(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 450: Land Use to Reduce Transportation Emissions

September 13, 2023

This week we’re joined by Zack Subin of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation and Ben Holland of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Ben and Zack join us to talk about their report Urban Land Use Reform on the importance of land use in reducing travel and emissions.

You can listen to this episode at Streetsblog USA or find it in our archive.

Research Notes:

  • Review of recent state land use legislation from Mercatus, including highlighting the WA package, and earlier this year from Terner
  • Review of recent trends in VMT/capita by state: WA at head of the pack
  • Jenny Schuetz’ Brookings blog summary of her book, which includes a discussion of housing reforms across levels of government and political economy considerations
    • More discussion of the rationale for state governments to lead in this Niskanen Center report
  • Thea Riofrancos et al and UC Davis report on lithium requirements to decarbonize US transportation
  • Shane Phillips’ paper on the case for broad upzoning, summarized by Todd Litman in Planetizen
  • Coolclimate CA planning scenarios from Chris Jones’s team, with linked paper, and 2022 update featured in the NY Times.

Below is an unedited AI generated full transcript of the episode:

Jeff Wood (41s):
Zack Subin and Ben Holland, welcome to the Talking Headways Podcast.

Zack Subin (1m 14s):
Thank you.

Ben Holland (1m 15s):
Yeah, thanks for having us.

Jeff Wood (1m 16s):
Well thanks for being here. Zack, you helped put together the episode with Greg Shill right before the pandemic and Ben. You were on episode 336, so we appreciate you all coming back. That was a weird time. I feel like Ben, we talked kind of in the middle of the pandemic, but Zack, we haven’t really chatted since then. Aside from some emails, how are things going for you?

Zack Subin (1m 32s):
Yeah, that was a great event and it was my last in-person event in March of 2020.

Jeff Wood (1m 38s):
We were all doing foot handshakes. I think that was the trend at that point.

Zack Subin (1m 42s):
Yeah, long as we didn’t touch each other with our hands then, then we were fine I think, even though we had a hundred people in that room. But yeah, I’m really glad that was such a great conversation since then. I spent a few years at R M I and we’ll talk about some of the work that I’ve done with Ben and then one month ago started at the Turner Center at Berkeley to continue some of this work.

Jeff Wood (2m 4s):
Awesome. And Ben, we had you on the show recently, but perhaps you can remind folks a little bit about who you are and what you’re doing.

Ben Holland (2m 9s):
Yeah, and I think that episode was probably focused on the shift calculator that we produced that quantify the impacts of highway expansions. So yeah, I’ve been at R M I for past seven years, worked kind of exclusively on Transportation climate strategies in the beginning that was largely focused on vehicle electrification. But of recent, in the last couple years, it’s really been focused on kind of relationship between land use and use of mobility alternatives in reducing vehicle miles traveled. So we have basically a newly branded team that we’re calling kind of the urbanism initiative. And Zack was really critical to getting that stood up over the last couple years. So we’re definitely sad to see him go

Jeff Wood (2m 47s):
For sure. Well, Zack, how did you get into cities and Transportation and urban planning and thinking about the environment overall?

Zack Subin (2m 53s):
I’ve been interested in climate and the environment. I think since I was a kid, you know, I was very precocious into science and I remember all the scientists were telling us back in the nineties that we should be worried about climate change. I was nagging my dad to have a more fuel efficient car. He wouldn’t always listen and would’ve been nice if we had listened to scientists 30 years ago. But here we are. I did climate science and policy science policy at Berkeley for grad school. So I’m back at Berkeley at the Turner Center, which is a Berkeley affiliate institution. And you know, so for a while I was doing global climate models. I was really having fun playing with global models, seeing what was gonna happen in the Arctic in a hundred years.

Zack Subin (3m 35s):
And then I kinda hit a wall where we just didn’t have the data to really answer the questions I wanted. You can only play so much with computer models and I thought maybe we should get back to solving the problem. So I spent four years with E three in San Francisco before coming to R M I. They are an energy policy consultancy that has done a lot of work for the state government and utilities, mapping out very big picture, how do we get to a climate goal? How do we get all of the carbon pollution out of the economy, you know, buildings, vehicles, power system, the whole deal. So I was running those models and you know, still not much going on professionally in terms of housing and urbanism.

Zack Subin (4m 18s):
There was a class that I took in 2006 called Sustainable Communities while I was in grad school. And that class was really frustrating because it was basically, planners have realized, you know, since the sixties and seventies we kind of made a big mistake in this country building low density housing oriented exclusively around cars. And they had all these great ideas of how to fix it, but it was basically, here’s all the reasons why it’s illegal and politically infeasible and never gonna happen. So I said, okay, well that was interesting and frustrating. 10 years later I had just moved into San Francisco with my husband in 2016, couldn’t avoid housing politics living in San Francisco at that time and the ybi movement was rising and I, I kind of found my way to them and Scott Weiner was launching legislation that was starting a national conversation around zoning Reform, kind of putting these topics back on the table in a way that it didn’t seem like previously had been possible.

Zack Subin (5m 19s):
So I, you know, I was doing that in my spare time and I realized there was a big disconnect between what I was excited about in terms of building more housing in cities and making streets safer for people to walk and bike and more space to ride the bus. And the models that I was running of our energy system were very focused on adding up the appliances and vehicles and power plants without thinking about urban design. And I can talk a little bit more as we get in the conversation about some of the disconnects between the models that we typically use in climate policy and what people use for land use and planning and what matters for housing policy.

