You’re No “Climate Mayor” If You’re Not Doing These Four Things

It takes more than lip service to lead the fight against climate change.


Every big-city American mayor, it seems, wants to style themselves as a righteous climate change fighter. But few are willing to take political risks and champion the policy changes that will maximize carbon reduction in their cities.

Transportation is now America’s largest source of carbon emissions, and as Climate Wire recently put it, carbon spewed by cars “threaten[s] to undercut blue states’ climate goals.” Mayors can play a big role in reducing per capita energy consumption by facilitating more efficient modes of travel and more compact land use. But most remain beholden to the status quo.

There’s Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who calls himself a “climate mayor” but is backing an expensive highway widening in a central urban neighborhood. And you’ve got New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who staged a press spectacle out of suing Big Oil but hands out tens of thousands of free parking perks.

To avoid further confusion, we’re laying out a short list of prerequisites for any mayor who wants to claim the mantle of battling climate change. It takes more than lip service to be a climate mayor.

1. Reduce or eliminate parking minimums

If your city still requires parking spaces for every apartment, office, store, and restaurant, your mayor isn’t really on the front lines against catastrophic climate change. America’s minimum parking requirements generate traffic and prevent efficient, low-carbon use of land. They’re in desperate need of reform.

The politics of parking are difficult, and to make progress, leadership from City Hall is essential. It can be done: Smaller cities like Buffalo and Hartford have recently managed to eliminate minimum parking requirements citywide. Seattle is advancing new rules that reduce the strength of parking mandates.

Still, no big-city American mayor holds a candle next to Mexico City’s Miguel Mancera, who eliminated parking minimums and replaced them with parking maximums.

Inaction on the enormous fossil fuel subsidy of parking mandates while the icecaps melt is inexcusable.

2. Make room for effective transit on your streets

Transit budgets are typically outside of a mayor’s direct control. But City Hall still has a lot of power to make transit a useful travel option for residents. The workhorse of American transit is bus service operating on city streets, and mayors can always make the streets work better for bus riders.

It’s up to the mayor to direct city staff to create transit-only lanes, and to support replacing parking spaces or general traffic lanes with street space for transit. Bus lanes and traffic signals that extend green lights for buses can shorten trip times, enabling transit agencies to run more buses and grow ridership.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently hired 20 people to improve bus service in coordination with the MBTA. New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, and Providence all have city staff working on bus improvements.

3. Allow more housing near good transit

Photo: Circulate San Diego
A rail station parking lot in San Diego. Photo: Circulate San Diego

What good is your city’s transit network if only an affluent or lucky few can afford to live close by? Zoning laws that restrict housing and development near good transit shut people out from access to low-carbon transportation and force more people to live in high-carbon auto sprawl.

Mayor Jacob Frey is trying to change things up in Minneapolis. He wants to allow four-plexes throughout the city, including the two-thirds of Minneapolis currently zoned exclusively for single-family houses. Not only will the measure allow more people to live in transit-accessible Minneapolis, it will make housing more affordable and reduce residential income segregation. That’s the kind of urban climate change leadership we need.

4. Make streets safe for biking and walking

This pilot project was part of a series of street redesigns undertaken as pilots during AC Wharton's administration. Photo: Memfix
This pilot project was part of a series of street redesigns under Memphis Mayor AC Wharton. Photo: Memfix

Wide, dangerous streets clogged with car traffic are a disaster for the climate. We know that most car trips in the U.S. are actually quite short and could be done by walking or biking — if the streets weren’t so intimidating for people outside of cars.

Despite a newfound emphasis on crash reduction at many city DOTs, few mayors have really stuck their necks out to turn car-centric streets into places where everyone feels comfortable walking or biking. Even in America’s “leading” cities, protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety plans are rolled out tentatively.

To make progress that matters for the climate, mayors will have to implement cohesive networks for active transportation much faster. Real climate mayors take street space from cars so people can walk and bike.

40 thoughts on You’re No “Climate Mayor” If You’re Not Doing These Four Things

  1. My old buddy Cliff Slater, who writes for Reason and is more or less a libertarian, long ago argued against parking minimums. Back when I lived there and Honolulu was first trying to justify a train, Cliff (who is also a vehement opponent of the train) pointed out that by enforcing parking minimums, the city was artificially lowering parking costs and driving down the value of land in the Primary Urban Corridor by mandating land be used for parking cars rather than for a higher purpose. Plus, mandating parking minimums make the train less competitive by making parking cheaper and easier than if it was purely market-driven.

