Alumni Spotlight: Leopold Wambersie

By Leopold Wambersie, B.S. in Environmental Systems Engineering, Class of 2016

At the beginning of my Senior year of undergraduate studies I enrolled in a new class I hadn't heard much about. This class was unusually structured, and ended up taking me down a path I couldn’t fully anticipate.

I had just made a transition from Architecture to ESE (Environmental Systems Engineering), and because it was my Senior year I was worried about whether it was the right decision - and whether I would be able to graduate on time. Despite this uncertainty I thought the switch was a worthwhile decision - I had become disillusioned with what I saw as the superfluous nature of architectural discourse, and I wanted to apply my design and engineering skills to more socially and environmentally relevant problems. ESE had an Urban Track that focused on infrastructure, building design, and planning, but the classes were relatively disparate and belonged to a variety of departments.

SUS stepped in at the right moment, providing a framework within which I could combine all these topics. The class was broad in its ambitions, and that suited my needs. As the year progressed, I saw that the class was as open-ended as the problems it dealt with - a perfect example of 'you get what you put in'.

This is not to say that there weren't any concrete lessons learned: we were introduced to new GIS (Geographic Information System) software, and learnt the history of policies that have had an impact on past and present development patterns. We had many opportunities to practice our presentation skills, and we spent time writing researched articles on chosen topics.

However, the most important takeaways came from the fuzzier aspects of the course - the parts that require initiative on the behalf of the student. These include the open-ended trips to San Jose city hall, the chances to talk to guest speakers, the access to municipal data-sets, and the opportunities to get project feedback from individuals in the thick of the issues.

A year out, I can reflect on the impact SUS has had on me. I gained an understanding of the types of design and coordination problems that exist in the Bay Area and the wider urban world. I better understand the extent to which information is important in decision making, but also the extent to which it is ignored if incentives are misaligned. I see urban issues such as housing and transit as the most powerful levers we have to improve sustainability and quality of life. I got to peer inside the black box that is municipal government.

Leo, on the right, with classmates and instructors on a trip to San Jose City Hall, January 2016.

Leo, on the right, with classmates and instructors on a trip to San Jose City Hall, January 2016.

Most of all, I now see cities as a legitimate field of study unto themselves. I've started reading books on urbanism, going to talks, and reading research papers. After graduating with my degree in ESE I went on to work as an engineer for a firm that specializes in public transit projects, and I'm currently working on the Caltrain Electrification project. In fall 2018, however, I anticipate beginning my graduate studies in the field of Urban Planning, with a specific focus on Transit. My experiences with SUS played a big part in this decision, and I'm genuinely excited about my future in the field.

This reflection was written in September 2017. Since then, Leo applied to grad schools, and was recently accepted into the Masters Program in City and Regional Planning at Berkeley. See a mental map Leo made as part of reflecting on post-graduation life.

The Rise and Fall of Jeepneys in Metro Manila, Philippines

By Naomi Gregorio, B.S. Candidate, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford

Figure 1. Jeepneys in Metro Manila

Figure 1. Jeepneys in Metro Manila

The Origin of Jeepneys

After the damage dealt by World War II, the Philippines faced a post-war crisis of developing a new system of urban transportation. Within the urban area of Metro Manila, the cable cars that had once been used as a primary form of transportation were now left in a state of ruin because of all the bombings that occurred in the city. However, a new system of mobilizing the urban population soon arose from all of this destruction. The Americans had abandoned war jeeps, and local manufacturers modified them to accommodate more passengers. Despite having started as a temporary solution, Jeepneys have evolved into a cultural symbol that now serves almost 40% of transport users in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces[1].

Official records show that there are almost 180,000 franchised jeepneys in the Philippines today. Part of their appeal to the masses is that they are extremely economical. Costing just 8PHP ($0.16) a ride -- compared to 12PHP for a bus ride or 15PHP for a train -- jeepneys serve as an affordable alternative to Filipino commuters. In a society where a substantial part of the population lives under the UN definition of poverty, the jeepney has become a fundamental part of people’s lives as they are forced to move among different locations for employment. The vehicle’s size and shape also allows them to navigate streets untouched by the country’s limited public transit system.

As a cultural symbol, the jeepney is famous for having designs as loud as their engines. Jeepney drivers and owners use vibrant colors and kitschy ornamentation to decorate their vehicles in order to tell a story. Often these narratives include references to family members working overseas, nature scene’s from a family’s original province and heritage, as well as basketball players and cartoons that emphasize the Filipino obsession with Western pop culture in the post-colonial period.

Phasing Out the Jeepney

Despite its long-standing popular appeal in economy and mobility, jeepneys bear a fair amount of responsibility for contributing to the traffic and pollution crisis that is prevalent throughout Metro Manila. A typical jeepney will be able to seat 10 to 16 commuters, all sitting knee-to-knee on twin benches, and does not have internal air-conditioning or windows to shield passengers from heat, rain, and fumes. With Manila as one of Asia’s most gridlocked mega-cities, passengers often have to withstand these conditions for hours. There are also no seatbelts or methods for the vehicles to accommodate commuters with disabilities. Because the jeepney industry does not involve any mass-production, it instead relies on a fleet consisting of second-hand vehicles modified with scavenged parts and dependent on polluting diesel. Because of the jeepney industry’s contribution to pollution and traffic congestion, the current presidential administration in the Philippines has updated its regulations regarding Public Utility Vehicles. Some of the new rules are based on vehicle size, accessibility, and engine quality, which could effectively stamp out thousands of the vehicles that are currently in service and in turn the livelihoods of their low-income drivers. Any vehicles that fail to meet these standards as well as those built more than 15 years ago were required to have been taken off the roads by Jan 1, 2018.

Rebranding the Jeepney

An alternative to the jeepney was recently commissioned by the government, and it bears minimal resemblance to the traditional jeepney and instead is more similar to mini-buses that are common in other countries[2]. These new designs incorporate Euro 4 engines or solar panels, safety features like speed limiters, accessibility features like ramps and seatbelts, closed-circuit television cameras, GPS, and a dashboard camera. It will also come with free wifi for the convenience of commuters. In addition to the design modifications, the internal system of this form of public transportation will also be changed. The current jeepney system consists of passengers tapping on the roof to stop the vehicle and passing on fares through a line of passengers to the driver. The new model will introduce formal ticketing and drop-off points. In addition, these vehicles will be locally made and assembled. While certainly an attractive option in terms of mitigating the negative externalities that have been made by traditional jeepneys over the years, this new Public Utility Vehicle bears a price tag of PHP1.6 million ($30,000).

Figure 2. Prototype of the new PUV

Figure 2. Prototype of the new PUV

Consequences for the Urban Poor

While most jeepney drivers and other motorists acknowledge the need to upgrade Public Utility Vehicles to make them safer for drivers and commuters, they are overwhelmed and dismayed by the high cost for drivers to replace their old jeeps. Efren Borela, a jeepney owner for 15 years, earns around 2,500PHP ($48) per day, and has invested his savings into his vehicle. His savings are compromised if he has to go out and buy a new roadworthy one. In a society where jobs are transient and many fear losing their livelihoods on a daily basis, narratives like that of Efren are shared by many other current jeepney drivers. Recently, a transport group named Piston organized a round of protests involving more than 6000 jeepney drivers who would be impacted by the regulation[3]. Within the context of the public outcry, the government argues that it will be setting up financial loan schemes as part of the urban transport rehaul effort.

