By Alan Hirsch
I think the recent Enterprise editorial on electric cars understates their importance: Greenhouse gas emissions of a plug-in electric car are one-fifth that of a 25 mpg gasoline-powered car, and even one-third that of a Prius hybrid. Given that the great majority of people drive less than the 100 miles-per-day range of these cars, it’s now just a matter of installing a charging station infrastructure to make them commonplace.
I think this infrastructure might be a bit easier to build than the alternative suggested in The Enterprise’s next-day editorial, whose tongue-in-cheek headline suggested moving to a “backup” planet “if we screw up the planet we already have.”
Consider the 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for an electric car in context of the city goal of being carbon-neutral — and the fact that the city estimates 50 percent of our greenhouse gas comes from driving. It’s all well and good to reduce your refrigerator’s electricity use by 20 percent by buying an Energy Star appliance, but the climate impact of driving just one gas-powered mile is equal to that of running a fridge for an entire day. And the average family drives more than 70 miles a day.
While I feel really good about my family’s investment in a $25,000 solar panel system (4 kilowatt-hours capacity), I’m now aware that it only saved the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 10 miles a day, and I regret not buying an electric car instead.
But let’s bring this theory down to current events — i.e., Davis’ policy around allowing an expansion of the Target shopping center — and the city’s need to implement policies to reduce driving gasoline-powered cars to avoid “screwing up the planet.”
Bus transit is one way to reduce driving. Right now, the closest bus stop to the Target big-box mall is 200 yards away on Second Street, and bus service here is infrequent. The more frequent bus service is at a stop at Mace Boulevard, a half-mile away near Ikeda’s market. But such inconvenience obviously discourages transit use and encourages driving to Target for those who have a choice. And, yes there are transit users shopping at Target today, as evidenced by the frequent abandoned Target shopping carts at the Ikeda’s bus stop. No doubt, this would increase dramatically if the bus stops were more convenient.
Now, contrast this with transit access — and the overall carbon footprint — of shopping in Central Davis. Downtown has frequent bus service seven days a week, and it’s centrally located. This means it is closer to the average Davis and UC Davis residents so they can choose to bicycle and walk.
What is important here, economically, is that businesses who locate in Central Davis pay premium rents and taxes — higher costs that they pass on to customers. Contrast this with Target shopping center stores located on cheap land on the fringes of Davis that would have a natural cost-advantage compared to downtown, even as these far-out stores impose more greenhouse gas costs on the entire community by requiring you to drive to get there due to lack of transit access.
The Davis City Council has an opportunity to level the carbon playing field for all retailers by requiring Target developers to pay the cost of bringing to their shopping area up to transit service level equal to the downtown stores with which they compete. This equalizing might take the following forms:
* Paying for a dedicated shuttle bus service from the university and downtown for shoppers;
* Subsidizing paratransit service for senior citizens who want to access their far-out store;
* Setting up a bus stop under the shelter next to the store and giving Unitrans/Yolobus permanent easements to use that stop as they need to over time;
* Paying the cost of deviating existing main-line bus to service their stores, and reconfiguring their parking lot so this “drive-by” minimally inconveniences other riders; and
* Adding plug-in spots for electric vehicles.
Payment to provide transit service should be ongoing until drivers shift to electric vehicles to reflect the carbon impact of their development. The idea of developer support of transit service has precedent in other cities; Davis just has to copy it, not reinvent the wheel.
It’s time for Davis to implement policies to end carbon-footprint subsidies given to big-box stores built away from downtowns. This is not just good economics and good environmental policy, it is simple fairness to existing retailers who help build this city.
If the City Council does not want to support alternatives to driving to Target, it needs to think more creatively than setting aside money to repaint the Richard Boulevard tunnel as mitigation. Instead, it should follow The Enterprise’s implied advice and set aside funds so our grandkids can take a space ship to a “backup planet.”
— Alan Hirsch is a Davis resident.