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Combating Climate Change in the Capital of Car Culture: Part 2

Contributed by Varun Sivaram, Ph.D., Senior Advisor on Energy and Water Policy, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 2012-2013.

The Unifying Theme: Electrification

Like most cities, L.A. is largely divided between two energy systems, for stationary and mobile applications. Utilities provide power and heat for homes and businesses (stationary), while oil companies provide gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks (mobile). However, L.A. is relatively unique in that it controls its own power utility (DWP)—therefore, L.A. can exert far more control over its transportation emissions if it successfully electrifies the sector, bridging stationary and mobile energy.[1]

L.A. has the most policy success when it plays to its strengths. For example, Mayor Villaraigosa's signature Clean Trucks program leveraged L.A.'s authority over its Port to dramatically reduce diesel emissions from heavy trucks. Similarly, L.A. is rapidly adopting a more sustainable electricity supply and could compound the emissions savings if more cars and trucks plugged into the DWP grid, and if Angelenos used electrically-powered public rail transit.

While electric trains are an extremely efficient mode of transportation, adoption of electric vehicles elsewhere in the US will only mean marginal reductions in emissions.[2] In over half the nation, high electricity grid emissions mean that electric vehicles will get an equivalent fuel mileage between 30 and 50 m.p.g.; so one might ask the purpose of electrification if, by 2020, federal mandates mean that gasoline-powered cars will have to achieve 35 m.p.g. anyway. In 2005, when L.A. received half its power from coal – much like the rest of the US – electric vehicles were not a compelling proposition. Now as DWP's emissions track those of California, a gasoline-powered vehicle must achieve 79 m.p.g. to match the low emissions of an EV in L.A.; conversely, an EV in Denver has the same greenhouse gas emissions as the 33 m.p.g. Mazda 3.[3]   L.A. needs to seize this opportunity to merge its stationary and mobile sectors to squeeze out oil.

Friendly Competition – A Race to the Top

Competition between cities is integral to the success of the C40 coalition of global cities committed to fighting climate change, and L.A. has earned the right to show off its environmental progress. But it is worthwhile to listen to the boasts of other cities as well, especially if L.A. hopes to avoid their pitfalls.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, LA can sample from an extensive menu of initiatives pioneered from Singapore to Stockholm; adapting any or all of the following three examples of sustainable transportation policy to LA’s context could accelerate our exit from oil.

Congestion Charging—Singapore, London, Stockholm

The most straightforward solution to LA’s notorious traffic is a policy that charges drivers who use the busiest roads, thereby internalizing the externalities of congestion and pollution in individual decision-making. Fortunately, there are several successful examples of such programs around the world which offer proven technologies and insights should LA choose to expand its nascent congestion toll initiative.

In 1975, Singapore first demonstrated that congestion charging could dramatically reduce vehicle density in central urban areas, increase public transit ridership, and fundamentally alter the public transportation culture.[4] In 2003, London followed suit, inaugurating the largest congestion charging scheme in the world; today, the policy has reduced aggregate VMT by 10 percent in the face of a 13 percent increase in population. The most definitive proof of congestion charging benefits came from Stockholm, which implemented a six-month trial policy that saw traffic volumes decrease by 20 percent and rebound after the trial ended—by then, 70 percent of voters supported the policy, up from 30 percent before the trial.[5]

These three programs all charge drivers for crossing a cordon delineating a central urban zone, though they differ on the enforcement technology.[6] Singapore and Stockholm require cars to carry transponders which interact with sensors on the cordon, whereas London employs automatic license plate recognition, which is more expensive for the City but easier on drivers.

LA’s urban geography is less conducive to a cordon-based approach because of its dispersed layout—to successfully deploy congestion charging, LA would have to customize its own scheme, perhaps opting for multiple cordons around commercial centers or charging per-mile tolls on congested arteries between city centers.  However, the experience of three successful programs around the world eliminates a lot of the heavy lifting. LA can choose between Singapore’s transponder system or London’s automated cameras to minimize cost and intrusiveness as it sees fit. It can confidently design the scheme using traffic modeling software which accurately predicted the effect of congestion charging in Stockholm.[7] And it can aim to reproduce the public support, funds for public transit, and emissions reduction that resulted in all three previous projects.

Transit-Oriented Development in Portland

Portland, Oregon is also a smaller city than L.A., but its transit system is similarly sized and was built around the same time. Learning from Portland's success with dense, sustainable land use policies based on its transit system can guide L.A.'s planning strategy as it expands its own transit infrastructure.

