Streetsblog Interview: Michael Woo

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Michael Woo has a long history fighting for a cleaner Los Angeles.  In the late 1980's, he was the rare City Councilman who was also a trained urban planner and had a strong showing in the 1993 Mayoral Election coming up short to Mayor Riordan.  He currently teaches urban planning at USC, and consultant to Climate Plan, a coalition promoting transportation and Land-Use strategy.  Streetsblog caught up to him in the USC faculty lounge on Bike to Work Day to talk about Climate Change, S.B. 375 and what all of us can do.  If you’re interested, you can read a lot more about Woo at his Wikipedia Page.

Sadly, there was a great anecdote at the end of our discussion, after the tape recorder was turned off about working with Ron “Bike Sage” Milam to become an urban cyclist himself.  I guess we’ll have to wait for Milam’s Streetsblog interview to get that story on tape.

The full text of the interview is available after the jump.

Streetsblog: One of the main things we’re here to talk about is Senate Bill 375, which has been dubbed by many people as the “Smart Growth” bill.  This legislation was passed last winter, and now we’re talking implementation around the state.   Could you start by giving us a brief summary of what the goals are.

Woo: The goal is to tackle the number one source of Greenhouse Gas emissions here in California, which is the transportation sector.  40% of all of the Greenhouse Gas emissions produced in California are transportation related, and the largest share of the transportation-related emissions are caused by the cars and light trucks which most people use for their daily trips.

I work with a statewide coalition called ClimatePlan which was organized to advocate land use and transportation strategies to address climate change. In many discussions about climate change, you hear a lot of talk about demand for electricity, the need for alternatives to burning coal, energy conservation resulting from green building techniques, and of course the negative effects of our reliance on oil.  But many times you don’t hear much about the impact of the transportation choices which are caused by our land use patterns.

Climate Change’s position is if we’re going to be serious about Greenhouse Gas emissions, we have to focus on the transportation sources.  In other words, if we create cities that put housing far away from jobs, and create low-density patterns that don’t support transit very well; , then it’s no surprise that people have to drive cars a lot to get from one place to another.

S.B. 375 is the first major law in California that makes that connection between land use- , transportation, and climate change, and sets up a process to encourage the creation of communities which grow in a more sustainable way.

Streetsblog: A lot of the push for cleaner air has been about cleaner cars.  This isn’t about that, it’s more about less cars than cleaner cars?

Woo: That’s right.

Senator Fran Pavley is the author of a law (AB 1493) that which reduces greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles by about 22% by 2012 and by about 30% by 2016.  These California clean car standards were held up for years by lawsuits from the auto industry, but the new federal standards announced by the Obama Administration should settle the matter.

SB 375 tackles a separate problem.  Pavley’s landmark climate law AB 32 committed California to a the goal of rolling back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, but it didn’t really spell out how California is going to achieve that goal.  SB 375 authored by Senator Steinberg is the next step in terms of addressing one of the major causes of Greenhouse Gas emissions related to transportation and land use.

Streetsblog: In a perfect world, how should Greater Los Angeles embrace SB 375.  As a City, a county, a Metropolitan Planning Organization?  What changes can we expect as a city and a county.

Woo: SB 375 sets a process whereby the 18 so-called “Metropolitan Planning Organizations” (MPOs) such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California are responsible for adopting plans for reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions generated within each region.  The Southern California region is huge, the largest region in the state, with 48% of the state’s population. .  The MPO in our region is called the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and is a voluntary association representing local governments across the region, not just the City of L.A. and the County of L.A., but also Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Imperial Counties, and all the cities large and small within them.

Under SB 375, the California Air Resources Board will set a target for each for proportional reductions in the Greenhouse Gas Emissions relating to land use and transportation.  In Southern California, since we have the largest and most complicated region, the sub-regions can adopt their own plan to reduce Greenhouse Gases as it applies to transportation.

To answer your question, a large city such as Los Angeles or a subregional association of cities in Western L.A. County or Western Riverside County may collaborate on what this law calls a “Sustainable Community Strategy” that will start to be serious about relating land-use decisions and transportation to the creation of Greenhouse Gases.  Various local governments will start to focus on this.

Inside the cities, people will have to think about what role transportation and land-use make in their personal decisions.

Streetsblog: We’ve talked a lot about development, but what role does alternative transportation (transit, walking, biking) play in meeting the goals of 375?

5_21_09_woo_citybeat.jpgMike Woo as portrayed in City Beat.

Woo: The modes of transportation matter a lot.  The availability of rail transit, bus lines, car sharing and even bicycles are very important to anyone making a transportation plan.  If a plan is going to be developed at a local level, the people making this plan have to address how these alternatives help accommodate a reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions.

The expectation is that the parts of the region that have the most alternatives to cars, that is have access to transit, ought to do more than areas that don’t have as many alternatives and aren’t going to have the opportunities to do it.

Yes, the availability of alternatives will have a lot to do with a local community’s ability to do their fare share in reducing their Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Streetsblog: What is your role, and what is Climate Plan’s role, in getting this moving in Southern California.

Woo: I wear many hats in connection to S.B. 375.  I’m appointed to the Regional Targets Advisory Committee, RTAC, which is appointed by the Air Resources Board to make recommendations to the ARB by this September about how to develop targets for each of the regions for the state.

In addition to that, I’m an advocate in that I do work for Climate Plan.  Climate Plan is pushing for the phrases “ambitious but achievable targets.”  We want to push the envelope to set the targets as high as possible as a way of showing that land use and transportation changes can play a big part in reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions.  Furthermore, by getting serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can also get more serious about planning for communities which rely less on driving cars and encourage diverse, lively, and sustainable mixed-use communities which aren’t wasteful about land, energy, and water.