Zack Subin (6m 1s):
But that disjuncture, I became aware of it, we actually organized a kind of sub-chapter of E M B action called Urban Environmentalists and got to organize lots of panels. That’s what the Greg Shill event came from, which I helped organize as a volunteer. And our first action was actually to ask the city to study the benefits of infill housing for a report it was doing on climate policy. So I kind of took those ideas with me and had the chance to kind of work about half and half at R M I on the housing and urbanism content and about half on the energy as a whole. And I guess now I’m now I’ve gone to nearly a hundred percent at the Turner Center.

Ben Holland (6m 42s):
I first met Zack before he joined R M I and he was at E three. And at the time we were just kind of talking internally recognizing the, the need to reduce vehicle miles traveled and sort of wondering like what would the contribution of better urban design or land use Reform be toward reducing V M T? And it was around that time that I met Zack and he was actually working on a piece called Building Urbanism into Climate Policy. And that sort of set the foundation for what we started to do at R M I from a housing land use Reform perspective.

Jeff Wood (7m 10s):
That’s awesome. Well I love asking people how they got into what they got into because everybody takes their own circuitous route and it’s always fascinating to hear how folks get from A to B and I’m glad that you’re here at B now with us. Well Ben, how’s Colorado going these days?

Ben Holland (7m 25s):
It’s pretty good. As you might know, there’s a recent effort to pass land use Reform here in Colorado wasn’t entirely successful, but looking at starting that up again in the next legislative cycle. But yeah, things are good here in Colorado.

Jeff Wood (7m 40s):
Awesome. Well there’s also some really cool stuff going on from the highway perspective and we’ll talk about that in a bit. I have some questions, but let’s talk about your recent report, urban Land Use Reform when talking about climate action. Why is land use so important when we’re trying to reduce Transportation Emissions?

Ben Holland (7m 54s):
So one of the reasons why we put out this report is that I think intuitively most people or most policy makers understand that compact connected communities are better for the environment, lower carbon environments in general, but that those policymakers typically lack the data or sort of a defensible argument from a climate perspective for pursuing land use Reform. So what we wanted to do with the paper was to actually quantify the benefits from A V M T reduction perspective as well as a number of other co-benefits, the benefits of instituting land use Reform and not only quantify it but kind of illustrate what that would look like at the city level. So we chose three rapidly growing cities, Austin, Charlotte, and Denver, and used a tool called Urban Footprint to develop a sort of business as usual suburban single family driven kind of growth scenario.

Ben Holland (8m 47s):
And then developed a counterfactual with a heavy emphasis on infill development t o d and kind of broad up zoning and really just painted that onto the metropolitan areas of Austin, Charlotte, and Denver. And then spit out the metrics of V M T reduction. And it’s kind of come up to about 13% V M T reduction per capita, a 16% building energy use reduction and a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas Emissions. But the biggest finding for us was really the land consumption benefits. So compared to the sort of business’ usual growth forecast, our sort of smart growth scenario reduced land consumption by up to 82% sort of incremental land consumption.

Zack Subin (9m 32s):
One thing to keep in mind is those percentage savings for the vehicle miles traveled for the building energy and for building and vehicle Emissions. So those are with respect to the whole metro region, including all the people that are already living there who are basically not touching anything in these scenarios plus the new people. So kind of per new home that you’re adding, you’re actually saving a much higher proportion. And it’s because these cities are adding potentially so many new people that you really get a significant signal even, you know, at at the whole metro scale.

Jeff Wood (10m 9s):
That’s interesting ’cause one of the things that struck me about reading the report was basically you all mentioned there’s a flaw in climate action plans and that you address these fast-growing cities, but you’re looking at things from like in an overall city perspective rather than than the per capita perspective. Right? And I think that’s really an important point to make.

Zack Subin (10m 25s):
Yeah, so I always like to bring it back to San Francisco because it’s the most walkable compact city we have on the west coast. It happens to be where I live. So I’m used to having the conversations there. Chris Jones also at the University of California Berkeley has done some foundational work on the benefits of urban infill from a a climate perspective, meaning adding housing to existing neighborhoods in places where people tend to have access to lower carbon ways of living, you can walk to places, buildings are a little bit more compact, that means they have more shared walls. So you have less building energy consumption, less building materials use and of course you’re consuming a lot less acreage of land per person.

Zack Subin (11m 16s):
So if San Francisco, the way we normally do it, if they hire a consultant to model their climate action plan, what they typically do is they draw a boundary around the city and they say, here are the Emissions physically being emitted within this boundary and here’s a way we can bring these down over time. The problem is per person, we’re emitting a lot less in San Francisco than a more suburban part of the Bay Area or most of the rest of the country. So if I say, okay, San Francisco needs to build 80,000 homes according to our state policy targets that the city has agreed to, that’s gonna make our Emissions go up according to this accounting, even though it will save more than that elsewhere.

Zack Subin (12m 4s):
So from a global perspective, you know, carbon dioxide is a global pollutant. It’s going to make Emissions go down to add more housing to San Francisco, but the accounting that we normally use will just say that the Emissions go up and you can help by doing it per capita, but it doesn’t totally answer the question. And I’ve yet to see a city climate action plan address this quantitatively. I have seen some, including San Francisco’s updated plan, San Diego had a good example a year or two ago that have at least rhetorically emphasized the importance of adding housing in within the city for these reasons and stopping new super commuting and all that kind of stuff.

