In March 2019, Julie Sell, Urban Transportation Fellow, sat down with Russ Stark, Chief Resilience Officer in Saint Paul's Mayor's Office, to discuss his role and looking forward to new transportation options for the City of Saint Paul.
Q: Russ, could you describe your role and the key priorities that you have?
A: When Mayor Carter came into office he decided to create three chief officer positions in the administration: resilience, innovation and equity. He talked quite a bit about how those three principles are the three primary lenses through which his administration is going to launch key initiatives. As Chief Resilience Officer I’m focused on thinking long-term about some of the things that are going to be impacting the city. The biggest and most obvious of those is climate change: reducing our impacts, primarily by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and figuring out ways the city can begin to adapt to the changing climate.
Q: You’ve said that the status quo is not sustainable. What are the potential impacts on the city that you’re seeing?
A: In Minnesota, our winters are already six degrees warmer than they were in 1970. We’re already seeing more heavy precipitation events and precipitation overall. Both of those trends are having effects on our city, and will continue to have more impacts on our city over time. So far almost all the warming has been in winter. We haven’t really started to see noticeably warmer summers yet. But when we do, we’re concerned about the potential of high heat events being a threat to peoples’ health. We’ve certainly seen events across other parts of the US and Europe that have led to a lot of fatalities when there have been massive heat waves. Flooding is another big concern for the city. In March we’re anticipating some flooding along the Mississippi with the heavy snowfall we had this winter. We’re just starting to see on a small scale some of the impacts that we anticipate seeing much more commonly in the future. I’m not sure we are there yet in terms of understanding the severity of that risk. Part of my job is to try to make sure that we are talking about that risk, and doing the things that we need to do here in the City of St. Paul to contribute toward the solutions.
Right now, globally, the average temperature is about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than it has been throughout most of human history, and scientists across the world estimate that at 1.5 degrees Celsius we’re going to start to see larger scale impacts across the globe, even moreso at two degrees Celsius. Those numbers are going to be hard to avoid, given our current practices. People have said we’ll need to focus our energy and attention on a scale equivalent to those in countries as they prioritized their resources during World War II – that is, if we’re going to do what we need to do over the next dozen years or so. I’m not sure we are there yet in terms of understanding the severity of that risk. Part of my job is to try to make sure that we are talking about that risk, and doing the things that we need to do here in the City of Saint Paul to contribute toward the solutions.
Q: That’s pretty dramatic. One of the recent initiatives of the city was to apply for a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. That organization is focused on helping cities adapt to climate change. Explain what the grant application focused on, and since you’ve been awarded those funds how you plan on spending that money.
A: In 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies announced this new American Cities Climate Challenge to help cities accelerate their climate action work. The federal government, if anything, has been stepping back from its commitments. They believe that cities can be a source of progress, in spite of the steps being taken at the federal level. They decided to work with 20 or 25 of the 100 largest cities in the country and give them support to try and accelerate their work in reducing emissions.
They asked each city to identify which actions they would propose, in concert with the support from Bloomberg over the next two years, to see measurable emissions reductions primarily in the energy and transportation sectors, which are the two sectors where most of our emissions in cities come from.
We were ultimately selected as one of the 25 Bloomberg American Climate Challenge Cities. We have already started that work, and anticipate having a new hire, thanks to the support of Bloomberg in the next few weeks. [Note: Interview in mid-March 2019]
Q: Could you give us a few more specifics? You mentioned energy and transportation. What is that going to look like in terms of things residents will observe in the next few years?
A: On the energy side, we’re really focused on reducing the energy use in city buildings first. We should show municipal leadership on this issue if we’re going to be asking others to do the same over time. The city has some pretty aggressive plans to reduce energy use across city libraries, recreation centers, police facilities, etc. over the next two years. The mayor had already proposed an increase from $1 million to $5 million to fund these energy efficiency initiatives in city buildings.
We’re also working with cities across the metro and across the state to try to advocate at the state level for stronger energy codes, within state building codes, so with new development we can set a high bar for energy efficiency and clean energy across newer buildings.
On the transportation side we’re focused on a couple of key initiatives. One initiative is our mobility hubs project. The vision is that 90% of St. Paul residents will eventually be within a 10-minute walk of four no- or low-carbon mobility options, including transit. Some areas of the city have really good transit today and others not, so it’s going to require upgrades to the transit system.
