This week, the Climate Conversations team are joined by Zak Accuardi, a Senior Program Analyst at TransitCenter, and former research fellow at Project Drawdown.
Zak explains how improvements to public transportation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while improving the lives of a community's disadvantaged people. Zak and the team explore some of the choices both travelers and urban land use planners need to make in promoting a healthy climate.
We also discuss Zak’s role in Project Drawdown, which identifies the 100 most impactful climate change solutions that we can access immediately, and ask Zak about its future.
If you’re enjoying our Climate Conversations podcast, you can subscribe on your favorite podcast platform to hear the latest episodes first. Find us on:
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:00:00.38] ZAK ACCUARDI: Public transportation is an equalizing force. So once you start building buses and trains that give everyone equal access to these different opportunities, then you start to turn that story around. And it just so happens that that also ends up being really good for the environment.
[00:00:18.75] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:00:24.94] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Welcome to Climate Conversations. I'm Rajesh Kasturirangan. And this week, we have Zak Accuradi, who works for the TransitCenter in New York and was also involved with Project Drawdown before that. And of course, as usual, I have my comrade in arms.
[00:00:42.25] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Dave Damm-Luhr.
[00:00:44.07] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And I think we're going to have a lot of fun with Zak.
[00:00:46.82] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Yeah, I'm looking forward to what Zak has to say in terms of transportation and justice issues. We haven't covered that yet in our podcast conversations.
[00:00:54.39] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Over to Zak.
[00:00:56.87] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Welcome, Zak.
[00:00:57.83] ZAK ACCUARDI: Thank you. It's great to be here.
[00:00:59.27] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So Zak, you're young, and yet, you've already had a pretty varied life. What drives you?
[00:01:04.70] ZAK ACCUARDI: Well, my career has really been focused on energy and climate change. And I got into the environmental sustainability space during college. I came from Portland, Oregon. It's where I'm from originally. And I was brought up in an environment where consciousness about environmental issues was sort of taken for granted.
[00:01:26.36] As I started to get into my college education, I was studying environmental engineering. I started to understand a lot of the global issues that face the environmental community. And that's really what brought me to the energy and climate space. And that's been the focus of my work since, is climate change mitigation and making sure that we protect the world that we have and the people who live in it.
[00:01:51.38] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: And I've noticed that there's a real transportation thread through a lot of what you're doing. There's an obvious energy connection there. Can you say a little bit more about where transportation fits in your trajectory?
[00:02:04.16] ZAK ACCUARDI: Absolutely. So I read a really powerful book called Green Metropolis after college that got me thinking more about how urban planning and the cities that we live contribute to climate change, but more powerfully, how policy at the urban scale can help be a powerful lever to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And that set me sort of on the path that I've been on now which has been more transportation-focused.
[00:02:32.63] A lot of the conversations that I had been exposed to in kind of the mainstream energy and climate space, when it comes to transportation, they focus on electrification and low-carbon fuels and this sort of thing, which are of course powerful climate change interventions and really important ones. But what really attracted me to this space that I'm in now which is more focused on public transportation, a little bit less sexy, buses, trains, is that public transportation is something that makes cities work better. Public transportation can be the economic engine of a city. It empowers disadvantaged communities to be able to access opportunities that they might not otherwise have.
[00:03:20.04] And the most sort of inclusive and vibrant cities in the world have really strong public transportation networks. That's something that, growing up in the US, even in a city like Portland which is relatively famous for its urban planning, still, most people in Portland drive, the vast majority. And there's not as much of a focus in the sustainability community in general, in my experience, in interventions like public transportation, like even investments in biking and walking infrastructure, which do all of these other things for society to make it a better place to live, a more equitable place to live that also have all of these other benefits in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
[00:04:07.70] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Can you say a little bit about where equity fits in the scheme of things for your work at the TransitCenter?
[00:04:14.15] ZAK ACCUARDI: Yeah, I think it's pretty central to our work in a lot of ways. At the TransitCenter, our mission is improving public transportation in the US. And we work in cities across the country even though we're based here in New York.
[00:04:28.22] We work in a few different ways. We do research. We do advocacy work, and we're also a grant-making organization. So we support primarily local community advocates working on a lot of causes in cities around the country.
