Category: Environmental Issues

The Ultimate Authoritarian Anti-Urbanism

Cairo is a dense megacity, without the infrastructure such cities require for high living standards. The city proper, according to Wikipedia, has 10 million people, living at a density approaching 20,000 per km^2, and the metro area has 20 million. With a subway system fit for a city a tenth its size, Cairo is heavily motorized for its income level, congested, and polluted. Despite high construction costs, urgent investment in public transportation is required. Ignoring this need, the current military government has just announced plans to build a new capital outside the city, eventually to house 7 million people, with all the public monuments of a planned city, at a cost of $300 billion (exchange rate dollars, not PPP), about the same as Egypt’s annual GDP. The first phase alone will be $45 billion.

Cairo itself is already suffering from neglect and disinvestment. There are 2 million cars in the city. This is enough to cause so much traffic congestion it costs Egypt 4% of its GDP. Cairo’s air pollution is legendary: pollution levels are akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. At least as of 1997, lead pollution caused by cars using leaded gasoline reduced Cairene children’s IQ by 4 points. The poor transportation options have led to a housing crunch, forcing half a million people to live in a historic necropolis as squatters.

The Cairo Metro would be a solution to these problems to a large extent, but is very small relative to Cairo’s size: it has 3 lines, totaling 78 route-km. Other cities of comparable size have many hundreds of route-km of urban rail, with a handful of exceptions infamous for their sprawl (such as Los Angeles) or pollution (such as Sao Paulo). Despite its small size, the Cairo Metro gets about 1.6 billion passengers per year, by far the highest number of passengers per route-km in the world, nearly twice as high as on the legendarily overcrowded Tokyo subway. Cairo has high construction costs, but in exchange rate dollars they only amount to about $130 million per km; a fully underground expansion of the subway to 400 km, somewhat more than the length of New York’s subway lines and less than that of Beijing and Shanghai’s, would cost about $40 billion, less than the cost of the new capital’s first phase alone. This is on top of all other possible infrastructure investments Egypt should consider: sanitation, sewage, water treatment, electrification, hospitals, schools, the Suez Canal. I bring up the Metro since so many of Cairo’s pressing problems would be substantially reduced if it had the capacity to transport a large share of the city’s population.

The problem is that the Egyptian government’s first priority is not to serve the needs of the Egyptian population. It is an authoritarian military government; it is not accountable to the broad public. I bring this up, because it’s a necessary check on things I have said in the past, attacking local American governance as authoritarian. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have the power to overrule useful spending bills and cause traffic jams in cities run by political opponents. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has the power to jail political opponents without trial, and execute them by the hundreds after show trials.

Autocrats love planned cities, for two reasons. First, planned cities are monuments to their greatness, lasting long into the future. The people the autocrats trample will be forgotten. Tourists visit the Taj Mahal, and not museums commemorating the churches and temples Shah Jahan destroyed. They visit the Great Wall of China, and not any commemoration of the million-odd people who died in its construction. They visit the Old City of Jerusalem, while nobody commemorates any of the locals Herod taxed to build its monuments – even Judaism only commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora, generations later. Autocrats know this. Even in antiquity, they knew monuments would make them more famous. And even in modern democratic regimes, politicians like signature initiatives that have their names on them; going back to Andrew Cuomo, his proposed Queens convention center is a typical example. But Cuomo still faces some democratic checks and balances. Sisi does not.

And second, planned cities can be built in ways that enhance social control. City Metric compares the new planned capital with Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, built in the era of military rule to replace Yangon. Purpose-built capitals can be (and are) built around the needs of the national elite, keeping the poor out of sight. They have street and building design plans that make it easy to bring in the military to quell riots: wide streets, buildings that do not touch, no central square where protests could happen. They also disallow squatters, without going through the difficult and controversial move of evicting squatters from the preexisting city. One rhetorical question I have seen on Twitter is, where will this city’s Tahrir be? An article on Cairobserver doesn’t make this exact argument, but does note that this plan disinvests in what will still remain Egypt’s largest city, and could only come about as a result of Egypt’s complete lack of democracy.

