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Arcwire Interviews Jared Blumenfeld: Director of SF Environment. Part II PDF Print E-mail
By Andy Mannle | Monday, 10 March 2008

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In Part II of our interview about San Francisco’s 2008 Environmental Plan, Jared Blumenfeld explains why he’s convincing Bay Area cities to buy plug-in hybrids from local chop shops; alternative transportation measures including the new Bike Share program; and the importance of Environmental Justice. Click here to read Part I.

“You can basically work out where the poorest and minority populations in the US live just by looking at where the nastiest, polluting, spewing facilities are. Unfortunately in every city in the US, and in San Francisco too, that’s true.”  Jared Blumenfeld

Let’s speak about Transportation. In the plan you mentioned developing a regional pool for plug-ins, can you explain a little about that?

We got our first plug-in today. Our first three just got delivered. 

Are these factory Priuses, or aftermarket?

Aftermarket. Pats Garage in San Francisco is the nation’s largest converter of Prius to plug-in Prius, and they’re doing huge volume. Which is great, they’re in an EJ impacted community in the Bayview. This is another great “green jobs” story.

So the Regional Pool idea is to get Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, Marin to all put in soft orders for plug-ins.

So here’s a company doing the right thing; if we tap a larger pool of municipalities we can generate larger orders that’ll drop costs - is that the idea?

Well no, it’s really to put in orders to the large manufacturers saying we would buy off-the-shelf Prius from Toyota if it was a plug-in. So it’s getting all these cities together and saying we have a large vehicle pool and there would be a demand, so that whichever company Honda or Toyota or whoever, GM, is looking at whether they should build this plug-in, they would say, oh we already have all these orders we could fill from all these cities.

So you’re not actually trying to buy aftermarket. Are you going to buy some aftermarket?

We will, we’ll buy as many aftermarket as we have to until companies start making them OEM, but they just haven’t done it so we have a parellel strategy saying yes we’re going to buy them aftermarket, when we can buy them off the shelf, here’s our orders.

I see. How do you as a municipality deal with the issue of a warranty? Because as I understand it Toyota is unclear whether they’ll warranty something that’s been modified.

We don’t really care about the warranty, is the answer. We’re not your average customer. We have 30 mechanics that work for the city anyway, that will fix the cars, so we’re less worried about the warranty than most owners would be.

How about safety? You’ve got a large chunk of metal floating around in the back of your car, it may move around if there’s a crash….

I don’t think safety’s an issue with converting it to plug-in. Basically you’re putting an extra layer of battery in there. We’re not aware of any safety issues.

As Felix Kramer from Cal-Cars explained it to me, they’re engineering them so if it gets loose or there’s an impact it will drop down instead of up. But an extra battery sitting in the back of the car - even if it’s clamped down - is a heavy chunk of metal, so some people have voiced that as a concern. Have you seen a positive response from car manufacturers? Are they working on it?

When you look at the Trade Journals, I think they’re all hedging their bets, and I think a lot of them are talking, especially Toyota about manufacturing a plug-in for ’09 is the last thing I read. So it’s out there, and I think they realize that moving the hybrid to more battery-electric is something that consumers want.

Battery technology is advancing so quickly, the speed that you can charge them, so that’s a really exciting development that is going to help everyone. The more we get battery technologies moving beyond where they are, the better.

So what sort of numbers are we talking about for the regional pool? What sort of numbers are you putting forward to the manufacturers to incentivize them?

That’s a great question, I don’t think we have a number yet. The Mayor’s just starting to reach the other cities, and there’s an group called Plug-In Bay Area that’s helping shepherd the initiative so I don’t know, but a few thousand.

What about at the State level. Have you approached Sacramento about buying in to this sort of thing?

I think they’d be very willing, they’ve been great on these issues. They have a large fleet, and I think we could convince them. You know PG&E and other utiilities are pushing plug-in hybrids. So I think you’re getting a good movement in the right direction.

Google, of course, doing the same thing.

Right.

Great. Speaking of transportation still, is there a movement afoot to reduce muni fees? Or make MUNI free for people?

There was a whole panel that was convened to look at free Muni and they decided that it was not an option that made sense from a Transit Effectiveness Policy. Even to get more people on Muni, that was kind of ruled out as an option. But I think there are lots of other ways to achieve the same goal.

Editor’s Note: The Mayor is still pushing this plan, and SF Gate reports that Newsom “has asked transit officials to study eliminating fares on city buses, streetcars and cable cars -- a plan that if enacted would be the largest such experiment in the nation.”

In the plan it mentions perhaps making MUNI free for college students, elderly people, or poor. Is there a particular demographic that you’re targeting in terms of increasing ridership?

We’ve spent a lot of time with students particularly college students at UCSF, so building the price of a MUNI Fastpass into registration. So that you get a FastPass and it ends up costing you six dollars a month. We did a lot of data looking at where all the students live, what transportation they’re really using, and the amount they use it. So we can show MUNI a more direct correlation between their usage patterns and the costs so I think that’s a way to bring down the price significantly for certain sectors, and students would be a good one to start with.

How about the bike program, what’s the city doing to expand the bike program?

