What does precautionary really mean in planning? Overstating its benefits? Or?

From Linsey Marr and my contribution to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning:

This chapter’s goal has been to expand planners’ scope of the connections between land use, urban form, air quality and community health. Indeed, planning research and practice has significant opportunities to contribute to working with the many issues at stake with urban environmental health, air quality, and climate change. In order to do so, however, the field has to recognize that there many issues other than the automobile and its emissions. Significant though those issues are, they are only one part of the story about environmental health—the beginning.

For those who believe that land development will change radically, and that those changes will affect how much fuel consumption occurs, this chapter may seem overly cynical, assigning a smaller role to planning and design than they merit in environmental health. Instead, this chapter is merely a call to complexity, one that planners can and should answer in the interest of being truly precautionary in our planning. More cynical would be to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil about these uncertainties when failure to deliver on environmental health improvements results in continued human suffering.

Davis and Kahn on the effects of used vehicle imports on emissions

Davis, Lucas and Matthew Kahn. 2010. International trade in used vehicles: The environmental consquences of NAFTA. Economic Policy. 58-82.

Davis and Kahn set up a nice little set of models to help us understand what has likely happened in the durable goods market for vehicles. In comparatively higher income countries, used durables like cars are likely to get traded out to lower income countries–here, the US and Mexico. And since older durables emit more than new cars, they find that this robust trade in used vehicles increases lifetime emissions as Mexico consumers substitute away from transit use to used car consumption and those cars stay in use longer. An excellent paper: I highly encourage you to go read (and to spring for membership in the American Economic Association: you get lots of good journals and a calendar with economist centerfolds! One of my happiest investments this year.)

A couple of weak points: they say at the beginning that they establish that trade makes emissions go up in both countries. No, they actually show that emissions go down in the US but up in Mexico, and the increases in Mexico outstrip the reductions in the US. I don’t love the way they calculate emissions: they have to make some assumptions about the distribution of vehicle miles of travel, and I suspect that it is possible, given their analysis, that trade make makes VMT go up in both countries. Moreover, they note that costs of repairs are low in Mexico, yet they really don’t calculate how repairs can significantly improve engine performance. A car isn’t as good as new, but that doesn’t mean it stays a clunker after it’s traded. This may be particularly true depending on where the used car ends up in Mexico: Mexico City has different incentives and regulations for fixing up a car than other parts of the country.

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Mapping particulates from satellite data

In a recent issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. Canadian researchers Aaron van Donkelaar and Randall Martin at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, created the map by blending total-column aerosol amount measurements from two NASA satellite instruments with information about the vertical distribution of aerosols from a computer model.

link: NASA – New Map Offers a Global View of Health-Sapping Air Pollution

Here is a link to the original article in Environmental Health Perspectives. And here is another link where the authors respond to additional comments.

Watching the maritime emissions controls change

The US EPA has been pursuing Emissions Control Areas with the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Currently, there is a 200 mile ECA for sulfur oxides, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides. The EPA is looking to expand it:

The latest component of EPA’s coordinated strategy for addressing emissions from ocean-going vessels is a proposal, from August this year, to designate an Emission Control Area for the U.S. Caribbean. The United States submitted a proposal to IMO in advance of the September 2010 IMO meeting, requesting that waters around the coasts of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands be designated as an ECA. Other EPA programs to address harmful emissions in the U.S. include voluntary partnerships under EPA’s Clean Ports USA program and implementation of a Clean Air Act rulemaking that EPA finalized last December.

link: Air Emission Regulation Update

These are pretty significant gains for the EPA, as it allows for the control of emissions just offshore

The other good news:

For the latest Emission Control Area (ECA) initiative for the U.S. Caribbean, EPA estimates that the total costs of improving ship emissions from current performance to ECA standards while operating in the proposed ECA will be approximately $70 million in 2020. The costs to reduce a ton of NOx, SOx and PM are estimated at $500, $1,000 and $10,000, respectively.

link: Air Emission Regulation Update

That’s pretty low-hanging fruit in terms of new regulation or building programs.

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Railroads and emissions in southern California

Argh. I am writing a paper right now on how planners can and should win more often in public conflicts.

They could learn a lesson from the railroads. The LA Times reported a few days ago that, in order to avoid emissions regulation in southern California:

The lawsuit filed by the Assn. of American Railroads and the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad companies challenged restrictions imposed in 2005 and 2006 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

link: Local agencies can’t limit train emissions, court rules – latimes.com

This would be known as an end-run around the communities and the state and regional air quality management agencies.

