California's Bold STEP Toward Sustainable Mobility

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by: Joel Makower

For all the recent attention being given to alternative-fueled vehicles — the Prius, Tesla, Volt, and all the rest — very little has been given to the larger system of mobility in which such vehicles must operate. What is the role of engineers, planners, architects, designers, and others in creating more sustainable transportation systems, not just greener vehicles? After all, if we're commuting long distances or are stuck in endless traffic jams, even the cleanest cars won't help us much.

I addressed some of these questions earlier this month at a panel I moderated at a conference on Designing Sustainable Mobility at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. My panel focused on "creating new business models and incentives that drive innovation in sustainability," as the program put it, and included innovative thinkers on both the design of cars, but also the larger communities in which they must drive and thrive. It was an engaging hour, to say the least.

One subject we didn't adequately cover is the role of policymakers in encouraging and supporting sustainable transportation systems. After all, we've seen how federal and state policies can be a drag on clean-tech innovation through perverse incentives that discourage energy efficiency and clean-energy generation. What would a policy framework promoting sustainable mobility need to look like?

As it has in so many other things green, California is leading the way, in the form of a little-noticed study published recently by a little-known group called the California Secure Transportation Energy Partnership, or CalSTEP.

The group — a diverse partnership of industry, government, academic and nonprofit leaders, from automakers to conservation groups, including former Secretary of State George Shultz — was convened by CALSTART, an independent group of companies and agencies "dedicated to expanding and supporting a high-tech transportation industry that cleans the air, creates jobs, and improves energy efficiency."

CALSTART created CalSTEP after two state agencies, the California Energy Commission and the Air Resources Board, set strong goals for petroleum reduction in the state but didn't necessarily provide guidance on how to get there, John Boesel, CALSTART's CEO, told me recently. An action plan was needed. The goal, he said, was to "create a framework under which the private sector can thrive."

The resulting 80-page plan (Download – PDF) targets three key areas where the state can take action to secure its energy future: increasing vehicle efficiency; diversifying the state's fuel supply; and reducing the overall need to drive. It offers ten key "action recommendations" to achieve the overall goals of reducing petroleum use by 15 percent and increasing alternative fuel use to 20 percent. It's the most comprehensive and best-thought-through plan I've seen on how government and the private sector can work synergistically to promote clean technology while creating jobs and a cleaner environment.

At its core are three principal actions that represent the bulk of the benefits in terms of reducing petroleum use and cutting global warming emissions. They also represent a blueprint every state should consider to support the growth of local clean and green technologies.

  • Alternative Fuel Portfolio Standard (AFPS) – a market-based approach for increasing alternative fuel use through fuel blending, dedicated use, and/or credit trading. Goals would be 10% alternative fuels by 2012 and 20% by 2020.


  • Smart Communities – a program to spark more transportation energy efficient community design and development that sets goals for reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 10% by 2020 in California's urban regions and rewards communities who achieve who this goal.


  • Energy Security Tax Relief and Realignment (ESTRR) – a program to help protect Californians and investors against foreign oil price volatility and gaming that would use a revenue-neutral foreign oil security fee coupled with a rebate to all taxpayers to encourage the long-term production of and investment in efficient vehicle technologies.
  • Suffice to say, it's a big improvement over simply advocating an ambitious and doubtful Hydrogen Highway.

    I asked Boesel if the final plan represented everything he would have hoped. "We'd like to have seen more done to encourage efficiency within the automotive sector," he responded. "However, that is really the purview of the federal government. The Alternative Fuel Portfolio Standard, which is very similar to the Governor [Schwarzenegger]'s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, is a key new policy that should really have an impact. We're also seeing climate change and energy security as two new drivers that may help advance the smart-growth agenda. Much can be done with the vehicles and fuels, but all of the partners agreed that we need more land-use planning and transit policies that reduce the use of oil."

    Ah, yes: land-use planning and transit policies — the overlooked stepchild of most green transportation plans. They seem too often to slip between the cracks: the oil and automobile companies never seem to talk about them, and they are rarely discussed by policymakers or environmentalists as cures for our "addiction to oil." And yet there is no end of smart policies to consider. (You can find a great list of them here.)

    For now, the CalSTEP action plan is the best thing going — a comprehensive set of actions for getting sustainable transportation going in the right direction.

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