Climate, Meet Mobility

Copenhagen is all about green transport – and Austin should be, too

Climate, Meet Mobility

"Make Austin the leading city in the nation in the effort to reduce and reverse the negative impacts of global warming." – Austin City Council, 2007

During my recent climate-action study tour in Copenhagen, I was constantly scouting for good ideas to bring home to Austin. I saw plenty – community-owned wind turbines, a separated bicycle path network serving 150,000 commuters a day, corporate executives aggressively pursuing "green" business profits. But most striking was the simple fact that Copen­hag­eners have embedded climate action as a value into everyday life. They live in small homes, get around by bicycle or in tiny cars, and have reduced their carbon footprints – and seem darn happy about it. Leading the world by example on climate action clearly has become a source of Danish national pride. It's now central to the wealthy nation's strong "green growth" economy. One of the few Danish words I learned to recognize was klima (climate), because I saw it everywhere: on bill­board advertising, in my hotel's energy-conserving policies, in the local newspapers.

Exploring the city Oct. 9 during Kulturnatten ("Night of Culture") – a huge cultural festival rather like Austin's First Night, held at 200 cultural institutions that brought many thousands of revelers into the streets – I saw klima referenced in an exhibit on electric cars, an entrancing art installation inspired by melting glacial ice, an enormous orange inflated ball, taller than a house, illustrating the volume of one ton of greenhouse-gas emissions. Europeans are having fun with this stuff. What I noticed was that in European Union nations, global warming isn't treated as cause for despair; rather, they have embraced aggressive reduction goals as a unifying challenge, an opportunity to create a better world. And it's a game-changing opportunity to surpass the head-in-the-sand U.S. as the 21st century's economic, moral, and political world leader.

A Core Value

I asked staff members at Climate Consortium Denmark, a private-public group created to maximize economic opportunities on climate action, if Copenhageners had always embraced klima. No, I was told; Denmark has long been environmentally progressive, but the mass culture shift in embracing klima has occurred largely in the past five to seven years. So perhaps it could happen that fast in Austin – or even faster, with the help of a federal climate bill. Austin has had its ambitious Austin Climate Protection Plan in place since February 2007. When City Council passed it, the big vision was to usher in a new era. Austinites collectively would walk the walk "to make Austin the leading city in the nation in the effort to reduce and reverse the negative impacts of global warming." Shrinking our collective carbon footprint would become a core value, informing everything we do, every priority we set.

What would it be like to live in a city like that? I don't really know yet. But I got a taste during my week in Copenhagen – and it felt exciting, cutting-edge. For comparison: Texas is home to nearly 25 million people, Denmark about 5.4 million. Austin has nearly 783,000 residents, Copenhagen nearly 520,000. Denmark began shifting away from petroleum and foreign oil dependency in the early 1970s and never looked back. Yet since then it's experienced strong economic growth – its gross national product is up 75%.

To date, Austin's resolution to aggressively lead the nation on climate action – to be No. 1 in such a bold, bright, committed fashion that we pave the way for all of Texas and for other U.S. cities to reduce their own greenhouse-gas emissions – has gone unfulfilled. We're probably in the Top 20 cities; numerous initiatives are under way, from both the municipality and Austin Energy. But Austinites collectively have not yet embraced climate action as a part of our city's special identity. In part, that's because the Austin Climate Protection Program, led by Director Ester Matthews, has failed to implement the council's initial mandate to institute a strong, effective, communitywide education campaign and plan. (I hear a launch is in progress ... as I've heard for two years now.)

Similarly, while elected officials tasked the city manager and staff with "establishing short-term and long-term targets for reducing these [communitywide] emissions, and reporting back to the City Council in no more than one year with a comprehensive plan for meeting those targets," we still lack communitywide targets of any kind. So far, the mayor, council members, city manager, and Austin Energy executives have acknowledged the failure – but let it slide. ACPP staff haven't even been required to report on how our climate action compares to that of other cities nationwide – so how would council know if we're "the leading city" or No. 17? Two and a half years have passed, and, well, Austin ain't Copenhagen.

