Sunday, April 27, 2008

Get Real On Global Warming Goals

This article I wrote originally appeared in the Boston Globe on 4.22.09.

REJOICE, cry, or get motivated? After seven years of pretending global warming isn't a real issue, President Bush finally announced a national goal. Let us rejoice. The goal? "To stop the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025."

It's enough to make you cry. Who are his advisers? Clearly not the leading American climatologists who would have told him that leveling emissions by 2025 misses by over a decade that first and most critical milestone to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change.

If we want to improve our chances of averting this century the extinction of 50 percent of the species or dramatic drops in grain yields or devastating sea level rises, we have to get worldwide CO2 emissions to start a real decline as fast as possible. Scientist Jim Hansen says that if we wait until 2018 to "stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions" then we have close to no chance of avoiding catastrophic effects. Scientist John Holdren tells us that if we plateau in 2015, our chances of averting these catastrophic effects are down to 50 percent.

All of us are caught in what could turn out to be a death spiral. Politicians suggest a roadmap of politically acceptable solutions that promise CO2 reductions in the palatable distance because they believe the public won't accept what is really required. The public, not yet adequately informed, looks to politicians to tell us the scale of response required and how to achieve it. Leadership won't lead, and the people aren't clued in.

Cap and trade is the current approach on Capitol Hill and in presidential-candidate platforms because it puts the burden of action far from consumers (voters), even managing to overlook the 20 percent of emissions that come from our personal cars. Under cap and trade, major point sources of CO2 emissions - power plants and energy-intensive factories - will take important and necessary steps to reduce emissions by retrofitting their plants and factories. But unless there is a magic wand out there that can be waved over each smokestack, retrofits and new facilities can't possibly come online in the time frame we are talking about - now, and within two to three years. Cap and trade solutions just don't cut it.

Bush's speech did have one brilliant idea that should be adopted immediately. He said that the country needs to create incentives that should be 1) "carbon-weighted to make lower-emission power sources less expensive relative to higher emissions sources," 2) "technology-neutral because the government should not be picking winners and losers in this emerging market," and 3) "long-lasting."

A carbon incentive needs to be applied immediately to everything that emits CO2. The more you emit, the more you pay. This will encourage people to choose options that produce the least amount of emissions.

The changes needed to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the next two to three years aren't Draconian. We need to reduce our CO2 production by 3 percent this year, and 3 percent each subsequent year. If we cut one of every 20 car trips, or share one out of every 10 rides, that's 1 percent of all CO2 emissions.

And so let's get motivated. We need to stop growth in CO2 emissions not by 2025, or 2018, or 2015, but by 2011. The individuals, businesses, states, and countries that accept this reality first will have a head start on the solutions needed to thrive and succeed, in the new low-carbon economy this century demands.

Politicians need to stop offering solutions inadequate to the task. Americans are strong, brave, and smart. Not only can we take hard truths, we demand them. We want to win. We want to be leaders in this new world. Give us carbon-weighted incentives and watch us lead the world.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Where will bike-sharing work?

OK, Paris was and is terrific. Car traffic was manageable; bike lanes abound; everything is close to everything; and each block of the city is a nice one to be out riding on. So where else will it work?

Places that have safe places to ride. Paris has spent the last 4 years working out dedicated bike routes throughout the city.

Places that don’t have too many hills.
I know that San Francisco is looking into bike sharing for their city. After my no-bike experience at the top of a not very big hill, I just can’t imagine the size of the bribe it is going to take to encourage people to return bikes to the top of SF hills – or what percentage of bikes will have to be trucked around and how many times a day.

Places where there is great transit.
At least as Velib works now, you can’t absolutely positively count on a bike being available. If you can’t count on it, then it is out for commuting, out for important errands, and becomes a kind of nice novelty. That will dramatically diminish its use.

Places where we aren’t weather wimps. I couldn’t say places with nice weather, because I know those Danes use their bikes in every possible climate. I guess it will depend on the culture of those who live in the city whether or not they will ride when it is dark, cold, drizzly, hot, muggy.