Thanks to a 1970 Oregon state law, Portland is encircled by an “urban growth boundary,” which restricts development and prevents sprawl. Moreover, a 1991 state planning rule requires urban development to outpace VMT growth; this naturally encourages public transit. So between 1996 and 2006, while the population increased 27 percent, VMT only grew 19 percent and transit ridership shot up 46 percent.

The City's planning policies encourage denser development around transit stations and minimize vehicle traffic through a variety of mechanisms, including capping parking spots.  Contrary to popular opinion that if you don’t building parking, they won’t come, the Pearl District downtown has enjoyed $3.4 billion in residential and commercial development since opening in 2001.[8] As a result, Portland residents travel 20 percent less distance, are twice as likely to take public transit to work, and seven times more likely to bike to work than the average US metropolitan resident.

L.A. has a preponderance of residential areas around stations, whereas Portland's stations are in much more mixed areas. Recall that L.A.'s unique urban geography is polycentric, and residents rarely live near where they work. Achieving Portland's transit-oriented development outcomes will require encouraging mixed development to flourish around the transit network, to both reduce trip lengths and make public transit the most convenient option. Moreover, adopting policies similar to Portland's anti-sprawl measures may be politically challenging but absolutely necessary in order to fully realize the benefits of transit expansion. Some critics argue that constraining the supply of urban land for development will raise housing prices to the detriment of low-income residents, but the data speaks otherwise, presenting no statistically significant correlation between Portland’s urban growth boundary and higher housing prices.[9]

Fee-bates: From France to California

Throughout this report, we have alluded to state policies that advanced urban sustainability. California's smog reduction measures and Oregon's urban growth boundaries set a framework within which L.A. and Portland could reduce their emissions. In addition to pursuing policies bounded by city limits, cities can lead by example, and we conclude with a proposal for an L.A. pilot of a statewide policy for California that could actually move the market toward advanced vehicle adoption, complementing L.A.'s local EV infrastructure.

In 2007, France introduced its “Malus-Bonus” initiative, which either imposed a fee for cars below a certain fuel efficiency or disbursed a rebate for cars better than the standard; the fee or rebate—hence “feebate”—was stepwise proportional to the fuel efficiency. So the higher (lower) the fuel efficiency, the higher the rebate (fee). The French model was wildly successful in greenhouse gas mitigation and played a large part in driving down emissions 11 percent to the lowest levels in the European Union; simultaneously, car sales climbed to their highest level since 1990. However, the program was expensive, ultimately paying out $1.2 billion by 2011 (during the same time France was dealing with the long-term economic recession), causing the French government to scale back the rebates.[10]

California dispatched a working group to study the feebate concept in 2010, when the future of the state's vehicle emission standards was in question.[11] However, even though those standards have been upheld in court, feebates are a complementary, not conflicting, policy. Between its Low Carbon Fuel Standard and emission benchmarks, California requires oil companies and automakers to minimize emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles. However, a feebate goes further than a standard, offering an even higher rebate for zero emission vehicles like EVs and consolidating incentives and fees into an elegant variable rate structure.[a] By more carefully choosing the pricing scheme and offering different schemes for large and small cars, California can avoid France's pitfalls and design a revenue neutral feebate that does not hamper consumer choice.[12]

The City of L.A. should lead all of Los Angeles County in implementing an informative pilot for a statewide feebate program. Indeed a healthy competition between Southern and Northern California could help build political support statewide (so far, legislators are lukewarm); the Bay Area already has plans for a “Clean Vehicles Feebate Program.”[13] By speeding the transition to electric vehicles and bridging stationary and mobile energy, a feebate would help L.A. play to its strengths.

The Los Angeles of Tomorrow: A Transit Leader?

L.A. has made substantial progress toward curbing emissions in the transportation sector by regulating dirty trucks, alleviating traffic, supporting electric vehicles, and investing heavily in tomorrow's public transit. In doing so, L.A. has earned its place as an international environmental leader-now it needs to leverage insights from around the world to complete its transportation overhaul.  L.A. should double down on congestion pricing and transit oriented development, and California can help speed electrification of the passenger vehicle with the right incentives. While careful measurement and in-depth planning are essential, it is down to L.A.'s policymakers to confront climate change with bold action.

Because once Angelenos glimpse their new city, they won't want the old one back.