Ride-sharing Services as an Alternative

Amidst the public outcry among jeepney owners who will be potentially impacted, other transportation alternatives have conducted their fair share of capitalizing on the market vacuum. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Grab (a local version) have cropped up and risen in popularity over the years. On the day of the third jeepney driver strike, Uber released a promotion for those who ‘may be affected by the day’s proceedings.’[4]

There is much criticism regarding the viability of ride-sharing services as an alternative solution to the country’s transportation problems. Stephen Zoepf discussed his report in an SUS seminar on how ride-sharing services contribute to racial and economic discrimination. Internationally, ride-sharing services demonstrate the same trends. In the Philippines, ride-sharing services are fundamentally no different to jeepneys, tricycles, and pedicabs. They just cost more and make use of more expensive means to hail and stop drivers. However, neither conventional PUVs nor ride-sharing services can really be considered true public services as both inconvenience sectors of society who are not either’s patrons. PUVs, for their part, turn Philippine roads into monstrous hellholes for private motorists and pedestrians (and are hazards even to their own patrons). Transportation network vehicle services (TNVSs), on the other hand, further add to the proliferation of private vehicles that provide non-mass-transit “public” transport. Both PUVs and TNVSs contribute virtually the same problem to Philippine public transport in general in that both are competitive private enterprises rather than true public mass transit systems that are truly egalitarian in the level of service made available to the public.

As an alternative, ride-sharing services are really only accessible for those who can afford private cars. If the solution is not something that may be made available to those who are in need of it the most, it poses a scenario similar to that of the jeepney when it was first developed. As a form of proprietary foreign technology, these technologies will render Filipinos mere users and consumers and will be hinder them from building a modern and competitive automotive industry in a more organic and localized way.


[1] Nebrija, Julian, “Philippines’ brightly decorated jeepneys face an uncertain future,” November 2017.

[2] Rey, Aika, “Local companies should manufacture new jeepneys,” February 2018.

[3] Chen, Heather, “Philippines strike: Filipinos rally around iconic jeepney drivers,” October 2017.

[4] Morris, Davis Paul, “Philippines lifts Uber suspension after it pays nearly $10 million in penalties,” August 2017.

Playing to the Crowd

By Tyler Pullen, M.S. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Stanford

Perhaps the most prominent overarching challenge for holistic action against global warming is (especially American) civilians’ resistance to trust high level science and conclusions based on abstract, difficult to conceptualize data. Incredibly distant and face-less scientists from around the world agree on planet-scale changes in climate patterns that are practically imperceptible on a daily — and human — scale. And even in the case of politicians who believe and begin to understand the macro causes and effects of climate change, developing a clear sense of how to act and what goals to set based on these predictions is a leviathan task. Particularly in regards to the decision makers at a city scale, the translation of such complex, comprehensive climate models into intuitive and interactive tools is a significant barrier to productive policy proactively mitigating global environmental damage.

Challenge 1: an intangible problem

A major problem in communicating climate-related goals and effects is in the inherently abstract concept of global emissions. Not being able to see or touch or understand what a pound of carbon dioxide is, looks like, or does to our atmosphere makes it a weak motivating force. Thus, the first goal for communicating climate change issues and policies is translating the data and implications of climate change into metrics that are more relatable. Depending on the particular factor(s), this could be: the delay in minutes due to traffic during rush hour as a result of low public transit usage, the decreased visibility distance from smog, or a map of the larger flooded regions from large storms if the sea level rises. Possibly most relevant to citizens and politicians alike, however, is the simple metric of dollars. In one way or another, most consequences of climate change impacts can be described — at least roughly — in financial terms. A large scale effort to do exactly this was already undertaken by the US EPA in attempting to define the “social cost of carbon”. This could refer to the amount of property damage in the case of storms of high severity, or the rising collective cost of electricity if energy efficiency measures are not taken, or the amount of individual productivity lost for long commutes due to vehicle traffic. The effort is understandably limited due to ambiguity over the scoping of the problem and inaccuracy or unavailability of data, but it is still a laudable attempt. Because regardless of the specific intervention being discussed, putting the theoretical cost of action — and inaction — into relatable terms is critical if decision makers are to use this data to design effective policies and measure their progress.

challenge 2: visualization

With the relevant data in relevant terms, the next critical challenge for engineers and scientists is to succinctly visualize the information in ways that are digestible to those without backgrounds in advanced data analytics. Graphs, tables, and other diagrams must be accurate but concise. And more abstractly: in this process of simplification, it is paramount to not insert or exaggerate existing biases. For example, a dataset may suggest that a municipality with very low car ownership rates is pro-environmental (an image said municipality would presumably embrace), but perhaps residents in the region take a substantial amount of flights that more than offset the lack of vehicle usage. These are by no means easy considerations to balance for the eclectic causes and effects of global warming, but the process of organizing and presenting information can be as critical as collecting it in the first place, especially if they are meant to persuade and motivate action.

Challenge 3: adjustability

One of the less-explored aspects of climate change and, more broadly, data analytics, is the importance of making the models and the data presented adjustable. Even datasets used for the most specific subjects have a massive amount of variables and assumptions built in before being used to model the potential of an intervention (which is obviously critical for predicting the effect of certain policies into the future). These assumptions are necessary in order to bound the problem, make the model efficient, and make resulting predictions tenable; but they’re also inherently subjective. What equation did you use to model population projection over the next 20 years? How will this incoming population disperse geographically across multiple municipal boundaries? There are no correct answers to these questions. And though policy makers would ideally be involved from the first stage of model creation to help make these assumptions in a sensible and ethical manner, this is not always possible. It is therefore vital to allow for adjustment of major original assumptions so that it can be tested for accuracy and so that potential interventions can be modeled as well. Due to the often-enormous backend of data to support these models, however, it is very challenging to allow for these system levers to less technical users who often don’t know how to use the software supporting the analysis. Thus, building them in an interface with clear points of interaction to vary initial assumptions or change values over time could be immensely helpful in getting decision makers to understand and learn from large models by integrating them into their existing decision-making process. This could lead them to be creative with potential interventions and better assess their effects.

challenge 4: continuous updating

The last factor I consider to be central in data analysis is building within a framework that can be updated with the most recent information. Governments - especially municipal ones - don’t historically have the bandwidth or resources to sustain massive data streams over time. And even the best models, once created, are mere snapshots of a once-current state of the system being studied (especially when they use data that were already a few years old at the time of simulation). And so, however revelational they may be, they are instantaneously outdated and increasingly irrelevant as the city begins to design interventions based on its original insights. That is, unless the model is formatted to automatically update. Even the comprehensive and beautifully simplified set of visualizations provided by Shaun Fernando from PwC (who presented at the SUS Seminar this quarter), for instance, would be more chronically useful to San Jose if it was updated live or at least semi-regularly. If cities are to truly and permanently augment their decision making with holistically-managed data streams, then keeping this information current is mandatory. This is even more necessary in order for cities to be able to track the progress towards long term goals and consequently measure the effectiveness of interventions over time.