Transportation Referendum

But in response to questions for this article, Mayor Lee Leffingwell – who cites global warming as the most important issue of our time – relayed that he and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez are now in the process of calling for a council review of the Austin Climate Protection Pro­gram. A staff presentation to council is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10. Leffingwell and Martinez also are seeking "a morein-depth Council dialogue aboutACPP's progress" at a special-called work session to follow, reports mayoral aide Amy Everhart.

Council will appraise how well ACPP staffers – who actually work at Austin Energy – have fulfilled council's policy intent. That's been sorely needed for a while, given the weaknesses evident in the nine-person program, which has enjoyed an annual budget of nearly $1 million (from Austin Energy funds) with little accountability for results. (See "Not So Cool," June 19.) It's especially timely now, as two major component plans – the Austin Energy Generation Plan and a new $1 million Strategic Mobility Plan – go forward. The original council resolution and plan specifically called for transportation and land-use planning provisions within a comprehensive plan, but it had no details; again, staffers were directed to come back within one year with recommended goals. That never happened. Leffingwell also has called for a transportation bond election in November 2010; in his State of Downtown Address hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance Oct. 28, he said he remains "cautiously optimistic" that it will occur and include an urban rail circulator.

Among other weaknesses, this year's ACPP report failed to include any mention of the Transportation Department or its work. The report would have benefited from the inclusion of a 2009-2010 work plan addressing the task of providing carbon-dioxide-reduction goals for the Strategic Mobility Plan, the Austin Urban Rail Project, the Bicycle Master Plan, and other initiatives. (Matthews said this week that her group will work on transportation demand managementover the coming year. She joined Capital Metro and Texas Department of Transportation staff recently at a Chicago conference on the topic.) What the 2009 report did say is that transportation produced about 40% of Travis County's 2007 total greenhouse-gas emissions – 6,305,748 metric tons out of our overall 14,953,558 (1 metric ton = 1.1023 U.S. tons). Some 85% of the transportation total is from cars and trucks. Matthews notes that since the report was published in the spring of this year, "the total emissions inventory went up to 15,681,465 [metric tons],due toadditional information providedby landfill operators."

Copenhagen's multimodal mix: Transit, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians each get a lane.
Copenhagen's multimodal mix: Transit, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians each get a lane. (Photo by Katherine Gregor)

Aware that transportation emissions are a huge part of the problem, the new city Transportation Department is making sustainability central to its mission. "We know emphatically we need to do more to move away from the model of single-occupant vehicles – and the way to do that is to provide alternatives," said Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar recently. "Focusing on 'sustainability' and greenhouse-gas emissions is no longer an option for any transportation organization – it is a vital consideration in our review process. Sustainability is a key component of the Strategic Mobility Plan." That's great to hear. But one caveat: "Sustainability" means different things in different contexts and to different people. Sometimes it's just a buzz word that politicians and others can safely support while not being accountable to any particular results. As the truism goes: It's what gets measured that gets managed. If the city is serious about reducing regional greenhouse-gas emissions, it must set hard targets for reducing CO2 emissions from the transportation sector – as promised in the original council resolution.

Of course, the city of Austin can't go it alone. City Manager Marc Ott frames the challenge: "You and I both know the problem doesn't recognize any borders; what we've got to accomplish is a regional strategy. The ultimate vision can't just be the city of Austin's – it's going to require new and innovative partnerships." That's as true for air quality, he emphasized, as it is for climate action: "It's important that we tackle this in a regional context, to be sure we all come together cooperatively and aren't working at cross purposes." He's exploring how to do that, he said, and hopes Austin can lead in the effort.

Announcing new transportation-sector goals for the Austin Climate Protection Program certainly could light a fire under that regional dialogue. At Austin Energy, staffers report hard numbers on the tons of greenhouse gases that specific clean-energy initiatives yield. (From October 2007 through September 2008, the amount of power plant greenhouse-gas emissions that were avoided – due to the utility's demand-reduction measures to reduce electricity use – totaled 85,500 tons.) The Austin Water Utility also tracks greenhouse-gas emission numbers; for example, it reported during the Water Treat­ment Plant No. 4 debate that a new modern plant built on higher ground, with larger transmission lines, would reduce the utility's overall greenhouse-gas emissions by 13.5% (not counting the emissions involved in the construction itself). So we should be fully able to develop hard greenhouse-gas targets and annual reporting that are tied to investments in multimodal transportation, too. In fact, if and when a climate bill passes, the feds will be requiring us to do so. To provide direction, what Austin needs now is a clear green-trans­portation policy.

