I’m tired of the electric vehicle conversation

Warning: Grumpy old man mode.

I am really, really growing tired of the electric vehicle boosterism that pervades the environmental community. It is sucking all the air out of organizations and meetings, diverting attention away from solutions that would have a much greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The transportation sector is responsible for 41% of GHGs in California (2020), and that percentage will continue to climb as we work to reduce the other sectors. Except for this pandemic period, GHG emissions from vehicles have continued to climb every year, and they will probably go back to their rise when the pandemic is over, and that is already happening in some places.

Do electric vehicles have a lower emissions impact than fossil fuel vehicles? Yes, but the difference is not enough to justify the boosterism. Until our electricity supply is 100% renewable (with storage of course needed for peak periods), and we are not importing electricity from other states, the impact from electric vehicles will be unacceptably high.

And there is the other impact of vehicles. You’ve all seen the images, a take off on the old one showing the number of and space used by cars, buses, bicycles and walkers, showing congestion from electric vehicles being exactly the same as fossil fuel vehicles. But congestion is actually a friend to walkers and bicyclists, so mostly a concern to transit and drivers.

The biggest problem with cars is that they dominate our cities, and make compact, walkable development and neighborhoods impossible. I live in a place (downtown Sacramento) where nearly all of my needs are within walking distance, and the few that are not are within bicycling distance. I’m car free and have been for ten years (I had written care free instead of car free, but you know, it is much the same thing).

Yet car drivers through downtown, many but not all of them people who don’t live in downtown, challenge me for right-of-way every time a use a crosswalk. Crossing the street should not require either yielding my right of way to drivers, or trying to intimidate them into stopping (which most walkers are too afraid to do, rightly so). When I’m bicycling, drivers running red lights and not coming close to stopping at stop signs are a constant danger, meaning I have to be on high alert rather than enjoying my place and my ride. The nature of the majority of drivers is that they willingly intimidate walkers and bicyclists. People driving electric vehicles are not any better. Tesla drivers are giving BMW drivers a run for their money in competition for the worst drivers on the road.

Because of the space taken up by cars, the roadway, on-street parking, off-street parking, everything is further away. Downtown and midtown, things are still within a reasonable distance, but that is not true anywhere else in the region except downtown Davis, old town Folsom, and old town Roseville. The amount of land devoted to cars is truly amazing, and sad, and criminal. Six lane or more arterials, with parking lanes and turn lanes. Six lane or more freeways, with the ever present threat to widen them. Katy Freeway (26 lanes in Houston area), coming to your community, courtesy of Caltrans!

I suspect a lot of the energy behind electric cars is just people who really don’t want to give up their car, at all, ever. They are the same people who bought Prius cars because they were more environmental, and continued driving the same or more, and then bought Tesla cars because they are even more green, and continued driving the same or more.

Car drivers kill more than 40,000 people every year in the US, and it looks like 2020 is going to be 43,000 when the official data is in. Motor vehicle fatalities are usually a bit above gun-related deaths. Cars are the leading cause of death for children and young people. Many people tolerate this as just part of the way things are, but it is not the way things are. It is the result of our American car addiction, and the design of our roadways (engineers are morally and legally responsible for this), and the choices of drivers.

Here is my suggestion. We remove one-half of all cars from service, by whatever means necessary, with whatever funding it takes. There should be criteria that prioritizes: 1) the most polluting cars; and 2) cars owned by drivers who drive a lot, 3) cars that are not used but still take up space on the street. I realize that there are homeless people living in vehicles, and I’m not talking about those, but the ones just gathering dust and leaves and cobwebs. I am not suggesting that the government pay going prices for these vehicles, but something quite a bit less. If necessary to induce the change, we can simply refuse to renew registration on vehicles in these categories.

Then, and only then, we start subsidizing replacement of the remaining internal combustion cars with electric, starting with the lowest income people. If we devote X amount of dollars to this, and X amount only gets us up to 40% of the median income, that is just fine with me. As many studies have shown, it is high income people that are receiving almost all the benefits from electric vehicle incentives. That is classist and racist, and must stop. We might eventually get to higher income levels, but only after replacement in the lower income levels has been achieved. That means we need to immediately end the programs as they exist and revise them to be equitable. If you are an electric car booster and and not working to achieve equity, you are just being an entitled jerk.

Please, let me not hear anything about electric vehicles the next time I go to a meeting or jump on Twitter. Please.

Walkable Sacramento

With the creation of specific goals and implementation of specific policies, the City of Sacramento can become a walking-first city, in the same sense that San Francisco and Chicago are transit-first cities. 