Zack Subin (12m 50s):
But we don’t necessarily have a great off the shelf accounting framework, you know, besides kind of the template from Chris Jones that that could be built upon for cities to actually put it on the same level of precision as the other strategies in their climate action plan. So that might be something that I might work on, you know, area for further research. But right now the tools that we have is to do this at least at a metro region scale using a model like urban footprint or a similar model to actually capture some of these benefits.

Jeff Wood (13m 26s):
You know, one of the interesting things that we did when I was at reconnecting America was, and I think Benjamin has mentioned this on the last show, but we put together this thing with the center for name of technology looking at like V M T and if you plot people down in a certain T O D space in a city, what do the characteristics of those new people take on? Like what kind of V M T profile do they have? And the interesting thing, and I don’t know if this has been talked about a lot since we did this, but was that, you know, if you put a suburban t o D down on a commuter Rail line with maybe like 32 an hour service or something like that, you could build it as dense as you want, but people aren’t necessarily going to adopt the profile of a dense urban center where you put 10 people in that urban T O d, they’re gonna adopt that V M T profile and they’re gonna reduce their Emissions greater than that.

Jeff Wood (14m 8s):
So it’s interesting to think about it from that perspective of where you put people is very important and you know, you point to this specifically, but also where you don’t put people is really important too. And you all listen to the show so you probably have heard me talk about this recently, but I’ve been on kind of an ecosystem services kick where I feel like there’s a lot to be said for keeping a lot of nature intact and thinking about it from that perspective as well. And I think that’s a really important part of the report that you all bring out too.

Ben Holland (14m 32s):
Yeah, I mean I think Zack, this might be a question for you as well ’cause Zack has been doing a fair amount of research at R M I and I assume we’ll continue to do so, but looking at what the benefits are of essentially plopping people into low V M T neighborhoods and you’ve done that analysis sort of the national level and recently at state level as well.

Zack Subin (14m 50s):
Yeah, and I think that a lot of of work still needs to happen there. I’ve heard people think that there are differences between what we typically use in terms of travel demand models per project and what you might get if you have some of the latest data at a neighborhood scale. There’s a lot of new data sets out now that actually assimilate everyone’s smartphone data to get real time travel information and then layer on other other economic data sets and so on. And so that gives you a different signal than you might get from a conventional travel demand model. So I think that’s an area to explore, kind of do you get, get a different answer because your travel demand model says, oh, these people are right next to a transit station and they have high density versus just observing how that neighborhood currently behaves.

Zack Subin (15m 39s):
You might say, well the best assumption is people already living in that neighborhood to drive a lot, so if you add more people they might do the same. There’s another question that I am hoping to explore at the Turner Center and that is there’s kind of a, a different version of the question you asked related to trying to optimize for both housing access and affordability as well as the climate benefits. So a lot of the climate conversation has been focused around transit oriented development when it comes to housing. That’s kind of the simple story, you know, add people right next to a transit station and they’ll be able to drive less. The problem is, from a housing policy perspective, there’s an increasing focus on being able to make reforms over much larger land areas.

Zack Subin (16m 27s):
There’s a scholar at U C L A Shane Phillips who has a nice paper arguing that you really need to upzone, you know, much of a city at least to a moderate scale in order to, to have the potential to achieve broader affordability and to avoid some of the concentrated impacts that people sometimes worry about in terms of land value spikes. And the way to think about that is, you know, if you only have three parcels and you say, okay, these three parcels, now you can build as much as you want everywhere else in the city you’re not allowed to touch. Well of course those parcels now their land value is going to go way up because they suddenly you could do a lot of development on them.

Zack Subin (17m 11s):
So that’s gonna have a big local impact. Whereas if you have a modest change to every parcel now there’s no sort of reason why you’d buy one over the other. So it tends to spread out the impact. And also there’s just a lot more land area in the US that we’ve reserved for single family zoning. So if you wall off those neighborhoods, allow them to remain exclusionary, that really removes a lot of the potential to add housing. And it’s really important to add housing in these neighborhoods, which often are very high opportunity. You know, this is where you often have some of the wealthiest communities in kind of somewhat more oriented neighborhoods.

Zack Subin (17m 53s):
So the question is, can we show a climate benefit still from adding granny flats accessory, you know, also known as accessory dolling units or ADUs four plexes, six plexes, et cetera, in these neighborhoods, which are, you know, one of the best ways we can think of for creating more affordable housing types without public subsidy. And this, this really came to a head in San Jose a couple years ago. There was a debate about what they called opportunity housing, which was their version of allowing fourplexes throughout San Jose neighborhoods. And some of the opponents were arguing that that would just create more traffic. We should really only be building in what they call urban villages kind of, you know, right on top of the transit corridor.

