Strengthening our region’s response to climate change

My latest at streets.mn is a review of how the draft version of Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the Twin Cities, addresses climate change.

Our region certainly can’t address this issue alone, but we have a responsibility to do our part.  The science also says we can’t wait another ten years to start addressing the problem.  However, as this plan is currently written, the specifics on climate response are too ambiguous, and risk being watered down during implementation.The regional plan is one of the state’s most significant pieces of land use and transportation policy. By fully embracing state goals and calling for strong response, this could be a document that makes Minnesota a national leader in climate change response.

Read the rest.

Water for our future

Over at streets.mn I have a new post on the importance of water supply planning for the next regional plan.

What does all this have to do with Minnesota?  We have tons of water, right?  Well, on the surface yes, but we’re using our groundwater much faster than it’s being replaced, and that’s a problem.  That was one of the main topics at a Thrive MSP 2040 Roundtable discussion I attended a number of weeks ago, and have been meaning to post about since.  The 7-county region now gets70 percent of our water from groundwater sources, up from 15 percent in the 50′s.  In some places this means we’re reducing groundwater levels by over a foot a year.

Solar access, land use and 30-year planning

Over at streets.mn, I wrote a piece about the mostly unknown requirement that cities in the metro address solar access in their comprehensive plans, and how we could improve to address the purpose of the requirement.

By law, every community in the seven-county metro is supposed to adopt a comprehensive plan that includes “an element for protection and development of access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems”.  This requirement dates back to 1978, when there was anoil crisis and gasoline was $1.30 per gallon (or, close to what it was in 2011inflation-adjusted).  In 1979, Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House.  Reagan took down the solar panels in ’86 and oil got a lot cheaperthrough the late 90′s.

The requirement remains however, even if few communities have ever done anything related to solar after they developed some language for their comprehensive plan.  As we enter this season of plan updates, perhaps it’s time for another look at how solar access, land use, energy and other issues are interrelated, and what are vision is for our energy systems.  Solar power is cheaper than ever, and the message is pretty clear on the need to start decarbonizing our energy system.

My comments on the Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan

The Minnesota Department of Transportation wants your comments on their new Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan.  In general, I found many of the strategies overly ambiguous, at least when compared with the old plan.  But they score points for including context-sensitive design and land use-transportation connection references.

Most of my comments deal with the almost total absence of discussion in the document of climate change, transportation system’s contribution to it, or potential solutions.  Here are my comments:

  1. Page 9 – The plan inaccurately states that the Next Generation Energy Act calls for a 25% reduction in GHG emissions by 2025.  The Act calls for a 30% reduction by 2025.  It also calls for an 80 reduction by 2050.  The plan should note this last goal, since by 2032 (the time horizon of this plan) we’ll be well on our way there.
  2. Given that these goals are adopted state law, I think the plan should spell out transportation’s contribution to the problem (24% in 2005 according to the State’s inventory).
  3. These contributions and the adopted state law should also be referenced in Chapter 3, which identifies the policy framework that impacts transportation planning.
  4. Given these impacts and adopted targets, I find chapter 4 almost totally lacking in any reference to MNDOT’s approach to meeting these targets.  The words “greenhouse gas emissions” do not even appear in this chapter.  Approaches to mitigating emissions from the transportation sector are many, but basically boil down to: 1) reducing VMT, 2) switching to more efficient modes (transit, bicycle) and/or 3) switching fuels (The Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group’s Final Report includes a robust set of transportation-related recommendations).  I understand that this is a high-level policy document, but failing to address this issue at this stage is a very significant oversight in my opinion.  In addition, this document actually appears to be a step backwards from the previously adopted Statewide Transportation Plan, which specifically references the emissions reduction goals adopted by the State, pledges that MNDOT will advance these goals, and identifies strategies it will pursue in accordance.
  5. I appreciate the plan’s focus on “System Security”.  However, all the strategies listed here (page 79) address responses to “emergency events”.  I recommend another strategy be added to begin assessing potential risks MNDOT’s systems may face in the next 20 years.  The Upper Midwest has seen a 31 percent increase in “intense” rainfalls in the last 50 years.  A focus on designing our systems differently, rather than reacting to “emergencies” will likely be much more cost-effective in the long run.
  6. The first strategy on page 72 seems to imply the application of cost-benefit analysis to new projects.  While this is a positive step, I think the plan should describe how MNDOT will begin to identify all those “costs” and “benefits” and apply them in a rigorous way.
  7. The section on “Transportation in Context” starting on page 78 is very welcome, especially reference to the importance of the connection between transportation and land use decisions.
  8. While the plan references MNDOT’s performance measures, no measures are identified for the multimodal plan as a whole, or for specific strategies identified within it.  The previous version of the system plan included performance measures to track progress and I would suggest that MNDOT continue this approach.