These goals transcend the built form; they are as applicable to the suburbs as to the central city. Though the policies are in part an attempt to regenerate the suburbs that were built on a cars-first model, they are applicable everywhere in the city. 

Accomplishment of a walkable Sacramento will require that most transportation funding over the next ten years be directed to fixing pedestrian infrastructure that was poorly designed without the needs of walkers in mind. In all policy, investment, and expenditure decisions, the needs of car-free and car-light individuals and families will be considered at least co-equal with those of drivers. Much of current transportation infrastructure was created without considering those too young to drive or too old to drive safely, and who cannot or choose not to drive. A walking-first Sacramento requires that we invert this model, with walkers the top priority. 

Low income communities should receive the first improvements to the walking environment, to counteract previous disinvestment and higher traffic threats in these communities. Neighborhoods with both low-income and high walking rates will be prioritized. However, at the completion of changes in policy and infrastructure, all neighborhoods will be walkable.

Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which requires a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, and public health benefits for physical activity, air quality, and protection from traffic hazards, will be the primary motivators of a shift to a walkable Sacramento. These and other benefits will be clearly communicated to the public to create and maintain support for the necessary changes. It is recognized that the changes necessary may make travel by privately owned vehicle somewhat slower and less convenient, but the emphasis will be on the ways in which walking is superior to driving for many trips. 

The goal of our transportation system for walkers will be zero serious injuries and fatalities, and any policy or practice that does not support this goal will be eliminated. 


  • Everyday destinations such as jobs, groceries, coffee shops and schools will be available within a 30 minute walk of every residence.
  • Walking, bicycling and transit infrastructure will be planned together so that they support each other synergistically.
  • Walking will be an option for most trips in life, and will be the preferred mode for many trips.
  • Pedestrian infrastructure will receive the majority of transportation funding until such time as it is complete and in a state of good repair.

Note: This is part one of a series of posts. I’m breaking it up both for my benefit and in the hopes that it will encourage people to comment on specific categories and issues and not just the concept as a whole. More to come…

CEQA hearing

This is a follow-on to my Wednesday post on the CEQA Guidelines update/reform: CEQA VMT reform has a fatal flaw.

Four organizations spoke at the hearing:

  • Climate Resolve (Ella): spoke against exemption, spoke about equity and displacement, mentioned request to Caltrans to use VMT instead of LOS
  • City of San Jose: spoke against transportation exemption, apparently submitted letter signed by other cities but I didn’t catch which ones; San Jose recently adopted VMT as their measure for transportation and development (Streetsblog Cal: San Jose Becomes Fourth California City to Adopt VMT as Metric for Traffic Impacts)
  • Coalition for Clean Air: spoke to reducing VMT as the best path to reducing emissions
  • California Bicycle Coalition (Linda): spoke about equity and displacement issues, on need to monitor and determine consistency, spoke against exemption

And I spoke, the sole citizen speaker:

  • I reject the language in 15064.3, Subdivision (b)(2), which exempts transportation from any requirement to use VMT rather than LOS.
  • Overall, the changes will affect development in a positive way, encouraging infill and discouraging greenfield development, however, transportation drives greenfield development drives rather than greenfield development driving transportation, so the overall benefit will be much lessened by the transportation exemption.
  • Transportation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in California (about 39%), but this language does little to address transportation
  • The draft guidelines specifically say “this provision does not prohibit capacity expansion.” But capacity expansion is the largest single contributor to exist and future emissions. This is exactly the issue that most needs to be solved
  • In the Sacramento region, nearly every county and city will continue to use LOS rather than VMT, with the possible exception of Sacramento city and Davis. Even the discussion of a possible change had most transportation ‘professionals’ and politicians up in arms.
  • Though it did not talk about it, the draft clearly contravenes the intent of the legislature in SB 743, which was to kill LOS.

I hope that there is enough opposition on the transportation issue that the agencies will come back with a better proposal, but if not, the legislature will have to come back to the issue again. If this exemption stands, the state cannot possibly meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Slow Transportation (part 1)

Recently I was emailing a friend about a Slow Food gathering, and facetiously used the term “slow transportation” for getting there by train rather than flying. But the more I thought about it, the more the term resonated with what I believe in and what I work on. I have not heard, so far as I’m aware, the term used anywhere else, but I think readers of this blog will immediately resonate with it as well. What follows is a first attempt to pin down a working definition of Slow Transportation.

I am going to break this topic up into several posts, but at the end I’ll make it available as a single document in case that is of use to you.