One of the bigger influences on my views of democracy is Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer’s paper from 1993, Princes and Merchants. I do not fully agree with the point they make, but one of the key components of it, on the spending priorities of an absolute ruler, is crucial to understanding the benefits of democracy. Per DeLong and Shleifer, absolutism chokes economic growth, since the absolute ruler will overtax the economy to maximize revenue. One may ask if actually, hereditary rulers would want to stimulate more economic growth in order to bequeath a stronger kingdom to their heirs. DeLong and Shleifer answer that no: even with clear rules of inheritance, succession wars are so common that kings have to constantly be on the guard against rebellion to make sure their heirs get to inherit anything.

For Sisi, it is perfectly rational to spend so much money building a capital city that would make an uprising against him less likely. The money is not going to come from his pocket, but from the pockets of people he need not care about too much – the Egyptian people. The personal benefits to Sisi are invaluable: Sisi’s two predecessors, Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, were both overthrown and immediately charged with crimes, for which they were guilty (under Sisi’s influence, Mubarak was exonerated from most). Why not remove himself and the apparatus of the Egyptian state from the city where they were overthrown?

When I talk of infrastructure democracy in democratic first-world countries, I complain about (much) smaller versions of this exercise. One could reason with a democratic Egyptian government that there are better uses of the money in Cairo itself. One cannot reason this way with a military government. The same is true of the soft authoritarianism found in governments with a democratic deficit, from the European Commission to local American governments. Their power is ultimately limited by other layers of government, which are more transparent, and they are incapable of killing off political opponents, but they still do not have to listen to the people they impact, leading to decisions that are at times obviously ridiculous. Egypt’s new capital is this autocracy, taken to its logical end. A dictator, of the kind who the infrastructurists might praise as someone who can cut through the red tape and gets things done, is spending the country’s annual GDP on a plan to disinvest in the capital and build a monument to himself and his regime from scratch.

California HSR Should Not Have Been Funded This Way

Last month, California made a budget deal for the formula that would be used to distribute its cap-and-trade revenues. The state’s cap-and-trade bill does not deed the money to the general budget but to a separate account, to be distributed based on a variety of goals including subsidies to programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The recent deal is to give most of the money to transportation (including transit-oriented development): this year the budget gives $600 out of $850 million to transportation (see PDF-p. 6 here), of which $250 million will go to high-speed rail, and according to an informational hearing the long-term deal gives 80% of revenues to transportation, including 15% to high-speed rail. Transit bloggers who are not in the process of moving across oceans covered the issue last month as the deal was made: Streetsblog wrote about the plan, Robert Cruickshank wrote multiple times in support of the decision, and Bruce McFarling explained how HSR’s projected emissions reductions should entitle it to a share of the cap-and-trade proceeds.

In reality, although it’s a good thing that California HSR is getting funded, it’s a bad way of funding it, betraying both environmental incompetence and political mistrust. The basic problem is that the HSR project is not going to reduce emissions enough to justify 15% of the pot, nor is transportation such a big share of California’s emissions inventory to deserve 80%: it accounts for only 37% of statewide emissions. Electricity, and related sources of emissions such as building heating and industrial emissions, get far less than their share of emissions.

Bruce’s post runs the numbers on HSR, notes that the projections are currently $250-400 in construction costs per ton of CO2 reduction, and proposes that if cap-and-trade results in a carbon cost of $75 per ton then this justifies using the revenues for 20-35% of the cost of HSR. The projected revenue from cap-and-trade is a range whose top end is $5 billion statewide, corresponding to about $11 per metric ton; at this level, assuming HSR saves $250/t-CO2 means it should get 4.4% of its funding from emissions reduction, or (at the current cost of $53 billion in constant dollars) about $2.3 billion over the lifetime of the program. If the revenue is indeed $5 billion a year, this spending level is projected to be reached in 3 years.

