
Is that realistic?
Council can put some of the recommendations into effect simply by passing a law – like requiring all new residential developments to include charging stations. Likewise, the City could take other actions suggested by the planners as long as Council is willing to spend the money – like putting public charging stations in all City-owned parking lots and replacing 208 City-owned vehicles, including police patrol cars, with EVs. (Query whether Police Chief Paul Rolleri were consulted about this possibility.)
But what about privately owned businesses? The planners posit that that 52 new workplace/retail public chargers per year will be installed over a five-year period. This result can be achieved, they say, by “implement[ing] communications and outreach activities to encourage workplaces and businesses to install EV charging systems.” But no amount of “communications” or “outreach” is going to persuade a business owner to incur an expense that doesn’t make economic sense.
Moreover, the emphasis on charging stations has a bit of a “Field of Dreams” feel to it. It’s surely true that no one is going to want to buy an EV if she can’t find a convenient place to charge the vehicle. But is it also true that someone will decide that now is the time to ditch the car and buy an EV because there are more charging stations around town? We’re not so sure.
We’re equally uncertain about the efficacy of the steps geared specifically toward getting Alamedans to buy more EVs.
According to the CARP, the City could get 390 new EVs per year on the streets of Alameda by initiating a “five-year program” of “promotional activities.” At first, we thought the planners were envisioning Mayor Ashcraft driving down Park Street with a bullhorn and touting the benefits of owning a Tesla. In fact, all they suggest is that the local effort be “modeled” on “California-based or federal Clean Cities programs.”
Likewise, the CARP states that a $2,000 MSRP rebate would increase EV purchases in Alameda by 20.6%. (It’s not clear whether this is per year or overall.) Finally, an idea based on the premise that money talks! Presumably, this rebate is in addition to the CVRP rebate already offered by the state. But where will the funds for the municipal subsidy come from? Has anyone at the City got a commitment from Elon Musk? Or are the planners looking to Council to cut the rebate checks out of the General Fund? If so, how are the politicians going to pay for the next contingent of firefighters their union supporters demand?
We have to admit that owning an electric car strikes us as a cool idea (as long as the price is right – no Teslas for us). But we’re not sure that so many Alamedans share our ardor that they’ll buy enough new EVs to yield the reduction in GHG emissions the planners are counting on.
The second source of GHG emissions addressed by the CARP is building energy use. Fortunately, the City is well on its way to achieving a significant reduction in GHG emissions from this source – 134,189 MTCO2e by 2030 – thanks to Alameda Municipal Power’s conversion to 100% “clean energy” beginning in 2020. This means that Alamedans won’t be contributing to global warming by turning on their lights at night (assuming they’re using LED bulbs). But the planners expect them to change their behavior anyway – by switching from natural-gas powered furnaces, water heaters, and appliances to ones that take advantage of the new “clean” electricity supplied by AMP.
The CARP proposes that Council accomplish a portion of the desired “fuel switch” by fiat: it can pass laws requiring that all new residential construction be “all electric,” with no gas hook-ups, and that natural-gas-powered heaters and appliances be replaced with electric ones “when existing buildings are being substantially expanded.”
But what about current Alameda homeowners (or landlords) and business owners with no expansion plans? The CARP looks to AMP to carry the ball. At present, the utility offers a one-time rebate to customers who switch from natural-gas-powered to electricity-powered clothes dryers ($100) and water heaters ($500). The planners want AMP to continue these programs. Even so, they forecast that the rebates will cause only 10% of AMP’s residential customers to switch clothes dryers by 2030 – and only 1% to switch water heaters. The resulting reduction in GHG emissions thus will be minimal (447 MTCO2e).
Of course, the planners also want the City to “encourage” Alamedans to make the “fuel switch” voluntarily. But this will be a tough sell. At one point, the CARP states that “early studies suggest that all-electric homes and businesses can have lower energy bills than current homes and businesses.” Yet at another point, the planners concede that retrofitting a home with electricity-powered furnaces, water heaters, dryers, and stoves would require electrical panel upgrades and could cost a typical single-family-home owner nearly $30,000. We’re not sure many homeowners would conclude that the economic benefits of a fuel switch justify such an investment.