1. What is wrong with our present transportation system?

I am going to keep the list short and succinct because I think most readers of this blog will either already be aware of the issues, and/or will agree that these are the problems. Entire books have been written about each of these issues!

Note: Don’t be depressed by the list of problems below. I promise I won’t leave you there for long.

  • transportation accounts for a significant part of greenhouse gas emissions (37% in california, 26% in the US, and 14% worldwide) as is therefore a major driver of climate change
  • we have emphasized mobility over access, the ability to get somewhere – anywhere, rather than the ability to get to places we want to go; there is an incredible amount of aimless driving, just for something to do, running a small errand to take up time and fill an empty life; only about 15% of car trips these day have anything to do with commuting to work
  • the convenience and low cost of driving has encouraged the separation of functions, where we live, work, recreate and socialize, diminishing the value of each place; though this has started to reverse, we are so far down this road (literally) that it will be hard to bring these back together
  • privately owned motor vehicles isolate people rather than bring them together
  • traffic violence is inherent in a system based on private motor vehicles; even when people are not killed and injured by the drivers of motor vehicles, they are still intimidated out of the public space, knowing they are at risk there and are being actively discriminated against
  • our cities, counties and states are either already insolvent or on their way to insolvency, in part due to the fact that we do not have and cannot ever have enough money to maintain the transportation infrastructure we have already built; though roadways are the worst of this, it is also true to some degree of transit systems, and most certainly our air transport system
  • our current wars are in significant part about oil, oil wars; if you don’t think this is so, ponder the fact that the former head of Halliburton, an oil exploration and facilities company, got us into the Iraq war and Halliburton was the prime contractor for that war; it is not just the US with guilt and blood, most of the wars today are at least in part about oil
  • we transport our food long distances, disconnecting us from the source, the soil, and the people who grow it; industrial agriculture is both dependent on and a driver (literally) of our unsustainable transportation system; again, this is starting to reverse, but we have lost much of the smaller farmer and small processor capacity of our country, and it will take time to rebuild
  • the housing affordability crisis is in part due to a focus on housing costs without considering the transportation costs; the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T calculations indicates that much of the current housing stock is unaffordable because it is located so far from jobs and amenities; it is not really the urban areas (so much in the news) where housing is unaffordable, since transportation costs there are so much lower, but the suburbs and exurbs
  • our transportation system takes up too much of our wealth, particularly in the preference for mega-projects like new bridges and freeways, and inattention to small projects that would have greater benefits; there are plenty of things we could be spending transportation money on instead; I dont’ want to minimize the value of transportation investments, but to ask that they have the a similar social return to other things we could spend on
  • our transportation system takes up too much of our space, not just with roadways and interchanges, but with parking garages and parking lots and on-street parking; as a result of all this space devoted to one mode of travel, the private vehicle, everything must be further apart, thereby requiring even more driving, in an ever-downward spiral
  • our transportation system both encourages and depends upon greenfield development, which leads directly to loss of wildlife habitat and agricultural lands; we already have enough housing stock, but a preference for heavily subsidized greenfield development leads to abandonment and neglect of the sufficient housing stock we already have; greenfield development must stop, now and forever
  • there are so many externalities to private car use, costs that are borne by other individuals and society as a whole, that it really amazes me that we even allow private car use
  • we have reached peak car; peak does not necessarily mean the greatest number of cars or the greatest vehicle miles traveled, but it means the point of diminishing returns; the costs are now overwhelming the benefits and nothing we do can change that, except to walk away (literally) from dependence on motor vehicles

“The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.” —James Marston Fitch, New York Times, 1 May 1960

Measure B and air quality

Warning: nerdy detail ahead, but nerdy detail of critical importance to acheiving air quality goals in the region.

In the April 2016 draft Measure B included the following language:

Federal Air Quality Requirements. Measure_ Expenditure Plan funds programmed for a project construction phase that must be included in a federally approved air quality conformity determination to either the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) or Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) shall have consistent project descriptions to the listing in the MTP & MTIP before the Authority allocates construction funding for the project phase.

The final Measure B language is:

Federal Air Quality Requirements. Measure_ Expenditure Plan funds programmed for a project construction phase shall not impair the ability of the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) and Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) to meet federal air quality conformity, as determined by the Sacramento Transportation Authority Governing Board.

The difference may seem subtle at first glance, but it is not! The original language meant that:

  • projects must be considered as a whole, not piecemeal
  • all projects must meet federal air quality goals
  • SACOG would make the determination of whether the project met federal air quality goals


  • projects can be considered piecemeal
  • a specific project need not meet air quality goals as long as the overall program does
  • the Transportation Authority rather than SACOG will determine whether a project meets air quality goals

Why is this important?