Well there’s lots of things going on with bicycles. The first goal is to make the bicycle network bigger and less connected to cars and safer.

You mean in terms of the road ways where bikes are actually moving?

Right. I’m a big bicyclist so my goal is to remove ourselves from cars as much as possible. And to make sure they’re paved before the rest of the street is. Why are we paving roads? We should be paving bike paths.

And then we’re doing a core project called bike mapper which will be a interactive map function that will tell you where the best bike paths are, where the least traffic is, where all the gradients of the hills that you go onto – really helping people bike around the city better.

And then, we’re in charge of helping take away people’s cars and giving them bicycles – we’ve done a lot with the police, and with city gardeners.

And then on the free bike program, kind of what Leon has done where you register and you pay a small monthly fee and you use any bike around the city. That’s being linked to the rollout of the company that got the contract to manage our bus shelters. That should be rolled out in the next year.

So when the Free Bike Program happens, what can I expect to see on the streets of San Francisco?

Our goal is to make them outside libraries first.  So literally outside of every single library in San Francisco there’ll be a number of bicycles and I think the program will start with something like 300. You’d sign your name, give a deposit on a credit card and then you’d be given a digital card that would authorize you to take the bike. You’d be able to park it lots of different places throughout the city, and anyone else who had a similar card could take it.

So the bike would lock into certain spots, and then if I’m one of the registered users I could just check out whichever bikes are available? So it’s not quite a free bike program where all the bikes are just around, it’s more like a car share, but a bike share.

Yeah, but very inexpensive.

What’s the cost?

I don’t know, but I think in France it’s five or ten dollars a month.

Great. Lets move to the Environmental Justice program. Obviously that’s an important part of the Mayor’s plan. When I compare your plan to say the ones in Los Angeles or New York, they don’t have the same prominent emphasis on environmental justice. So when we talk about cleaning up an area like BayView, or Hunter’s Point, how does environmental justice relate to sustainability?

When you look at what sustainability is, there are three important E’s: Environment, Economics, and Equity. And often Equity gets lost, at the detriment of the other two. If you don’t focus on Equity, you’re really not dealing with sustainability.

And unfortunately throughout the world, but mainly in the United States where you have big disparities between the rich and the poor, poor people and minorities who’ve been marginalized from the political process have been saddled with wastewater treatment plants; power plants; shipyards; industrial, radioactive sites; underground toxic storage, you name it.

You can basically work out where the poorest and minority populations in the US live just by looking at where the nastiest, polluting, spewing facilities are, and unfortunately in every city in the US and in San Francisco too, that’s true. So our power plants are in the southeast of the city and that’s where our black and poor folks live. So I think the goal is to really redress that injustice.

Also, we often talk about the negatives. On the positive side, Golden Gate park is nowhere near the southeast of our city, so when you look at number of trees per block, there are half the number of trees in BayView that there are in other, wealthier parts of the city. So not only do they get all the bad stuff, but none of the good stuff too. So it’s really trying to redistribute the benefits and share the environmental burdens, that’s the goal of environmental justice.

And the whole green jobs initiative that we’re embarking on, we’ve probably spent already about six million dollars since 2001, really pushing at how we can stimulate jobs. And the new green-collar area in that community is part of it.

But really, it’s the ethical part of what sustainability is about, so it involves everything. It’s about transportation issues – we just got the 3rd Street light rail in Bayview. It’s about nutrition and food issues - we just got two new fresh food grocery stores for the first time in the BayView. There’s a long way to go. We closed down Hunter’s Point power plant in May 2006, but we still have one remaining power plant within the city that we’re trying to close down.

In terms of shifting burdens away from these communities, or helping these communities get some of the advantages that other communities have had, what’s the benefit for the whole community? What’s the win-win-win of environmental justice? Aside from doing the right thing, and making things equitable, how does and Environmental Justice approach improve the community as a whole?

I don’t think anyone wants to know that keeping your light on in one community leads to asthma in another community because the power plant is running in that other community. San Francisco is basically a microcosm of a lot of communities. We’re smaller in that you can see the direct impacts, but the impacts are happening everywhere, and I think everyone should realize that we have these negative impacts on places sometimes a lot futher away than Bayview.

So the first thing really, is that lack of equity is unacceptable in a modern society, and we shouldn’t be burdened with nasty environmental things just because we’re poor or from a minority group. So I think in and of itself it needs to be addressed and then from a societal perspective, in Bay View they have the highest asthma hospitalization rates of any place in the states, they have much higher cancer rates, and those people spend a lot of time in hospital that we’re all paying for. So just from a health perspective, if you can keep communities healthier they’re more productive, they help society more, and they’re not a burden on the general tax base for all these hospitals and other issues.

And then obviously if they’ve got well paying jobs in those communities then they can be supportive members of those communities.

Absolutely.

Any last comments?

Next time we can talk about recycling.

Yes, there’s lots more to cover.

Well anytime you want to talk about other stuff that we’re doing, I’m happy to chat.

Thanks Jared, we appreciate it.

 

Image of Bayview Hunters Point Farmers Market courtesy of SF Environment.org


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