Thanks to historically cheap, abundant fossil fuels and policies favoring private automobiles, the energy intensity of our transportation system has reached unprecedented levels.  Nationally, 27% of all energy is dedicated to transportation.1  Here in California, transportation accounts for roughly 35% of overall energy consumption and more than 85% of total petroleum use.  What’s more, California’s transportation sector is more than 99% dependent on fossil fuels.2

According to data from the California Department of Transportation, vehicle miles traveled in the nine-county Bay Area increased by more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2000.  Every day, area residents travel approximately 148 million vehicle miles,3 and buy over 8 million gallons of gas.4  Rising gas prices are taking an increasingly heavy toll on Californians’ pocketbooks and the state’s economic health.  Consumers saw crude oil skyrocket from $28 per barrel in late 2003 to over $78 per barrel in July 2006.5  Based on prices as of May 1, 2006, approximately $26 million a day and $9.5 billion a year is spent on gasoline in the Bay Area, much of which is siphoned to distributors, refineries, importers and producers outside the region, as well as to oil-producing countries.

Overall demand for liquid fossil fuels is now approaching and may soon exceed supply; while spare capacity in the oil supply system is at historical lows  Although prices have moderated for the time being, geology tells us that global extraction of oil will peak – as early as 2010 according to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil6 – and then go into inexorable decline, approximating the downside of a bell curve.  This inflection point, referred to as “peak oil,” represents the point when half the original endowment of economically extractable oil on the planet has been burned.  With 54 of the 65 largest oil-producing nations now reporting declining production levels7, concern that oil may soon peak is now a factor in industry and government planning.  “We now find one barrel of oil for every four we consume,” warns petroleum geologist Dr. Colin Campbell8, author of The Coming Oil Crisis.  According to a U.S. Department of Energy-funded report, Peaking of World Oil Production, it would take two decades to implement an orderly transition away from our oil-centered transportation system.9

Our own state’s capacity to produce oil is also in steady decline.  In 1982, California-supplied petroleum amounted to about 366 million barrels, or 61% of total supply.  As of 2005, that amount had decreased to about 241 million or 37.2% of total supply.10  Given this level of dependence on petroleum and declining in-state supplies, California’s economy – and hence the Bay Area’s – is increasingly vulnerable to the exigencies of international energy markets.  Thankfully, vast potential exists to increase fuel efficiency, thereby reducing our dependency.  A recent ACEEE assessment notes that by increasing the average U.S. vehicle fuel economy to 47 miles per gallon (MPG) we could cut fuel consumption by 43% per mile11 – a move that could reduce California’s vehicular gasoline consumption by as much as 7.3 billion gallons annually.

In addition to the economic and environmental challenges, our dependence on oil creates disproportionate health problems for the most vulnerable in our region.  Low-income segments of the population are the first and hardest hit by rising transportation energy costs, and may not be able to afford the increasing costs of car ownership and fuel.  At the same time, a number of underserved communities do not have adequate access to mass transit for travel to work, school, and other essential destinations. The San Francisco Bay Area is also challenged by significant air quality issues, particularly in low-income communities, due mainly to fossil fuel processing and burning for transportation.  In the East Bay, a wide range of dangers predominate, including toxic refineries and particulate matter from heavy traffic flows.  According to Carla Perez, a community organizer for the Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment, Richmond’s five major refineries routinely flare excess gas leading to respiratory infections, asthma attacks, eczema and eye irritations among the city’s nearby residents, most of whom are low-income people of color.12

Localization provides a conceptual and practicable alternative to oil dependence in transportation.  Localizing the transportation sector would entail a number of interwoven strategies, including:

  • Energy conservation through changes in land use and transportation patterns
  • Renewable electrification for enhanced mass transit, light rail, and plug-in hybrid vehicles
  • Sustainable production of biofuels from regional sources

