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Solve for X Competition Proposal

Cut US Commuting GHG 23% - A moonshot submission Google's Big Ideas Competition: Solve For X, Nov '12

1. Huge Problem: unserious GHG policymaking
The Worldwide 2035 Kyoto Accord GHG reduction target is half of 1990 emissions. This target requires large worldwide behavior change. Assuming half-hearted efforts, one recent study predicts 6M deaths per year from climate change by 2030, with increasing numbers from there. US political discussion is infantile, featuring:

  • Prescription of a no-change, "hot fudge sundae diet" to magically address the problem
  • Unrealistically hoping for the "dilithium crystal" (Star Trek's energy source), a new, clean, magical energy source without side-effects.

The US is the world leader in per capita energy consumption, with individual transportation being the most conspicuous offender. Hence, world leadership towards 2035 GHG targets requires US to implement serious transportation demand reduction policies. (For California, the Air Resources Board creates GHG reduction forecasts across all economic sectors, for multiple baskets of policies. There are no scenarios that meet 2035 reduction goals without transportation demand reduction).

European and Asian gas prices are roughly $8 per gallon. Per capita annual driving (vehicle miles traveled or VMT) is one-third less than the US. The influential US non-partisan climate-transportation policy analysis, The Moving Cooler Report, agrees that a phased-in $5 per gallon gas tax increase will reduce US transportation GHG by 28%. No one contests that raising the cost of driving decreases the amount of driving. Politically, neither political party will suggest even a $0.25 gas tax increase. This further reflects a lack of seriousness. The Moving Cooler Report shows that expected increases in fuel economy cannot meet Kyoto objectives but must be combined with driving reduction.

1B. "Feebate" definition

  • A system of charges and rebates whereby energy-efficient or environmentally friendly practices are rewarded while failure to adhere to such practices is penalized.
  • A self-financing system of fees and rebates that are used to shift the costs of externalities onto those market actors responsible.

2. Radical Solution: Workplace Parking Feebate: Reduce Commuting by 23%

This solution (feebate: SOV parking charges + commute alternative incentives) changes commute behavior at work sites with free parking. Single occupancy vehicle (SOV) commuters are charged each day they park at the workplace. Commuters using alternatives (transit, vanpool, carpool, bike, walk, telework) are provided financial incentives funded by the SOV parking revenue. Implementation begins with $0.25 SOV daily parking charge and $0.50 commute alternative incentives. Charges and incentives are increased gradually to a final level of approximately $2.00 SOV parking charge and $4.00 incentives. Commute behavior changes gradually, reducing SOV mode share from 77% to 54% at suburban job sites. As a result, transit and carpooling mode shares increase substantially. For an employer, project implementation cost is very low, as employees self-report their commute choices on a web-based commute calendar that is periodically imported into payroll processing. Employers do not have to add expensive parking access control.

This solution nimbly tiptoes through a minefield of conflicting stakeholder objections. The concept has received supporting letters from Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), California Governor's Office of Planning & Research, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), SamTrans, Sierra Club, Association for Commuter Transportation, and TransForm.

From the Findings and Declarations of the stalled bill SB518 (California Senator Lowenthal's parking bill), "Eliminating subsidies for parking has enormous potential to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas and other vehicle emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled. If drivers must pay the true cost of parking, it will affect their choices on whether or not to drive. In the short term, changes to parking policy can reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions more than all other strategies combined, and they are usually the most cost-effective." Free suburban office parking paid for by employers and provided freely to employees represents a perverse $7.58 per day incentive for SOV commuting: employers pay for valuable parking space land that they give away to SOV commuters - transit commuters receive no such free land.

From Bay Area MTC's support letter, "There is no question that the provision of free parking is a huge incentive for people to drive to work. A 2000 survey of Bay Area commuters found that while 77 percent of commuters drove alone when free parking was available, only 39 percent drove alone when they had to pay to park. Additionally, among commuters with free parking, only 4.8 percent commuted by transit. By contrast, among commuters without free parking, 42 percent commute by transit." From the set of US employers with free workplace parking, there are two virtuous outliers: Google Mountain View at 52% SOV and Microsoft Redmond at 62% SOV. Both Google and Microsoft spend much more on commuting benefits than can be expected from marginally profitable firms. Traditional free-parked corporate commute trip reduction programs are comprised only of incentives without a driving price increase for SOV. These programs are disappointingly ineffective, often yielding only 1% commute shift.