[00:04:42.62] Equity is pretty central to our work in the sense that public transportation is a tool for social justice in a lot of ways. The investments in our transportation system over the course of the last 50 or 60 years, in particular, and the policies that have led to those investments have created an extremely unequal transportation system, one that privileges people who have access to cars and access to housing that they can afford near the center of cities so that they can get to their jobs, to health care, to good schools. And there is quite a substantial body of research that shows the implications of today's unequal distribution of transportation access for low income and minority communities in terms of reducing their access to economic opportunities, educational opportunities, health opportunities.
[00:05:42.01] Public transportation is an equalizing force. So once you start building buses and trains that give everyone equal access to these different opportunities, then you start to turn that story around. And it just so happens that that also ends up being really good for the environment.
[00:06:01.11] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yeah, and I would like to talk a little bit more about the dual benefit, right, because it so happens that the very things that privilege the interests of the elite, like suburbs and car-oriented transportation, are also the interests, you could say, of the fossil fuel industry, right?
[00:06:24.47] ZAK ACCUARDI: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think that there's a big challenge, particularly in public transportation now because you mentioned the dynamic of sort of the central city versus the suburbs. That dynamic is changing now, which is to say that people are moving constantly. And in a lot of cities, we're seeing issues of gentrification and, in particular, displacement, which are leading to a little bit of a change in the distribution of wealthier people and low-income people. And that presents some real challenges to public transportation network.
[00:07:05.75] So for example, in Portland, Oregon where I'm from, the transit agency has been doing some really good research about its own ridership patterns, how many people are using public transportation in different parts of the city. One of the interesting things that they've found and one thing that will be really challenging for the agency to address is that in the center of the city, the place where public transportation is best positioned to succeed, a lot of wealthier people who are less inclined to use public transportation have been moving in, have been scooping up the most desirable real estate in the city. And now they're using public transportation less, which puts the public transportation agency, which is called TriMet, in a tough spot because their most loyal customers are now moving out to the fringes of the city where public transportation is less robust.
[00:07:56.75] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Right. So what's the TransitCenter's response to these kinds of developments?
[00:08:02.54] ZAK ACCUARDI: Well, we talk as often as we can about what we call useful transit, which is public transportation that runs frequently, that runs reliably, that runs quickly, that's affordable and which is, of course, safe. And the most important sort of philosophy for a public transit agency to have is that you need to put useful transit where the people are who need to use it and where as many people as possible are there to use it.
[00:08:34.56] People who don't have a background in transit planning and, in general, people who don't ride public transit on a regular basis often have a hard time understanding that transit doesn't work the same way that highways do, that cars do. It's not just about putting a route between two places that you want to connect. It's about running buses or trains as frequently as possible in as straight a line as possible in a corridor where there is as many people as possible. The economics of transit really depend on those factors aligning.
[00:09:11.03] So it just works a little bit differently than cars do. And a lot of the governing boards that oversee transit agencies, they're often filled with people who don't understand that sort of fundamental concept. And so TriMet happens to be an agency-- to go back to that example, TriMet happens to be an agency that really does understand that concept. But many other agencies have a lot of trouble even accepting those basic principles that make public transportation viable in the first place.
[00:09:40.92] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So what are the consequences of not getting it?
[00:09:44.87] ZAK ACCUARDI: The consequences are that in a lot of cities across the US, we have public transportation networks that simply don't provide a useful service for a broad percentage of the population. Again, that's a historical artifact of systematic disinvestment from public transportation systems that goes back not just 50 years since we've been building out the interstate highway system, but about 100 years since we started tearing out streetcar lines and focusing on automobile infrastructure.
[00:10:18.03] So in a lot of places, you just haven't had anywhere close to the level of investment that you would need to to have a functional transportation system. In other places, you don't have the land use patterns, the density of housing, the density of commercial office space, the density of retail and interesting things that people want to do. You don't have the density of those activities that enable public transportation to thrive. So there's a sort of chicken and egg situation in a lot of cities where you need more density for public transit to work, but you don't have enough public transit for people to want to start using it in the first place.
[00:10:58.64] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Fantastic. And I feel like given how important transportation is in the contribution to global warming, I think that there's a great opportunity to combine the justice issues and the equity issues with reducing our carbon burden. Is that something that the TransitCenter explicitly considers, or is that a secondary concern for you?
[00:11:23.42] ZAK ACCUARDI: It's something that we have to explicitly consider. In a lot of the communities in which we work, we would be turned away sort of at the front door, so to speak, if we weren't able to think about these issues in the context of public transportation systems. I already mentioned briefly gentrification and displacement. Policing is obviously also a big issue in the transportation space in general, including on public transit. If we're not able to engage on those issues, there are a lot of organizations who are focused on doing this work who should be really strong allies to us who we wouldn't be able to talk to at all if we weren't able to engage.