Zack Subin (18m 40s):
So that’s the question that I, I would like to answer it and some of my colleagues here, I think that likely you would still see a reduction in driving compared to someone living even farther out and maybe they still get in their car but they’re going three miles instead of seven miles for a daily trip. And of course there’s still savings in terms of building energy materials and land consumption like we were talking about before. If you can have several homes on the same lot,

Jeff Wood (19m 10s):
I think it’s really interesting too, thinking about this from a Transportation kind of capital spending perspective. You know, a lot of new light Rail lines and especially in the cities that you all have studied in Denver and Charlotte. And soon hopefully Austin will see if that still happens. I know that there’s always a fight about that in the legislature, but you know, they, they build along a a single corridor and then that actually puts a lot of pressure on that corridor but not the rest of the region. And I think those extensive historically large systems like a STO or Boston or Chicago or wherever, they don’t have those same pressures because the lines are everywhere, right? And so if you do it in one corridor, that becomes almost a problem. And then we get these big discussions about gentrification displacement along light Rail and those things. But part of a problem is that we’re not building fast enough.

Jeff Wood (19m 51s):
And I think that’s the same kind of problem with the housing situation too, is that you know, you don’t have enough housing, you don’t have enough light Rail lines, then the pressure becomes higher on the ones that are built and the lines that are built.

Ben Holland (20m 2s):
Yeah. And that was something that we were hyper conscious of and even worried to some extent, like we didn’t want there to be this unintended consequence of our paper, like encouraging policy makers to just direct all their efforts to, you know, putting housing on those corridors like very kind of uniform housing type on commercial corridors. From an Emissions reduction perspective, it makes it fairly simplistic to hit those numbers ’cause you’re putting so many people on, you know, for instance in Austin the project connect corridors, we actually loaded the future lines, the sort of the idealized future of project connect into urban footprint. And then our scenario was largely based on t O D along those lines. And yeah, from an equity perspective we’re certainly not solving that challenge by just, you know, opening up housing on those commercial corridors.

Ben Holland (20m 48s):
So that’s something that we wanna explore further as well.

Zack Subin (20m 50s):
Right. So just to underline that this study looked at idealized scenarios of land use Reform to identify the potential environmental benefits. However, before you would actually pass, you know, a realistic policy, you would want to look at these equity questions, make sure that you have sufficient protections for tenants and complimentary affordability policies. You know, perhaps do an equity analysis looking at historically low income communities, communities of color, as well as doing a market feasibility analysis, sort of if you change zoning, you know, what actually is going to pencil and how quickly. So all of those things would be additional topics for further research as, as we researchers always like to say,

Jeff Wood (21m 36s):
Always more to do. Can you all tell me a little bit about why you pick these three cities and they’re, you know, fast growing cities, their populations are growing really quickly, they’re places that are not the San Francisco’s and New York’s and maybe people fled San Francisco and New York to a certain extent the high earners anyways for these places. I’m curious why you chose them.

Ben Holland (21m 55s):
Well yeah, I mean you mentioned this but yeah, rapidly growing all three cities saw population growth of over 20% between 2010 and 2020. A big part of the reason why was ’cause the land use Reform discussion is so heated in these cities. I mean, or they’re addressing it and with new comprehensive plans or efforts to update their land development code. So for instance, obviously in Austin there’s been a ongoing saga with code Next talk about some updates there if you like. In Charlotte, they had recently passed a comprehensive planner now just getting into the, I think they just recently passed their land development code rewrite. And in Denver there’s been an ongoing discussion about updating Denver blueprint. And then of course at a state level, governor Polis has been supporting sort of statewide land use Reform.

Ben Holland (22m 40s):
So we were hoping to kind of inform the discussion in those cities. We also acknowledged that, that these are different from San Francisco and New York. There may be more common this story of these kind of midsize cities a bit more common in the us but we are also conscious of the fact that we need to explore the same questions in cities that are seeing depopulation in the, the downtown cores or less rapidly growing cities and what the land use Reform should look like there.

Jeff Wood (23m 9s):
I’m also curious about kind of the state level interest in this too. I mean, you know, you think about Texas and the preemption that’s going on now, the death star bill that was recently passed and is probably gonna get litigated where they tried to make it so that if any city passed a law or rule or anything like that, the state has ultimate say in whether that it’s actually goes forward. Thinking about water breaks for construction workers, those types of things. But how much does the state play into these discussions? I mean, North Carolina, Colorado, Texas, they’re all fairly big states with, you know, legislatures that have a lot to say.

Zack Subin (23m 42s):
Yeah, I mean I think what we’re seeing, and there are good sort of political economy theoretical arguments for why this is happening. We’re seeing a lot of the progress come from state governments. You know, if you think about it, if you’re at a city scale, you’re really responsive to small groups of people. You know, I suppose I can use the word NIMBYs here. Yes you can, but you know, there are legitimate local impacts. It’s kind of a classic case where you build a lot of housing, say on one block. I mean, I would love to have more housing on my block and have more people supporting local businesses and and so on riding the transit system.

Zack Subin (24m 23s):
But you know, there may be some negative consequences there. Whereas the housing market benefits of adding affordability really accrue at a much larger spatial scale the economic benefits of having workers that can afford to live and work at at your local and regional businesses. So at the state level states have fundamentally the, the constitutional authority to change land use. You know, they all the cities derived their authority from the states. The states kind of all passed the same templates for enabling zoning after the federal government gave them a template back in, in 1920s or so. But the states could take that back, you know, there might be state constitutional constraints that make that harder in someplace than others, but if you’re a governor, you have every incentive to pay attention to housing affordability and Transportation challenges and the effects on businesses at the state level.

