SCTLC and Climate Change

by Jack Swearingen

Transportation and Land Use in Sonoma County, California: what’s the connection to climate change? Practically everything. These three issues are joined at the hip—along with a few others such as housing, air and water pollution, runoff, open spaces, endangered species, energy use, and even social issues like road rage.

But individual contributions to these problems are insignificant, and individuals can’t affect the global picture—Right?

Wrong. Environmental impacts on a global scale are the summation of contributions from seven billion people living their individual lives. SCTLC operates on the principle that individuals can make a difference. We can drive less, use public transit, carpooling, and ride sharing, consume less, and teach our neighbors how to do so. We can influence public policy makers by writing letters, making phone calls, and giving public testimony at City Councils, the Board of Supervisors, and any number of topical meetings.

Individuals can multiply their influence by working with advocacy groups such as SCTLC, Sierra Club, Green Belt Alliance, North Bay Organizing Project, Transportation for America, TransForm,etc.

Members of industrialized societies like North America, Europe, China, Japan, Korea, and India consume the great majority of energy and materials, and contribute the great majority of waste into the biosphere (air, water, and land).

In Sonoma County we don’t generate electricity from fossil fuels and we have very little heavy industry. But we heat our homes and businesses with natural gas, light them and cool them with electricity, and discard tons of plastic—some of it on roadsides. Nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gases in SoCo come from vehicle tailpipes.

How is transportation connected to land use? Because they are 2-dimensional, roads provide access to all land that is paveable. And our system of development allows subdivisions to be built far from urban centers and services, requiring new roads must be built and more vehicle miles to be driven. Unfortunately it falls to the County to maintain the roadways — and in Sonoma County we have built far, far more road miles than we have the funds to maintain.

And while we are on the topic, pavement changes the albedo of the land, absorbing more infrared light from the sun and increasing surface temperature. And because pavement is impervious, oil drips collect on the surface and run off into the shoulders with the rains. This is not a trivial problem; it is big enough to pollute the soil. To prove this point to him/her self, reader might wish to do their own calculation. Estimate the number of vehicle miles traveled, the number of drips per vehicle-mile, the size of each drip, and see what you come up with. My guess is that you will be startled.

Conversely, trains are 1-dimensional; they promote transit-oriented development near stations. And the ballast on the right-of-way is permeable; rainwater percolates instead of running off. As a contingent benefit, rail transit stimulates economic development more than buses because it is permanent. Investors can anticipate a long-term future near transit stops.

And then we come to energy. Fossil-fueled vehicles with solo drivers of are the most energy consumptive form of transportation out there. Yet this represents the lion’s share of transportation in our county, in the State, and in the U.S. Electric vehicles (EVs) can reduce the use of fossil fuels, but they won’t reduce congestion, sprawl, or land use. Thus far the impact of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft has been to increase congestion in urban areas.

Buses consume less fuel per passenger-mile than autos when they are full; but until the public shifts from autos to buses in significant numbers, no real gain is manifest. And buses are subject to the very traffic congestion that they are intended to reduce.

Steel wheel on steel rail is the most efficient form of transportation that we have. But getting from home to station to work and return is the obstacle. If people would leave their autos at home and ride the bus to the train, the net result would be more buses, more trains, fewer autos, less congestion, reduced emissions, and—shall I say it?—less road rage.

Transportation, energy consumption, land use, pollution, smog, climate change (read anthropogenic global warming): these issues are joined at the hip. Amazingly, the solution to one is a solution to all. It begins with our willingness to be inconvenienced slightly for the sake of the planet and the creatures that live upon it.