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By Diana Diamond

Jumping on a bandwagon that ends up breaking down

Uploaded: Oct 21, 2021

This is the environmental way to go. This is the solution to managing our traffic problems. This is the appropriate way to use -- and save -- energy in our community. Jump on our bandwagons! Ours is the right path to our future.

Is it the right path? Sometimes yes, and occasionally no. We leap onto our bandwagon -- and hope. And hope for a better future is important. We need to hope.

But here are a few issues where our hope is dwindling, because our dreams are not -- or can't be -- fulfilled.

A friend of mine predicted a couple of years ago that we will no longer need our cars, because we can use Uber and Lyft, and soon self-driving cars will come along that we can beckon to come take us somewhere, just as our own cars do now. These hired cars will enable us to save energy, because they will keep on the go, serving many of us during a day, not just ourselves. Plus, they will consume less fuel, because starting up our own cars a couple of times a day uses more gas. And as this fleet of cars serve us all, there will be less need for parking spaces downtown and our highways will be emptier. Yes, that's all good.

According to the NYT, "Lyft reported a loss of $911 million last year, up from $688 million in 2017. Uber earned $997 million last year, much better than its $4 billion loss in 2017, but that profit included income from the sale of some assets. After backing out those one-time items, Uber lost $1.8 billion last year."

Their future is uncertain, as rates keep on rising. It now costs $15 to $18 to get from Palo Alto to Redwood City one-way. San Jose airport is about $30 away.

And a lot of Uber and Lyft drivers wanted part-time jobs, like evening and weekends, to boost their income. About three years ago I was in NYC and our taxi driver pointed out all the Uber and Lyft cars cruising the streets, which were jammed. And the influx of these fleets hurt the taxi industry dramatically.

Another bandwagon is getting people to buy electric cars or plug-in hybrids. So far about 3 percent of Americans have electric cars. The clamor for cars (electric) in the U.S. comes from places where temperatures are temperate (like Palo Alto). Part of the usage problem is that in states where the weather is very warm or very cold, it takes a lot of electricity to keep an electric car air-conditioned or heated, so the car's range sharply decreases. I'm all for EVs, and hope they are the future, but I once lived near Chicago with minus 30-degree a.m. temperatures. But I kept my car in the garage, would plug it in each night to keep it warm, and easily used my heater and car to get to work. I can't imagine driving an electric the daily 15-mile daily trip to work clad in gloves and heavy scarves because I can't use my heater.

How about transit-oriented housing? A really quick-to-grasp program the state started in2008 to induce the public to use the then-less-used buses and trains in the state. To lure them, the state helped finance more affordable housing. The plan presumed if people lived near public transit, they would use it to get to work, and may not even need a car at all!

We have built lots of transit-oriented housing the past decade-plus. Who knows if people who use public transit actually live in this housing? Years ago, I asked Palo Alto's the planning director if there are any studies to see if occupants really used public transportation. She did a thorough search, she said, and could not find any studies or data indicating whether occupants actually used these nearby buses and trains.

I did a quick search this year and could not find any data either. But my "search" was very limited. Maybe people in such housing actually used it, and maybe they didn't. Does anyone more knowledgeable on this topic actually know?

I have lived in my non-transit-oriented home in Palo Alto for a couple of decades, like three. During that period, I have worked in Palo Alto, San Francisco, at Stanford, and in San Jose. I tried taking light rail to San Jose, so took my car to park in Mountain View, got on light rail, and got off near the center of town. Total time: one hour and 10 minutes. If I drove to work, it took 18 minutes. And when I worked in San Francisco, I walked to the train station, took a train, and then a bus to get to work by 8:45 a.m. Time spent: 80 minutes, since my office was miles away from the SF train station. If I drove: 45 minutes.

I am not saying the concept is a bad idea. It is a good idea. But we've been on this bandwagon for years, and apparently have little data to assure that it has fulfilled its purpose

There are other bandwagons that we jump on that didn't work out. Like high-speed rail. The PA City Council immediately supported the $9 billion ballot measure in 2008 to approve the rail system. A year or two later, it withdrew its support. Some years later, it has been an expensive failure ($$$$ billion). The HSR Authority's report stated in late 2021,
"The Authority currently has 119 miles under construction within three construction packages. Design-builder contractors Tutor-Perini/Zachry/Parsons, Dragados." While this project is America's first high-speed rail project, and still has its supporters, nevertheless I would label it dead in the tracks.

This week the council jumped on the wagon supporting "smart meters" in Palo Alto, a new meter installed on every home and unit in town that would tell people how much electricity, gas and water they were using and what the peak time rates were. It's an effort to get people to use electricity at lower rates (like after 9 pm, or mid-morning). Cost now: an estimated $18.2 million. Advantage to consumers: more frugal use, perhaps. Will it help save our environment? TBD.

I have a few other questions:

• Palo Alto wants to go all-electric. It is now requiring that new construction must not use natural gas. City officials are also talking about residential conversion of water heaters and stoves from gas to electric. But will our electricity system really handle the increased load? Or will we be using so much electricity because we will have to depend on only that? The new smart meter system claims it will be better able to control blackouts? True? And what if we will find we really don't have the capacity for an all-electric city. I know the issue has been studied for years, and city officials say they are confident it will work, but things do go bump in the night. Yet if we don't try it out, and then have blackouts, that's not good either.

I also have well-intentioned environmental friends who insist that our future will rely almost solely on solar, wind and nuclear and will furnish sufficient energy for our future. They are jumping on a new bandwagon! Or is it a wonderful politically correct bandwagon filled with wishes and dreams?