News | METRANS Weighs in on the Future of Clean Transportation

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by Kevin Argueta, USC, Dual Masters of Urban Planning and Public Policy 2023


The Los Angeles Business Council (LABC) virtually hosted the 14th Annual Sustainability Summit on September 21 and 22, 2020. This year's event program included discussion topics on international climate policy, regionalization of the energy grid, California's resiliency strategy in the face of growing disasters, amongst others. On the second day of the summit, LABC convened transportation industry leaders for a panel titled "The Future of Clean Transportation," where panelists discussed the current state of the transportation sector in California and the future of clean transportation. Pete Holland, Executive Vice President & Regional Executive, AECOM, moderated the panel, and panelist members included:


  • Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board (CARB)
  • Genevieve Giuliano, Director,METRANS Transportation Center, USC
  • David Kim, Secretary, California State Transportation Agency
  • James De La Loza, Chief Planning Officer, LA Metro (METRANS Associate)
  • Matt Petersen, President & CEO, LA Cleantech Incubator (LACI)



In his opening remarks, Peter Holland discussed zero-emission state regulations, ongoing transit improvement projects, and the impact COVID-19 has had in the transportation sector. California's transportation greenhouse gasses account for 40% of all emissions in the state. To help alleviate greenhouse gas emissions, while also addressing congestion and safety, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted the world's first zero-emission commercial truck requirement known as the Advanced Clean Truck regulation. This regulation was approved by the Board on June 25, 2020, and has two main components: a manufacturers' ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) sales requirement and a one-time reporting requirement for large entities and fleets.


In line with this environmental effort, fifteen states and the District of Columbia took part in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) committed to transitioning 100% of medium and heavy-duty vehicles to be zero emissions by 2050. For the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in passenger and electric vehicle sales because of their efficiency improvements and reduction in battery costs. Additionally, METRANS Associates partner LA Metro continues to see infrastructure updates through the passage of Measure M. This measure was voted on by Los Angeles County residents in 2016 to improve freeway traffic flow and safety, road repairs, and rail expansion. Currently, COVID-19's shelter in place environment has led to more companies adopting remote work policies, which has led to a remarkable reduction in vehicles on the road. 


Holland asked Mary Nichols how she estimates the impact of CARB's newly adopted regulation and what technologies currently meet its mandates. Nichols elaborated on how California's influence and impact on environmental issues are global due to its scale. CARB's regulation to reach a zero-net carbon goal by 2050 was supported by several states across the country, creating a powerful coalition of state and local governments' support following and adopting zero-emission initiatives. The technology to successfully achieve this regulation's deliverables, and others alike, is one part of the omnibus of the statute. Suppliers and developers have scaled up these technological innovations, becoming transformative in the transportation systems industry. Technologies are being developed but not widely available, and it will take a few years where purchase prices will become competitive. Even though the technology is readily available, innovation is happening. Renewable hydrogen is closely being looked at, as well as research in the distribution of hydrogen fuel cells.


Commercial vehicles and other large road vehicles are also part of a system that could fuel a facility in the event of power shortages or challenges. In this instance, vehicle-to-grid trucks become energy sources that could provide electricity to a building by reversing energy power. Nichols added that there has to be a bridge between regulatory and financial incentives for companies to want to invest. However, the economy will be challenged for a few years after COVID-19, and the transportation sector will have to be more creative and determined to achieve these environmental and innovation goals. Nichols says, "we have the support of our governor, our sister agencies, and many private sector investors who are looking to how best make this transformation happen." 


When asked about how California's transportation agency was advancing an electrified transportation future. David Kim responded by mentioning that Caltrans is fully advancing electrification across all vehicle classes in collaboration with other transportation agencies across the state. Caltrans is working closely with LA Metro and other transit agencies to help them as they make the transition to zero-emission bus systems that are required by 2040. The average zero-emission bus costs close to a million dollars, compared to $500,000 for conventional natural gas or diesel bus. LA Metro, Long Beach Transit, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, and Antelope Valley Transit are a few of the transit agencies that recently received a total of $500,000 million in grant assistance from the Caltrans capital projects program. These funds helped purchase new busses and help mitigate the cost of charging infrastructure and maintenance facilities.


Kim says that Caltrans is expanding and maximizing mobility options, encouraging greater mode shifts to reduce the tendency to use personal vehicles, and reducing vehicle miles traveled. Transit transportation will be the critical element to emerge and thrive in the future after the COVID-19 crisis. Caltrans is also advancing active transportation projects across the state. "Caltrans is no longer the same agency that it was 30, 40, 50, years ago as it is today," he notes. Today's Caltrans is aggressively moving forward with pedestrian projects, bike projects, and complete streets. The state agency is also incorporating micro-mobility options and strategies, as they anticipate electric scooters and electric bicycles will be making a comeback. To reduce greenhouse gasses and reach carbon neutrality, Kim mentioned that Caltrans is taking congestion pricing, cordon pricing, and dynamic pricing into consideration, combined with electrification, to participate in California's transportation transformation.  