Shaun Fernando presenting PwC's work on Climate Smart San jose at the SUS Seminar on February 22, 2018.

Shaun Fernando presenting PwC's work on Climate Smart San jose at the SUS Seminar on February 22, 2018.

The overarching theme for data utilization in city management is this: we need to do better. Cities are almost-impossibly complex systems that no model can perfectly emulate, but specific ones can still be useful. For that to happen, more collaborative conversations and interactions are required for data scientists and engineers at large to align their work with the need cities have for more informed decision making.

Environmental Racism in Houston's Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood

By Julianne Crawford, M.S. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Stanford

Houston has long been recognized as one of the leading industrial cities in the country, and more distinctly, the “energy capital of America”. With this title also comes its distinction as one of the pollution capitals of North America. Less well known, however, is that the polluting industries are concentrated around distinct regions of the city. The Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood is one such region whereby refineries, chemical plants, sewage treatment facilities, and hazardous waste sites encompass the homes of nearly 2,000 residents. Of this population, 98 percent are Hispanic, and many fall below the poverty line. Ultimately, the Manchester community is ignored by society and unprotected by the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. All of this adds up to the stark reality that the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood is a “sacrifice zone,” a “forgotten corner of the country where people are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” [1] This is just one of many examples around the world of “environmental racism”.


I was first exposed to the term “environmental racism” during a “toxic tour” led by Juan Parras, an environmental justice activist and the director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s). This toxic tour offered a humbling look at the industrial landscape of Houston’s Eastern end by exploring regions of the city, including the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, that are affected by the nearly 30 refineries and chemical plants that spew toxins into the air. Environmental justice is the belief that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, or race, has the right to a clean and healthy environment. “Environmental racism”, as apparent in these neighborhoods, demonstrates a complete disregard for environmental justice. It is the placement of low-income or minority communities in close proximity to environmentally hazardous or tarnished environments. As more profoundly expressed by Richard Bullard, “In the United States, based on the color of your skin and the money in your bank account, you’re literally breathing different air.” [2]


Harrisburg/Manchester is a small neighborhood of about 455 homes. Geographically, it is completely cut off from neighboring residential areas and encompassed by 21 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reporting facilities, 11 large quantity generators of hazardous waste, 4 facilities that treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste, 9 major dischargers of air pollutants, and 8 major stormwater discharging facilities [3]. The largest of these facilities are outlined in the following map (Figure 1). Furthermore, Figure 2a, showing a mural painted by children in the neighborhood, demonstrates the normalcy of this situation to the Harrisburg/Manchester residents. The mural depicts a playground in Hartman Park (see point 1 on the map), surrounded by refineries, highways, and chemical plants. Figure 2b depicts the horrific reality of this painting as a child plays in the park while thick grey smoke billows from one of Valero’s towers. According to Juan, local children refer to it as a “cloud-maker.”

Figure 1. Map of the Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood

Figure 1. Map of the Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood

Each of the areas we visited in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood highlighted the stark disparity in environmental equality. The neighborhood was desolate, wrought by pollution and poverty. Garbage lined the streets. Everything from general litter and debris, to old mattresses, tires, and stray dogs were common sites. We even visited an old Superfund site where an elementary school had previously been located. The school was forced to shut down when they found excessively high concentrations of lead in the children’s systems. Unfortunately, it was moved to a site 30-feet away from the I-10 and U.S. 59, two of Houston’s busiest highways. Instead of lead, the children are now exposed to high concentrations of CO, NOx, SOx, and VOCs from vehicle emissions. All the while, less than 10 miles in the distance, the Houston skyline serves as a reminder of the disparity.  

Figure 2. (a. Left) Mural in Hartman Park depicting the stark reality in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood. (b.Right) child playing in Hartman Park while smoke billows from Valero’s refinery

Figure 2. (a. Left) Mural in Hartman Park depicting the stark reality in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood. (b.Right) child playing in Hartman Park while smoke billows from Valero’s refinery


There is compelling evidence to prove that low-income minority populations are exposed to higher levels of environmental pollution and other forms of “environmental racism”. Looking at the race and income distribution in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood specifically, 98.96 percent of the total population (approximately 6,000) is comprised of minority groups, of which, 96.7 percent are Hispanic [4]. The median household income is approximately $38,600, and nearly one-third of the population lives below the poverty level [5]. Approximately 90 percent of people living in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood live within 1 mile of a chemical facility [6]. By comparison Bellaire, one of Houston’s wealthiest and primarily white neighborhoods, has an average household income of $226,333 and a poverty rate of 3 percent. Only 9 percent of residents live within 1 mile of a chemical facility [7].


These disparities become even more striking when comparing the health of residents in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood with residents in Houston’s west communities. Each year, an average of 484,000lbs of toxic chemicals are released into the Harrisburg/Manchester air from the 21 surrounding TRI facilities. For comparison, the Rice University neighborhood (only 10 miles away) has 0 TRI facilities and a release of 0lbs. In a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.a.s, it was found that the toxicity levels – derived from concentration values given by the reporting facility sources that release toxic chemicals into the air – in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood are between 3 and 12 times higher than the levels of neighborhoods in west Texas [8]. In terms of the Harrisburg/Manchester population’s health, this corresponds to a cancer risk that is 22 percent higher compared with the overall Houston urban area [9].


Throughout the SUS Seminar series, we discussed how urban systems can be modeled by several interlocking systems that all aim at supporting the human experience. Within this system, there are three primary objectives, namely sustainability, resilience, and well-being/equity. These objectives can be measured/tracked quantitatively and qualitatively using a variety of metrics and indicators which allow us to analyze the performance of the urban system. This report focuses primarily on the third objective: well-being & equity in the context of Houston’s urban system. Analyzing several metrics including race, income, proximity to environmentally hazardous facilities, and health, reveals the stark disparity in well-being and equity within Houston’s landscape.

It is important to note that the disparities highlighted in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood are not isolated. Entire parts of the world are considered sacrifice zones, such as the Niger Delta where massive amounts of oil are spilled every year, or Bangladesh where 3.5 million workers in garment factories produce goods to export to the global market [10], or even in East Palo Alto where low-income homeowners “living on an average salary of $30,000 per year” struggle to pay for and maintain their homes in a market where the average selling price is $3,000,000 [11]. Each of these scenarios, though not all directly related to environmental racism, demonstrate distinct instances of inequity in urban systems.

At the end of the toxic tour, we asked Juan why nothing had been done at a governmental level to protect these vulnerable communities. He said the reason is simple: because it would implicate the government and their powerful business partners. Although the metrics have been analyzed and research has been conducted, no concerted effort has been taken to systemically address the root cause. Following the tour, Juan encouraged us to internalize the disparities, educate others, and vote differently. By doing so we can begin to affect change in Houston’s urban system. Until then, organizations like t.e.j.a.s. can only ease the symptoms of the issue, because ultimately, environmental racism as depicted in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood is a systemic problem that must be addressed at its core.