[00:12:04.05] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: We have listeners around the globe I think the last count was 76 countries are represented in the 1,500-some members of ClimateX. Do you guys at TransitCenter look to-- are there a couple of cities around the world that you think really have gotten it right? I know Portland, Oregon, your home city, is doing a lot of things right and they understand the useful transit concept. Are there places that you guys look to for doing it right around the world?
[00:12:32.50] ZAK ACCUARDI: Absolutely. I think London is an example that we go back to often. And part of the reason that London ends up being a great case study is because they have a very thoughtful governance model with their transit agency, which is, I think, under-appreciated as a sort of systemic barrier to climate change action and transportation and beyond. In the US, you have the typical sort of governance structures that you have-- the city who oversees and manages the streets and all of the infrastructure that's related to the streets, and then you have a transit agency that is responsible for operating transit.
[00:13:13.19] And that creates a sort of split incentive because you have one agency who wants the buses to run as fast as possible and another agency that they have to ask for permission to make those buses run faster by, for example, allocating street space for a bus lane, or updating traffic signals to give buses priority, or even just adding sidewalks to make it easier for people to walk to transit. And London has a model where the agency called Transport for London is controlled by the mayor of London and also operates the buses and the trains. So they've sort of aligned those issues together.
[00:13:51.72] In our work in New York, we also often cite the great work that has happened in Seoul in South Korea. There are a number of other cities in Europe, including Stockholm and Oslo, that we cite frequently in our work as well and that have been really good models for a diversity of reasons.
[00:14:11.85] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Do any of those cases that you just cited, London, Seoul, Stockholm, Oslo, also make the connection to land use that you were talking about before-- in other words, making sure that there are densities that will support good transit.
[00:14:27.52] ZAK ACCUARDI: Absolutely, and I think that there's an unfair advantage, particularly in the case of the European cities, where London and Stockholm and Oslo were built before cars were pervasive. And so the land use that's needed to support transit is sort of inherent in the historical development of their cities, which is a place where the US has been at a sort of coincidental disadvantage.
[00:14:55.09] What is concerning about the way the development has happened in the US is that a lot of governments in other parts of the world have looked to the US as a model for development in general and have worked, in many cases, I think in sort of destructive ways to replicate some of the urban planning that has happened in the US. So you're seeing a lot of environmental NGOs who have been really active, particularly in China and India, and now increasingly in Africa, who are working to reverse that trend.
[00:15:32.55] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Zak, this is fantastic on all this work on transportation. And we know that before that, you were a fellow with Project Drawdown, which is trying to collect the most important, we could say, solutions to the climate crisis. Can you tell us what you did with Drawdown and what that experience was like?
[00:15:54.83] ZAK ACCUARDI: Sure. Well, Project Drawdown I think is a really important undertaking. It's an effort to inventory the 100 most impactful climate change solutions that we have access to right now and understand whether they get us to the point of drawdown, which is the point in time where atmospheric carbon concentrations actually start to decline, not just where our emissions as a civilization are decreasing but where we're actually turning things around in the atmospheric system.
[00:16:28.40] And so in order to understand not just the impact of the 100 most impactful solutions but their sort of collective impact, because you have a lot of solutions that interact with each other, that required a pretty Herculean effort to build models for not just each of those 100 possible solutions, but integrate them all together so that you weren't double counting. So my work at Project Drawdown was as one of an army of research fellows who were grad students, practitioners, consultants who were brought on to build those models and make sure that they could talk to each other, that each of those models was connected, that they were built on the same assumptions, the same data sets, et cetera.
[00:17:22.10] And in particular, I built three models and sort of led three pieces of research, one focused on a plant-rich or a low-carbon diet, one focused on waste combustion or waste-to-energy technology, and the third focused more speculatively on the potential impacts of driverless cars.
[00:17:46.73] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Mhm. And what exactly did you do when you were working on these problems?
[00:17:53.36] ZAK ACCUARDI: So the research process at Project Drawdown is extremely thoughtful, and I really admire the work that the research team has done to sort of build a research framework for this massive undertaking. For me as a fellow, it started with doing a comprehensive literature review basically trying to find every major respected, rigorous publication in the context of the plant-rich diet, for example-- what is the current state of the practice, what is the current state of knowledge when it comes to understanding what impact our dietary choices have on the environment, and then also identifying what data are people using to answer that question and which of that data can be adapted into an Excel-based model for Project Drawdown.