For some evidence of what the state is really doing, consider how the deal comments on each share of the funding. The informational hearing details the investment strategy as follows:

25% for a permanent source of funding for transit operations, distributed based on greenhouse gas criteria.
20% for affordable housing and miscellaneous urban planning goals (including TOD), of which at least half must be for affordable housing (including TOD, again); the money is to be distributed based on “competitive GHG performance.”
15% low-carbon transportation, based on both long-term clean air and GHG goals.
13% energy, including electricity and building efficiency.
7% natural resources, waste diversion, and water projects.
15% HSR.
5% “new or existing” intercity rail, based on GHG criteria.

Note that internally to four categories, comprising 65% of the total funds, the hearing mentions greenhouse gas criteria. In three out of the four, comprising half of the funds, the hearing implies that the decision of how to distribute the funds will be based on competitive grants according to which project reduces emissions the most.

The key point here is that the state has effectively said what the best way is to ensure the spending side of cap-and-trade will reduce emissions optimally: projects will compete for scarce funding based on greenhouse gas criteria. Once it has made the political decision to distribute funds by a formula that disproportionately goes to transportation, it has no objection to using greenhouse gas criteria internally to each category. The problem is that the transportation projects in general and HSR in particular would never make it out of a grant process based on such criteria if they were not shielded from competition with non-transportation priorities.

There are two legitimate ways to distribute funds coming out of an externality tax, which is what cap-and-trade really is. One is to let the tax side do the work of reducing impact, and put the money into the general budget. This is common practice for most developed countries’ fuel taxes (though not the US’s). In this approach, HSR would compete with all of the state’s other budget priorities. If the state wanted to reduce other taxes against the cap-and-trade funds rather than raise spending, it could. If it wanted to spend the money on unrelated things, such as education, it could as well. There already is a more or less open and democratic budget process for this.

The other way is to reduce all political discretion, and distribute the funds based entirely on greenhouse gas criteria, without breaking the money into categories. The state seems to prefer this way, judging by its use of this process within each category. With other externality taxes there is another option, of giving the money directly to victims of the externality, e.g. spending cigarette taxes on lung cancer treatment; however, the bulk of damage caused by climate change is to developing countries, and spending cap-and-trade revenues on targeted aid to vulnerable developing countries is politically unacceptable.

The state’s hybrid approach is effectively a slush fund. High-level politicians, including Governor Jerry Brown, want to build a visible legacy, and HSR is far more visible than making household appliances consume less electricity. Emissions reductions are secondary to this concern. They’ll be happy to make their legacy a project that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but they have no quantitative preference for projects that reduce emissions more than others. On the contrary, when they pull strings, they might even make decisions that make these projects less environmentally beneficial: the decision to connect Los Angeles to Bakersfield via Palmdale rather than directly has no technical merit, and judging by LA County’s support appears to be motivated by concerns for development in the Palmdale area. As the incremental cost of going through Palmdale is about $5 billion, nearly 10% of the HSR cost, the result is that the state is going to spend a substantial amount of cap-and-trade money on spurring more development in the High Desert exurbs.

Needless to say, when the cap-and-trade bill was passed, it did not state or even imply that the state could use the money to spur more development in the exurbs. The bill did not adopt a GHG-only approach, but listed several additional goals, none of which included transportation. Chapter 1, Part 2, paragraph h states,

It is the intent of the Legislature that the State Air Resources Board design emissions reduction measures to meet the state wide emissions limits for greenhouse gases established pursuant to this division in a manner that minimizes costs and maximizes benefits for California’s economy, improves and modernizes California’s energy infrastructure and maintains electric system reliability, maximizes additional environmental and economic co-benefits for California, and complements the state’s efforts to improve air quality.

There is an explicit mention of air quality, and explicit mentions of energy and electricity, which are only getting 13% of the funding despite accounting for 54% of emissions. Elsewhere the list of legislative intents includes vague terms such as technological leadership, but the only explicit mention of transportation in the bill is in paragraph c, which says that historically California provided leadership on several environmental issues, including emissions limits on cars as well as energy efficiency and renewable energy.

