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Dan Sperling and the Future of Transportation

Dan Sperling is a top international eco-mobility researcher, and likely the most important voice regarding the automotive industry in California.


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Dan Sperling is a top international eco-mobility researcher, and likely the most important voice regarding the automotive industry in California. Dan is the Founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He’s the lead transportation board member on the influential California Air Resources Board (CARB, which takes 20 percent of his time). He also writes books, and has a new one coming out in March called The Three Mobility Revolutions (which are Electric, Pooling (as in ridesharing) and Automation).

I worked with Dan over two decades ago, and caught-up with him recently to discuss the rapidly changing mobility world and a few of CARB’s initiatives.

CARB was established in 1967 under then-governor Ronald Reagan, and I wondered about its current status. Dan replied, “CARB is evolving. It used to be a strictly command and control regulatory agency focused on technical fixes, tailpipes and smoke stacks. Now, because it’s been assigned responsibility for climate policy, it’s starting to address transportation and the economy in a much broader way—both in terms of activities as well as more extensive in terms of the economy.”

I immediately asked Dan about CARB’s SB 375 rule-making, aimed at reducing vehicles-miles-traveled (VMT). He responded, “SB 375 became a law in 2008 and started being implemented around 2011 in California. What it does is set greenhouse gas targets for the passenger travel in cities, excluding the effect of vehicle type—so the cities don’t get credit if there are more EVs—but they do get credit if there are fewer VMT, or better traffic flow. I think the most important effect has been to change the narrative for local governments, cities and counties.

“All the cities and counties in California are thinking how they can create more livable communities and how to reduce infrastructure costs. They realize all those strategies match perfectly with strategies to reduce VMT. And that’s been an epiphany. As a result, the public discussions, strategies of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and cities are changing, as they look more aggressively and sincerely at how to create a more livable transportation system, and livable cities. But currently, SB375 has no real carrots or sticks associated to it—yet. As a result its influence is small. But it is setting the stage, if we can get our act together to figure out how to restructure transportation funding to reward cities for doing the right thing—for reducing VMT.

“You know right now, most of the transportation funding formulas give local governments and states more money if they have more VMT. So the idea is they should get more money if they reduce VMT. We are just starting those public discussions. But that’s the direction we are heading.”

I was interested in what he thought about the automated vehicle (AV) future. “Automated cars—that will be transformational. But we are talking 30 to 40 years before it’s really transformational. We already have partially automated cars of course, they will get more and more automated, but not until we get to Level 5 driverless cars will they have a transformational effect.”

He added, “Those Level 5 driverless cars better be used mostly for pooling or there will be large increases in VMT, exacerbating equity concerns, road infrastructure, etc. I am devoting the next 5 to 10 years of my career to the 3 revolutions—shared mobility or pooling, AVs, and vehicle electrification—and setting up the incentives and policies to make sure that pooling happens and inefficient AV ownership doesn’t happen.”

Sperling said, “I’ve come to believe that pooling is the key idea, the key strategy that transportation people should be focusing on. Because pooling, and even glorified taxis [i.e., Uber and Lyft] create choice. Right now we have a car monoculture; there is very little choice. Once you create choice, then you have the political space to start adopting policies that will encourage more pooling and less individual ownership of cars and less VMT. The goal is more PMT—Passenger Miles Traveled—and fewer VMT.”

Sperling concluded: “So the basic strategy is to increase load factors in all vehicles. Once we increase choice and start adopting policies that encourage pooling, first/ last mile access to transit, we will be setting the stage for automated vehicles. Whenever the automated vehicles come along, it will be more likely that they will slot into pooled services, not individually owned. And the vehicles should be electric drive.” 

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