[00:18:48.68] So after compiling literature reviews summarizing all of the sort of world of research that was there and then data from a diversity of sources, then it was about actually building a model that can estimate-- in this case, for every solution, it's about the same question. What is the possible climate change mitigation impact of each solution over the course of the next 30 years? And then for most solutions, there's also an economic model. So what is going to be, in broad strokes, the sort of cost and benefit of implementing this solution on a global scale?
[00:19:30.25] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Zak, can you tell our listeners a little bit about what's ahead for Project Drawdown? I mean, data are changing minute by minute in terms of potential impact or connection to climate change, distribution of benefits or whatever. So can you help us understand where this is headed in terms of Project Drawdown?
[00:19:51.86] ZAK ACCUARDI: Absolutely. Well, bringing together an army of research fellows and bringing together the very impressive group of advisors and board members that Drawdown has, it's a big opportunity that Drawdown has seized to carry that work forward as not just an organization that published a book, but as a coalition of people who are allied together with a focus towards implementing solutions, not just talking about them, not just trying to understand them. So there are a few things that Drawdown really wants to do moving forward.
[00:20:30.12] One of them is to continue promoting the messages that are in the book, promoting this worldview that we need to start focusing on solutions, that we need to scale the implementation of these things that we know work, to expand the coalition, to carry forward those same messages, and then to take the data, the modeling, the research that we've been doing and make it as accessible as possible. So there's an ambition to put a lot more of the research online to make it available in a more accessible format and to make it easy for people around the world to use this research to support their implementation efforts in whatever form.
[00:21:12.50] The organization has also been doing some more direct advising with governments in various parts of the world, most notably with the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth of Nations has been interested in the Drawdown framework and is using that to inform their climate policies.
[00:21:31.20] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Great.
[00:21:32.00] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So for example, going back to the making the data and research accessible, you said you were doing sort of speculative work on driverless cars, autonomous vehicles. So if I'm a researcher at MIT or any other research institution around the world and I'm interested in autonomous vehicles, could I tap into and build on what you've already done and others have done?
[00:21:54.23] ZAK ACCUARDI: I think that would be fantastic. Certainly the vision for Drawdown right now is for the research on something like autonomous vehicles, which is, in the parlance of Drawdown, a coming attraction-- it's something that we don't know exactly what the impact will be. In the case of driverless cars, there's quite a range of possible impacts, which include positive ones but also could include negative impacts for the climate depending on how we regulate them.
[00:22:21.95] And as the state of knowledge evolves and changes, as we learn more about what those impacts will be or what they are starting to be once they start coming online, then the vision is for those data that underlie the Drawdown model to continuously be updated. So they will be continuing to look at new data sources, new peer-reviewed authoritative research they can incorporate into the model, and present that in a way that is available to researchers, to advocates, to policymakers moving forward. And there isn't currently the infrastructure to make that this sort of crowdsourced effort that it sounds like you're describing right now, but I think that it would be fantastic to move in that direction somewhere down the road.
[00:23:09.53] If people are interested in contributing and learning more about the research that's going on at Drawdown, they can email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch with the research team there.
[00:23:21.94] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Fabulous, thanks.
[00:23:22.84] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Thank you. I would like to talk a little bit-- because you're an early career person and you're already experiencing [INAUDIBLE] at least a couple of different projects, it would be great to find out how you see your own life and career choices being aligned with climate action and environment in general.
[00:23:46.22] ZAK ACCUARDI: Sure, yeah. I mean, one of the things that has really stayed with me from my time at MIT in the technology and policy program is the importance of policy in many forms in sort of setting the path that we are on in our cities, in our regions, in our countries. And so that space in policy is where my career will continue to focus.
[00:24:13.74] And I am quite interested, as you have gathered, in this sort of intersection between policies that are explicitly focused on energy and climate, and policies that have a lot of other benefits to society. Coming from an environmental advocacy background, I really love the idea that I don't have to convince anybody that climate change is a problem, but I can sort of subversively achieve a lot of climate benefits through other work. And so that's where I want to continue to be focused.
[00:24:48.37] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: What kind of other work might that be, like, more like the kind of work you're doing on sort of transit equity, or something radically different?