Energy Conservation through Smart Growth and New Urbanism

In order to reduce costs to consumers and the environment, transportation energy use can be cut significantly in the Bay Area.  The bundle of land use strategies often called “smart growth” offers a tested, widely-accepted, conservation-based solution.  As described by the Smart Growth Network, these strategies follow a series of principles, several of which emphasize encouraging mixed land use, creating a range of housing opportunities and choices, directing development towards existing communities, providing a variety of transportation choices, and taking advantage of compact building design.13  Essentially, smart growth is a concept of community planning which results in dense, mixed-use and mixed-income development in existing communities and near transit.  Smart growth enables residents to live closer to transit, their workplaces and other key destinations, which also assists reducing a community’s carbon emissions and particulate pollution.  A similar school of thought called New Urbanism incorporates a number of urban design features, including wide sidewalks, street trees, narrow streets, and small building setbacks that encourage walking and help build a sense of community.14  These strategies are particularly effective at reducing energy consumption associated with private vehicles, thereby facilitating the localization of transportation.

Renewable Electrification and Enhanced Transportation Options

Localizing transportation should go beyond conservation measures to address the source and production of transportation energy.  Most transportation currently serving the Bay Area is powered by either gasoline or diesel fuel, in addition to some transit powered by electricity, the bulk of which is generated from coal or natural gas.  Localizing transportation would entail the generation of cleaner, sustainable energy – in the form of renewable electricity and biofuels – to power a diversified transportation system.  Transportation modes such as heavy rail, light rail transit (LRT), electric trolley buses, and plug-in hybrid automobiles can eventually be powered by renewable electricity generated in the Bay Area (see potential of renewables as described in the previous section on energy).  Renewable electrification offers many benefits, including increased local economic activity, lower fuel costs and fuel vulnerability, lower levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, less noise, and greater acceleration, leading to improved service.

Some existing services like the LRT in San Jose and San Francisco and much of the bus system in San Francisco are already electrified.  Other travel modes like heavy inter-city and commuter passenger rail can benefit from electrification as well.  Caltrain’s service between San Jose and San Francisco is currently operating on diesel, but an electrification strategy was implemented beginning in 1992 with the goal of transitioning to electricity by 2010.  Funding difficulties have obstructed progress on the project, but Caltrain recently renewed its commitment to electrification by 2014 and contracted with PG&E to perform a feasibility study of their capacity to deliver the required electricity.  Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon recently stated, “We’ve really got to get serious about electrification.  The sooner we can get off our dependency on foreign oil, the better off we’re going to be.”15  Indeed, transitioning to electrified urban rail of all types in both large and small cities – if implemented properly – could save 4% of U.S. oil use (6% of transportation oil use).16

Transit authorities across the Bay Area – with the support of regional, state, and federal transportation agencies – should assess their energy plans and consider following Caltrain’s lead towards electrification and local transit sustainability.  Local governments can assist them by planning the dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that support greater transit activity.

Regional Sustainable Biofuels

Another opportunity for localizing transportation in the Bay Area lies in the development of sustainably-produced biofuels.  Biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol can be produced from crops and from a variety of sources. These fuels are becoming price-competitive as gasoline prices rise and governmental agencies increase their subsidies.  Biodiesel is a petroleum diesel substitute that is manufactured from plant oils, including grease and other waste oils.  Any diesel engine can be powered by biodiesel without retrofit.  Ethanol is an alcohol derived from corn, sugar cane, and other plant sources.  Some “flexible fuel vehicles” (FFV) are already on the road, capable of running on an E85 blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.  With most now gasoline sold in the state containing 5.7% ethanol, California is now the largest market for fuel ethanol in the United States.17

Biofuels burn cleaner than petroleum products, can be produced domestically, and are renewable in the sense that their feedstocks can be cultivated indefinitely on a sustainably-managed plot of land.18  However, biofuels present a number of problems in terms of their sustainability and localization potential.  To the extent that biofuels are derived from crops grown specifically for that purpose, their development may contribute to the conversion of vast swaths of land elsewhere to industrialized, monoculture corn or soybean production – with its attendant pesticide and fertilizer use, mechanized cultivation and processing, and global transportation, all enabled by cheap fossil fuels.  Similarly, distant ecosystems and local economies risk disruption from the industrialized production of biodiesel; for example, areas in Malaysia and Indonesia are experiencing rapid decline in ecological health due to the intensive production of palm oil for biodiesel.19