Zack Subin (25m 21s):
So that’s potentially the sweet spot for doing these reforms. Federally, there is a role to play potentially, but the federal government hasn’t taken as direct a role in local planning even though they, they did kind of create the template for it, encouraged the template for it. And obviously it’s a much heavier political lift to do that. You’re actually starting to see some things come from the Biden administration in terms of pars to, you know, give cities a grant to do better planning policies. So we’re seeing a lot of progress happen at the state level. In some cases they are following cities that have the political conditions to get out in front. One other analysis that I was working on while I was still at R M I and and some of my former colleagues are still working on, is looking across states what the climate potential benefits are of land use Reform in a kind of generic cross data analysis.

Zack Subin (26m 14s):
So what we did was we blended data from the current housing shortage, projected population growth and current patterns of Transportation and energy in each state. And we asked the question, what if each state independently solved the housing shortage and built most of the housing in the lowest vehicle, miles traveled locations in each state, right? So we’re not holding it to a national standard, but within that state, what are the best neighborhoods now for where people don’t have to drive as much for their daily life? What if we put most of the housing there and then how much potential Emissions could we save after a decade?

Zack Subin (26m 58s):
And I was kind of expecting California to be near the top actually in the draft results. Texas is, I believe the biggest and that’s because you have so much projected continued population growth there and the average amount of driving in Texas is pretty high. So there’s a big opportunity to go from that high average to some of the best neighborhoods in Texas. Another interesting example of the other end of the spectrum is New York State. So if you look at kind of the best 10% of neighborhoods from a, you know, v M T per person perspective in New York, that’s like, you’re in Manhattan, you know, you barely need to get in a car at all.

Zack Subin (27m 39s):
So that, that also could be a big, a big opportunity. But New York just hasn’t been building that much housing or having that much population growth. So it, it wasn’t showing up as highly should that change in a dramatic way. There might be a big opportunity in states like New York as well.

Jeff Wood (27m 57s):
Also, I mean a lot of times I, I do get a little negative on the show, but there’s been a lot of positive reforms I feel like coming forward in, in states and I think that there’s some really good movement. Do you have any examples of things that are happening in addition to, you know, Colorado focused on highways and things like that?

Ben Holland (28m 11s):
Well, Montana, of course Washington both have passed pretty significant zoning Reform bills. I think that just overall across the country, there seems to be a lot of momentum in this space. So I think you’re gonna see some dominoes falling with regard to land use Reform going forward. And then, yeah, on the Transportation side of things, you’ve seen a kind of growing sentiment that states are playing a key role in whether or not we’re gonna meet our climate goals, just whether or not they focus on highway expansions or invest in alternatives. So I think a lot of good things are happening state to state across the country.

Zack Subin (28m 47s):
I’ve kind of lost count, you know, I used to have off the top of my head the states that had done significant land use Reform and now I, I cannot list them anymore. Vermont passed a package this year and a number of states have passed more incremental reforms, including New Jersey for instance. Maine actually passed a big Reform a couple years ago. And so we’re seeing different states take different strategies in terms of, you know, do you Reform the permit process, make it faster to get approvals? Do you change zoning to allow for accessory dwelling units? Some states are kind of falling California’s model of having what’s called a fair share planning requirement so that there’s not kind of a prescriptive requirement on cities.

Zack Subin (29m 35s):
It’s more you need to do something to accommodate your share of new housing. And then, you know, there’s some negotiation where you can fill in the details. And of course California is just coming to the end of that process where cities have had to send their proposals to the state government, to the housing community development department to see if they’re satisfying state policy.

Ben Holland (29m 58s):
Yeah, speaking of the strategy, I think it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the following years. I mean, hypothetically there should be a pretty strong kind of bipartisan argument here for land use. Reform of course. Like we know that there’s environmental benefits associated that should appeal to the Democrats and there’s of course a free market element to this that should appeal to kind of fiscal conservatives, if you will. Of course it doesn’t always play out that way, but you know, I think there’s potential for that to maybe work down the road in places like Texas and Colorado.

Jeff Wood (30m 28s):
Hopefully it doesn’t get culture war.

Ben Holland (30m 30s):
Yeah, right. That’s how it’s been playing out actually. So

Zack Subin (30m 33s):
It’s one of the few issues left that is really not consistently polarized along partisan lines. So we have support across the political spectrum and we have opposition across the political spectrum and that’s playing out pretty differently in different states without having a consistent pattern. And you know, I think looking at California and Montana, they both passed on the surface, including some of the same elements of reforms. I guess California has passed a hundred bills, so there’s a lot they’ve done. Maybe that Montana hasn’t. But what Montana did pass this year, it was the governor had a task force last year to kind of pull the stakeholders together and they passed a lot of what was in the recommendations from that task force.

Zack Subin (31m 17s):
And you know, the rhetoric may have been different, but the actual policies have been pretty similar.

Jeff Wood (31m 24s):
I wanna step back a little bit and ask you all about kind of the overall climate goals that we have and think about how the report fits into that because I’m curious like what our overall climate goals are or where we should we be getting to. And then how does the maybe modest reforms that you’re suggesting, how do those get to that final goal?

Ben Holland (31m 42s):
So for R M I and Zack worked on this analysis as well, but a couple years ago we conducted some analysis looking at what would need to happen within the Transportation sector in the US to meet the climate goals set out by the IPCCs 1.5 degrees Celsius guidelines. Basically like to put it simply, we landed on this goal by 2030 we’d need to have something on the order of 70 million EVs on the road and then a 20% reduction in V M T by 2030. And then sort of that latter piece is where we’ve started to kind of carve out what we think are the most critical policies or practices to reduce V M T and obviously land use is one of them, you know, shifting away from a status quo of road expansions is another big one.

