Note from John Guevarra at Investing in Place: This guest blog was written by Fernando Cázares, California Manager of Climate-Smart Cities for The Trust for Public Land. Investing in Place has been developing policy ideas regarding a definition for transportation equity in Metro’s new Long Range Transportation Plan, we invite partners to share their priorities defining transportation equity by emailing Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the implementer of the largest public works campaign in the country, LA Metro has an incomparable opportunity to set the climate resilience pace for other transit agencies and local governments in the county. As we think about the enormity of this investment, we need to think strategically about what we’re up against in the next 30 years in Los Angeles. Given the accelerating pressures of climate change and the need to decrease greenhouse gases (and other air pollutants) from the transportation sector, how can these dollars be leveraged to:
- Protect the health and wellbeing of LA’s existing transit users given the increased heat, pollution exposure, and rising costs associated with climate change.
- Encourage substantial increases in transit ridership by creating a safe and cooling experience for existing and new “choice transit riders”.
- Scale up and standardize multi-benefit urban greening to both cool off summer temperatures while we also manage and capture stormwater to prevent toxic runoff and recharge our aquifers so we can become more drought resilient.
While the rainstorms and cooler temperatures of this past winter helped douse the severity of the heat and drought we’d experienced over the 5 previous years, it would be unwise to assume our problems are solved. We are just turning the corner to spring and summer, a time for outdoor fun activities. But along with summer planning comes the memories of record breaking heat wave of summer 2016 and predictions for hotter and longer heat waves. The LA times, synopsizing the research of Alex Hall (et.al) at UCLA, warned that “LA will keep getting hotter…” with residents of every part of the county expected to experience more intense and frequent heat waves; residents of the San Gabriel valley will live through a doubling of the number of extreme heat days (at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2060 while those in downtown LA will experience a 4-fold increase by 2060.
These projections of extreme heat are exacerbated by the urban heat island effect — a phenomenon whereby mean temperatures in metropolitan areas can be 1.8–5.4°F warmer than their less urbanized, rural surroundings. Our urban built environment — dominated by black asphalt, reflective glass buildings, and sparse tree canopy or urban greening — makes Angelenos particularly vulnerable to the public health threats of extreme heat: heat exhaustion, heat cramps or stroke and death. For those suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses, stronger and prolonged extreme heat exacerbate the presence of ground-level ozone (“bad ozone”) which “can aggravate asthma, and can inflame and damage cells that line your lungs” (U.S. EPA).
Why should Metro care? According to Metro’s 2015 Transit Customer Survey results, nearly 75 percent of Metro’s riders take the bus and the median incomes of bus riders ($14,876) and rail riders ($19,374) are well below the county median household income ($55,909). Most transit riders get to the bus or rail station walking, biking or on a skateboard (table below). Furthermore, people of color (Hispanic/Latino, Black, Asian) represent 88 percent of bus riders and 79 percent of rail riders. Finally, Angelenos age 50 and over represent the largest share of bus riders. In the climate resilience and vulnerability world, Metro’s customers qualify as particularly vulnerable to climate impacts (i.e., low income, elderly , people of color).
While it is true that Metro does not control the sidewalks or streets adjacent to bus stations or rail stations, as that is the jurisdictional authority of municipalities and unincorporated county, it does have a direct stake in the funding, planning, design and construction of cooling features (cooling pavement, urban greening, tree canopy, bus shelters) at or on the way to those transit stations. Using the opportunity leveraged by LA’s transit expansion to green the routes people take to get to transit will not only protect the health of existing transit riders, it will also help make transit a more appealing option for “riders of choice” — folks who are a lot less likely to get out of their cars if doing so means walking or waiting at hot, exposed streets.
In 2016, Metro staff was an active collaborator in the Climate-Smart Cities Los Angeles project, aimed at locating climate impacts and mitigation opportunities. Recognizing the goal of increasing the number of Angelenos who walk, bike, or take transit, we mapped existing transit stations. As the map below shows, a large number of bus stops are located in areas with the highest average land surface temperatures last summer.
Additionally, the image below shows the geographic distribution of socially vulnerable populations in relation to Metro’s stations. The red color indicates the greatest concentration of socially vulnerable Angelenos (indicators under the ‘social vulnerability results’ folder in the image) while the orange indicates a moderate to high concentration at the census tract level.
What becomes clear in this mapping exercise is that there is a high degree of overlap between areas with high temperatures, areas with high numbers of socially vulnerable Angelenos, and areas where Metro has an opportunity to build climate resilience by leveraging its infrastructure investments. Fortunately, Metro staff and Board have signaled initial important steps in this direction. In 2016, Metro’s Ad-hoc Sustainability Committee approved an Urban Greening Implementation Plan directing staff to select up to 5 pilot projects to implement greening strategies near stations. Additionally, approval of Measure M last November provides funding for First-Last Mile planning for 254 stations, some of which can include greening interventions. These are important steps.
We need our local government elected leaders and staff step up to the plate; to integrate cool pavement, tree canopy and urban greening, to provide shade and evaporative cooling, into transit, road and street planning and construction. Building green infrastructure into our transit investments is a double-win. We protect the health and improve the experience of existing transit users while also making the system appealing for new transit riders. In so doing, we address both the causes and the consequences of climate change in Los Angeles.
We agree with Investing in Place — it is critical that the new Metro Long Range Transportation define transportation equity in order to build a targeted plan on how to address these areas in need. For the Trust for Public Land, including the urban heat island effect should be a critical component of that definition and plan.
To see how urban heat islands, based on land surface temperatures, impact your neighborhood or community, check out the Climate-Smart Cities LA Decision Support Tool (https://web.tplgis.org/LosAngeles_CSC/) and sign up for your own username with a valid email address. Any questions on the modeling, please feel free to email Fernando at Fernando.email@example.com