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"Foundations" - A Q&A with Joe Ryan, Environment Program Officer

Jul 15, 2010

Joe Ryan"Foundations" is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Joe Ryan is an officer in the Environment Program. In this position, he helps coordinate the Foundation's grants to improve air quality in Mexico, Brazil, and China. Over the past eight years, Ryan has supported the work of Hewlett grantees in these countries to achieve four broad goals: the introduction of ultra-clean fuels; the reduction of emissions from cars and trucks through regulation; the adoption of cleaner technologies for heavy-duty vehicles; and the development of public transportation options, particularly Bus Rapid Transit. Now nearing the end of his term with the Foundation, he reflects on that work and its progress, setbacks, and surprises.

Ryan has a B.A. in literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Fulbright-Hays doctoral fellow, he has a Ph.D. in history, also from UCLA.

How have the grants to encourage "green" development evolved in the years you've been making them?

Our work started strictly as grants for air quality. Then came the renaissance in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in 2001. That was when Bogatá, Colombia, opened its BRT line and its success galvanized global interest in these systems, which use dedicated lanes and improved infrastructure to create efficient public transportation. The Bogatá project did two things: first, it refuted the notion such systems could succeed only if they were created as a city developed, rather than retrofitted into an existing urban environment; second, the project ramped up the capacity of BRT systems by installing both local and express lanes. The higher capacity enabled these lines to carry numbers comparable to subways at a fraction of the cost. Developing cities around the world started to realize these systems could move a lot of people for a tenth of the price.

At this point, the Chinese became interested because BRT systems could be built quickly and cheaply. We began working with a Hewlett grantee, the Energy Foundation, in China to bring delegations from that country to Latin America to show what was possible. Now there are BRT systems in forty cities in China. The environmental value of adopting public transit on that scale is enormous.

Does that value come from fewer people buying and driving cars?

This is surprising, but not exactly: we don't care if people buy cars. Everybody entering the middle class wants to get a car. The key is getting car buyers to use them less because jumping on and off a BRT system is so easy and convenient. What they drive also matters. Our experience in the United States has taught us that even if you have the cleanest fuels possible and the highest emission standards, their positive impact can be swamped by using the wrong type of vehicles. If everyone buys an SUV or a Hummer, you lose ground in fighting pollution.


But what matters most is the ratio of trips taken by public transportation to those taken by private car. In China, Brazil, Mexico, and India, 70 to 80 percent of all trips are still via some form of green transportation, whether it's walking, biking, or public transportation. All you need to do is to protect those percentages as these places grow and develop. If you can keep these percentages high, then you can put these places on a different path regarding emissions.

In the United States, we've already lost the fight: public transportation accounts for 3 to 4 percent of all trips. Here the issue is more about urban design. If you want to make a difference in the United States, you can't build a community of homes without building in public transportation and higher density.

So our grantees need to work with officials in developing countries on more than just public transit systems?

In a way, it was grantees' success with BRT lines that let them begin work on other issues, like urban design. Their next challenge is to demonstrate how developing cities can start with a good quality public transportation line and develop it into an integrated system that is coordinated with urban design and helps keep cities' air clean. The ideal is for no one in a city to live more than 500 meters from some form of public transportation.

How much of the overall problem are our grantees addressing?

Think about the cities where our grantees are working on these issues: São Paulo is 20 million people; Mexico City is 20 million people; the cities in China where we've supported work have a combined population of 100 million people. Very quickly, the work is affecting many tens of millions of people; that's not insignificant.

I'm usually skeptical about whether it's possible to replicate the success of one city in another, but it has worked in China and in Mexico, where BRT now is spreading to four more cities.

The way we're helping to spread this work to other places in the world is through our grantees who receive general operating support. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York is promoting BRT in India. The International Council on Clean Transportation in Washington, D.C., is helping India develop fuel economy standards, which if enacted would have huge impact.

If you get those four countries – Brazil, Mexico, China, and India – all to adopt the greener development principles we're describing, you can largely declare victory. The one exception is Africa. Those countries still have lead in their fuels. Progress there would take an entirely new and different level of work because so much needs to be done.

Were there disappointments or surprises for you in your work?

The first one that comes to mind is advanced technologies for buses. I thought for sure by now we'd have hybrid buses running all over the developing world at a cost lower than their operation with existing fuels. But we funded fifteen of them in Brazil as a pilot, and the economics didn't completely work. Hybrid buses require more digital systems and more lightweight materials, both of which are much more expensive. And you need better battery technology than what's now in use. When we tested the hybrids, all the savings we anticipated couldn't yet be realized with an unsubsidized system.

Another surprise reflected some naiveté on my part early on about progress in all three countries: Brazil, Mexico, and China. I thought once a government imposed regulations about improving fuel quality, the job was done. And in each country, the oil companies balked when the time came to deliver cleaner fuels. Our grantees had to go back and litigate or work with the government to show why the fuel standards would make a difference and how they would clean up the air. And that has helped push the producers.

What do you think is achievable over the next decade in improving air quality and transportation in the developing world?

I think there are two major trends. One is a blended agenda with grantees working both on conventional air pollution and on broader issues to reduce climate change. There's a tendency for everyone working on these issues to chase the hot new thing, and that's climate change. In developing countries, they are getting distracted by that and not wanting to try to do the conventional work to reduce pollution. People in government offices know that the conventional pollution control work is important, but resources are being pulled away to reduce climate change. Hewlett, along with several of its major grantees, is well positioned to promote a blended agenda that addresses both at once. That's a very exciting possibility.

The other big trend, which I briefly mentioned, is the integration of public transit and urban design. We are now, as of 2007, an urban species. More than half the people on the planet now live in cities rather than in the countryside. That's not going to change. There are expected to be upwards of 3 billion people added to the population by 2050. The vast majority of them will be in developing countries and in urban areas.

Accommodating that population growth with green design is not going to be easy. It's going to take a combination of engineering and vision to decide how that growth can be handled while allowing each locale to have its own character and idiosyncrasies. That's the task that lies ahead.