Green Growth, Sans SUVs

The Centre for Green Transport in Copen­hagen started up in February in order to implement a new Green Transport Policy the Danish government finalized in January, with the endorsement of all major political parties (Denmark has about 10). The center's charge is researching, planning, and developing initiatives to reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector (as they call it). Its budget is about $57 million spread over four years. It's housed within Denmark's Road Safety and Transport Agency – not at the Ministry of Climate and Energy, which we also visited. Lars Barfoed, the minister for transport, sees it as a knowledge-based tool for promoting the agency's desired "green growth society."

In Denmark, the transport sector accounts for about 25% of total CO2 emissions; in the U.S., it's closer to one-third. (Of course, Denmark's overall emissions are a sliver of U.S. totals, and the country's citizens have already done many of the most obvious things – like not driving Suburbans.) Even in greenhouse-gas-hip Denmark, a climate-action plan for transportation has trailed decisive action on clean energy, which speaks to its political and interjurisdictional complexities. When I visited, staff at the Centre for Green Transport were rather vague on the plan, explaining that they're still in start-up mode and that specific targets for greenhouse-gas reductions have yet to be established.

What caught my ear were the government's stated goals for green transport – an articulation that hasn't quite coalesced at the city of Austin, from elected officials, the Transportation Department, or the ACPP office. Since the Danes are ahead of us but have similar green growth aspirations, why not review their policy as a starting draft for Central Texas and Aus­tin? Like us, they emphasize that the same solutions can slay three dragons at once: traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate pollution. But their call to action is more stirring and the tie-in to climate action more explicit than anything I've seen in Central Texas. Here's an excerpt from the underlying Decem­ber 2008 report "Sustainable Transport – Bet­ter Infrastructure": "The Government intends to take Denmark's transport policy in a green direction, without sacrificing our world class infrastructure. This is a major undertaking. This is a necessary undertaking. And it is an undertaking which requires us to rethink our transport policy." Could we imagine such rhetoric in an election mailer for the November 2010 transportation bond package?

Here's another passage, which sounds darn Austin-y: "The strategy we adopt for developing the traffic of the future depends on which type of society we want. The Government wants a society in which we combine economic growth and high mobility with a better environment, higher priority for and better preservation of nature, reduced traffic noise and measures to combat climate change. It is an ambitious target, and the transport policy is crucial to its success."

How to hit the target? Financial tools are a big part of the new Green Transport Policy. A new system of "intelligent road pricing and charges" is under negotiation, to further discourage driving and alter patterns of vehicular use. (Charging for road use is also the principle behind toll roads, of course, but these charges will be part of a holistic plan designed to reduce driving altogether, especially in congested urban areas.) At the same time, Denmark has committed to a "massive investment in public transport," confident that "green taxes will encourage more and more people to opt for public transport instead of the car."

Denmark already imposes hefty "green taxes" on car purchases and ownership; it's now moving to a sliding scale that rewards buying the most energy-efficient vehicles, preferably electric. Virtually all the cars I saw in Copenhagen were small, not "petrol-guzzlers" – many were cute-as-a-bug models not sold here. (The 55% of resident Copenhageners who commute to work daily on bicycles are not pedaling just out of the goodness of their hearts, by the way; Denmark imposes a 180% tax on car purchases, plus a hefty annual ownership fee, and gas costs about $2 per liter.) The Danes don't seem to mind paying more green taxes, so long as the government provides new high-speed intercity trains, subway lines, additional bike lanes, and other improvements.

They'll keep driving, as well. (Joining us one day on the study tour were representatives from Detroit and Michigan, desperately seeking new ideas for their economies.) New policies and funds are stimulating the demand for, and production of, electric cars. Truckers get a pot of earmarked funds to pay for modifications to make 18-wheelers more aerodynamic. In addition, the government will invest in new techno-­intelligent traffic systems to help traffic flow and make selected strategic investments in the roads that can most reduce congestion. Those moves are similar to elements within the Strategic Mobility Plan coming out of our Transportation Department.