LA Metro is also diligently working to achieve its goal to electrify its bus fleet of 2,300 by 2030. To achieve this, James De La Loza shared that Metro has an aggressive program that includes significant investment in transit, funded through Measure M and through the assistance of state and federal partnerships. Metro's partnerships are helping the agency identify public and private sector grants with long-range transportation plans. Measure M's focus has implemented the most aggressive capital investment program in the United States.


Currently, LA Metro holds 22 new transit corridor projects, bikeways, bus rapid transit (BRT) projects, fixed guideway projects, and the completion of Metro's subway program. Loza says that Metro's goals are focused on improving their whole transit system and multimodal program by providing speed, efficiency, and increasing ridership. 



During the panel discussion, Holland asked Professor Gen Giuliano why it is challenging to reduce gas emissions in the transport sector. Giuliano responded by referencing the 2007-2008 economic recession that reduced employment, affecting people's incomes and negatively affecting younger generations looking for jobs. Since 2012 – 2013, there has been economic recovery and steady growth. The main drivers of travel are jobs, disposable income, and populations. Giuliano adds, "as jobs are increasing, as income is increasing, we expect to see more mobility." The depths of the recession gave subtle hints on the maximum of travel and the possible start of a travel decline.


Simultaneously, it was encouraging to see that millennials had reduced car ownership, and the Boomers' aging population was driving less. As there was significant economic growth, millennials bought cars and became more mobile. Giuliano elaborates that the dependency on personal vehicles is difficult to turn around because it is the most convenient transportation mode. There are public policies that keep this kind of travel relatively low compared to other countries, as there are stable insurance costs, no surge charges on new vehicles, and high-quality road systems. Personal vehicles have caused a structural decline in carpooling and transit use. California is mitigating the increase of transportation carbon emissions by pursuing environmental targets and designing low carbon fuel standards. 


Giuliano also mentions the decarbonization of the trucking and goods movement industry, and that the industry must keep the given time frames in mind. She says that there will be many fuel and technology options by 2050, but notes that there is no battery with the same energy capacity that diesel fuel has for heavy-duty trucks. By 2030, there will be better batteries that provide better power, and hydrogen fuel seems promising as it has the capacity for carrying heavy loads.


In the short term, it is important to think about hybrid technology as heavy-duty trucks can run on electricity around vulnerable neighborhoods and switch to diesel when necessary. However, funding these alternative fuel innovations is a challenge. Alternative fuel infrastructure needs to be built, allowing for an in-transit recharging network to give trucks more range. Significant subsidies are required to maintain and enhance the use of battery-electric trucks. Batteries for electric trucks cost more and do not have the same range as diesel trucks, which identifies the need for investment and subsidies. 


Matt Peterson touched on LA Cleantech Incubator's Zero Emissions Roadmap study. Their public and private sector partners announced a set of tasks to accelerate the move to zero-emissions transportation systems in goods movement by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. These roadmap tasks include initiatives to get people to use public transportation more often and encourage the goods movement industry to use BV and zero-emission trucks for short-haul routes, usually ten to fifteen-mile trips. Short-haul trips typically start at the San Pedro Bay port complex and end in warehouses or distribution centers a few miles out or in the inland empire. Today, there are already BV and zero-emission fuel trucks out on the road, but the goal is to scale up in the months to come. Transportation companies need to build charging infrastructures in the ports and along the main transport corridors.


Additionally, LACI is also creating pilot programs in low-income communities where there is a need for mobility solutions. LACI is working with its partners to deliver EV carsharing and micro-mobility options by providing electric bikes. In Santa Monica, LACI is collaborating with its partners to innovate business and policy models to develop zero-emission delivery last-mile zones. These deliverables are coming together to help Los Angeles and California lead transportation environmental initiatives.


Peterson adds that their goals and deadlines are bold, and to achieve their goals, transportation industry partners need to be creative in putting a price on congestion and pollution. Due to the economic hardship caused by COVID-19, there is also a need for a federal stimulus and manufacturing incentives for rebates, charging infrastructure and utility upgrades, job training, and zero-emissions public transit. Private capital is also a key element in advancing these deliverables since we now begin to see a demand in product pricing, making these innovations more accessible. 


To conclude the panel discussion, Holland invited the panelist to give their input on how likely it is that California snaps back to those days of heavy congestion and increased smog. Peterson said that he does see transportation and related traffic increasing as the economy picks back up again. 


Kim said that this time has been ideal to pause, reflect, and rethink transportation. He adds that this has been an opportunity to make pilot programs more permanent.


Loza responded to this by saying that the transportation sector needs to take advantage of telecommunicating, reassess demand and congestion management, and adopt new programs that are being developed at the moment.


Giuliano added that people want to go back to "business as usual" after a crisis, however, working from home has been a positive for many, and people may adopt that in the future. In line with Professor Giuliano, Nichols added that people are turning in their cars, preferring working from home, and inevitably changing their lives involving less getting around. 



To watch this LABC 14th Annual Sustainability Summit panel discussion, click here.


To learn more about LABC, click here.


About the Author:

Kevin Argueta is a dual-degree graduate student in the Master of Public Policy and Master of Urban Planning programs at USC Price. His academic and research interests are urban development, economic development, transportation systems, and innovative urban technologies. At USC, Kevin is a member of the Associated Students of Planning and Development Board and a Research Assistant for the METRANS Transportation Center.