Places that commit to a large number of bike locations. It really mattered that the bike stations were everywhere. At first I was irritated that Velib didn’t have printed maps available to show where the stations were, and that it was too dangerous to wing it. But I was wrong. I could depend on finding a station with just a little bit of circling. I didn’t need a map or big green V’s marring the beautiful Paris streetscapes shouting “here.”

Places that are beautiful – certainly a plus. The pleasure of being out and seeing the sites was a big encouragement. Velib quickly became my top and preferred mode of transportation: virtually free, fast, convenient, safe-ish (I would have liked my helmet), beautiful. As a single (sans enfant) person, why travel any other way?

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Details of the Velib deal and operations

(as of March 21, 2008, 8 months after launch) Details on stations, communications,bikes, utilization, contract. Here is Velib link, note you can change language in top right corner.

Stations: Each Velib station is positioned along a section of sidewalk, or a carve-out from curbside parking. Typically, these are not on the prime thoroughfares, but on the smaller streets that abut them. There is a 6 foot high kiosk and 10 or 20 knee-high locking stations cemented into the ground. You reserve the bike at the kiosk, choosing a specific bike (the parking stations are numbered), and then push the button on the station of your chosen vehicle and it releases.

Communications: The kiosks communicate using GPRS to the server. The bikes themselves have no electronics. One half of the stations get connectivity through one cell phone company; and the other half through another, with the idea being that if one cell provider goes down, at least half the bikes will still be accessible. In their third day of operations they had a 2-hour outage. Since then, all has been well.

Have sturdy-ish front basket, three speeds, front and back fenders, chain guard, front and back lights powered by generator, lock, very hard seat, up-right riding stance.

Utilization: 60-90,000 trips daily in winter; 150-170,000 trips daily in the summer. This is about 7-12 trips per day. 97% are less than ½ hour (cleverly accommodating almost all trips you would do in the city). Almost 200,000 people have signed up for annual memberships, reaching their estimated goal for first year four months early.

They have to move about 18% of the bikes using a small truck with a flatbed trailer attached. This corresponds roughly to the commute into Paris in the morning and the reverse commute back out. You can understand this movement of bikes here.

The advertising deal with Paris
(I didn’t read the contract; this is information from Albert xx, the person at JC Decaux who is in charge of this project). The city of Paris aggregated all its street advertising (primarily bus shelters and some flat stand-alones) into one single bundle, as well as eliminating 20% of the existing advertising (no doubt the least visible spots). Companies were asked to bid on the contract. In addition to the amount the city would normally get for selling its advertising space, the city required that the bidders sweeten the deal the building and operations of bike-sharing for the city of Paris. The contract is for 10 years.

I see this as something of a clever bribe: You want our prime city’s prime eyeballs? We want our cut of the revenues plus Velib. There is a long story about how the bid (and rebid) unfolded, with the result that Paris got a promise for 20,000 bikes. Decaux’s previous bike efforts, in 8(?) other cities only totaled 12,000 altogether. So Paris got a deal on a totally different order of magnitude, which corresponds to the value of Parisien eyeballs relative to those in other cities. This makes me realize that there are very few cities in the world that are likely to be able to extract as large a “bonus” as Paris did.

Decaux says it spent 90 million euros in 2007 on Pairs: to build Velib and swap out the flat-panel stand-alone advertising for new ones that rotate three different ads. One friend, Eric Britton, tells me that when DeCaux reinstalled the new panels, it rotated some of them that were parallal to the curb, to become a right angles with the curb, obstructing the sidewalk. Decaux claims it was only able to pull off this deal by installing the rotating sign boards which bring in three times the revenue because they support three times the advertising.

Remarkably, from contract award to Velib launch, only 4 months passed. As many as 700 people were at work on the project last year. They are down to 400 staff people now. While there are plenty of things you can imagine that would improve the system, I have to give them enormous credit for pulling off a system that is 85% right is just four months. Over time they will hopefully tweak and improve the system. In fact, starting this week, they will be offering a 15-minute “credit” for people that return bikes to 40 stations they have identified as chronically under-biked. And surprise, surprise, many of these stations are at the top of the hills.

Oh, Decaux has experienced way more vandalism and theft than it had in any of its other cities. No doubt (hopefully) they will figure out to minimize this problem.

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