    We can’t have it both ways. To cut down on urban driving, we need to let urban driving become more difficult. Period. Mass transit and other modes work when they are easier and more fun.

  2. I would dispute allow more housing near transit is the correct mindset. It should be “allow more housing near jobs” or something like “enable walking commutes.” Remember muscle power (usually legs) is the fundamental method of green transportation.

    Functionally transit is a lower cost accommodation for failing to provide housing near jobs when compared to autos.

  3. How are you artificially lowering parking costs when someone is paying for one or two or three parking spots that are typically located underground anyway, where most people chose not to live? Also, can you name any Mass Transit “or other modes that are easier and more fun than having to haul Old Belchfire downtown and then where to store it at market rates”? The bus? Bus ridership continues to decline in all but two cities throughout the entire US. Google it and see what is going on. No one wants to ride a public bus and the No. 1 reason why is safety. See what Elon Musk says about public transportation and you will then see why private bus services such as Chariot in San Francisco are kicking ass on the SFMTA’s product. I doubt Cliff Slater is a Libertarian, because Libertarians are all about letting people make their own choices and are against Government making those choices for them. One of your points makes sense. Do not force developers to offer parking. That way, the market can decide what people want. Offering minimum parking is going away in Cities anyway. That is the new Transit Mantra and Planning Departments are going with that all over the country. However, you are only attracting MIllenials with no kids. Or the one or two rogue Millennial families who can be seen riding their bikes along the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco with two kids in a trailer and one on the handlebars. You know, the idiots. You ever ride a public bus? You have stories that are not too good to tell about weird people and violent people and mentally ill people that sat next to you? Or aggressive drunk college kids? Of course you do. If you do not, you do not ride the bus. Or the train. Give the consumer a choice is what the Libertarians would say. Not sure what you mean about the market for parking being made artificially low. That is not true. When someone buys a condo with parking, they are paying for those spaces. When someone parks in a parking lot, they are paying for those spaces. Does it lower surface parking costs? Probably, but that is like saying creating more housing artifically lowers the price of housing. Those people buying condos with parking were not forced to buy those spaces along with the condo. They in any case paid the market price for them, and likely find that if they don’t want them, their neighbor will happily lease from them. But maybe you can tell me what the true cost of these BS public transportation projects, like the one you mention above, actually are ? Think this project, which I link to at the end of this post, really gives you any idea of what parking values should be in Honolulu? You really did not take an econ class in college, did you? Read this, and then please please google and look up all the OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS TRAIN and then get back to us. Here is the bottom line: The idea that public transportation will replace the automobile is just odd, and frankly, DUMB. They do not know how much is being spent on a per ride basis because the costs keep going up and up in theory, because this project is so INEFFICIENT that the opportunity costs of a BETTER SYSTEM will be continually lost while this POS is operating. Here, read it and learn. Your friend was right about being anti-train. You thinking that this is/was the answer is the stuff that liberal do-good dreams-let-the-government-do-it not the market nightmares are made of.

  4. “Mayor Jacob Frey is trying to change things up in Minneapolis. He wants to allow four-plexes throughout the city, including the two-thirds of Minneapolis currently zoned exclusively for single-family houses. ”

    Hmmm, maybe this will work. Then again, maybe not. If I’m living in a single family home in the city of Minneapolis, paying those ridiculous municipal taxes, putting up with snow emergencies and all the other nonsense the socialist politicians foist on me, this just might be the trigger that causes me to move to Eden Prairie. It’s called the law of unintended consequences and do-gooders never seem to factor it into their analysis of anything.

  5. Did you read your link before you posted it, Mark? Just wondering because, well, geez…

    “Honolulu city officials predict that traffic congestion will spike by 23 percent in 2030 if the rail is not built. With the rail, a 21 percent increase in traffic is projected, so long as rail ridership reaches the city’s forecast of 116,000 daily passengers—a number widely criticized as inflated.”

  6. Stringers carbon foot print can’t be found. He’s driven around in a SUV everyday and never seen waiting for a bus or taking a subway. Same goes for the Mayor.

  7. More housing near jobs is not necessarily the solution, although an admirable principle. People still need to be able to access all parts of their city. The trip to work if for many may be the most frequent, but its far from the only trip people make. They need to be able to get to the movies, shopping, doctors, airports, theater, sport teams (heck, even two high schools playing a game against each other), friends and family homes, etc and its physically impossible for all of this to be in walking distance of each other. Thus people will have to buy cars when they want to go somewhere that isn’t their job (not to mention, what happens when they get a new job? do you have to move your whole family?) or we have to build transit.