[1] Moyers, B. (n.d.). Journalist Chris Hedges on Capitalism's ''Sacrifice Zones'': Communities Destroyed for Profit. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from

[2] Invisible Houston: Full Interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from

[3] Williams, S.L. (1999). Community Health Profiles: Harrisburg/Manchester Super Neighborhood.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Houston Chemical Facilities Put Vulnerable Communities in Double Jeopardy. (2016, October 27). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from

[7] Ibid.

[8] Double Jeopardy in Houston. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from

[9] Ibid.

[10] Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. London: Penguin.

[11] Chen, C. (2018, February). Presentation on Rebuilding Together Peninsula.                                                                                  

Advancing Transportation Equity in the Bay Area

By Robert Young, B.S. Candidate, Electrical Engineering, Stanford

Public transportation is a critical provider of opportunity for low-income and marginalized communities. This is particularly true in the San Francisco Bay Area, where low-income riders make up 54% of public transit ridership [1]. However, Bay Area public transit has been criticized as insufficient and expensive. If low-income and marginalized communities are supposed to be supported by public transportation, then what does this poor transportation quality mean for their quality of life? What problems contribute to inequality in the Bay Area transportation system, and how can transportation providers solve them?

Understanding Transportation Equity

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is responsible for coordinating transportation across the Bay Area. The MTC has focused its equity analysis on “communities of concern,” which they define as:

“census tracts having either 1) significant concentrations of both low-income and minority residents, or 2) significant concentrations of any four or more of the following: minority persons, low-income persons below 200% of the federal poverty level (about $44,000 per year for a family of four), persons with Limited English Proficiency, zero-vehicle households, seniors aged 75 and over, persons with a disability, single-parent families, and housing units occupied by renters paying more than 50% of household income on rent.” [2]

By MTC analysis, 20% of the Bay Area population lives in communities of concern, as shown in Figure 1. Although residents of communities of concern are more likely than the general population to commute by public transit, more than two thirds still commute by car [3].

For communities of concern, access to transportation also means access to jobs, education, and health care. Research at Harvard has shown that shorter commute times serve as strong predictors of upward social mobility.[4] This means that isolated communities are left stagnating in the Bay Area’s economic boom, while connected communities are better equipped to take advantage of socioeconomic opportunities at a larger scale.

Figure 1. Locations of MTC-defined “communities of concern” in the Bay Area [5].

Figure 1. Locations of MTC-defined “communities of concern” in the Bay Area [5].


Existing Challenges

Although the importance of reliable and efficient transportation for communities of concern is undeniable, the transportation challenges facing them are numerous.

The lack of affordable housing for low-income communities impacts these communities’ access to transportation. While the MTC reported that 82% of low-income Bay Area residents worked within their county of residence between 2006 and 2010 (compared to 73% of higher-income residents), this might not be the case for long [6]. Bay Area low-income jobs have grown with the region’s booming economy, but housing for low-income residents has been pushed outward from the urban economic centers. Roundtrip commutes lasting several hours are becoming increasingly common for low-income workers [7]. And these long commutes hold serious consequences for commuters’ health and happiness.

Transit services themselves also fail to meet the needs of communities of concern. For example, Caltrain has been criticized as catering only to high-income riders, particularly through its fare structure. High-income riders are far more likely to use discounted monthly or corporate Go passes, while low-income riders are left with the relatively costly one-way tickets or day passes [8].

Yet barriers to transportation also extend past purely economic concerns. In the SUS Seminar, Stephen Zoepf discussed his groundbreaking report that ridehailing services like Uber and Lyft contributed to substantial racial and economic discrimination. Zoepf published a paper in 2016 that revealed that riders with black-sounding names were cancelled on by Uber and Lyft drivers more than twice as often as riders with white-sounding names [9]. Even without racial discrimination, ridehailing services take ridership away from public transit, reducing funding and political support for important transportation services [10].

As autonomous vehicles become more widespread in the technological nexus of Silicon Valley, they, too, hold important equity considerations. Past ridehailing service providers have largely ignored the needs of the disabled community, one third of which report having inadequate transportation options [11]. But new autonomous vehicles are often taking the form of larger SUVs, potentially triggering legal requirements for ADA accessibility and new hope for better transportation access for the disabled [12].

Potential Solutions

A majority of the proposed equity-focused improvements to Bay Area transportation are centered on income inequality rather than social issues. In January 2018, the MTC proposed a “required opt-in” program for Bay Area transit agencies to grant low-income riders a 20% or 50% reduced fare. The program would apply to the five largest regional transit agencies that don’t already offer a reduced fare for low-income riders. However, the program’s $16 million price tag has led to concerns over service cuts or price increases for higher-income riders [13].

The San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) endorses this program as well as more systemic changes to Bay Area transit. Their recommendations include the development of a regional reduced fare pass that works across Bay Area transit agencies, like Seattle’s ORCA LIFT. They also recommend simplifying the process to apply for reduced fare and improving the usability of the Clipper card for low-income riders [14].

Inevitably, additions to the physical infrastructure of Bay Area transportation will be necessary. In order to meet sustainability and equity goals, these additions should be focused on public transit rather than cars. Lawmakers must consider service for communities of concern in planning the locations and formats of public transportation expansion. They must also consider the relationship between transit and affordable housing, in order to limit the impacts of transit on accelerating gentrification [15].

More broadly, Bay Area transit agencies must consider transportation from the viewpoint of users in communities of concern. Interviews and community engagement would likely reveal the relative importance of different transportation barriers impacting marginalized riders. Pilot programs should then seek to address these concerns in targeted settings, and successful programs should be replicated across the Bay Area. While the challenge of equitable transportation is certainly intimidating, conquering it is vital to the diversity and long-term economic and social success of the Bay Area. Local transit agencies will need to act boldly to create a more equitable transportation system that serves everyone, regardless of color, ability, or wealth.


[1] Arielle Fleisher, “Making Bay Area transit affordable for those who need it most,” San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, 26 June 2017, accessed from

[2] Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” July 2013, pES-2, accessed from

[3] MTA, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” 2013, p3-8.

[4] Mikayla Bouchard, “Transportation emerges as crucial to escaping poverty,” New York Times, 7 May 2015, accessed from

[5] MTC, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” 2017, Map 1.

[6] MTC, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” 2013, p3-9.

[7] Mary Newman, Nate Sheidlower, and Pablo De La Hoya, “Some Bay Area workers commute for hours for the sake of affordable rent,” 13 December 2016, accessed from

[8] Adina Levin, “Caltrain fare study update shows equity problems,” 7 December 2017, accessed from

[9] Yanbo Ge, Christopher R. Knittel, Don MacKenzie, and Stephen Zoepf, “Racial and gender discrimination in transportation network companies,” National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2016, accessed from

[10] Tracey Lindeman, “Ride-hailing is deepening social and economic inequity in the US,” Motherboard, 10 February 2018, accessed from

[11] Bryan Casey, “A Loophole large enough to drive an autonomous vehicle through,” Stanford Law Review, December 2016, accessed from

[12] Casey, “A Loophole large enough to drive an autonomous vehicle through,” December 2016.

[13] Adina Levin, “MTC committees review limited means-based fare proposal,” Green Caltrain, 15 January 2018, accessed from

[14] Fleisher, “Making Bay Area transit more affordable for those who need it most,” 26 June 2017.