However, the cap-and-trade bill is older than the current administration, and the political priorities have changed. Since a regular budget process giving HSR the money it needs would run into opposition from competing priorities, it’s best to raid a new source of revenue, one without legislative inertia or established supporters directing the money to more useful purposes.

Hence, a slush fund.

The Cost of Heavy Freight Trains

Over at Pennsylvania HSR, Samuel Walker reminds us that the dominance of coal for US freight traffic slows down passenger trains, and this has a social cost in addition to the direct costs of coal mining and burning. But another post of his, regarding cant deficiency, suggests more problems coming from mixing modern passenger trains with very heavy freight. Coal trains slow all other traffic in three different ways, of which just one is the conventional schedule conflict, and even that means more than just slowing down intercity trains.

Schedule conflict reduces not just speed, but also span and punctuality. The Northstar Line in Minnesota shares track with BNSF’s Northern Transcon; since the line is freight-primary, there’s no room for off-peak service, and passenger trains can’t extend to the line’s natural terminus in St. Cloud, not without constructing additional tracks. Similarly, in Houston, plans for a commuter line to Galveston included peak-only service from the start.

Second, independently of scheduling, slow trains force faster trains to slow down by limiting the amount of superelevation that can be used. As a reminder: on curves, they bank the track, with the outer rail above the inner rail, to partly counter centrifugal force. If they do not cant the train enough, there’s cant deficiency; if they cant too much, there’s cant excess. Although there are strict limits for cant excess (in Sweden, 100 mm, or 70 on tighter curves), stricter than for cant deficiency (150 mm for a non-tilting passenger train, give or take), technically commuter trains could safely run at higher cant excess; however, for freight trains, high cant excess is unsafe because loads could shift, and the higher axle load means trains would chew up the inner track. Very heavy trains first require the track to have a lower minimum speed, and second have an even more limited cant excess because of the damage they’d cause to the track (about 2″, or 50 mm, in US practice). Walker links to a US standard guideline that uniformly assumes 3″ cant; greenfield high-speed lines go up to 180-200 mm.

And third, heavy freight trains damage tracks regardless. Coal trains also limit the amount of revenue the railroad gets out of each train, leaving limited money for maintenance, and are not time-sensitive, giving railroads no reason to perform adequate maintenance. To compensate, industry practices have to be less than perfect: cant and cant deficiency are less than the maximum permitted by right-of-way geometry and minimum speed, and freight railroads require barriers between their track and passenger track to protect from inevitable freight derailments. Even then the US safety level is well below what’s achieved anywhere else in the world with trustworthy statistics.

Of course, coal provides a great boon to the freight railroads. It’s a captive market. The railroads could price out coal and focus on higher-value intermodal traffic. Some of the lines that already focus on intermodal traffic are friendlier to passenger service, such as the FEC.

However, realistically, the end of coal is only going to come from environmental regulations. Those same regulations would apply to oil, inducing a mode shift from trucks to rail. The coal trains that would stop running would be replaced by trains carrying higher-value goods. The details depend on what the purpose and kind of environmental regulations are, but today’s environmental movement is heavily focused on climate change and not as concerned with local environmental justice, so loss of coal traffic due to a high carbon tax or local air pollution tax, both of which would also affect oil and gas, is much likelier than loss of coal traffic due to restrictions on mountaintop removal and air quality regulations at mining sites, which would not. (Of course oil causes plenty of damage to the biosphere, but the mainstream environmental movement is much more concerned with effects on humans than on other organisms.)