  8. Mark, you need to discover the concept of paragraphs. You are right: I didn’t take econ. Apparently you didn’t take writing.

    My main point was not to root for the train (I initially supported it but have long since shared Cliff’s skepticism of these projects) but to exercise the concept that if a city puts parking minimums into its development code, parking is not a free market decision by a landowner but a code requirement to meet a minimum. Thus, if land is cheap, parking might be abundant. If land is expensive, parking has to compete with other uses, whether above or below ground or at grade.

  9. 5. Prioritize remediating brownfields for re-development. We’ve waited two generations for someone else to clean up these places; it’s time for the community to take leadership on it.
    6. Decrease non-permeable surfaces including parking lots at schools, libraries, and other government buildings. Narrow road ways and add on-site green infrastructure, where possible. De-pave streets with no general transportation value (such as neighborhood streets will redundant alley access & cul-de-sacs).
    7. Re-introduce native plants at schools, parks, libraries, roadway medians, etc. Assess whether we really need all those soccer fields and baseball diamonds or if it would be better to let that return to a native ecology.
    8. Add cistern systems for schools and other government buildings with large roofs.
    9. Maintain government building temperatures within a seasonally appropriate range, such as low 60s in the winter and high 70s in the summer.
    10. Don’t provide free parking for government workers.

  10. I understand your points, and well I am clearly not anti-transit so let me respond to your argument in two points:

    “They need to be able to get to the movies, shopping, doctors, airports,
    theater, sport teams (heck, even two high schools playing a game against
    each other), friends and family homes, etc and its physically
    impossible for all of this to be in walking distance of each other.”

    I don’t agree that it is physically impossible. I would argue that most densities somewhere between the Upper East Side and the village would support this level of activity within “competitive to transit” walking distance (including the initial walk to the transit) for the the majority of the population.

    “Thus people will have to buy cars when they want to go somewhere that isn’t their job (not to mention, what happens when they get a new job? do you have to move your whole family?) or we have to build transit.”

    Often direct A to B travel is preferred and should not be removed from the equation entirely. From a macro economic perspective a mobile workforce IS better. But now onto transit, I am simply advocating that cities should enable most trips to be performed by walking, transit is the logical extension after that, but not before it. Transit should not come before walk-ability. When transit is used as an enhancement to walking, jobs and housing at all stops, you now have the benefit of much greater capacity utilization (bi-directional) rather than all morning trips having the same destination and all evening trips having the same origin.

  11. Maybe re-word it slightly – “build housing where people can get to jobs without a car”.
    That includes housing physically close to jobs (within walking or cycling distance), and also close to transit that takes people to jobs further away.

  12. Right. People will leave Minneapolis because fourplexes are being built. However, those fourplexes won’t get built if the units won’t get sold. And if they are being sold, that implies population is increasing. So, even if you move out, more people are moving in 🙂

  13. Jobs near transit works as well. If you only have one part of it, i.e. housing near transit, but the transit doesn’t get you to your job, then it doesn’t work. carbon footprint is much less even when people drive solo to a mass transit station and then take a bus or train to work for the majority of their trip – this is why the current studies show that housing near transit doesn’t actually decrease car ownership. Transit near work is a much better option.

  14. Much like how grumpy drivers say “no one will one go there, they charge for parking” = “no one goes there, it’s too crowded.” It’s just a slightly veiled way of saying “I matter, but other people don’t.”

  15. Difficult is not a good goal. It creates discord and distrust. There are places where driving is hard, yet still frequent and dangerous.

    “Fair” is a better goal – and charging for parking the same way housing and jobs are, would mean paying a lot more for parking.

  16. Once a reasonable density is reached, mixed uses at the block & neighborhood level is the most important factor in determining active transportation mode-share. Within a 5 block walk are restaurants, bars, a day care, an elementary school, a high school, single families, duplexes, 5 story apartments, condos, a couple small factories, a few small offices, a metal recycling place, the giant headquarters office building of a fortune 500, churches, thrift shops, a grocery store, convenience stores, gas stations, a city park, and 2 gentlemen’s clubs.