[15] Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, “Transit-oriented development? More like transit rider displacement,” Los Angeles Times, 20 February 2018, accessed from

To what percent are humans responsible for extreme hurricanes? What does statistics tell us?

By Indraneel Kasmalkar, PhD Candidate in Computational & Mathematical Engineering (ICME)

... climate change likely increased Harvey’s seven-day rainfall by at least 19 percent ... climate change roughly tripled the odds of a Harvey-type storm.

These are bites from a National Geographic article [1] that highlights the impact of global climate change on Hurricane Harvey, the category 4 storm that wreaked havoc on the coast of Texas in late August 2017. The article cites a couple of papers that conducted these analyses. But how were those researchers able to get quantitive results in the first place? How can we confidently attribute the effects of anthropogenic climate change, a complex global phenomenon, to a specific storm? I would like to dive into one of the papers: "Attributable Human-Induced Changes in the Likelihood and Magnitude of the Observed Extreme Precipitation during Hurricane Harvey" by Mark Risser and Michael Wehner of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory [2].

A robust study of the impacts of anthropogenic climate change would require a physics-driven global climate model that could simulate the winds, the oceans, the CO2 emissions, the clouds, not to mention the coast and the terrain. With our current supercomputers we are not able to do these global simulations at high resolution in a reasonable amount of time, and our low resolution results are not accurate enough.

Instead, Risser and Wehner used the approach of extreme value statistics. At its core, this method looks at data concerning the occurrence of extreme events, say earthquakes, and then tries to fit a special curve through it so that we can estimate how likely it is for a large earthquake to occur. There are some concerns about using this approach: statistics generally works well for estimating average values but it is much harder to capture the extremes, partly because they are so rare and spread out, and especially in the case of predicting extreme events that have never occurred before. In fact, Stuart Coles, who developed the statistical model that Risser and Wehner used in their study, writes in his book [3]:

It is easy to be cynical about this strategy, arguing that extrapolation of models to unseen levels requires a leap of faith, even if the models have an underlying asymptotic rationale. There is no simple defense against this criticism, except to say that applications demand extrapolation, and that it is better to use techniques that have a rationale of some sort.

If we accept the premise of extreme value statistics, the next step is to acquire a data set on which this model can be applied. Risser and Wehner decided to use daily weather station measurement data in the Houston, Texas area, obtained from the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN). They had to clean up some of the data and choose a subset of stations to streamline the data set. But the biggest caveat is that there is no data prior to 1950. Is seventy years of weather station data enough to identify the contribution of human-induced climate change to a specific storm in Houston? Ideally I would have liked to see data from the start of the industrial revolution to truly capture the effects of CO2 emissions on global climate. But since our historical weather records do not go so far back in time, we are restricted to the 1950-2017 data set.

Now that we have a model and a data set, we need something to isolate the effects of human activity and natural activity. After all, Harvey's extreme devastation could simply be the result of the forces of nature alone. What could we use to separate the human and natural components? Risser and Wehner addressed this issue by using 1. CO2 levels, and 2. El Niño wind and sea temperature data. In particular, they took a time series data set of seasonally averaged global CO2 levels, and annually averaged values of the El Niño Southern Ocean Index (ENSO). The idea is that CO2 levels are a proxy for human activity, while the ENSO would capture natural variations in the climate. And this is an idea where skepticism would be very healthy. Can El Niño measurements truly capture all the natural variation in global climate? Is this approach good enough to account for all the complex non-linear ways in which CO2 levels can affect ocean temperatures, which in turn affect precipitation? But collecting enough data to be able to capture human and natural activities is hard. The proxies that Risser and Wehner have used are simple and straightforward, and that makes this analysis easy and transparent. My overall opinion is that there is a good theoretical idea here, but the numbers that come out from this study should not be taken literally unless there are a multitude of other studies that use similar approaches on varied data sets to yield the same results.

Nevertheless, if we agree to use CO2 levels and ENSO values, then we can use standard statistical procedures such as regression to isolate the contribution of one data series on another. In this case, we would end up with something akin to rainfall estimates for Houston, Texas along with two dials: The CO2 levels and the ENSO values. We could then dial the CO2 level up or down to see how estimates for extreme rainfall would vary.

With the ability to statistically isolate the effects of CO2, Risser and Wehner simply compared the model with 2017 CO2 levels to that with 1950 CO2 levels. For example, you can look at the model and figure out the probability of getting as extreme an event as Hurricane Harvey. If you keep this probability value fixed, but dial down to CO2 levels of 1950 you then get a storm with smaller rainfall values. How small? Roughly 19%. This is where the number in the original articles comes from: "... climate change likely increased Harvey’s seven-day rainfall by at least 19 percent."

To summarize, there are a lot of assumptions and modeling choices that go into this study which merit caution: Extreme value statistics is something to be used carefully at all times. Furthermore, weather data from 1950-2017 may not be enough to make strong statements about climate change. And isolating human and natural activities with CO2 levels and El Niño values may be too narrow of an approach.

It must be said that these statistical approaches have good, simple and transparent ideas. But in the end there is immense complexity in the global climate system. And we must acknowledge that this complexity may significantly obscure the meaning of the results that we get from statistical approaches.


[1] National Geographic. 2017. Climate Change likely super-sized Hurricane Harvey.

[2] Risser, M. D., & Wehner, M. F. (2017). Attributable human-induced changes in the likelihood and magnitude of the observed extreme precipitation during Hurricane Harvey. Geophysical Research Letters, 44.

[3] Coles, S. 2001. An Introduction to Statistical Modeling of Extreme Values. Springer-Verlag London Limited.

Feature image from Vox:

Saving Green: Environmental Sustainability and Affordability in Rental Developments

By Emmanuel Assa, B.S. CEE, Class of 2017

Two of the hottest topics in building design these days are environmental sustainability and affordability. This is especially true in places like the Bay Area in California, where affordable housing is a growing problem and environmental sustainability is a constant focus. However, the two are often placed in conflict - if it costs more to design and build a green building, how could it possibly be affordable? Green technology and materials can be expensive up front, but due to the lowering costs of technology, the consideration of life-cycle costs, and increased incentives for developers and homeowners, affordable environmental stewardship is more possible than ever.

A lot of the opposition to combining green development with low rental prices comes from the idea that creating green buildings is prohibitively expensive. While it’s true that green buildings can cost more up front, people often think that the additional costs are greater than in actuality. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development found that people believed that on average, green features added 17% to the cost of a building (Knox, 2015). In fact, the actual amount is more around a 2% increase in marginal cost (Knox, 2015). Another common complaint is the cost of hiring “green” designers or construction companies. As of right now, LEED-certified contractors or architects command a premium, and the difference in cost can be off-putting (Vamosi, 2011). Getting a building LEED-certified can also be costly, as LEED charges a varying amount for permitting that depends on the size of the building. For larger buildings, the cost of certification can even exceed $1 million (Vamosi, 2011). Though the amount is usually small in comparison to the entire project (a $400 million budget office building had a LEED certification fee of $1.08 million, or 0.27% of the total cost), it can still cause budget-sensitive developers to balk. And if they decide to go ahead with the project and certification, it often means an increase in the asking price of development units.