And what will the City do if not enough Alamedans make the switch from natural gas to electricity voluntarily? We’ve now come to the political issue that arises whenever a governmental body tries to get citizens to change their behavior in order to achieve a particular result.
To their credit, the authors of the CARP don’t ignore this issue. “To bring about such behavior change,” they write, “there are two categories of policy tools: ‘carrots,’ which provide incentives for sustainable actions, and ‘sticks,’ which provide disincentives for unsustainable actions.” Their plan, they argue, relies primarily on the former rather than the latter. And the reason they give is revealing. Governmentally imposed mandates or penalties aren’t bad because they restrict individual freedom (as an old-fashioned Republican conservative might argue). They’re bad because low-income people would be required to pay any newly imposed fees, too, which “add[s] to [their] economic burden” and therefore is not a “socially acceptable outcome” (as everyone running for the Democratic presidential nomination would agree).
Nevertheless, the planners acknowledge that mandates and fees may become necessary, especially if the City truly wants to achieve “zero net emissions” by 2050 and not just a 50% reduction by 2030. “[T]he City would likely need to shift its efforts from incentives, upon which this plan heavily relies, to mandates,” they write. “Existing incentives would also need to be increased.”
Reducing transportation-related GHG emissions furnishes one example of where the CARP brings up more sweeping actions. “Alameda, like almost all cities in the United States, was built to favor the automobile,” the planners write, “so precipitating a widespread shift from car use to other options may require innovative policies like congestion pricing, which was recently approved in New York City and has been put in place in cities such as Vancouver (Canada) and London.” Specifically, the CARP floats the idea of charging a toll during peak hours at the tubes and bridges. It then reassures skeptics that, before such a policy were implemented, “the City would conduct robust feasibility studies and community engagement.” (In one sentence, the planners use two of our favorite buzzwords; if they’d written that the “robust” community “engagement” would include a “conversation,” they’d have hit the trifecta.)
Likewise, if the “incentives” intended to get Alamedans to switch to electric heaters don’t produce a sufficiently robust result (sorry; we couldn’t help ourselves), the planners suggest that Council can pass a law requiring that Alameda homeowners completely retrofit their homes to use electricity only. “A similar mandate,” they write, “might be possible for the necessary conversion to EVs, though the legal and policy impacts of such a change warrant further analysis.”
Indeed, the planners even throw out the possibility of a “natural gas ban,” which they note is a “a move that no U.S. city has yet taken, but that cities such as Amsterdam and Vancouver, Canada, are moving toward.” Since the underlying theme of the CARP is that the City of Alameda should “position” itself as an “innovative climate leader, paving the way for cities around the region, state, and country to follow our example,” there are some who might find the novel idea of a ban appealing. As a Planning Board member, Mr. Knox White was fond of arguing that Alameda should follow the lead of right-thinking cities like Boulder or Seattle. Imagine how delighted he’d be if he were able to tell his colleagues in these cities that they should follow Alameda’s lead!
The chapter in the CARP about reducing GHG emissions contains a lot of other interesting material worthy of comment. (And there are three more chapters after that, plus a glossary and appendices.) But we’ll stop here and close with one final observation:
It should be clear by now that we question how realistic it is to expect that Alamedans will change their behavior to the extent necessary to achieve the CARP’s stated goals. But this is not an argument against moving forward with the plan. The CARP may not turn out to work as well as the planners hope, but if it does no harm, it satisfies the political version of the Hippocratic oath. From our perspective, no egregious harm leaps out, and we like the idea of the City and its residents taking action themselves to combat global warming rather than waiting for the Squad to get the Green New Deal through Congress.
Nevertheless, we’re aware that governmental action, especially when it’s “innovative,” may produce unexpected (and undesirable) as well as unintended consequences. The CARP devotes a lot of attention to the impact its proposals will have on what it calls “socially vulnerable” populations. This is all well and good – but to the City staff responsible for carrying out the plan, we ask a favor: pay attention to how it’s going to affect the ordinary schmo, too.