Despite these challenges, biofuels may yet hold great promise for supplementing conservation and electrification in the pursuit of a localized transportation system.  Existing producers, distributors, and retailers like the Coastside Greenride in Pacifica and Bay Area Biofuel in Richmond have already demonstrated the market viability of biodiesel and other biofuels.  To ensure the responsible expansion of this market, Bay Area agencies, businesses, and residents should pursue a strategy specifying that certain benefits accrue to our region.  In particular, the Bay Area should give preference to biofuels that are produced in our bioregion in an equitable and sustainable manner. Research and policy formulation should be conducted around the science, sustainability and socioeconomics of biofuels, including such strategies as:

  • Comprehensive, locally-focused collection and reprocessing programs to maximize reuse of waste oils for biofuel production.
  • Maximizing the number of Bay Area jobs and other economic opportunities, with a generous allotment going to low-income and underserved communities.
  • Sustainable production of feedstock through small-scale, diversified agriculture.
  • Potential cultivation of cellulosic woody plants native to the region that may be processed into ethanol with fewer chemical applications and greater energy efficiency.  While traditional ethanol is produced from the sugars in food crops, cellulosic ethanol is a developing technology that utilizes the cellulose found in most plants and a variety of urban, forest, and agricultural waste sources.


1 US Department of Energy, Transportation Energy Data Book, Edition 23, (accessed on May 3, 2006).

2 Ibid.

3 Metropolitan Transportation Commission, “Maps and Data,” MTC, (accessed on July 17, 2006).

4 Bay Area Air Quality Management District, “Emission Inventory,” BAAQMD, (accessed on July 17, 2006).

5 George Jahn, “Crude futures steady around $73 a barrel,” Business Week Online, April 26, 2006,

6 The Association for the Study of Peak Oil, ASPO Newsletter, Issue 59 (November 2005): 2.

7 Kjell Aleklett, “Testimony on Peak Oil,” before Sweden’s House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. Wednesday, December 7, 2005.

8 Colin J.Campbell, Peak Oil: An Outlook on Crude Oil Depletion (Omaha: Health and Energy Co., October 2000).

9 Robert L. Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management (Washington, D.C.: Dept. of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, February 2005), 59.

10 California Energy Commission, “Oil Supply Sources to California Refineries,” California Energy Commission, (accessed July 17, 2006).

11 John DeCicco and Marc Ross, “An Updated Assessment of the Near-Term Potential for Improving Automotive Fuel Economy,” ACEEE, (accessed July 17, 2006).

12 Tom Kingston, “Don’t Just Get Mad...Get Active,” Common Ground, May 2005,

13 Smart Growth Network, “About Smart Growth,” Smart Growth Network, (accessed July 17, 2006).

14, “New Urbanism,”, (accessed July 19, 2006).

15 Edward Carpenter, “Officials Push for Electrified Trains Due to Fuel Costs,” The Examiner, June 19, 2006.

16 Alan S. Drake, “A 10% Reduction in America’s Oil Use in 10-12 Years,” Light Rail Now!, May 2006,

17 California Energy Commission, “Ethanol As a Transportation Fuel In California,” CEC, (accessed July 29, 2006).

18 Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Cities Factsheet: Biodiesel Blends, EPA. (accessed on July 19, 2006).

19 George Monbiot, “The Most Destructive Crop on Earth is No Solution to the Energy Crisis,” Guardian Unlimited, December 6, 2005,,,1659037,00.htmlCenter for Science in the Public Interest, “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest, and Wildlife,” (accessed on July 26, 2006).

dahveed – 16 February, 2006 – 14:19