The political issue at hand, besides the easy to explain but hard to implement matter of avoiding catastrophic climate change, is what freight railroads are used to. Their entire business model is geared toward relatively low-value goods. A steep carbon tax is a risk: it should raise their mode share of total value of goods transported, which is currently 4% (see also figure 4.3 here), but it would come from a new set of goods, with requirements and challenges different from those of the current mix. The railroads would have to reintroduce fast freight, which most haven’t run in decades, and refine it to deal with the needs of shippers today. It’s not only a headache for the managers, but also a substantial risk of failure – perhaps rival railroads would be able to get all the traffic because they’d adapt to the new market faster, perhaps shippers would change their factory placement to move goods over shorter distances, perhaps they would not be able to cope with the immediate increase in fuel costs, etc.

Because of this, freight railroads may end up fighting a policy that would most likely benefit them. Although they represent a critical part of an emission reduction strategy, and are all too happy to point out that they consume much less fuel than trucks, fuel is a major cost to them, and coal is big business for them. These are not tech startups; these are conservative businesses that go back to the 19th century. Heavy coal trains then add a political cost as well: they help turn an industry that could be a major supporter of climate change legislation neutral or hostile to the idea.

Electrification and Carbon Emissions

Railvolution reports FTA numbers that say the average CO2 emissions of the New York City Subway are 0.17 pounds per passenger-mile (48 grams per passenger-km). That’s the equivalent of 114.6 passenger-mpg of gas, if you prefer to think in those terms. The presentation gives average seat occupancies, which we can also confirm with the NTD; it works out to about 4 car-mpg of gas. Other agencies can have somewhat different numbers, based on train efficiency and especially the local sources of power generation, e.g. BART has very low emissions coming entirely from the fact that the Bay Area has ample hydro power resources.

New York’s emission number, 4 mpg, may be familiar to you as roughly the emission-efficiency of regional diesel trains. Per ton of car mass the regional diesel trains do slightly better, since the regional train in question weighs 40 tons vs. 33-39 for New York’s subway cars, but this comes from making fewer stops. At agencies with very dirty power generation, such as the Chicago L, and even ones without very dirty power, such as the energy-hungry Washington Metro, the numbers are even lower, even though they’re electric and the regional diesel trains are not.

What we see is then that railroad electrification does not add too much to fuel economy. The question is then why the situation for cars is so different. The Nissan Leaf’s EPA-rated fuel economy equivalent rating is 99 mpg – almost as good as the New York City Subway, better than nearly all subway systems in the US. But if we try to break it down based on energy consumption, we get other numbers; the EPA just massaged the numbers to make plug-in hybrids look good.

The Leaf’s energy efficiency is 0.34 kWh per vehicle-mile, pardon the mixed units; the FTA’s numbers for major US subways range from 0.186 kWh per passenger-mile in high-seat-occupancy New York to 0.388 in low-seat-occupancy Chicago. This is not 99 mpg, unless one uses a fairly clean mixture of fuels; with the New York mixture, it’s 63 vehicle-mpg. So right off the bat, the official numbers underestimate the Leaf’s CO2 emissions by 36%, and overestimate its CO2 efficiency by 57%.

But even that doesn’t take care of inefficiencies in generation. Well-to-wheels, plug-in electric cars have about the same emissions as regular hybrids. This confirms the rough numbers we’ve seen from trains. The Tesla Roadster, a very fuel-efficient car, gets even better energy-efficiency even wells-to-wheels, but it also has much lower electricity consumption, and to get the right numbers it assumes electricity is generated from natural gas rather than coal.

Bear in mind, all of this assumes certain things about the grid mix. At the current US grid mix, on average electrification does not impact carbon emissions. Of course, since people need electricity for reasons other than transportation, any regime in which carbon emissions fall is one in which electricity becomes lower-carbon, and this would tilt the field in favor of all-electric vehicles, both cars and trains.

So, why electrify, if there’s no carbon emission benefit, why electrify? Two answers: air pollution, and, for trains, performance. Electric trains outperform diesel ones, and also cost less to operate in terms of both energy and maintenance. But electrification should be sold only on grounds that are in fact correct.