So much for collaboration and win-win solutions.

This ruling in general worries me; I’ve fretted for some time about whether all sort of local air quality measures–likely to be more efficient for many sectors than federal regulations–were going to get hit with these types of challenges.

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The Impact Project’s Moving Forward Together Conference

When: October 22-23, 2010
Where: Carson Community Center, 801 E. Carson Street Carson, CA 90745

This is a national conference promoted by The Impact Project looking at how to improve the environmental health of whole freight process. Every year, they have some very good speakers, and you find out what is going on with the environmental impacts of freight.

Here’s a look at the Impact Project’s mission. You can cruise around the website and see some of the organization’s accomplishments as well!

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Black Lung Lofts: Infill and Neighborhood Exposures to Ozone

LA Weekly’s article about a month ago summed up a problem that has bothered me for years: the problem of exposure to poor air quality at the neighborhood level resulting from infill. LA Weekly’s article coined the term “Black Lung Lofts.” Forthcoming in JAPA is:

Neighborhood Air Quality, Respiratory Health, and Vulnerable Populations in Compact and Sprawled Regions – Journal of the American Planning Association

Problem: Recently, public health researchers have argued that infill development and sprawl reduction may improve respiratory outcomes for urban residents, largely by reducing vehicle travel and its attendant mobile-source emissions. But infill can also increase the number of residents exposed to poor air quality within central cities. Aside from emissions studies, planners have little information on the connections between urban form, ambient pollutant levels, and human exposures or how infill changes these.

Purpose: We examined neighborhood exposures in 80 metropolitan areas in the United States to address whether neighborhood-level air quality outcomes are better in compact regions than in sprawled regions.

Methods: We used multilevel regression models to find the empirical relationship between a measure of regional urban form and neighborhood air quality outcomes.

Results and conclusions: Ozone concentrations are significantly lower in compact regions, but ozone exposures in neighborhoods are higher in compact regions. Fine particulate concentrations do not correlate significantly with regional compactness, but fine particulate exposures in neighborhoods are also higher in compact regions. Exposures to both ozone and fine particulates are also higher in neighborhoods with high proportions of African Americans, Asian ethnic minorities, and poor households.

Takeaway for practice: Compact development and infill do not solve air quality problems in all regions or for all residents of a given region. Planners should take differences in neighborhood air quality and human exposure into account when planning for new compact developments rather than just focusing on emissions reductions.

Research support: This project was supported by a grant from the ShenAir Institute at James Madison University and by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Author Posting. (c) ‘Taylor & Francis, 2010.
This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Taylor & Francis for personal use, not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in Journal of the American Planning Association, , June 2010.
doi:10.1080/01944363.2010.486623 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01944363.2010.486623)

TOD versus vehicle technology….again

Michael Lewyn is a blogger for Planetizen, and in fairness, blogging is not always an easy gig. It’s hard to come up with stuff to say. Nonetheless, this entry (Waiting for a miracle | Planetizen) has me just hitting my head up against a wall. I understand that people like Wendell Cox and Randy O’Toole are frustrating for planners, but we were having this “New Urbanism vs. technology” discussion when I was a master’s student in 1995. That’s over a decade and a half ago (yes, I’m old, shut up). Are we still discussing that topic? Really? Lewyn portrays the technology side as magical thinking because technology hasn’t saved us so far.*

Let’s break this down. First of all, it’s a tired and false dichotomy regardless of which side (the technology or the transit side) makes the argument.

Second of all, what? Ok, I get it. People see the technology argument as the urban equivalent of people who think they’ll be able to take a pill to prevent heart disease in a few years. Sure. I also get the more ideological point: people who hate cars want them to go away, and altering vehicle technologies is no way to make cars go away.

But ok…how do you really get off thinking that a lot of our transit hopes and dreams aren’t magical thinking? How can we explain the faith that “transit will save us” when we have poured money into it since the 1970s, and it hasn’t really saved us thus far, either, no matter how many nice places have transit and no matter how many nice things transit does. Transit has done very good things, and I’m a big fan of it, but it doesn’t seem to be saving us very fast either, not if you are hard-nosed about what “saving” means.