What makes this argument against green building flawed is the fact that it only considers up-front costs. The picture changes dramatically when you take into consideration life-cycle costs, which are made up of both upfront and continuous operating costs. Over the lifetime of a building, the operating costs actually outweigh its upfront costs. Green buildings perform far above average in terms of operating costs, because green buildings are designed to use less energy and water than normal, resulting in lower water and energy bills (Penny, 2012). This means that the owners of the building save more over time than they spend up front. For example, a major hotel project spent about $184,000 on energy efficiency improvements but saved about $58,000 a year - the improvements paid for themselves in a little over three years (USGBC, 2015). Consider this generalization: if energy costs in a building are $2 per square foot, making the building more energy efficient will add savings of about 30%, or $0.60 (Valhouli, 2008). Each year, a 100,000sq ft building would save $60,000, or a discounted net present value of $750,000 over its 20-year lifespan (Valhouli, 2008). All with a small upfront investment in the right technology. With life-cycle costs taken into account, the argument for green building becomes all the more convincing.

These “long-term” incentives are extremely important for low-income renters and homeowners. In affordable housing, whether public or private, renters are often asked to pay for utilities. If a building is made to be energy efficient, this means that the cost to those renters is greatly reduced, increasing the affordability of the housing (Schweitzer, 2016). Many cities with public housing projects are realizing this. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, “the local housing commission is completing floor-by-floor renovations in the five-story Baker Commons public housing facility with the goal of reducing energy use at least 20 percent” (Schweitzer, 2016). In Pittsburg, “affordable housing opened in February 2015 by the nonprofit ACTION-Housing Inc... provides homes for young adults phasing out of foster care and low-income designed to be capable of generating enough renewable energy to meet or exceed its annual energy demand” (Schweitzer, 2016). In both these cases, the aim is to make the developments more affordable for residents. With improved, cost-effective technology and retrofits, it’s possible to create housing developments that are even better suited to low-income inhabitants.

However, this altruistic streak very rarely applies to private housing developers. Though public entities and nonprofits are motivated by social good, it’s rare for private developers to feel the same. Not only that, but there’s often a sense of “split incentive” - why should developers pay for up-front improvements to the building if renters are the ones paying for utilities and reaping the savings (Valhouli, 2008)? In a nutshell, “investing in high-performance features can become a driver for returns for building owners by increasing tenant retention and reducing costs associated with lease churn” (Valhouli, 2008). Tenants understand the value of energy and water-efficient buildings, and will prefer them to rentals without. Tenants saving money on utilities will also be less likely to leave the rental in the long run, providing more reliable sources of income. Still, this doesn’t give an exact incentive for developers to specifically create low-income housing. That’s where policy comes in. One of the most prominent incentives for affordable housing is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which reduce the amount of tax the developer has to pay in exchange for the creation and upkeep of low-income rental units (ACTION, 2016). The LIHTC makes developing affordable housing attractive to for-profit developers, which would be hard-pressed to make housing affordable in regular market conditions. What makes the LIHTC more sustainable is the fact that it gives additional consideration to developments that also adhere to green development standards. For example, an Uptown Lofts development in Pennsylvania recived LIHTCs for meeting Passive House Institute U.S. energy efficiency criteria (Schweitzer, 2016). If that isn’t “tasty” enough for profit-seeking developers, it’s been shown that green apartment buildings often command higher rents than their counterparts, lease-up rates for green buildings typically range from average to 20% above average (USGBC, 2015). So even if some housing units are reserved as “affordable,” the developer can still charge above-market rates for the rest.

So, whether it’s through the lower cost of going green or through the increasing incentives to provide low-income housing, it’s getting easier and easier to develop housing that’s both environmentally friendly and affordable. Admittedly, policy has a large part in the creation of low-income housing, but the long-term cost advantages of going green helps to convince developers that the project is worth the compromises. In the end, the combination of efficient technology and policy allows for a win-win situation for both developers and low-income residents. Though in the past affordability and environmentalism may have seemed mutually exclusive, now the two go hand in hand. As we move forward into the future, we will hopefully continue to see this trend in our urban areas - equity for humanity, and environmental sustainability for the planet.



Remember the Suburbs: Why Suburbs Matter and Need Good Planning Just as Much as Cities Do

By Wendy Sov, Master of Public Policy, Class of 2017

Are cities of the future urban or suburban? What kind of urban developments would you like to live in throughout your life, and how do those desires affect urban systems?

From what I have observed at Stanford, academics in urban planning like to talk about cities as if they are the next big thing, as if cities will increasingly draw people like millennials from suburbs, and as if growth in suburbs will slacken because people are supposedly flocking to cities. However, cities of the future are both urban and suburban because the livelihood of one depends on the livelihood of the other. Contrary to popular belief that urban areas will attract more people from suburbs because of their high commercial activity, suburbs will not be phased out because modern suburban communities provide residents with the same, if not better, amenities as cities do. If anything, suburbs have developed an ability to attract wealth through increasing commercial activity and, as a significant sustainer of cities, must not be forgotten in urban planning considerations.

As mentioned in class, the suburb and city are mutually dependent on one another, so while all the attention for urban development is focused on cities, it is important not to forget the significance of good planning in suburbs. Cities are the hub of economic activity and networks – the type of place that attracts Richard Florida’s so-called Creative Class (Florida). Despite the decentralization of the workplace via new telecommunications technology, there is irreplaceable value in in-person interactions, disproving “the death of distance” concept predicted as a product of globalization. In short, people will continue to flock to cities because in-person networks matter. However, that does not negate the significance of good planning in suburban areas. Suburbs provide the residential space for employees who keep the city employment centers alive. Given the increasing rate of gentrification and the high housing costs in inner-city regions that are displacing low-income workers to outer regions today, suburbs become all the more important to cities’ economic vitality by providing housing for those who can no longer afford to live within the city. While cities provide essential job opportunities and social networks, suburbs provide the necessary housing for the regional population, and it will become increasingly important for suburbs to grow to support cities as this population continues to rise. It is consequently essential for modern urban planning concepts to be applied in not just cities, but also suburbs. Even better, local and state policies should actively take a regional approach, pursuing integrated planning between suburbs and cities.

Furthermore, contrary to what academics suggest, cities will not supplant suburbs because modern suburbs provide not just housing but also the same, if not better, amenities as cities. As much as academics like Richard Florida like to talk up the value of cities, suburbs are here to stay and will continue to grow alongside cities. In part because of the career-centered stage of life they are at, a lot of college students and young professionals see themselves moving to/living in the city and consequently believe cities are the future of society. In all of my urban studies courses, “urbanization” and “globalization” seem to be the sexy, trendy topics of discussion, calling for environmentally sustainable urban development and design strategies to anticipate and plan for future population growth that will supposedly concentrate in inner-urban regions. But when I return home to my suburban community in Chino Hills, CA, no one is talking about environmental sustainability, smart growth, “pedestrianizing” streets and walkability, increasing accessibility to transit, etc. Unless it’s one of my friends in the same career-oriented stage as me – and even then – no one is aspiring to live in the city in the long-run. Big-box retail development and distinguished schools allow modern suburbs to offer the same amenities as a city would without the perceived crime, congestion, and pollution. Furthermore, big box retail development in suburban communities like Chino Hills have been increasing job opportunities and economic growth by attracting more commercial activity to the city. So despite what the academics are saying, globalization and urbanization do not mean the death of suburbs. This is partly due to cultural and policy factors such as our nation’s love for Manifest Destiny and the American Dream, federal mortgage policies promoting homeownership, highway developments, new telecommunications technology, etc. But more importantly, suburbs will continue to persist and grow because suburbs are themselves living, breathing, self-sustaining systems with both housing and similar amenities as those found in urban areas.

