Daniel Sperling

Q&A: UCD prof looks at transportation's future

Published: Monday, Jun. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 8:33 am

As an undergraduate, UC Davis professor Daniel Sperling believed the solution to the nation's energy problem was mass transit. He was sorely disappointed to realize a harsh statistical reality.

"Mass transit accounts for only 2.5 percent of the miles that people travel in the U.S.," he says. "Planes account for 10 percent. Almost all the rest are cars.

"There are many reasons to promote mass transit, but energy reduction and greenhouse gas emission reduction are not at the top of the list."

A professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy, Sperling is the founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. He has been on the California Air Resources Board since 2007.

Last week, Sperling was named as one of the two recipients of the 2013 Blue Planet Prize, awarded by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Tokyo.

The prize, which comes with a $527,000 award, recognizes Sperling for his ability to bring together top thinkers in academia, government and industry to develop vehicle and fuel policy.

On Thursday, Sperling will give an address at UC Davis on the history of America's car culture and explore the future of sustainable transportation.

Your book "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability" was published three years ago. What's changed?

When I started that book, I was motivated by the fact that the automotive industry was resisting new, efficient technology. That has changed dramatically. It happened while I was writing the book. The automotive industry is now investing billions of dollars in energy-efficient technology. They are also investing billions in electric cars, hybrids and fuel cell vehicles.

What was your reaction to the federal mandate that cars and light trucks must average better than 54 mpg in the next 12 years?

I was somewhat involved in that because California was involved through the Air Resources Board. A lot of my former students were involved in making that happen. I was delighted not only that it was proposed, but that the auto industry embraced it – in policy and technology investment.

Why do you not support corn ethanol?

There is no reason to use food for energy. There are many ways that are more low-carbon, sustainable and don't compete with food supplies.

What lessons have you learned while working in policy?

It's a lot more complicated than anyone can ever imagine. I spent much of my career doing research on alternative fuels and life cycle analysis. I thought I knew 90 percent of what I needed to create a low carbon standard. As it turned out I knew 20 percent. I had to learn about international trade law. I had to learn about the biology of photosynthesis. I had to learn about equity between people, companies, regions, industries. To do good policy requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and understanding – more than any one person is likely to have accumulated.

I've gained a lot of respect for politicians. What I've learned is that politicians have to have thick skin but not too thick. That is, you're going to be criticized and ridiculed, and you can't let that affect you too much. But you have to listen to what concerns individuals and companies, and be responsive.

What does the future look like?

There's so much we could do to make our cities more efficient, more livable and less expensive. One change is using information technology to create new types of services: You could just call up a van to take you where you want to go. We could use small, shared neighborhood cars because most of our trips are short – only one or two miles. We could plan our land-use patterns better.

I walk and bike everywhere now. I hardly ever use a car. I think many people would like to do that if they had better access to these services. People hate parking, and people like being chauffeured everywhere.

What is the key to building relationships between industry, academia and government to combat climate change?

There is no easy answer to that. In universities, there are no rewards for working on policy. It has to be because you really want to do it, or else you have to create incentives within the system.

On the government side, it is a matter of having people understand the culture of universities better.

For instance, when researchers develop a new model of transportation and land use, they do it in an academic sense – to be creative and inventive, because they don't know how it's going to be used.

If they could work with government people who would say, "This is what we need this model for," then these models would be far more effective and useful.

If a young person wanted to have the biggest impact, what should they go into – politics, economics, statistics or environmental science?

The reality is we need people to work in all those areas, to cross those boundaries. We need people in statistics who are interested in environmental science. There is certainly a great need for engineers because we need better technology. We certainly need better politicians who are better informed of the science.

Call The Bee's Ellen Le, (916) 321-1031.

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