The Capital Southeast Connector! The Capital Southeast Connector, at full build-out, would be an environmental disaster for the region. It will induce traffic, create more long distance commuters and further separation between housing and jobs, and very likely prevent the region from meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals.

How did it happen?

The language was changed at the Sacramento Transportation Authority board meeting on April 28. Region Business, which is a front group for greenfield developers, and California Alliance of Jobs, which represents employers who build roads, threatened board members with loss at the next election if they did not kowtow to the demands of the developers. This is not speculation: Kerri Howell, board chair, specifically said that the threat was made that candidates would be put up against her at the next election, and many other board members reported similar threats or nodded their heads in assent. And sadly, the board caved to these threats. After considerable non-public negotiation (the board members gather behind the dais), including discussion with the board members who had supported the original language and SACOG staff, compromise language was developed and passed, and is now part of Measure B ballot text.

What does it mean?

It means that Measure B has been tailored to the needs of greenfield developers. It was clear from the beginning that project allocations followed the old and discredited model of sprawl and cars-first development, but with this change it is now clear that Measure B will damage air quality in the region and prevent us from reaching greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Rangeland conversion threatens GHG goals

rangeland to exurbs, USGS photo
rangeland to exurbs, USGS photo

A research paper posted on PLOS entitled Whither the Rangeland?: Protection and Conversion in California’s Rangeland Ecosystems highlights the problem that exists everywhere but is a particular concern in the Sacramento area. Though the paper is pretty science-y, and does not emphasize the carbon impact of rangeland conversion, it is worth a read for all the other impacts and loss of public resources and ecosystem services entailed when rangelands are converted. It say this about Sacramento:

“The vast majority of the development in the Sacramento Metro region occurred in the grasslands and woodlands leading to the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, with large conversions directly adjacent to the existing urbanized area (Figure 5).”

The SacBee article “Lost California rangeland is said to pose greenhouse gas risk” puts this rangeland loss in the context of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals required by A.B. 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. From the SacBee article:

A study by UC Davis plant scientist Louise Jackson found that conversion from rangeland to irrigated cropland correlated to a threefold increase in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of land. When rangelands were converted to development, that number increased exponentially. Urban areas account for 217 times more greenhouse gas emissions.

I’ve asked Louise Jackson for more information on this statistics quoted, but so far no response.

My take on all of this is that we cannot possibly meet our climate change goals if we continue to convert rangelands to exurbs. This development form, which Sacramento so dearly loves, and the surrounding counties like as well, is simply not tenable if we are to have a future free of traumatic climate instability and warming. Every greenfield development, which in this area is almost always a conversion of rangelands, must be stopped. Now.

Cordova Hills on Tuesday

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors will consider the Cordova Hills sprawl development again on this coming Tuesday, January 29. The issue is agenda item #44, which will not be considered before 2:00PM, but may be considered later if the meeting is behind schedule. I don’t know whether this will again be a marathon meeting going on for hours, but if you wish to comment or observe, it is better to be there on time.

On the request of Phil Serna, SACOG considered the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) implications of the development, with and without a university. You can read the full letter SACOG_MikeMcKeever-on-CordovaHills (1.6MB), but the summary statement on page one is enough:

Cordova Hills will face challenges being included in the next MTP/SCS (to be adopted spring, 2016) largely based on market feasibility considerations, with or without a University. Those challenges are greatest if it is not clear when the University is likely to be built.

On a per capita basis (the relevant performance metric for SB375) Cordova Hills will create higher transportation greenhouse gas emissions relative to other development opportunities in the region, with or without a University. Per capita emissions will be significantly greater without a University than with a University.

An updated Air Quality Mitigation Plan has been provided, with approval from the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, which reflects their midnight conversion to accept the project. The primary added mitigation is the reduction of natural gas combustion through the use of tankless water heaters. As I’ve said before, if it was so easy to achieve these reductions, why were they not included in the project to begin with? [If you want to look at this and other documents (there are now about 72), go to the agenda page and download them. Some are huge.]

There have been several letters and comments in the Sacramento area media since the last hearing, urging that the development be approved because we can trust that the developer will obtain a university. There is no evidence for this, but I guess if you have enough friends in high places, you can make such claims.

I remain absolutely opposed to this project. If we can stop this one, there is hope that there won’t be any more of these sprawl-inducing, urban-services-boundary-busting proposals, but if this one goes through, the floodgates are open and quality of life in Sacramento County for all of us is down the tubes.