Highway-Affiliated Pew Climate Report Favors “Clean” Cars Over Transit

Many transportation reformers were disappointed last week when the Pew Center on Global Climate Change released a report indicating that only clean car technology had a shot at significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The report dismissed smart growth development strategies and transit as trivial contributors to a lower-carbon economy.

Cleaner fuels might reduce the smog but you're still left with this traffic jam. Image: ##http://www.boxoid.org/?p=86##Boxoid##

Cleaner fuels might reduce the smog but you're still left with this traffic jam. Image: Boxoid

Pew has a well-earned reputation for integrity, commitment to hard-hitting research, and impact on policy debates. And the report, “Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Transportation,” does an excellent job of analyzing the potential of various vehicle technologies to reduce emissions. But when it comes to Pew’s conclusions on transit and smart growth, the report is skewed by major omissions and dubious assumptions.

I asked Pew project manager Nick Nigro why the acknowledgments specifically state, “This report is not a publication of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, or The National Academies.” It turns out the report was funded by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, a program of the Transportation Research Board that works in close collaboration with AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“They provided the funding,” Nigro told Streetsblog, “but it’s a Pew report. They were just a source of funding.”

The authors Pew enlisted, David Greene and Steven Plotkin, have unassailable credentials in fuel economy research and alternative fuels. But how much do they know about transit and smart growth? Their resumés are thin in those areas. So whom did they pull in to offer further depth of understanding? A longtime official from the Federal Highway Administration.

“The study would have been better and more balanced if, for example, Reid Ewing had been a third co-author,” said Deron Lovaas, transportation policy analyst for NRDC. “I wish that Pew had structured this differently. They structured it so that it’s very strong and aggressive in its vehicles and fuels focus and it’s lacking in its focus on other measures that affect travel activity and travel efficiency.”

The report finds that transit makes up such a low proportion of passenger-miles in this country that even doubling transit usage would represent a small improvement in emissions. It also asserts that transit is usually “only modestly more energy-efficient than personal vehicles.”

“Yeah it’s a very low percentage of current passenger miles,” Lovaas told Streetsblog. “That’s true. But hybrid electric vehicle sales also account for about that percentage of total vehicle sales, currently. Let’s be fair, this is a long slope to climb either for breakthrough technologies such as hybrid electric vehicle technology, or for transit systems that attract higher ridership.”

Indeed, the Pew study envisions a world where people are making vastly different vehicle choices than they are today (even in the age of the three-dollar-gallon) but rejects a future where transit is a more viable travel option. Even more strangely, the authors dismiss smart growth the same way, saying local control of land use regulation is an insurmountable barrier to instituting compact models of development.

Compact development means fewer vehicle miles traveled - a recipe for lower emissions. Image: ##http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/45970.html##NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation##

Compact development means fewer vehicle miles traveled - a recipe for lower emissions. Image: NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation

“Homeowners living in low-density communities may be opposed to higher density zoning in or near their neighborhoods,” the authors write, and “the [National Research Council] notes that state and citywide policies for promoting compact development are quite limited, and they speculate that strong political resistance explains the scarcity of such efforts.”

The real estate market is telling a different story. “The Pew study is basically saying that people want to continue to drive – and drive and drive – and we can make them drive without having the emissions problem but they’re still going to want to drive. And that’s not necessarily what’s happening anymore,” said Chuck Kooshian, transportation policy analyst for the Center for Clean Air Policy. “How much more driving do you want to do?”

The question, as summed up by Steve Winkelman, who also specializes in transportation with CCAP, boils down to this: “Why is Brooklyn so expensive?”

“People are moving in to communities where they have accessibility, where you can get your dry cleaning and coffee on your way to work, instead of being in traffic,” Winkelman said. “People are voting with their feet.”

Indeed, in the fallout from the housing crash, real estate held far more of its value in walkable cities than in the drivable suburbs. Study after study shows that public preferences are shifting toward smart growth-inspired, walkable communities, and you can tell by the housing prices in many places that that kind of development is far undersupplied.

So why the skepticism on Pew’s part that smart growth could be a key to a lower-carbon future? The report states, “The primary GHG benefit [from compact development] comes from reduced VMT rather than actual mode shifts.” Isn’t a reduction in travel a better solution than finding marginally cleaner ways to log the same number of miles? Especially given the other costs of driving that cleaner fuels don’t address – safety, land conservation, community cohesion – it makes more sense to look beyond the automobile.

Note: the Center for Clean Air Policy released their report yesterday on how smart growth can mitigate climate change and boost the economy. It’s a useful counterpoint to the Pew study. We’ll say more about the CCAP story in a bit. In the meantime, you can check it out for yourself.