    Looks like this. Hardly Manhattan, but just about everything about society within a quarter mile radius.,-87.9140692,3a,75y,20.69h,93.28t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1syeoDEKg2Z2XEL8xJkhrrlg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  17. The average car on the road consumed 4,700 British thermal units (BTUs)
    per vehicle mile in 2015, which is almost a 50% reduction from
    1973, when Americans drove some of the gas-guzzliest cars in history.
    The average light truck (meaning pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs)
    used about 6,250 BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015, which is also about half
    what it was in the early 1970s.

    By comparison, the average transit bus used 15 percent more

    BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015 than transit buses did in 1970. Since bus
    occupancies have declined, BTUs per passenger mile have risen by 63
    percent since 1970. While buses once used only about half as much energy
    per passenger mile as cars, they now use about a third more. Data from
    the latest Transportation Energy Data Book, which has energy consumption
    data for various forms of transportation through 2015.
    reveals that the energy consumed by airlines per passenger mile has
    declined by more than 75 percent since 1970. Mostly due to improvements
    in the bypass ratio of jet engines; the air that moves over vs the air
    that moves into the core of the engine, in the 60s/70s the bypass ratio
    was 2 or 3 to 1, now it’s over 7,8,9 to 1 and by 2025 will be 10-12+ to
    1. This is why supersonic jets like the Concorde became uneconomical
    except as luxury livery; the bypass ratio of turbojets is and remains
    lower than turbofan engines. A 747 with 400 passengers uses less fuel
    than a Concorde carrying 100. So it is more energy
    efficient to fly than to drive (at least, if your car is carrying the
    average 1.55 occupants).

    It seems environmentalists continue to confuse energy for electricity in
    debates. Energy is the ability to perform work, electricity is a form
    of energy in the form of flowing electrons. Only 39% of the US’ energy
    is electrically based. That’s 61% carried out by thermodynamic or
    chemical processes. A gallon of gasoline contains 120 megajoules of
    potential energy and the US uses 392 million gallons of gas per day
    (cars, trucks, gas powered equipment, light planes, etc). The US uses 47
    Petajoules (47,000,000,000,000,000) of gasoline energy per day. The
    Wind power industry in the US produces 5.9 Petajoules of energy per day.
    So even if we convert the US automotive fleet or everything that runs
    on gas over to electric we’d require at least 47 petajoules of
    additional electric power (since the current electric supply is occupied
    by it’s current uses) of additional wind energy or 8 TIMES As many wind
    turbines that currently dot the country, just to replace gasoline usage daily.

    Solutions for climate:
    – Go Nuclear
    – Abandon money draining treaties that do nothing but shelter money to worthless programs
    – keep your SUV, it takes more energy to make an electric car than to buy a used car and drive it for another decade

  18. I live where I live and commute to work using transit because where I live allows me to access a wide range of services by walking, biking, and using transit. If I lived near work, I’d need to drive everywhere for services because of the typical suburban development pattern near work.

  19. As you age, you will move to EP just like other well-heeled men of your generation.

    Whether socialists make is snow or not, young talent will move in. They might be not as white nor sitting on a nest egg left over from the boomer generation before them so will appreciate the option to live within an urban environment without dropping half a million on property. Four-plexes will allow this. The status quo won’t.

    You do realize that the change would be removing a zoning prohibition and not mandating building, right? The unintended consequences are already controlled by market economics. Your communist enemies in city hall are simply allowing for capitalism to flourish in housing options. Maybe there’s hope for us to all get along after all. Don’t go!

  20. I take issue with ‘need to access all parts of their city’. This is the mindset which kills cities. The need to access specific needs in life as you listed is correct. Where they are located us mostly a choice based on drive time. If we remove the option to drive 80 mph from one side of the city to the other with free parking at both ends, your needs are then fulfilled locally.

  21. “By this year (2014), virtually every major German solar producer had gone
    under as new capacity declined by 90 per cent and new investment by 92
    per cent. Some 80,000 workers — 70 per cent of the solar workforce —
    lost their jobs.”the poster child for the global warming movement. After the German
    government decided to reduce subsidies to the solar industry in 2012,
    the industry nose-dived. Solar power’s market share is shrinking and solar panels, having outlived their usefulness, are being retired without being replaced. Wind power faces a similar fate. Germany has some 29,000 wind
    turbines, almost all of which have been benefitting from a 20-year
    subsidy program that began in 2000. Starting in 2020, when subsidies run
    out for some 5,700 wind turbines, thousands of them each year will lose
    government support, making the continued operation of most of them
    uneconomic based on current market prices. To make matters worse, with
    many of the turbines failing and becoming uneconomic to maintain, they
    represent an environmental liability and pose the possibility of
    abandonment. No funds have been set aside to dispose of the blades,
    which are unrecyclable, or to remove the turbines’ 3,000-tonne
    reinforced concrete bases, which reach depths of 20 metres, making them a
    hazard to the aquifers they pierce.