Ben Holland (32m 26s):
So in a lot of ways we’ve been kind of trying to put a stake in the ground within the environmental community on that B M T reduction piece. So I think most organizations recognize is important, they just haven’t really addressed it in a big way.

Zack Subin (32m 37s):
Yeah, so that report that Ben mentioned, one of the interesting things about that report is, I mean the, the V M T was kind of almost a footnote in, in that report that we then were able to build on, but the overall point of the report was for 1.5 degrees Celsius. Of course this is in 2021 where we, we haven’t made too much progress in the last two years, but in 2021 we were putting out there for the international targets, it’s not enough just to say we’re gonna hit net zero Emissions in 2050. What matters is cumulative Emissions. So every ton of carbon dioxide we emit between now and then is what will ultimately determine the amount of global warming that we experience.

Zack Subin (33m 20s):
And when you think about it that way, you can’t just say, okay, by maybe by 2050 we’ll electrify all the vehicles so we don’t have to worry about reducing the need to drive until then, you know, when you do the math, you actually do need to worry about that. And also it’s not just about the Emissions coming from the tailpipe, it’s from the whole lifecycle, right? The vehicle manufacturing, which is gonna be slower to be cleaned up than the tailpipe when you’re building for cars, it’s not just about the cars, it’s the whole kind of carbon intensive built environment that you’re creating where you’re using more land and more materials and more energy.

Zack Subin (34m 1s):
Like, like I was talking about before

Jeff Wood (34m 3s):
In California, you know, we have CARB has said, well we do need to reduce V M T, but that’s everybody else’s problem, right? And it’s frustrating I think when you see the agencies that maybe should be hitting the drum, kind of passing the drumstick.

Zack Subin (34m 18s):
Yeah, I, I mean ultimately as we’ve been discussing, a lot of this comes down to local land use and you know, the Air resource board doesn’t have direct jurisdiction over cities land use. And I think there is a question there of have all the reforms the states been passing been enough? Do we need more to better align our climate policies like the Sustainable Communities Strategies law from 2008 to align that with our housing? That’s something I think I’ll be continuing to think about. I think in general, states have been making a little bit more progress on moving towards electric vehicles than reducing vehicle miles traveled. So that that really is lagging the land use reformance that we’ve seen need to be scaled up much more.

Zack Subin (35m 2s):
And it’s a really hard political conversation to stop expanding highways. Even in some of our climate leading states like California and Colorado, it’s still a big fight for some of the projects already in the pipeline for new projects. At least those states have passed pretty important laws that will going forward require, you know, the true environmental impacts of highway expansion to be taken into account. So that’s good. Minnesota also passed a law like that a few months ago, so that’s three states. So we need, we need to see a lot more of that and I think Ben has been working on that as well.

Ben Holland (35m 40s):
Yeah, I would just say, I mean I think, I mean I probably mentioned this in our previous conversation, but there is such an emphasis on vehicle electrification and the, and the climate community and, and understandably so and rightfully so of late, like a great deal of emphasis on getting states to adopt California’s advanced clean cars rule, for instance and adopt Zev mandates. For me it’s just a big question of like how much teeth are attached to those rules in those states and how binding they become. I mean I see the sort of E M T reduction work is very critical given the sort of uncertainty of the EV adoption going forward. So going forward we’re gonna be working a big, in a big way with states trying to influence state D O T decision making, again, kind of pivoting away from a highway expansion centric strategy to one that prioritizes transit and of course vehicle electrification as well and and really kind of elevating the work that a number of community-based organizations are doing within those states.

Ben Holland (36m 35s):
Colorado and most recently Minnesota are really great examples of states that are adopting very aggressive Emissions reductions rules and strategies and they’ve also incorporated V M T reduction into that in a very material way. So we’re gonna be working with a number of states to try to adopt a similar approach.

Jeff Wood (36m 56s):
Are you worried about the inertia bump that individual vehicles just got with the ruling in California? You know, allowing AVS to operate 24 hours a day in San Francisco. I feel like we were going really strong and doing really well at talking about reductions in V M T and all those things and then, you know, this bump kind of seems like the rhetoric and the, the discussion about Safe Streets has kind of overshadowed the discussion about V M T reduction in climate.

Zack Subin (37m 24s):
I’m very worried about that as a San Francisco resident as well. I’ve been paying attention to this. I will say I’m definitely not an expert in autonomous vehicles and ways to regulate them, but I think it’s pretty clear that the state preemption of local regulation, I could see why that might make sense for the state to regulate the technology, you know, to evaluate if they’re behaving in ways that are safe. That’s kind of a more technical question, but as you said, the questions around how are they using our local street space, what is the highest and best use of that space is currently being offered for free.

Zack Subin (38m 6s):
That was not in the conversation at the C P U C at all last week. And I think I’m skeptical, personally skeptical as a, as a non-expert that they’re safe yet, but I I, you know, technology will, you know, continue to improve. They, they might very well end up with a very safe product. I’m more worried that we’re not having a conversation about do we need to have congestion or per mile pricing, you know, we haven’t been able to get it anywhere in the US yet for vehicles in general. Maybe politically we can start with autonomous vehicles because if people will find that easier to, you know, easier to fathom than applying to drivers in general.