The usual answer to my question from those who are vehement: “Oh, all we need to do is pour more billions into transit! Those car people gots lots more billions than us, so it’s only fair for us to get some more billions. So when we get those billions, then transit will save us. So we have to convince Congress to give us billions. And we’ll need more billions for HSR because HSR will save us, too. Then we just need to build all that new infrastructure which will get done before we all know it. Oh, and we’ll need to pour some billions into walking and biking infrastructure–we should have federal funding for those, too and so we’ll get those billions, too—and oh, while we’re at it, we’ll get affluent Americans to change their home-buying behavior and their residential location decisions; we’ll get employers to change their employment locations, completely remake manufacturing so that we won’t have large-scale facilities breaking up urban walking environments (or maybe we can just chase all that icky manufacturing to poor countries internationally; doesn’t effect me, I don’t work there), and entirely re-form metropolitan regions to be like Paris, London, and New York, and Tokyo including the parts of Paris, London, and New York that don’t look like their downtowns or Tokyo, by changing municipal building codes and zoning codes and tax codes and, then we just need to convince a whole bunch of recalcitrant neighbors that density is *great* and more kids in their children’s classrooms is a swell idea, as is paying for parking that is now free; oh, and we can just quadruple the gas tax even though right now we can’t get a one-cent increase in it; but gasoline will be $20 a gallon due to peak oil practically tomorrow so that relieves us of worrying about petrol taxes, and we’ll resolve all those land assembly and/or brownfield problems you get with infill, and then after that we’ll be all set to go! Man, those people who think changing engine technologies is a practical way forward–c’mon! like *that’s* ever happened (the catalytic converter, sensors)–those people just lack common sense.”

I’m being sarcastic, but nothing annoys me more than people who minimize or obfuscate the very significant challenges–social, economic, political and physical–in implementation surrounding a sustainable city vision on all fronts. These problems with implementation plague all strategies–transit, land use, and technology—and planners diminish the significant skill and complexity of their professional work when they act like planning reform is all just so easy and anybody not on board is just dumb or a craven advocate of the status quo.

The Moving Cooler report strikes me having the right take, even if you can dispute their assumptions/methods: we’ll need reductions from pricing and taxation AND technology AND transit/land use in order for us to make a dent in climate change, and that the timing matters here tremendously: pricing and taxes for near-term reductions, technology for mid-term reductions, and transit/land use for long-term reductions.

I also like technology use WITH transit. I don’t think we’re going to get a lot choice riders on transit quickly without real-time routing and arrival systems, new, comfort-enhancing on-vehicle technologies, and a bunch of other distributed applications for technology like Routesy. (Has Routesy come back? I hope so.) Changing vehicle, engine, and fuel technologies on the rail side would do a lot to help out freight rail’s residential neighbors. How anybody thinks we are going to green freight without technology is way beyond me.

And portraying people who buy three cars for a family as being “impoverished” annoys me a lot. Yes, being forced to own a car to participate in social and economic life is a burden. But..it’s not the same as really belonging to a group that faces violent and systematic impoverishment.

*Technology has helped us out quite a bit. Take a look at this table.

Transit emissions and the importance of ridership

Streetsblog Capitol Hill highlighted a very nice FTA report that tracks urban transit emissions. A pdf of this report appears here.

As I have ranted before here, we have to know ridership in order to make claims about emissions benefits. This graphic, taken from the report, does a good job of showing us this effect. We’d be better off filling up cars on the road than we are running underutilized trains. Now, this is a much different story if we are getting people to use the trains. This is why a reasonable accuracy in ridership forecasts matters. I’m not asking for perfection; I’m asking for an honest assessment of how many people we’re building something for so that we can fairly assess what we are doing here.

The other possible way of changing this figure would be to change the feedstock of the energy sources for all of the vehicles. Cleaning up electricity generation would change the emissions per passenger mile.

Zheng, Kahn, and Liu on property values, pollution, and Chinese cities

UCLA economist Matt Kahn has the nice manuscript along with Siqi Zheng and Hongyu Liu in Regional Science and Urban Economics: Towards a System of Open Cities in China: Home Prices, FDI Flows and Air Quality in 35 Major Cities. They have a hedonic analysis that shows a nice negative correlation between home values and particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. These are city-level regessions, though, with a limited number of observations. Their take-away point however, stands, in that it seems that at least some Chinese cities are moving from manufacturing- to service-based employment, and that there is labor sorting. I tussle with their conclusion somewhat; merely shifting away from being manufacturing regions does not itself suggest sustainability–not if the manufacturing activity simply moves and dirties another region.