SCAG/AQMD/CARB’s Vision – A Model to Emulate

Declaring Southern California “at a crossroads,” a new promotional campaign from AQMD, SCAG, & SCAG puts some polish to the tarnish on the Southern California of myth and legend. The campaign candidly observes that postwar prosperity and innovation is hobbled by poor planning decisions with lasting impacts. It echoes calls for an Apollo-like investment in infrastructure and more infrastructure. There is a lesson here for bike advocates: it’s not only the message but the medium too. Their promo material hits the ball out of the park, and we should follow the campaign’s lead.With our clogged roads and aging infrastructure, our old-school coal-powered plants and recent under-investment in nearly everything, it’s amazing that we’re still producing anything at all in the Southland. The Powering the Future campaign amply describes how our productivity and health suffer. Congestion. Asthma. Cancer. Physiological metaphors like “sclerotic arteries” are only too apt for the situation that we find in our region today, the campaign suggests.

Powering the Future brochure coverAs presented in its well-packaged campaign promo [pdf], Powering the Future frames the campaign’s  objectives – including livable communities, economic development, and reduced oil dependence – as achievable by pursuing  continued (albeit more efficient) means of growth, rather than consider new ways of organizing production and consumption. It also leaves off the table alternatives to our current auto-centric mobility paradigm.

Campaign backer AQMDis the air pollution control agency for Orange County and urban Los Angeles. Its regulations affect everything from industrial producers to small-shop auto repair. The California Air Resources Board oversees the AQMD, and though other local air boards plays an important role in regulating industrial pollution across California by permitting polluters and developing air quality plans. These organizations function in the background but exert influence in ways unseen to the average consumer.

The Southern California Association of Governments (aka the unfortunate acronym ‘SCAG’) is more out front as the metropolitan planning organization for six counties including 191 cities. SCAG works through planning and policy initiatives to encourage local governments to embrace environmentally-friendly growth policies, but cannot mandate specific policies. It’s main role is analysis and messaging.

All of these agencies walk a delicate line between policy and political reality (hence this campaign marshals persuasion rather than regulatory power).

It’s All About Development

As if to underscore the point, the campaign booklet offers the motorist’s perspective on its cover. As the driver looks into the side mirror, she sees a clear road ahead and congestion behind her. Thus the promise of the campaign.

Powering the Future brochure health illustrationThe booklet begins with a brief (very brief) recap of negative outcomes of decisions previously taken:

  • light rail systems closed and freeways opened;
  • power plants unregulated and large areas blanketed with particulates and NOx emissions;
  • freight moved by diesel instead of electricity or renewables.

These decisions were taken for pragmatic reasons, of course; in many instances (as with the mentioned Alameda freight corridor) there were better alternatives available to policymakers. But policymakers too often compromise health and innovation for low-cost and expedience. Indeed Southern California has not been an innovator of late.

But progress depends on innovation, the campaign says, and it’s time we took the longer view. “Global competitors are not waiting” on us, it adds darkly. The message is that more dynamic regions here and abroad will leave us behind unless we put our gearbox into drive.

Powering the Future brochure componentsThe campaign then swiftly moves forward to a future where new systems move goods more efficiently and new sources of “clean” energy are found to power them. All personal vehicles are electric (as is much of the freight) and all draw upon new grids to get us where we’re going. We can accommodate growth without sacrificing our “livability,” is the message – much in keeping with the current paradigm of subsidized fuel, cars, and freeways. We can have our cake and eat it too!

An Opportunity for Bike Advocates

Of course we know that there is no free lunch – somebody has to pay this tab of course – so is this the right message to communicate to the public? The subtext of the campaign is not so much to change our ways, but to find improvement at the margin. Indeed Powering the Future is really about economic development and so it gives short shrift to active transportation.

Yet the Powering the Future campaign presents an opportunity for pro-bike advocates  to piggyback on its big-picture message with our own prescriptions for people-powered, bio-fueled, and zero-emission personal mobility – a better transportation paradigm. How better to help to achieve the emissions reductions (right) prescribed by state policy?Powering the Future brochure emssion reductions targets

Where AQMD, CARB, and SCAG see new systems for goods movement and electric cars and the rest, we active transportation advocates need to make a complimentary case of our own for sustainable personal transportation and the investment necessary to support it. We must highlight the value of regional networks and dedicated infrastructure to move us from home to work and back without drawing on the grid, and we must make that case to the public.

But like too many advocates, I’m preaching to my own choir. As I thumbed through the booklet, I could only marvel at the quality of production and clarity of message. I wondered what our own message could look like if we as a pro-bike advocacy community sufficiently well-organized and capitalized to put out a piece like Powering the Future – a piece that would get the message to the broader public.

Can’t it be done? Yes, it can be done, but it will take some coordination of imagination, effort, and funding – all of which is in great supply…but meagerly compensated.

What it Will Take

First, we just do a better job of communicating our own transportation policy prescriptions to a general audience. Have a look at the booklet and imagine how a promo piece of this quality could get our message across.

We also need to seize on the most salable aspects of our campaign. We must remind people that electric car buyers are in line to receive $7,500 per vehicle – as much as the government’s recent new-home tax credit – money that is better invested elsewhere, as in providing fifteen households with good-quality two-wheeled transportation.

We can start with a promo piece like Powering the Future to make our case to the media, to policymakers, and to the public – especially the public at large. But that means coordinated outreach!

Better Bike attended the Westside COG meeting  [read more] iin July to make our pro-bike pitch. And the COG board heard us out. But to what effect? At that same meeting, two representatives from AQMD & SCAG briefed the COG board on electric cars, federal funding, and potential local investment. They were well-received, needless to say.  They pressed a brochure into my hand and I was impressed. I immediately saw that bike advocates need to follow that example.

Let’s use their campaign as a model to agree on a coherent message and mission; to outline a coordinated outreach strategy; and more to my point here, to develop a printed message piece to coherently communicate our message to an audience beyond bike advocates.

On the positive side, our vision for Southern California is complimentary with the AQMD-CARB-SCAG message of increased efficiency.  We need to communicate persuasively how cycling poses immediate public benefits like lower demand for electric power, improved health for citizenry, and renewed demand for local goods.

We alone can’t convince the COG to become more proactive; our collective effort needs grassroots support across COG-member governments (and beyond) to push up from the bottom the policy prescription that we advocate. And we can start with a good promo handout just like profferred by AQMD, CARB, and SCAG.