Zack Subin (38m 46s):
But I think we should be having those conversations.

Ben Holland (38m 49s):
Yeah, this has come up on your show a bit, but the thing that scares me is just like the long-term effects on like this on street design and the sort of quality of the pedestrian experience. I mean you have the such powerful companies that are gonna be, you know, that expanding these services that could influence city decision making. You know, we need unencumbered use of this, the roads we need to get rid of crosswalks, you know, basically interior urban roads turn into something akin to highways with, you know, pedestrian ridges and things of that nature that are really not good for the urban environment.

Jeff Wood (39m 22s):
It’s, it’s, you know, motor Dem 2.0 basically. Yeah. As, as Peter Norton has said, and I think the thing that frustrates me about this too is like they, they’ve co-opted the safety discussion, but it is this issue of whether they’re gonna pack the streets. And I actually on my street specifically, it’s a small street in Noe Valley and it’s narrow. It was probably built in the 1880s and we have a lot of delivery trucks, but I feel like now there’s way more avs driving down the street with no driver than there ever were delivery trucks. And so we’ve had this discussion about deliveries and just in time deliveries and same day delivery and Amazon and warehouses and all that stuff. But now there’s this other layer of it and I feel like, you know, that’s a discussion, like you said Zack, that needs to happen, but that’s not really happening.

Jeff Wood (40m 2s):
We’re having this discussion about safety and about, you know, whether they should be allowed to test on on San Francisco. But there’s a bigger discussion I feel like to be had about clogging a city with vehicles that take up 250 square feet each. Is there something that came out of the research that you all did in these three cities that you were working on that surprised you that you weren’t expecting?

Ben Holland (40m 22s):
I mean, I think for us the big one was we went into it really focused on V M T reduction and then, you know, the land consumption benefits sort of blew us away. I mean of course they’re based on these suburban sprawl scenario that we conducted, I think is based in reality. I mean we look, we actually used a lot of satellite imagery to determine where future growth was gonna happen in in subdivisions, places that have been kind of platted out that haven’t been built on. So I think it’s pretty similar to what you should expect in these three cities. It may be sort of at the extreme end, but yeah, the land consumption benefit is something that we raise quite a bit and especially, you know, in areas that have like Colorado, that have issues with sort of the wild land urban interface and, and preserving wildlife habitats that those kinds of messages are really, I think, compelling to audiences that wouldn’t otherwise be supportive of this or otherwise don’t really think about climate as much.

Zack Subin (41m 17s):
Yeah, I think it’s interesting how in the environmental movement it used to be all about conservation. That was kind of the starting point and everyone now is laser focused on energy and fossil fuel Emissions in a way that we’ve kind of forgotten about about land. And you know, if you think about it, even after we electrify all of all of the vehicles and convert everything through nobles, you know, the one thing we’re not making more of is land. So actually when we, when we kind of developed the platform for urban an environmentalist a few years ago, we kind of put that at the fore that a lot of this is really about how we’re sharing lands, who has access to it.

Zack Subin (41m 57s):
And I think in terms of climate policy, there’s been an underemphasis on thinking about the relationship between urban growth futures and what different outcomes mean for preserving nature, preserving farmland and forest, some of the very places that we’re gonna need to keep intact in order to cope with climate change and to serve as, as natural carbon sinks.

Ben Holland (42m 19s):
And it begs the question kind of policies are necessary to preserve those lands. I mean, in areas where maybe urban growth boundaries aren’t possible, are there other policies we can explore? Because I mean, in our report it sort of assumes that the future growth takes place in downtown core on transit corridors or in low V M T neighborhoods. And it assumes that that suburban sprawl does not happen. Of course, we don’t have really policies in place to prevent that. It’s something that I think we need to explore more. It’s also something that came up, I noticed and I attended some of the hearings about the Colorado land use Reform bill and it was a question that was brought up by one senator I remember. Like, what policies are you considering to prevent that sprawl?

Ben Holland (43m 1s):
And there just hadn’t been anything incorporated into that bill. So that’s a pretty tough challenge I think.

Zack Subin (43m 9s):
I think in California we’ve kind of done the opposite. We’ve been moderately effective compared to a lot of the country at preventing sprawl. Obviously we, we, you know, we are still sprawling. We did build a lot in the wild lit urban interface, but if anything, we’ve been kinda a victim of our success in preserving a lot of open space, you know, around the Bay area without tackling the other side of the equation to build enough infill in cities. And so that just shows up as a housing shortage and, and unaffordable housing. So you have to, you have to do both.

Jeff Wood (43m 42s):
Yeah, and I’d point people to listen back to an episode we did recently with Paul Derna about basically pricing the priceless and thinking about how much those spaces that we want to keep wild, actually, how much value they create for us, which is trillions and trillions of dollars, even more than real estate, but we just don’t price it correctly because we don’t understand the value or we don’t figure out like what it does for us in terms of cleaning our air and those types of things. So there’s a whole discussion about that too that I think is really fascinating and I hope folks will go back and listen to that one if they haven’t already. Well now that you’re at the Turner Center, is there anything you missed from your R m I days?