Taking local action

Minneapolis Skyline

Over at Grist, David Roberts lays down the brutal logic of climate change:

With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.

And what’s so special about 2 degrees C?  Well, that may be something like a point of no return.

The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

Roberts is citing the work of Kevin Anderson, former head of the UK’s leading climate research institution.  Other scientists are making similar predictions.  James Hanson, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says, ”The target of 2C… is a prescription for long-term disaster“.  Increasingly, you don’t have to look far to find words like “apocalyptic” being used to describe the path we’re on.

So we need to reverse course on emissions by 2015, and in dramatic fashion.  But the latest round of international talks seem to be on shaky ground.  All US climate bills have so far failed.  So what’s a local planner or public official to do?  Decry the problem as global in scope and thus unsolvable? Shrug shoulders and pour a stiff drink?  While I have a healthy amount of skepticism about the ability of one jurisdiction or even one state to have a measurable impact on the global trendline, I think we absolutely must be making our best efforts now, for a number of reasons:

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Streets.mn

In the near future, a group of smart and attractive Twin Cities bloggers will be launching a new site dedicated to Minnesota land use and transportation commentary and analysis called Streets.mn.  We’re hoping to improve the quality and quantity of discussion around city-building issues.

We’re also hoping to build some economies of scale, tapping many great individual blogs to provide content in one location, providing more consistency in post frequency and hopefully increasing readership and impact.

For now, that URL redirects to tcstreetsforpeople.org, a predecessor to Streets.mn.  Much or all of the content you see on that site will continue with a new design and mission.

Watch for greater fanfare after the start of the new year.  For now, click over to Streets.mn for a flavor and be sure to follow us on Facebook.

Strong Towns on climate change

Duluth Minnesota

Strong Towns, which has up until now, primarily focused on efficient use of infrastructure and fiscal sustainability of our cities, is laying out their platform on climate change.

As we all know, however, local innovation continues (accelerates?) even when national leadership is incomplete. Here are three issues that Strong Towns will address as they pursue their own strategies to deal with climate change:

Pressure on credit will continue to increase in communities viewed as particularly vulnerable to natural disaster associated with climate change. Federal and state resources in the future look to be flat, diminishing or encumbered. The costs to insure housing or commercial property deemed vulnerable to disaster are higher, and claims resulting from natural disasters can increase the premiums of all policy holders. The key finding here is that investable public and private capital – able to educate and train Americans and finance new businesses, for example – will be under greatest stress in areas hit hardest by climate events. Strong Towns need to orient toward more density and less infrastructure costs per capita, as one way of managing this stress.

Even presuming that some of the increase is due to improved measurement, the rising incidence of natural disasters means that Strong Towns must anticipate continued volatility in our weather. Public infrastructure planning needs to anticipate the likelihood of damage by natural disasters. Clustering residential and commercial development will reduce risk; it may also allow us to reduce the costs of mitigating ongoing threats. Beyond the fiscal merits of a more compact development pattern, denser places are more protectable places.

The relationship of climate change and public health is an emerging field. While much health policy is formulated at the federal and state levels, counties and cities are the main implementers of place-specific plans and care. While we don’t yet understand the prospective health effects of climate change, it’s apparent that local communities have an opportunity to play a key role. Work on that micro scale may distinguish those cities and towns that invest in addressing climate change.