Having enjoyed a nice economic bump from early wind-power innovation, the Danes now smell a moneymaker in green transport research and development. The report states: "The Government's vision is to make Denmark a green technologies testbed for transport. ... We must become an attractive country for trialling and implementing new transport technologies, including electrical and plug-in hybrid cars." Sounds like the Pecan Street Project on wheels.

Ahead of the Feds

An exhibition of 100 places to Remember Before They Disappear draws Copenhageners to see compelling  photos of places around the world threatened by climate change. See it online at <b><a href=></a></b>.
An exhibition of "100 places to Remember Before They Disappear" draws Copenhageners to see compelling photos of places around the world threatened by climate change. See it online at (Photo by Katherine Gregor)

If Austin's elected officials have been waiting for political cover to officially wed city transportation and climate policy, the Obama administration certainly is providing it. (Former Mayor Will Wynn said he always remained politically leery of linking rail transit to the Austin Climate Protection Program.) Under the draft climate bill, the feds will be requiring us to track greenhouse-gas emissions from the transportation sector over the coming decades. So Austin might as well get a head start – just as we're doing in anticipating a cap-and-trade system on the energy side. That could also help us obtain a chunk of increased federal funds for Austin Urban Rail and other clean-transportation projects.

Transportation for America ( is a national group championing strong clean-transportation provisions and funding in the federal climate bill that's now in the Senate. The group's celebratory Oct. 26 e-mailer said, "The authors of the Senate climate bill have agreed to include a higher, guaranteed level of funding for clean transportation options, such as public transportation, affordable neighborhoods around transit stops, vanpooling and streets safe for walking and biking." However, as the group previously noted, "The House bill directs only an optional one percent of the money it will raise toward clean transportation options" – even though the transportation sector might generate 20% of the revenues, and nearly one-third of U.S. CO2 emissions come from transportation. As Transportation for America puts it, "Ask your senators to do the math: you can't solve 30% of the problem with only 1% of the funding."

Which prompts the question in Austin: What percentage of our city transportation dollars should be targeted specifically to improvements designed to reduce driving and CO2 emissions? That's a key question for the November 2010 transportation bond election – whose components must be prioritized and assembled by next summer. (That's well before our full Strategic Mobility Plan will be completed.) Nationally, both the Boxer-Kerry bill and the Clean, Low-Emission, Affordable, New Transportation Efficiency Act (CLEAN-TEA, S. 575) would require the state of Texas and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organ­iz­a­tion to develop plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation. That should include housing and land-use planning tools as well, so people don't need to drive so often or so far. Transportation for America states that the climate bill requires "local governments to account for their transportation emissions and to make plans to keep their emissions under the targets they set for themselves." The CLEAN-TEA directive will apply to metropolitan planning organizations, which in turn must get data and plans from cities. So CAMPO's forthcoming 2035 plan also should set at least provisional targets for greenhouse-gas reductions. These targets can be a powerful tool for shifting policy but require hard numbers, not just liberal use of the terms "sustainable," "multimodal," and "trip reduction."

The increasing evidence of faster-than-predicted climate catastrophe and shifting federal landscape make it fully prudent for Austin to now begin setting greenhouse-gas caps, or at least emission-reduction targets, as part of our Strategic Mobility Plan. That should also help prioritize which projects are included in the 2010 transportation bond package. Of course, all of this context needs to be communicated to voters – on the back of a big postcard.

Strategic Mobility Planners

Will our new Strategic Mobility Plan in fact address these issues? That wasn't at all clear on Oct. 22, when the two teams vying for the job – Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants and Kimley-Horn and Associates – presented their proposals to City Council. Neither finalist mentioned climate protection in their allotted 10 minutes. Nor did council members ask about their experience structuring transportation/mobility plans to reduce carbon emissions. According to participants, questions from council would have been their only chance to address the issue; neither the request for qualifications nor the prior interviews by staff delved into the details of climate protection, beyond broad references to sustainability.