Opinion: Make Carbon Reductions the Goal

Through its innovative approaches to relieving traffic and enhancing clean transportation options, L.A. has made demonstrable progress toward curbing climate pollution from its transportation sector. The city’s diverse transportation policy framework is nearing the end of its first decade in operation, making it possible to take a step back and collect lessons learned – and ensure that future activities aim even more ambitiously at ending dependence on fossil fuels.

While it’s important to measure the impact of any activity, measurement often lacks context -- and can imply progress toward a goal that wasn’t necessarily the intended outcome. The challenge of measuring the impact of transportation options is compounded by the fact that, historically, different transportation strategies have been measured in different ways: is it important to reduce vehicle miles travelled, or VMTs? Is vehicle fuel efficiency the best yardstick? Are figures for public transit use, by themselves, meaningful?

Moving forward, policies in public transit, traffic mitigation, and EV adoption should all be assessed using one common metric: The percentage reduction of citywide transportation sector emissions. Without a common standard, and careful and consistent measurement, L.A.'s transportation investments will turn into an incoherent policy potpourri.

VMT measurements in particular are problematic. For example, Metro's projected annual VMT reduction of 208 million miles is like taking all the cars in  L.A. County off the road for one day; this would be an underwhelming result for  L.A. County's extensive transit investments.[15] However, this estimate is likely conservative because Metro does not consider the higher land use density that surrounds transit lines and further reduces car travel.  Instead, it estimates its VMT displacement figures could more than triple if it were to consider land use.[16] Indeed, denser development can impact the electricity sector as well, increasing energy efficiency.[17] Only by developing a robust methodology to quantify benefits from land use and partition them among emission sources can we determine the full climate impact of these policies.



About the Author: Varun Sivaram was the Senior Advisor on Energy and Water Policy to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from 2012-2013. A Rhodes Scholar, he received his doctorate in Physics from Oxford University and currently serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Urbanization.


[a] In fact, feebates and vehicle fuel efficiency standards (e.g., federal CAFE standards) can be shown to be mathematically equivalent. For example, a linear feebate with an appropriate pivot point is equivalent to a fuel efficiency standard with no credit trading across manufacturer fleets. However, in practice the feebate is a more dynamically responsive policy; e.g., banking and borrowing of credits is required to make a fuel standards temporally equivalent to a feebate outside of steady-state conditions.


[1] Woodrow W. Clark II and Henrik Lund. “Integrated technologies for sustainable stationary and mobile energy infrastructures". Utilities Policy. 16:2 (2008).

[2] Don Anair and Amine Mahmassani. “State of Charge: Electric Vehicles' Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-Cost Savings across the United States. Union of Concerned Scientists.” (2012). vehicles/electric-car-global-warming-emissions-report.pdf.

[3] Paul Stenquist. “How Green are Electric Cars? Depends Where You Plug In.” Apr. 13 2012.

[4] Ed Pike. “Congestion Charging: Challenges and Opportunities.” International Council on Clean Transportation. (2010).

[5] Lena Winslott-Hiselius et al. The development of public attitudes towards the Stockholm congestion trial".

Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 43:3 (2009).

[6] “Lessons Learned from International Experience in Congestion Pricing.” US. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. (2013).

[7] Jonas Eliasson. “Lessons from the Stockholm congestion charging trial". Transport Policy. 15:6 (2008).

[8] Preston L. L. Schiller, Eric Bruun, and Jeffrey R. Kenworthy. “An Introduction to Sustainable Transportation: "Policy, Planning and Implementation.” Taylor and Francis, 2010.

[9] Myung-Jin Jun. “The Effects of Portland's Urban Growth Boundary on Housing Prices.” Journal of the American Planning Association. 72:2 (2006).

[10] Benoit Faucon. “French Give and Take". Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 2011.

[11] David Bunch and David Greene. “Potential Design, Implementation, and Benefits of a Feebate Program for New Passenger Vehicles in California.” California Air Resources Board. (2011).

[12] John German and Dan Meszler. Best Practices for Feebate Program Design and Implementation. International Council on Clean Transportation. (2010)

[13] “Draft Bay Area Plan: Environmental Impact Report.” Association of Bay Area Governments. (2013).

[14] Malcolm Dougherty. “2010 California Public Road Data.” California Department of Transportation, (2011).

[15] ICF International. “Moving Towards Sustainability: 2012 Metro Sustainability Report Using Operational Metrics.” Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. (2012).

[16] J. Norman, H. MacLean, and C. Kennedy. “Comparing High and Low Residential Density: Life-Cycle Analysis of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Journal of Urban Planning and Development. 132:1 (2006), pp. 10-21./(ASCE)


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