As may be the case with many other people, where I want to live then depends on at what stage of life I am at, and this in turn affects the demographics of urban forms - namely, concentrating older and wealthier populations in suburbs. The stereotypical millennial, I think I would like to focus on my career after graduation in the city, which according to Florida has high creative capital because of its diversity, abundance of job opportunities, community engagement, “third places,” and authenticity (Florida). But in the long run, I hope to eventually move to a suburb to raise a family. It is this set of desires (that many others probably share, at least from what I have gathered in conversations with friends) that explain more family households and wealth in the suburbs, and more diverse, young people in the city. Both cities and suburbs are attractive, but to different people depending on personal preferences and (to a large extent) what stage in life they are at.

At the end of the day, urban issues are regional issues that cannot be siloed within jurisdictions, so both cities and suburbs need to be planned for. The former will of course continue to grow, but so too will the latter because suburban communities provide housing and attractive amenities for families and older folks. Like cities, then, suburbs need rules to incentivize good planning. As Emily Talen emphasizes in City Rules, urban form is heavily influenced by rules. It is because of rules that cities today have functioning wastewater management, fire prevention and protection, and pervasive accessibility to utilities, but now that conditions have improved, we as society sense less the importance of the connection between rules and physical outcomes. Smart urban planning then becomes all the more important in today’s relatively more sophisticated cities to anticipate and accommodate future growth, and especially because suburbs have carbon footprints that are proportionally and absolutely larger than cities, it is also all the more important for urban planners to focus their attentions on suburbs as well as cities in order to build environmentally, economically, and equitably sustainable regional communities.


Florida, Richard L. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Urban vs. Suburban. Digital image. True Performance. 15 August 2016. Web. 28 November 2016. <>.

The Future of Regulation and Free Markets for Energy

By Melissa Reardon, M.S. Class of 2017, Environmental Fluid Mechanics & Hydrology

Regulation and free markets have both been suggested as ways to encourage decreasing energy consumption and resulting pollution, particularly with regard to greenhouse gases. Regulation comes in a variety of forms, including subsidies, mandates, and cap-and-trade markets, each resulting in different prices for conventional and renewable energy. In free markets, prices are decided solely by competition between privately owned businesses.

Proponents of free markets for energy argue that free markets are more efficient and lead to clearer price signals to consumers (Morgan, 2016; Murphy, n.d.). While a free market certainly sounds appealing, it is not a very realistic end goal. First, the large-scale energy market has never been completely “free”; oil and gas, the main conventional sources of energy, have received subsidies since 1918 (Pfund & Healey, 2011). Second, many of the major technologies in the energy sector required subsidies from the government to become as large-scale as they have (Pfund & Healey, 2011).

Instead, it is more realistic to plan for regulation as the main tool to encourage decreases in consumption in the future. Not only has regulation been a part of the energy market from its beginnings, but it has also led to improvements in efficiencies and technologies. For example, regulation on sulfur dioxide pollution in the form of amendments to the Clean Air Act, new source performance standards, and other mandates led to innovation in sulfur dioxide control mechanisms for power plants (Taylor, Rubin, & Hounshell, 2005).

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are another example of successful regulation. The CAFE standards were created in 1975 to make car manufacturers “increase […] the fuel economy of the passenger car and light-duty truck fleets sold in the United States” (Committee on the Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Board on Energy Environmental and Energy Systems, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, 2002, p. 1). These standards directly contributed to increasing gas mileage efficiencies in cars throughout the United States (Fig. 1) and, as a consequence, led to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions for drivers across the country (Committee on the Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Board on Energy Environmental and Energy Systems, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, 2002).

Fuel economy.jpg

Fig. 1. Fuel economy of new and on-road cars and light trucks, respectively, from 1965 to 2001 resulting from the CAFE standards. Source: Committee on the Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Board on Energy Environmental and Energy Systems, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, 2002, p. 16.

However, regulation also comes with its own set of problems that will need to be addressed for it to be used effectively. The first problem is rebound effects. Increased efficiency does not necessarily lead to decreased consumption; instead, consumers tend to buy more energy efficient items, resulting in the same amount of consumption (Herring & Roy, 2007). This could be addressed with changes to the price of energy that better encapsulate the negative externalities or “true cost” of energy sources.

The price of energy raises a second problem with the current regulation: subsidies. Worldwide, oil and gas companies today receive subsidies of over $500 billion. By comparison, wind and solar companies receive subsidies totaling $66 billion (Barlag & Bruner, 2014). From a historical perspective, renewable energies have also received significantly smaller subsidies in the United States than oil and gas companies have received over their respective tenures. From 1918 to 2009, the average annual subsidy for oil and gas companies was $4.86 billion 2010 dollars. Renewable energies, by contrast, received an average of $0.37 billion 2010 dollars per year from 1994 to 2009 (Fig. 2, Pfund & Healey, 2011). By equalizing the subsidies, the price of different energy sources could be more accurate and act as a better signal for consumers to switch to renewables.

Subsidies image.jpg

Fig. 2. Historical average annual energy subsidies from the United States federal government for oil and gas (O&G), nuclear energy (nuclear), biofuels, and renewables over their respective tenures. Source: Pfund & Healey, 2011, p. 29.

Regulation has always been involved in the energy markets in the United States and will likely continue to be so. It has been an effective tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sulfur dioxide pollution through, respectively, CAFE standards and changes in legislation, standards, and mandates. However, in the energy market, regulation may need to take on characteristics of free markets, specifically clearer price signals. These price signals may be improved through prices that incorporate negative environmental externalities or through equal subsidies for conventional and alternative energies. With these changes, regulators and legislators should be able to more effectively guide consumer behavior toward energy sources with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.


Barlag, P. A., & Bruner, P. (2014). No Free Market for Energy. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved from

Committee on the Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Board on Energy Environmental and Energy Systems, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council. (2002). Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Herring, H., & Roy, R. (2007). Technological innovation, energy efficient design and the rebound effect. Technovation, 27(4), 194–203.

Morgan, T. (2016). The Case For Free-Market Energy: Removing Energy Subsidies And Price Controls Improves Market. Retrieved from

Murphy, R. P. (n.d.). Why Free Market in Energy? Retrieved from

Pfund, N., & Healey, B. (2011). What Would Jefferson Do?: The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America’s Energy Future.

Taylor, M. R., Rubin, E. S., & Hounshell, D. a. (2005). Regulation as the Mother of Innovation: The Case of SO2 Control. Law & Policy, 27(2), 348–378.

Should cities be planned at all?

