November 9, 2017 - From the November, 2017 issue

Tom Steyer Lauds L.A.’s Progressive Transportation & Climate Leadership

NextGen America founder Tom Steyer has long championed sustainability and equity in the California economy. At the 2017 MoveLA conference in October, Steyer delivered a compelling talk entitled “When LA Leads, the World Watches!,” which both highlighted the important strides taken by progressive local leadership in the L.A. region, and stressed the need for Los Angeles to take advantage of this momentum to build on and accelerate its efforts on clean energy and housing. With integrated and innovative thinking, Steyer believes Los Angeles can become a model of a 21st century world city in time for the 2028 Olympic Games. 


Tom Steyer

"L.A. is in a golden period right now—at a time when there’s a vacuum of leadership around the country." - Tom Steyer, NextGen America

Tom Steyer: When it comes to transportation, Los Angeles’s history and reputation can be summed up by something British writer Reyner Banham said in the 1970s: “Like earlier generations who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.”

That was once true. Leading up to the 1970s, as Los Angeles County grew to be 12 million strong, an awful lot of time was spent building infrastructure for the automobile without much regard for the environment. As a result, L.A. became known for its car culture—for 10-lane highways, for lousy air quality, and for clouds of smog.

Of course, the huge problems that existed in L.A. led to gigantic solutions that reached first from Los Angeles to the rest of California, and then across the entire nation—including the National Clean Air Act of 1970, the existence of building codes, and other steps to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

I want to make the important point, which I think Measure M illustrates, that Los Angeles County is the most progressive and innovative county in the United States of America. I’ve had the chance to travel to nearly every city in the state, as well as throughout the United States. As a result of fantastic broad-based leadership, Los Angeles is crushing it.

The Board of Supervisors is a much-underestimated force for good in this county, in this state, and in this country. In general, the leadership in the city and county of Los Angeles—including LADWP and MTA, for example—is extraordinary compared to any other city and county in California and the United States. As a Northern Californian, I hate to say it, but San Francisco and Silicon Valley are way behind right now. They are following.

There are times when major metropolitan areas hit their stride, and a bunch of things come together. L.A. is in a golden period right now. And this golden period is coming when there’s a vacuum of leadership around the country, so it’s even more important than it would otherwise be.

What I want to stress is this: Since L.A. is on such a great streak, put your pedal to the metal. Accelerate your work on the environment and clean energy, on homelessness and affordable housing, and on economic and environmental justice. I know that transportation is at the top of the priority list, but I don’t think you can separate transportation from housing, or from clean air and environmentalism. Major changes in a locale amount to one big question about efficiency and justice.

Now, I want to talk about what it means to clean up our environment at the local and state level. Today, electricity generation accounts for just 19 percent of our state’s GHG emissions, and that is going to continue to go down every single year. All the time and concern we put toward renewables, storage, and more flexible grids—all of which is super important—have brought us to this point.

But transportation accounts for 39 percent of our state’s GHG pollution. And transportation emissions from L.A. County account for 8 percent of the state’s total emissions from any source. The bottom line is that greening our vehicles and our transit system is an essential step to minimizing our carbon footprint. Zero-emission transit is where we’re going.

Looking around the country, and looking to Washington, D.C., it’s clear that we’re not going to get the leadership we need to make the changes that we have to make. But that creates an incredible opportunity for people who do want to lead—like the people in L.A.

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L.A.’s goals of expanding the subway system and eliminating emissions from its 2,300 buses by 2030 are going to lead the way. But we are also going to have to create hundreds of thousands of clean energy-related jobs. And we’ll have to make sure that those jobs are distributed through our communities, and that they’re good-paying union jobs.

To build a clean city and county, a clean state, or a clean country, we have to think about more than greenhouse gases. We have to think about air quality in poor communities and for poor kids, and about just job creation and distribution. This is all one big question we’re facing about creating the kind of society that we want, and I don’t think we can separate these questions. If we don’t think about these things, I don’t think we’ll get the job done—but I think we should get it done.

I mentioned earlier that I think L.A. has extraordinary, broad leadership. Los Angeles also has a tradition of innovation and creativity, and we’re seeing that come forward across the board. Mayor Garcetti recently joined with mayors from a bunch of cities, including London and Paris, to pledge emission-free cities by 2030. There’s even an idea to ban gasoline and diesel vehicles from large parts of Los Angeles in the next 13 years, which would make it very hard to own an internal combustion engine.

A critical piece of the equation for the economy, air quality, and greenhouse gases is happening at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which have a new joint Clean Air Action Plan to address air quality throughout Southern California. I don’t know if people understand just how significant the ports are, but they are amazing economic drivers for this region. They’re in the global top 10 as far as import/export traffic. They account for 72 percent of the import/export market on the West Coast, and 32 percent nationwide. They support 1 in 9 jobs in Southern California, and 2.8 million jobs throughout the U.S.

To make sure that we clean up these ports in the right way, we have to remember that they are right next to very populous parts of Southern California, and that the places near them are quite poor. They are places that traditionally have had terrible air quality, and it is poor people specifically who have suffered from that air quality. As we clean up the ports, and make possible lower rates of asthma, cleaner air, and better health, we’ll also have to make sure that we don’t get rid of good-paying jobs along the way. The question is: How do we clean the air, create good jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in one clean package?

In 2008, the Olympic Games in Beijing were seen as a huge opportunity for China to show off its burgeoning economy. It had made great advances and become the second biggest economy in the world. And in many ways, the Games did showcase those advances.

But to do that, they mandated that anybody with license plates ending in an even number could only drive Monday/Wednesday/Friday, while people with license plates ending in an odd number could only drive Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday, because the air quality was so bad. They had to shut down plants for a whole month before the Games. This was all part of an attempt to pretend to the world that the air quality in Beijing wasn’t nearly as bad as it actually was.

To me, the 2008 Olympics were the last Olympic Games of the 20th Century. When Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympic Games, I think you should think of them as the first Games of the 21st Century, and as a chance to show off what Los Angeles is: a chance for the world to see L.A.’s clean air; green economy; clean energy innovation; zero-emission cars, trucks and buses; and a Metro light-rail system that can get you downtown, to the beach, to the Valley, and everywhere in between. No face masks; no faking.

That will show what is really happening in Los Angeles. It will show that this city can lead this state and this country in a meaningful way. And it will show that doing the right thing when it comes to transportation, clean air, and good jobs is a model for how to move into the 21st century in a healthy, prosperous way.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.