Expert: Electric vehicles, ride sharing among innovative ways to improve transit |

Expert: Electric vehicles, ride sharing among innovative ways to improve transit

Claire Cudahy
Daniel Sperling is a professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy at UC Davis. He recently spoke on transportation revolutions at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center in Incline Village, Nevada.
Courtesy / California Air Resources Board |

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Professor Daniel Sperling has dedicated his life to the study of transportation. Though travel through the Tahoe Basin may come with its own unique challenges, Sperling focuses on the bigger picture that is affecting every town and city in the United States: our unyielding dependence on cars — single-occupant cars to be exact.

“We’ve created a transportation monoculture. Single-occupant cars account for almost all of our travel,” said Sperling during his Aug. 11 lecture at the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center in Incline Village. “Our transportation system looks almost the same as it did in the 1940s. Sure, there are more interstate highways and freeways. The car is safer and more reliable, but from a functional point of view, not much has changed.”

According to Sperling’s research — which he conducts at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, where he works as a professor and director — in the U.S. we have eight cars for every 10 people.

As a result, $100 billion is spent every year on road infrastructure, and individually, we each spend on average $9,000 a year to own and operate a vehicle.

From an environmental standpoint, cars cause close to half of air pollution in urban areas, said Sterling.


On the bright side, innovation in transportation is imminent, said Sperling, and it has started in what he sees as three “revolutions.”

As these revolutions progress, they will result in transportation that is “less expensive, less resource intensive, less carbon intensive, and more accessible.”

The first revolution is vehicle electrification.

“We are now on a path where we are almost 100-percent certain we are going to electrify our light duty fleet in the next few decades,” said Sperling, who himself drives a Toyoto Mirai operated by a hydrogen fuel cell, which he was able to fuel up in Truckee at the only hydrogen station in the area.

Ride-sharing is the second wave that will greatly impact how we get from point A to point B, said Sperling. But it’s not just a matter of using apps like Uber and Lyft — though it’s a start.

“Most of the services that they provide right now are really glorified taxi services. The reason I feel confident that this is the path forward is that Uber and Lyft have introduced services that include multiple passengers. They are certain that this will be their primary business in the future,” explained Sperling.

“Now you can have small buses and vans that operate on demand — micotransit services that operate the same way as Uber.”

The third revolution is vehicle automation.

“Going driverless — though this one is not quite here depending on how you think of it,” said Sperling.

Through these developing transportation revolutions, Sperling believes we can get fewer cars on the road and move toward a more environmentally friendly, efficient and accessible transportation system.

These innovations are crucial because existing public transportation options, save for ones in high concentration urban areas, are not working.

“Right now, on average, the revenue from a user covers about 30 percent of the operating cost and none of the capital cost,” explained Sperling. “In the Tahoe region it’s worse than that I suspect. That’s a challenge.

“What we need is a suite of transportation services that compete with the car because the car really does provide amazing service, and there is no one thing that can replace it.”

Sperling is a professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy at UC Davis. He is also the author of “Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability” and a board member of the California Air Resources Board.


The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) is currently working on putting together an updated Regional Transportation Plan. A draft of the plan is expected out this fall.

The TRPA, in conjunction with the Truckee-Donner Public Utility District, a consultant team and a Plug-in Electric Vehicle Coordinating Council, is also working to increase plug-in electric vehicles in the region through a readiness project.

The project aims to establish the Tahoe-Truckee region as a plug-in electric vehicle destination and corridor, and to increase local adoption of these vehicles. The plan will be finalized by May 2017.

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