By Stanley Gu, Class of 2019

Given the challenges of measuring and providing for quality of life in urban systems, and our successful and failed attempts to do so throughout history, should cities be planned at all? Or are they better off left to grow organically?

A lively street in a haphazardly planned Shanghai neighborhood.

A lively street in a haphazardly planned Shanghai neighborhood.

Planning and organic growth are yin and yang; both contribute to a city’s well-being, supporting and energizing one another. Here, we consider organic growth to be the social and economic activities of ordinary citizens, while planning consists of activities and developments organized by local officials. Many modern metropoles like Shanghai and London started out as small villages, which then grew over time in a patchwork of both planned and organic regions. First, we will examine the separate roles that these two elements play, and how losing one or the other can hurt a city. On the other hand, when planning and organic growth work together, they can benefit urban areas in surprising ways.

Organic growth is the life force of the city. Built completely from scratch, China’s Tianjin eco-city is a prime example of planning without organic growth. In most situations, people and infrastructure grow together. But in eco-cities, the infrastructure is built first, creating empty shells devoid of their organic element: human activity. Urban well-being depends not just on physical capital, but also on human and social capital – the thriving farmer’s market, busy storefronts, neighborhood watch groups, parent-teacher associations, networks of friends, and more. These qualities usually arise organically, as people form grassroots organizations or jumpstart the economy with entrepreneurial activity. Optimizing and building a city from scratch may sound great in theory, but without people and the energy and creativity they bring, urban areas remain dull. Much like a half-empty stadium, the physical infrastructure is there, but the human activity is too small to fill it with life, or even justify it economically. In time, however, people will move in and bring that organic element, and Tianjin eco-city may still prove to be a success.

Nevertheless, planning does have an important role: steering us toward collective goals we cannot achieve on our own. As we learned from the Global Footprint Calculator, most of our ecological footprint comes from our collective infrastructure – roads, waterways, hospitals, and the electric grid – which is most effectively improved through coordinated, planned action. For example, my own hometown of Fremont, California has decided to invest in bicycle and pedestrian paths, which will shape our urban form and well-being in ways beyond any one individual’s capability. In the Bay Area, park agencies like the East Bay Regional Park District protect our shared wildlands and provide access to trails. Moreover, governments can provide for the vulnerable, such as by keeping housing affordable and uplifting distressed citizens.

Considered in isolation, planning and organic growth both have benefits and drawbacks. But the more interesting question is how these two elements interact with and support each other. In many cases, the government kindles a project that takes off when citizens take ownership of it. Conversely, citizen-initiated action can blossom and mature with the help of local officials.

Participatory budgeting in New York.

Participatory budgeting in New York.

Planning is often most successful when it stimulates and supports the city’s creative energy. More and more, a big part of planning is listening to and engaging with the community. The point of this long and frequently frustrating process is to instill a sense of ownership and potentially tap into the enormous power of everyday citizens. In the case of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a local government sets aside funds and lets the public decide how to spend that money through in-person or online forums. What starts out as a government-led procedure transforms into grassroots community engagement. Another example of planning that engages communities is the Tule Ponds Wetland Preserve in my hometown of Fremont. The City and county water district put in the initial investment - new stormwater percolation ponds and an educational center. With the efforts of a dedicated geologist, hordes of high school volunteers who descend upon the site every year, and funding from local businesses, that initial investment has bloomed into a community project. In addition to the habitat restoration done by volunteers, the preserve has educated thousands of young children and exposed even more high schoolers and college students to environmental education. That is something one cannot plan for.

Other times, citizens are the ones who initiate an effort, which is amplified when governments lend their funding and support. Guerrilla urbanism projects, in which citizens install their own crosswalks, parks, gardens, or bicycle lanes, are famous for their daring nature and complete lack of bureaucratic red tape, but can fail to produce lasting change without administrative support. Such projects really become interesting, though, when leaders take notice and incorporate those changes into their own policies. This is precisely what happened in Hamilton, Ontario, when citizens deployed traffic calming measures and painted crosswalks. Though confrontations with the municipal government were tense at first, officials grew more receptive over time and even considered extending the idea to other intersections.

Making the relationship between planning and organic growth work is by no means easy. Humans are complex – we have subconscious desires, cultures, histories, memories, emotions, and entrenched habits. It’s difficult to engage with citizens when people are busy with their own lives, when bureaucracy doesn’t allow it, or when opinions and voices conflict and confuse. In the face of these challenges, it seems easier to start with a blank slate and plan everything to perfection, or to simply give up on planning altogether and leave things in the hands of pure free market economics. Though these shortcuts may seem to cut through the frustration, they are also potentially dangerous to our well-being. But when planning, governance, and organic growth interact symbiotically, the result can be more rewarding than anyone first imagined.


As we face global challenges of sustainability, are cities part of the problem or part of the solution?

By Katherine Phan, B.S. Computer Science, Class of 2017

Congested, polluted, unsustainable: these are words that have been used to describe San Francisco and other cities that share the same issues surrounding transportation, air quality, and even sanitation. Growing cities around the world have contributed to the majority of global ecological deterioration: it is estimated that they have added to 75% of global carbon dioxide emissions, affordable transportation does not exist in a majority of most cities; and there is not enough agriculture to affordably and fairly feed everyone in the world. Though shelter is a human right, homelessness is also pervasive in many developed cities--for example, San Francisco’s shelters can barely accommodate half of the city’s homeless population.6 As cities grow in size (with up to 66% of the world’s population living in one by 2050), so will these issues, causing escalating damage nationally and globally.

Yet though they’ve contributed to their fair share of human rights issues (water quality, air quality, shelter), cities are an important center of development, and should be the focus of most urban planners in the near future.  Cities are also extremely important for developing solutions to sustainability challenges, due to the high density of people, which could offer more potential to scale up to other cities. Grouping large populations together actually increases transportation efficiency, and cities have already been improving carbon emissions per capita. According to Citylab, “twelve large metros – including New York, (2.3 tons per person), Los Angeles (1.8 tons), San Diego (1.9 tons), Phoenix (1.9 tons), Washington, D.C. (2.3 tons), Miami (2.2 tons) and Seattle (2.2 tons) – rank among the 50 lowest emitting metros.” Abroad, Barcelona is converting itself to a pedestrian city, in which cars are banned within a series of “superblocks” to eliminate traffic from approximately 60% of roads. Similarly, Los Angeles, a city with double the population, has successfully implemented similar “road diets” that reduce the number of car-only roads, decreasing the number of pedestrian and cyclist collisions without decreasing traffic flow. Though each city has its own cultural idiosyncrasies, they all share similar urban systems properties; one solution in Gresham, OR can be expanded to Seattle, and to San Diego, and so forth.

It may be easy to categorize cities as either strictly part of the problem, or pinpoint them as the sole solution for the future, but population density is a fundamental property of urban systems. Thus, urban planners should understand the ever-growing importance of developing cities for high volumes of people; with an exponentially increasing world population and the rise of “mega-cities”, it is imperative to implement the correct infrastructure and policy solutions. Failing to do so is to risk the consequences of more flawed approaches to wicked problems, and to risk the slow but sure demise of the city, the environment, and humankind.