This first point has been resonating strongly with me lately.  The world’s largest investors (many of the people who hold your retirement funds) and insurance companies are already seeing their businesses to be impacted by climate change.  Physically and economically resilient cities require a different approach in a changing climate, and I’m glad Strong Towns is lending their voice to this message.

Loss aversion, self-knowledge and planning

The New Yorker has a review of ”Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.  Kahneman explores the concept of “loss aversion“, the idea that losses hurt more than gains feel good.  The review highlights the example of a group of physicians, presented with two scenarios with equal outcomes, with the only difference that the outcomes were stated in terms of “deaths” in one scenario and “survivors” in another.

The two different hypotheticals, of course, examine identical dilemmas: saving one-third of the population is the same as losing two-thirds. And yet, doctors reacted very differently depending on how the question was framed. When the possible outcomes were stated in terms of deaths (and not survivors), physicians were suddenly eager to take chances: seventy-eight per cent chose option D.

Why are doctors so inconsistent? Kahneman and his longtime collaborator, Amos Tversky, explained these contradictory responses in terms of loss aversion, or the fact that losses hurt more than gains feel good. In fact, people hate losses so much that merely framing a choice in terms of a potential loss can shift their preferences. Like those physicians, people are suddenly willing to risk losing everything if there’s a chance they might lose nothing.

What’s more, even knowing that the brain works this way doesn’t seem to allow us to change our ways.

This same theme applies to practically all of our thinking errors: self-knowledge is surprisingly useless. Teaching people about the hazards of multitasking doesn’t lead to less texting in the car; learning about the weakness of the will doesn’t increase the success of diets; knowing that most people are overconfident about the future doesn’t make us more realistic. The problem isn’t that we’re stupid—it’s that we’re so damn stubborn.

Every planner should be aware of this deep human aversion to loss.  Probably most have encountered it when presenting a new development, vision or plan, even if it wasn’t apparent.  The thought of losing something, whether it’s property value, space on the road, homogeneity of community or safety, elicits a much stronger response than what could be gained through changes brought about by the plan or development.

What can planners learn from this? Well, first just be aware of it, know that the prospect of change will likely trigger stronger feelings about potential downsides than it will about potential benefits.

Second, perhaps we should change our processes.  Many planning processes include long and intensive visioning exercises that include numerous stakeholders.  One intent of such exercises, even if it’s not explicitly stated, is to overcome these loss aversion fears and help participants value the “gains” a plan or project might bring.  But perhaps this should change to capitalize on human nature instead of fight it.  Should we stress the potential “losses” that might occur under the status quo versus a new scenario?  Should we present alternative scenarios in terms of which might have the least unfavorable impact instead of which has the best impact?  I’m not sure.  The whole idea seems to go against the traditional visionary spirit of “community planning” which tends to focuses on the positive.  Designing participation processes with a thorough understanding of (or even ability to take advantage of) natural human biases deserves much more attention.  If we want to be effective, we should start by being well versed in the limits of the human mind and trying to adapt as best we can.

Let’s welcome “Rapid Bus”

Metro Transit is studying 11 corridors for significant upgrades to bus service.  These corridors represent high-ridership, dense locations with high potential for service improvements.  Sharp-eyed readers might recognize these “rapid bus” corridors as something that is called “arterial bus rapid transit” in the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan.

So what designates a rapid bus route? Fewer stops, off-bus fare collection, all-door boarding – all equal faster service.  At the open house last week, project displays showed between 20 and 30% travel time savings, depending on the corridor.  Stops will become stations, with shelters, dynamic signage and possibly raised curbs and bumpouts.  These look like great improvements.

Metro Transit staff told me the next step is to identify first corridors for implementation by looking at what corridors have the most potential for service improvement (and probably which are most politically feasible).  The rapid bus concept will also be used in the alternatives analysis for Nicollet (sometimes called the streetcar study).