  22. Study the Earth’s climate over the last 10,000 years. It’s a roller
    coaster of up and down warming cooling cycles. But for the most part it
    was sliding down towards a cooling trend. Which anyone who studies
    history, is bad. Then look at it after the Industrial revolution,
    humanity reversed what would have been another short one-two century
    cool period. Even if humanity did not pollute, or even exist it there
    would have been a cooling trend somepoint between1700s-1800s followed by
    a 20th century warming trend, a cooling trend by the 21st century and
    still have been another warming trend at some point in the 22nd-23rd
    century, human intervention only exacerbated what would have already
    occurred anyway.

  23. If it’s a list for mayors, gvmt workers are under that jurisdiction. But agreed, parking has ruined too many cities and towns.

  24. Jobs are only half of the picture. “Build housing where people can get to their daily destinations without a car” is the most general phrasing.

  25. If you are cutting and pasting, please post your text source. Even if you are lazy, I’m not. Still, it gets exhausting chasing down the sources of your logic.

  26. I did not mean to be nasty but to point out that with congestion becoming a problem, motorists have to feel the pain. In that sense, defining “fair” is the million dollar question. Creating more roadway and parking space for more and more cars is in some respects a zero sum game: space assigned to cars is not available for something else. Hence, in places like Honolulu where land is valuable, parking is done in multistory garages. Multistory parking is far more expensive than surface parking but is mandated by land value. Plus, there is the whole public health angle, i.e., auto pollution and ground level ozone, traffic hazards, etc.

    Same with roads as with parking. No one has successfully paved there way out of congestion. At some point, the paradigm will need to shift because what is fair involves a discussion of all parties in the urban environment, not just motorists.

    And if we wait for the hammer to fall on the next round of Hubbert’s curves, i.e., hydrofracking, we are gambling on what is next. I don’t know what is next, i.e., maybe hydrocarbon prices will be stable for a century. Not so sure about land vs. users.

  27. Yeah, I read it. I read 5 articles just like it. The Project, when completed, if ever, will help 1% of the traffic problem. Did YOU read the article? Think the billions spent to reduce 1% of the traffic problem is worth it? I have a bridge for sale if you are interested. Cheap.

  28. Pain has never gotten motorists to stop driving. If anything they double down and get angrier.

    Prices are a different matter.

    Vengeful justice rouses the choir but doesn’t work if you’re a political minority.


    That fits. Your white knight is paid for from the fossil fuel industry (Heritage Foundation) The article is terrible for a number of reasons. The fact that the German PV manufacturing business has gone under is not indicative of PV as a whole but rather massive advances in manufacturing developed in Germany then ‘acquired’ by the Chinese. Global Manufacturing has increased 40% YOY from ’10 to ’16.

    “By this year, virtually every major German solar producer had gone under as new capacity declined by 90 per cent and new investment by 92 per cent. Some 80,000 workers — 70 per cent of the solar workforce — lost their jobs.”

    I’m not sure what this claim means. ‘New capacity’ has no meaning without a time frame . What is the claim? What is the time frame? ‘New capacity’ of what? Panel production? Energy capture? Worker training? ‘70% of the workforce’ (only in manufacturing, not in the much larger field of installation and maintenance) is accurate.

    Is renewable energy more expensive than carbon producing forms in Germany? Sure. The voters know this and have voted the parties back into office time and again who drive this change. Is there a high price for world leadership and being the early adopter of first generation technology? Yup. But for Germany, this is not just a dollars and cents calculation, it is a source of pride in global leadership.

    Wind power: You ‘concern’ is about blocks of concrete in the ground and recycling non toxic components? That’s some weak sauce. Throw in some hyperbaric fluctuation or something with actual relevance.

  30. Definitely – commutes are only about 20% of all trips. If you live in walkable distance of friends/childcare/school/parks/shopping/restaurants, those get you more bang than just work.

  31. Never mind Eden Prairie. The very best way to avoid socialist politicians would be to move to Little House on the Prairie, or some other nostalgic sitcom. The perfect suburb has never existed. Suburbia is full of obese people on anti-depressants, and who handle dangerous lawn chemicals between brainwashing sessions in front of their over-heated TVs.

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