Zack Subin (44m 17s):
Well, I’ve worked with some really tremendous folks in terms of content, however, there was a really interesting session at our retreat in April called Solar Farms and sage grouse. So you may be hearing a lot, lot of debate these days about specific sites to build renewables and the idea of that session was we kind of need a both and we need the solar panels and we need to save the sage grouse. You know, the managing director Rashad Nava was, was kind of the brains behind the session. And you know, the, there’s a lot of questions there about tensions in the environmental community about building out this, this new energy system. Some of them are maybe more the NIMBY end of the spectrum.

Zack Subin (44m 60s):
Some of them are real legitimate concerns that we need to plan around. But the important thing is the whole scale of the challenge is set by how much energy we use. So it brings us back to the need for these kind of systemic efficiency approaches like compact land use, even again, assuming that all all of our vehicles and buildings are gonna be electrified and all of our power is gonna be coming from wind and solar. You know, if we can get someone to the store on an e-bike rather than a 3000 pound vehicle, that’s that much less land that we’re gonna have to fight over that we need to build a solar farm on, right?

Zack Subin (45m 43s):
And it’s that much less lithium that we’re gonna need to identify a geopolitically socially environmentally acceptable way to mine. Right? There’s, you know, there’s not a limit really in terms of the, the physical lithium available. It’s a, it’s a limit in terms of what we can access solving for those constraints as quickly as we need to. And there was a really interesting study from folks affiliated with the University of California Davis earlier this spring that asked how much lithium are we gonna need to electrify the US Transportation system? And they had kind of a worst case ranging to a best case.

Zack Subin (46m 25s):
So the worst case is, you know, we continue with suburban sprawl and everyone has SUVs and we don’t recycle our batteries. And the best case is we, we do this compact development that, that we, you know, like to do or the listeners on of your show might like to do. And we right-size vehicles more to international standards. So, you know, bringing back some sedans and, and some, some smaller vehicles and we do all the battery recycling and that actually span at a factor of 10 and how much lithium we need, right? So we’re not talking about are we going to electrify the vehicles or not, we need to electrify the vehicles, but we could use 10 times more lithium if we do it sort of the, the hard way, which is our business as usual approach as opposed to putting all these systems efficiency approaches together.

Zack Subin (47m 18s):

Jeff Wood (47m 18s):
That’s a good point. And it’s interesting because some of the executives from some of these big car companies are starting to like think that way too because they’re like, oh my god, it’s so expensive and hard to get this stuff, why can’t you people just now we sold you these vehicles forever and now we wanna sell you smaller ones because it’s gonna cost us so much money to build these stupid vehicles, the Hummer H two and the Cadillac Escalade and all those stupid vehicles that we build now, which is really funny because like they dug their own grave to a certain extent in that, in that respect. So what, what’s next for you all? What’s the next rung on the ladder that you need to climb to get us to where we need to be?

Ben Holland (47m 53s):
So on our end, a couple things I’m really excited about. We recently were very fortunate to receive a, a grant from the US Department of Transportation for their Thriving Communities program. That’s essentially a program that’s aiming to provide capacity building support and technical assistance to disadvantaged communities around the US as they attempt to fund and execute Transportation and land use projects. So we’ll be working with 15 communities around the us. There are also, I should mention there are three other teams that have slightly different focus within that program, but we’ll be working on that for the next two years. We’re also getting ready to ramp up, as I mentioned earlier, some work dedicated to sort of influencing state Transportation decision making.

Ben Holland (48m 36s):
So I think that’s gonna keep us busy for a while. You know, for a while we were like struggling to get sort of external buy-in and around sort of urbanism related Transportation climate solutions. I’m starting, I think that conversation’s starting to change and you’re starting to see a lot more interest in land use Reform from a climate perspective and in mode shift once again and V M T reduction. So very excited about the future there.

Zack Subin (48m 58s):
Yeah, so I should introduce what the Turner Center is to folks who may not be familiar with it. So it’s a housing research center at the University of California Berkeley that provides practical research. So we’re trying to change policy, not just have things sit on a shelf in a, in a journal somewhere. Our focuses include expanding housing supply, you know, while supporting affordability, equity, and environmental goals. We have a homelessness research area and my job is, is going to be to help build out a, a climate research area. I only started four weeks ago, so there’s still still a lot to be determined. And I think climate and housing is pretty broad, you know, it, it encompasses, you know, reducing Emissions, climate mitigation as well as climate resilience.

Zack Subin (49m 47s):
You know, how do you protect people from wildfires and, and all those types of questions. So I’m still figuring out specific focuses. The one that I mentioned, I, I am definitely excited about that question of being able to show or being able to figure out how we can build missing middle housing, mid-scale housing while still having clear climate benefits. And I would invite your listeners, if you have ideas of interesting housing and climate research questions to let me know and maybe I can add to my, my short list.

Jeff Wood (50m 18s):
Where, where should they send them?

Zack Subin (50m 21s):
That’s a good question. I believe my email is on our website, Turner center.berkeley.edu.

Jeff Wood (50m 30s):
Awesome. And Ben, where can folks find you and, and find the report if they want to get a copy or check it out?

Ben Holland (50m 36s):
RM i.org. My email’s be Holland at rm i.org. I’m also on Twitter at Ben in Boulder.

Jeff Wood (50m 41s):
Awesome. Well thank you all for joining us. We really, really appreciate your time.

Ben Holland
Thank you

Zack Subin (50m 46s):
Thank, you so much. This was a great conversation

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