The other hat I wear is as a member of the City Planning Commission.   I can play a role in making a decision about specific development projects in L.A. in terms of what impact they have on transportation patterns, what kind of development patterns are created in the long-term and what are the climate implications.

Streetsblog:  What kind of opposition are you facing in terms of people that don’t want to see this legislation implemented for whatever reasons?

Woo: When S.B. 375 was first addressed, it was much more of a mandatory bill, with a lot more teeth in it.  There was strong opposition from the building industry, city governments and county governments that felt they were going to be required to do something but not be given the money to pay for it.

As the bill moved through the legislative process, it became less mandatory.  You could say it’s a lot less mandatory bill and it is weaker than the original version of the bill.  But it’s still quite an accomplishment that it got passed at all.  And it can be a very constructive influence moving local government land use and transportation decisions in a more sustainable direction.

There is still some opposition to what were trying to do.  Just last week I was at a meeting of the Southern California Association of Governments and there was opposition being articulated from two levels.

One source of opposition was local elected officials who questioned whether climate change was a real problem or questioned whether what they do has any impact on climate change.  So there’s still a certain amount of foot dragging going on with local officials who don’t think it’s a problem or think it’s someone else’s problem.

Separate from that, right now I’d say there are a lot of people in local government who know of S.B. 375 but they are very unclear on how this affects what they’re doing right now.  I know there’s a lot of conferences and outreach planned to help demystify this problem and explain clearly how this law will effect local government.

The next level is the general public, most of whom have never heard of S.B. 375.  But if things start to change the general public will start to notice things happening differently then they would without this law.  At some point this becomes a political issue: how do you make change if the goals aren’t very clear and if the effected representatives of the public aren’t very clear about what’s going on.

5_21_09_big_woo.jpgWoo speaks at the CALPIRG confernce on transportation reform earlier this month.

Streetsblog: If someone reading this interview likes what you’re saying and wants to help move the ball forward, what should they do?

Woo: They can contact us at ClimatePlan and beyond that if you belong to a local organization that has any interest in the environment or urban planning or transportation issues you can encourage those groups to get involved with the process.

In the end, the changes we’re talking about won’t happen without a groundswell of support which currently doesn’t exist.  So, there is a role, a very critical and important role, for getting people involved with the process and building public awareness.

If there are elected officials, such as the ones I heard from last week, who don’t think it’s a problem or think it’s someone else’s problem, this is a place where the public can get involved and start influencing the local officials who are thinking about their place in relation to climate change.

Streetsblog: Anything else you want to add on Climate Change?

Woo: Ultimately, this does come down to some level of personal responsibility.  This is not an abstract issue.

I sometimes mention when I give talks on the subject that if you stay up late and are watching cable television you can sometime see these public service announcements for the World Wildlife Fund with a sad polar bear sitting alone on a rapidly shrinking piece of ice.

The urban viewer is most likely wondering what that polar bear has to do with me.  So this can be a hard point to get across, it might seem too theoretical; but clearly the decisions we make about urban sprawl and giving people few options except to drive a car ultimately have an effect on that polar bear.

In other words, there is some level of personal responsibility which is necessary in order to be serious about addressing this global problem.

Streetsblog: This is unrelated.  On my way biking here as part of the “Bike Not to Work Day,” two people told me to ask you “Why Do the Streets of Hollywood Glitter?”

Woo: Back in the 1990’s when I was a Member of the L.A. City Council, someone suggested an experiment on Hollywood Boulevard using recycled glass mixed in with asphalt, aka “glassphalt” to use recycled material, to stretch the amount of money available for street repaving and creating this glitter effect on the streets of Hollywood.  This is very appropriate given the reputation of Hollywood.

That was the reason there was some experimentation in paving Hollywood Boulevard with glassphalt.  At the time there were a lot of people that made fun of it, thought it was a joke.  But now I think it’s something a lot of people think should be done more because it encourages recycling and I just learned that it does relate to Global Warming.

Streetsblog: Everything relates to Global Warming

Woo: Typically black or dark colored streets retain heat much more than older streets in Los Angeles that are lighter colored or made of cement.  I’m not a scientific expert on this, but if a the material in the street is reflecting light back , maybe that would retain heat less than using dark colored asphalt.

Maybe there is a carbon change benefit to using reflective material rather than dark colored material.

This is actually a good example of how some mundane decisions can be part of the solution.

Streetsblog: I’m hardly a scientific expert on anything, but I’ve heard the same thing: glassphalt is better for the environment than traditional road materials.

Woo: In the 90’s we talked about it only as a way to expand the demand for recycled materials.  Nobody was talking about urban heat island effects on the city streets.

Streetsblog: So you were ahead of your time!

Woo: I guess so.  I didn’t know everything about the underlying problem either, but  at least there was an underlying idea about making a connection between a mundane project like street repaving and the state of the environment.

Streetsblog: The last question I ask everyone when I interview them is “if you could change one thing about transportation in Los Angeles, wave a magic wand and it would be changed, what would it be?”

Woo: I think I would borrow and idea from Bogota, Colombia.  I would close the streets on Sunday, or one day a week, for two reasons.  The first reason is to take over the street for recreational purposes on that particular day but also to show urban residents that there are dramatically different ways about thinking of urban space.

In Bogota, Mayor Penalosa started this idea and was initially ridiculed.  Now, years later, this Sunday tradition is wildly popular.  There are people on bikes, on roller skates or just walking down the middle of the street.

Every Sunday I go to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market to get fresh produce and I’m surrounded by people who just like walking in the middle of the street. Reclaiming the urban space.

To take this concept further, imagine Wilshire Boulevard completely closed to (automobile) traffic from the beach to Downtown L.A. and turning it into the world’s longest linear park.  Things like that would be really exciting, wouldn’t cost much money and would really change the way people think about our streets.