[00:24:58.75] ZAK ACCUARDI: Yeah, I mean, I love the opportunity that focusing on city policy presents not just because of that alignment between equity, between economic opportunity, between creating vibrant communities and climate change, but because city policy is, compared to national and international policy, very dynamic. There are a lot of opportunities to make change, and it allows for people to be engaged in a way that's much more immediate in their lives, people not just like me who are interested in policy at this level, but people who are invested in their neighborhoods, people who care about their kids having access to education and their family having access to high-quality health care, and people who are affected on a day-to-day basis by the transportation choices that they make and that they're forced to make by city planning policy.
[00:25:55.75] And these issues are very immediate to people, very tangible. They affect how much rent is and these sorts of things. So these immediate day-to-day concerns really connect to climate and energy use in a tangible way when you bring it down to that city policy level.
[00:26:14.78] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: OK. So I mean, I feel like as our lives and careers branch out into these intersecting concerns, I do feel like the combination of understanding technical issues but also having a feeling for the social implications will be increasingly more important.
[00:26:35.58] ZAK ACCUARDI: Absolutely. I mean, you can't consider technological solutions in a vacuum. And I know that that's been a theme in some of your discussions in the past.
[00:26:43.41] The social and the political realities in which technical solutions exist really determine to what degree we can adopt these technologies, these solutions that we know will make a difference. And navigating the politics, understanding the localized context in which all of this implementation has to happen, that's again one of the things that I think for me really appeals to focusing at the local level, is that it really helps you stay grounded in the day-to-day reality of the people that you're trying to help, but also the very localized politics that ultimately determine whether anything gets done.
[00:27:23.47] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Well, I do want to end with a parting magic wand question. So if you had a magic wand, and you could wave it and you could make the world a better place, what would you do?
[00:27:35.19] ZAK ACCUARDI: At the local level when people are standing in the way of good climate policy, they're doing things that are extremely rational. So you have people who are living in neighborhoods where maybe they grew up or maybe they've lived for a long time where they have a house, maybe with a white picket fence. They have a garage where they keep one car, maybe two cars, sometimes even three cars.
[00:28:03.84] And in order to have climate-friendly policy at the local level, you really need to build relatively dense neighborhoods, relatively dense communities. And you need to start taking away things that people have taken for granted for a long time, like free parking on the street, which is really, really difficult because these are things that people have, for a long time, been given for free in light of city policies that, again, have existed for a really long time.
[00:28:39.63] And people are accustomed to the neighborhoods that they have. Even people who are otherwise very progressive on climate change, on energy use, are very, very resistant to change when it comes to the actual fabric of the neighborhoods that they live in, the places where they grew up, and things like driving, which they do every day. And that kind of change really scares almost everybody.
[00:29:06.91] And I think that it's really hard to understand issues that are as complex as affordable housing, as complex as public transportation, and transportation systems more generally because you also can't think of public transportation in a vacuum. These things are really complicated, and politicians aren't good at talking about them.
[00:29:28.28] So in terms of changing local politics, I would like to see that dialogue just be more robust. I'd like to see politicians and elected officials just being more honest about the trade-offs that are inherent in these decisions and more bold about saying, look, things have been this way for a long time, and we can't keep them like this. And we have to make some changes, and let's talk about how to do that, not whether we can.
[00:29:57.51] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Wow.
[00:29:58.77] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So it's really exhibiting some leadership in helping us all make the transition.
[00:30:05.31] ZAK ACCUARDI: Absolutely.
[00:30:06.18] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Thank you, Zak, so much for sharing your ideas and your thoughts with us.
[00:30:11.79] ZAK ACCUARDI: Both, thanks so much. It's really great to talk to you guys.
[00:30:14.52] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: I look forward to staying in touch with you, Zak.
[00:30:16.31] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Bye.
[00:30:16.80] ZAK ACCUARDI: Take care.
[00:30:19.43] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: You know, there are so many layers to transportation, and I'm really glad that we brought up this justice issue because it's so clear that, like anything else, climate change is going to impact how justice and transportation collide with each other. I mean, there are so many complexities. And I'm glad that the TransitCenter is addressing them in New York and elsewhere. And I really hope that we can get to see some of their solutions in the future.
[00:30:53.09] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Right. And it was really clear that urban development and transportation are key factors in grappling with climate change in the coming decades.
[00:31:03.75] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So if you have any thoughts, please share them with us at email@example.com, or of course on Twitter or Facebook.
[00:31:12.54] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: We look forward to hearing from you real soon.
[00:31:14.63] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Thank you for listening. Bye.
[00:31:16.31] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Bye-bye.
[00:31:16.91] [MUSIC PLAYING]