I raised concerns about this issue in a Newsdesk blog post ("Does Climate Pollution Not Count?," Oct. 23). Having just finished breakfast with Karl Rábago, who oversees the Austin Climate Protection Program, I had the ACPP's weaknesses on tackling transportation emissions fresh on my mind. Earlier that week, Rábago had presented at a public forum on Austin Energy's plan to increase renewable energy – what it's calling the Generation and Climate Protection Plan. (He opened with a pitch on the critical importance of including the public costs of "externalities" – such as air pollution, emphysema, traffic congestion, and drought – in pricing forecasts for traditional and renewable energy.) On the energy side, klima is now part of the name. So why aren't we hearing about a "Mobility and Climate Protection Plan" from the Transportation Department? (Maybe because rail transit goes to the voters, but solar farms and wind-energy purchases don't.)

On Oct. 30, staff released their recommended firm: Kimley-Horn and Associates. On Thurs­day, Nov. 5., council is posted for final selection and authorization of an agreement, for a fee of up to $1 million. Yet experience setting greenhouse-gas-reduction targets shows up nowhere in the selection criteria. I made my own quick review of prior plans provided by Kimley-Horn; I saw no evidence that it's helped cities or other clients establish greenhouse-gas-reduction targets for transportation plans. Climate action showed up only in broad comments like, "A commitment to reducing the region's carbon footprint is a motivating factor, too." The team's Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization transportation and land-use study, completed in September, parallel to CAMPO's 2035 plan, does compare greenhouse-gas emissions under three different development scenarios – but none is aggressive enough to significantly move the CO2 needle.

By contrast, the other finalist firm, Fehr & Peers, provided state-level and Caltrans plans done in California (under California's climate law, Senate Bill 375) in which aggressive reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions are a critical performance measure. (One plan is posted with this article online here.) California policy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from cars explicitly includes changing land-use patterns and improved transportation. The level of detail in these recommendations is the real stuff – impressive. The report states, "Since transportation is such a significant contributor of greenhouse gases, policies to improve the efficiency of the transportation system must be a central component of the solution." It also includes an informed discussion of "Climate Funding for Transportation Planning" and of advocacy needed at the federal level to ensure that transportation dollars achieve greenhouse-gas goals.

I don't know how strong a role Fehr & Peers had in this work, and I'm no expert on hiring a transportation planning consultant, but one might think a consultant's experience working in California, which already requires greenhouse-gas-reduction targets for the transportation sector, would be of obvious value for Austin – if indeed we intend to follow our own climate-action mandate. The city's failure to even evaluate such expertise as a selection criterion represents a huge missed opportunity.

As Spillar noted, it's implicit in the city's mobility planning that Austinites require more and better alternatives to getting around by car. The plan's stated purpose: "Identifying the transportation system gaps within the multi-modal network affecting Austin and surrounding areas and developing corridor level, sustainable long-range transportation plans to assure the continued economic and environmental success of Austin." (Emphasis added.) Yet climate protection isn't quite an explicit goal. Spillar responded to the blog post ("Spil­lar Responds on Carbon Foot­print," Oct. 23), saying that sustainability and multimodalism are indeed central to the planning effort: "The Strategic Mobility Plan is including a carbon footprint measure as part of our evaluation and ranking system for projects." Again, good news. Of course, how that measure is weighted will make all the difference.

In the end, the city's lack of an overarching sustainability vision linking all of its strategic plans, as they relate to climate protection, points to the need for a top-tier executive focused on the task. City Manager Ott said he's reached the same conclusion. He's launching a national search for a sustainability officer who can bring serious firepower to the job, and he hopes to fill the position within three to four months. "It's so important that it will be nothing less than an executive team position," Ott stated, and perhaps in time a department.

That made me reflect on a conversation with another administrator, Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard. During an interview in her office regarding the binding international climate agreement to be crafted in Copenhagen in December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, she offered advice to Texas and the U.S. "Govern­ment must say: 'This is how we'll do it,'" Hedegaard asserted. "Climate protection is not that controversial; remember the co-benefits for cleaner air and water. There's not just a cost to do things differently from business as usual. We must also look at the cost not to meet this challenge. What does Detroit think now of business as usual? Does the ordinary U.S. citizen realize how much the world is actually changing?"

See more photos here.

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