Carbon Costs May Be Far Higher Than Previously Thought

A pair of economists at Economics for Equity and the Environment (E3) have just released a study positing that the social cost of carbon is far higher than previous estimates, by up to an order of magnitude. The official estimate used by the US government is $21 per metric ton of CO2 as of 2010, and various estimates go up to about $100-200, e.g. the Swedish carbon tax is 101 Euros per ton, and James Hansen recommended $115 per ton. In contrast, the E3 study’s range, using newer estimates of damages, goes up to $900 per ton of CO2 as of 2010, escalating to $1,500 in 2050, when the discount rate is low and the price is based on a worst case scenario (95th percentile) rather than the average.

One should bear in mind that the discount rate used to get the high numbers is 1.5%, in line with what was used by the economists at Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus to arrive at the conclusion that climate change mitigation was a waste of time. It’s not a radical estimate, although some commentators have wrongly confused it with zero discount rate; it’s in line with the long-term risk-free bond yields. Even using average rather than worst-case damages (but still averages coming from the newer, higher estimates) would give a carbon tax of $500 as of 2010, escalating to $800 by 2050.

The carbon content of gasoline is such that a $900/ton tax would be almost to $8 per gallon of gasoline, or $2 per liter. For diesel, make it $9 per gallon. Good transit advocates are engaging in fantasy if they think this, even together with other costs such as air pollution, would eliminate driving; however, it would severely curtail it, inducing people to take shorter trips, switch some trips to public transportation, and drive much more fuel-efficient cars. All three are necessary: not even in Switzerland has the transit revival gotten to the point of abolishing the car. However, the current US car mode share – 86% for work trips – is unsustainable and has to go down under any scenario with a high carbon tax.

More intriguing would be the effect on electricity consumption and generation. Current coal-fired plants in the US would see an average tax of about $0.89 per kWh; natural gas plants would be taxed $0.49 per kWh. Cities already have an advantage there – New York City claims 4,700 kWh of annual electricity consumption per capita, while the current US average is about 13,000. Obviously, in both cases, fossil-fired electricity consumption would crash, while solar and wind power would become a bargain, but it would be easier to do this in large cities. But again, urban revival has its limits; suburban houses would still exist, just with much more passive solar design and extensive solar panels.

Yes, Transit is Green

I’ve just found a post by Brad Templeton arguing that US mass transit is less green than high-efficiency cars, at least when compared per passenger-km. (He agrees that transit is overall better because it is more efficient when used more extensively, as in Europe and especially East Asia.) The analysis of how this can be given the numbers is cogent, but the numbers themselves are suspect, and are worse for transit than other numbers I’ve seen.

Better numbers can be found in this FTA presentation, on pages 10-11; the data is sourced to the National Transit Database. They’re expressed in pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile; if you’re more used to thinking in terms of passenger-miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent, then convert x pounds per passenger-mile to 19.374/x passenger-miles per gallon. The New York City Subway gets the equivalent of 114 passenger-mpg, versus 47 on Templeton’s page. Even FRA-regulated commuter rail does significantly better than cars – the low efficiency of the trains cancels out with the fact that there’s almost no off-peak traffic.

Another piece of evidence Templeton’s transit numbers are too low: he lists JR East’s energy use as equivalent to about 78 passenger-mpg. In reality, JR East claims much lower emissions, about 13 grams per passenger-km (400 passenger-mpg equivalent) or 19 (280), depending on whether one counts the emissions of the company’s buildings or just transportation emissions. It could be that Japanese power generation is that efficient; but given that Japan’s overall per capita emissions are not low by non-US developed country standards, I doubt it.

Finally, although it appears as if technology is about to make cars much more efficient, in reality technology is expensive if you’re a driver and cheap if you’re a transit agency. Take hybrids: the market share of new hybrid car sales is in the single digits, about 300,000 out of 8 million light vehicles sold in the US in 2008, but the market share of new hybrid bus orders was 22% in 2007. Electrified trains are also gaining efficiency, perhaps more slowly but the important thing for them is to transition to low-carbon power generation; if their emissions are nontrivial thirty years from now, then we have bigger problems than transportation to worry about.