California is phasing in a modest GHG cap and trade policy with an initial CO2 price of about $12 per ton, raising to $20/ton in 2020. For this market, a narrow set of carbon reductions are tradable (sequestering in trees, etc), but not including driving reduction. To reduce CO2 by the amount in this solution, a more ambitious carbon market is required, with $200/ton price.

3. Breakthrough technology
There are important benefits from this solution:

  • Overall, the US commuting market has 102M individual commuters with 91% provided with free parking. This solution creates 23M new green commuters demanding new mobility services that reduce the need for individual car ownership. The growing smartphone mobility ecosystem includes: Google Maps Transit Directions, Relay Rides, SideCar, yet-to-be-launched self-driving vehicle services, NextBus, ZipCar, Avego, ZimRide, Carticipate, Piggyback, NuRide, Uber, Lyft, City Carshare, Car2Go, DriveNow, Buzzcar, iBART, iCaltrain, Pocket Muni, etc.
  • The total addressable US market encompasses 44B annual employee calendar enterprise transactions, 500K smart parking lot computers-in-a-box (these will eventually supplant commute calendar self-reporting), $25B/year parking revenue dedicated to SOV alternatives, and $1.5T in new smart city in-fill real-estate development. The $25B/year will help stabilize public transit finances. The resultant 8% US driving reduction yields $50B/year societal benefit from reduced crashes, etc. Annual US GHG reduction is 50M tons.
  • For world leadership, the solution demonstrates a large GHG reduction that also spurs new technologies and economic growth. This is of utmost importance, in the face of influential corporate interests that maximize short-term corporate profit over long-term public good.
  • The solution will allow major employers to better expand on their current landholdings, as proof of traffic reduction facilitates new building permits.
  • The status of government data on commuting patterns is suboptimal. Widespread implementation of the solution will track a majority of commute trips more frequently. Tracking will be by commute mode and origination/destination locations. This higher quality source data can produce better regional travel demand forecasting and can inform better transportation investment planning.
  • This solution increases the number of voters who are actively considering transit options, fostering a larger voting constituency in favor of transit expansion/innovation.
  • The initial implementation envisions partial automation of the filling-in of employee commute calendar data. A smartphone applet as well as an in-vehicle telematics applet will auto-report carpool drivers and passengers. Clipper Card and FasTrak transactions will also auto-fill calendar entries. Text messaging will also be exploited.
  • Long-range implementation envisions smart parking lot computers-in-a-box to automate reporting of commute behavior.

Major technology companies are well-positioned to progress this solution from dogfood implementation to phased regional/statewide public policy adoption to nationwide adoption, maximizing new business revenue in the process.

4. Conference presentations & solution status
Previous conference presentations on this solution:

  • Transportation Innovation Workshop for Shoreline Regional Park / North Bayshore Community, Mountain View, 2012
  • Transportation Research Forum, Long Beach, 2011
  • Innovations in Pricing of Transportation Systems, Orlando, 2010.
  • Association for Commuter Transportation International Conference, Palm Springs, 2010.
  • Transportation Research Board, Washington DC, 2009
  • Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress, San Francisco, 2005

A federal research grant proposal (Transportation Research Board Transit IDEA) has been submitted to work on this solution, with a response expected around March of 2013 (25-page proposal pdf). The proposal covers: 7 innovations. Differences with less effective techniques like "parking cashout." Genentech's web-based self-reporting success. Small expectations for self-reporting cheating. Re-developing freed parking spaces. Behavioral economics: carrot versus stick. US transportation price elasticity of demand. Two previous successful solution trials. Willingness to forego short-term optimization for long-term gain. Software specification for commute calendar/dashboard and payroll processing integration. Favorable social equity impact.)

A draft, phased California legislature bill has been developed. The California State Legislative Counsel has refined the bill's language. A promising public policy strategy: Work with a progressive, pro-climate state such as California. Implement a small number of pilots at major firms. Pass state law to mandate phased adoption in the Bay Area - begin with large firms and spread to smaller firms. Expand to Sacramento, LA, and San Diego metro areas. Expand to other progressive states. Expand within California. To date, interpretations of Prop 26, which requires a "supermajority vote to pass a tax/fee" have been ruled inapplicable to similar solutions where money does not "touch" the State. Chevron successfully led the Prop 26 effort in order to prevent the passing of pricing measures that will simultaneously protect the climate and hurt Chevron's short-term profit maximization.