The Michael Pollan lens on transportation

Car on a postage stamp
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What's the "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" for vehicles?

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.  

Kate Gordon, newly appointed director of the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, likes to paraphrase Michael Pollan's stance on healthy eating to describe sustainable transportation goals: "Use electricity. Not too much. Mostly renewables."

It's a catchy phrase that sums up the incredibly complex, challenging and worsening problem in California of rising transportation emissions, growing congestion and a lack of affordable housing and mobility options. "We have not had as much change as one would hope [in transportation]. Our infrastructure is largely the same and in fact, our land patterns have made driving even more prevalent than it was in the '70s," said Gordon in a talk at the CALSTART's 2030 Summit last week.

Housing and land use are inextricably linked to transportation. California's lack of affordable housing in its dense urban areas forces families to live farther and farther outside of cities and commute long hours to jobs in personal vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Cities such as Seattle and Minneapolis that have redesigned their transportation systems (and reduced car use) have invested heavily in housing and transit in core urban regions. The New York Times published an excellent op-ed Monday from UC Berkeley professor Dan Kammen and state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) highlighting this problem.

As Gordon noted, electric vehicles are a big part of the solution. At the CALSTART event last week, I got a chance to interview Tesla's vice president of technology, Drew Baglino, who has been with the company almost 13 years and was among the EV maker's first 10 employees.

In a rare interview, he told me and the audience about some of the intense early days at Tesla, such as when Baglino and a team spent a few grueling weeks creating a battery-powered smart car for a meeting with Daimler (which later led to a crucial investment by Daimler). Baglino used the car as his personal vehicle and once impressed a date (who later became his wife) by fixing a line of code in the car on the fly after it stalled. Nice.

On a side note, Tesla would be smart to get more of its core executives out into the world to tell the company's story — particularly as CEO Elon Musk goes through bouts of Twitter drama.

But automakers are just one part of the solution. Policy also needs to provide carrots and sticks to help drive momentum.

Also at the CALSTART event last week, California Assembly Member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) talked about his new bill, which asks the California Air Resources Board to develop a strategy to move the state toward complete electrification of the transportation sector in 22 years, by 2040. His previous legislation — which became dubbed the "internal combustion ban" bill after it was introduced last year — stalled, and this is a revamped version. 

How well it'll do this time around is unclear. What is clear, though, is that the state's transportation system needs system change across all levels, and won't be transformed by just one piece of the puzzle, such as a cool affordable EV or an aggressive bill, or an investment in housing. It needs all of the above including new mobility strategies and an intelligent look at the new phenom of micromobility.

Gordon's remarks map out nicely to my plans for VERGE Transport 19, the transportation focus at our VERGE 19 event Oct. 22-24 in Oakland. Vehicle electrification and urban mobility will be huge parts of the program this year.