The hubs will include locations near transit where people can also access electric cars through a car-sharing program in partnership with our local provider, Hour Car. Xcel is a project partner in this, having committed resources to put in some of the infrastructure where these vehicles could charge across the city. We would hope to include electric bicycles and electric scooters in the hub program, so there are a variety of options available near where people live. In addition, we’re committed to expanding our bicycle network and improving pedestrian safety so that people feel safer walking around St. Paul.
Q: These hubs sound intriguing. You’re saying 90% of residents should be within a 10-minute walk of a hub within the next few years?
A: The goal is 2025. That will take a fair amount of investment. We’ve got some resources lined up to do perhaps the first 30% to 40% of that work over the next two years. In 2020, we’ll see the first hubs emerging around town.
Q: I’m sure there are lots of people are going to be skeptical. This winter we had lots of snow, cold weather and ice. I’m sure there are people who in the summer months might be willing to use alternate transportation modes, but in winter might be inclined to drive. What message would you give to them about why this makes sense for the future?
A: Getting around town in a Minnesota winter can be difficult no matter how you’re doing it, frankly. Our roads can be in somewhat tough shape, conditions can be difficult no matter the mode of travel. What we hope to do over time is to make these less impactful options easier, more convenient and more attractive than they are today. There’s an added layer of challenge with some of those in the winter, but certainly things like transit ridership don’t necessarily go down in the winter. People who use transit tend to use transit for most of the year. So things like electric car-share that are really supplemental to transit, we hope to wrap around the available transit services. Other services can help people on trips that might not necessarily be well-served by transit, for example, to make those sorts of things more possible.
The weather is changing all the time. We don’t anticipate any drop-off in the amount of snow, as I mentioned earlier. If anything we’re getting wetter. We’re going to have to provide better snow removal, especially for our pedestrian and bicycle facilities, where there is a significant need if we’re to make it possible and convenient for people to get around in the winter.
Q: These are initiatives that other cities are pursuing as well, as they think about climate change and transit options. Are there any particular places or programs elsewhere that are interesting models that we could learn from?
A: A lot of programs, especially in Europe and Scandinavia, are pushing towards what the industry is now calling mobility as a service. There are programs where, via a smart phone, you can pull up all of the options through one app, access those options in terms of payment and schedules, reserving vehicles and other related pieces.
Here in the US we are going to be learning from a program called Blue LA, which is probably the most advanced urban electric car-sharing program right now. Over the next few months a group of us are hoping to get to LA to learn about that program as we get ready to launch our own EV car-share program next year.
One of the things that’s key is that we’re hoping to provide this service eventually across all neighborhood in St. Paul, including neighborhoods that for the most part haven’t had access to car-share, at least any time recently. There’s going to be a need for a lot of community outreach and education on how to access the program.
The good news from the operator’s perspective is that the only requirements from Hour Car are that you are 18 years old, have a drivers’ license and no major moving violations in the last three years. Most people who drive can become members.
To really be useful we’re going to have to do a lot of engagement across the community to understand the types of trips that people make, to make car-share most useful and to make sure that we are locating the vehicles in places that are convenient to the people.
We’re also looking at the future and seeing that as we put in this electric vehicle charging infrastructure, it could be not just for the car-share program but also for people to charge their privately owned vehicles, particularly if they are renters and don’t have access to an off-street place where they could charge their vehicle as a homeowner might.
Q: My understanding is there is a parallel initiative with electrification of the city fleet, and that will also expand a charging network. Will those charging sites be accessible to the public, or will that be a separate network?
A: I think there’s going to be some of both. We will need some charging infrastructure dedicated to the city fleets, so that the fleets can reliably be charged as needed. Some of that might be joint use, depending on the location and how accessible it is. Some may be, for example, at a place where a lot of city employees work so that employees could potentially be charging their personal vehicles, of course paying for the electricity. City fleet vehicles could potentially be charging at the same locations.
The technology behind the payment methodology becomes really important so that we can very easily see who’s paying and who owes how much. That’s one of the points of complication in some of this new infrastructure. Everyone’s dealing with these same questions at the same time.