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Supporting an Adaptive Management Approach to Reducing Transportation Emissions

San Francisco, California

Featured image for the project, Supporting an Adaptive Management Approach to Reducing Transportation Emissions

Photo Courtesy of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority


photo courtesy of Tom Felter

The Team

The Initial Challenge

Consumer behavior is changing within San Francisco and it has the potential to impact many policy goals such as the city’s ambitious climate policy framework. This change is largely being driven by changes in the mobility and technology sectors. Examples of this change involve mobility and delivery service providers such as Amazon, Instacart, UberEATS, and FedEx that offer a range of delivery service throughout San Francisco. The project team set out to better understand the degree to which single occupancy vehicles and service delivery vehicles contribute to congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions among other impacts.

The Methods

Tim and Wendy worked with Tom to outline the needs for a 5-7-page white paper to inform and educate San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SFE) on the current and future vehicle composition on San Francisco’s streets and the related greenhouse gas emissions that are generated by the diverse mix of vehicles that utilize the streets.  Tom conducted research and read literature in this cutting edge/novel area to understand the impacts of e-commerce on transportation, the economy, and waste goals.  A draft document was then circulated and updated based on feedback from colleagues and the team.  Tom relied heavily on the knowledge from the city, demonstrating a very collaborative approach.  The team met 1-2 times per month via conference call and met a few times in person to further scope the project, identify milestones and review progress on the white paper.  The process was an iterative one, considering that e commerce is changing rapidly and news articles released on the subject each month provide new insights into how e commerce is impacting mobility across the city.

The Results

The team produced a white paper that can be found here:  TEX_SFMTA_Final_Report_2-6-18

Through the lens of San Francisco, the paper synthesizes news reports and recent articles related to e-commerce and the impact on vehicle miles traveled, waste streams, traffic flow and safety, workforce dynamics, and changes to consumer lifestyles.  The paper assesses both the positive and negative impacts that e-commerce has on society (both present and future), including:

  • Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT): The paper examined the difference between personal miles traveled to a store and delivery truck miles traveled between a distribution center and customer homes. Adding customers to the drop off route, decreases the distance between drops and increases efficiency.
  • Waste Generation: Delivery service heavily relies on packaged materials and are increasing the fraction of San Francisco’s refuse. Since the mix of waste materials has shifted drastically from the 1980s, it is more difficult to recover and recycle a wider diversity of metal, glass, paper, many types of plastic and corrugated cardboard.
  • Changes to Consumer Lifestyles: Buying items online saves time delegated to the physical act of shopping, although the paper expresses uncertainty as to what people do with this new free time in the new economy.
  • Traffic Flow and Safety:
    • Decreasing VMT leads to less congestion and pollution under proper policies. Since consumers may no longer rely on cars to make frequent trips to the store, parking demands will become relaxed, thereby freeing space for safe loading zones, improved recycling and refuse pick-up, as well as life advancements such as better foot traffic and bicycling routes.
    • At the same time, casual observations suggest that delivery trucks are working under conditions that reward tighter time deadlines. This can encourage faster driving speeds and potentially result in accidents and increased noise.
  • Workforce Dynamics: By shifting the economy from “brick to click”, new jobs replace hard fought careers held by middle and late career employees with hard to acquire skills.

The paper also outlines a number of policy recommendations and incentives that will be useful in defining goals and policy necessary for building a Master Mobility Plan for the City of San Francisco:

  • The city could phase in zero emission vehicles for delivery (ZEVD), by mandating that the registration of conventional, fossil fueled delivery vehicles would expire without an option to renew after a number of years or by increasing registration fees for the use of conventional vehicles.
  • The city could zone some areas for smart lockers and ease approvals for other innovations to reduced costs and speed up deliveries to central consumer-accessed locations.
  • Newer buildings might be required to include spaces for the coming expansion of e-deliveries including curbside access, mailrooms and even facilities for drone-friendly and secure rooftop drop off.
  • Working with producers to create ways in which to remedy the increased waste stream—for example, smart lockers could enable the easy return of reusable packaging materials, including un-flattened boxes.

As a result of this work, SFMTA and SFE now have a better handle on the issue of e-commerce and its implications for their agency’s policy goals and mandates.  The thoughtful consideration and outside perspective on this issue helps position SFE and SFMTA to better understand and answer key questions, which will lead to more informative discussions on the issue.  This paper is seen as a very important “primer” that will help motivate conversations with people who have never considered the topic before.


From this project, others may learn better ways to partner with TEX for their own purposes. For instance,

The team noted that the following contributed to the success of the project:

  • Remaining curious about a new and novel topic. The topic of e-commerce is not well studied in a cross-disciplinary way, so it benefited the team to stay open and think about the entire system of e-commerce.
  • Being open to the reality that the results may be different than what is initially expected.

However, there were several key things that the team would do differently if they had the chance to do this project again:

  • The team would like to have a more diverse team of experts to research the topic, especially since this is an emerging topic of interest to many cities. For example, the team wishes they had an urban mobility expert to round out the team.
  • The team would have re-scoped their project to better align with the knowledge, skills and expertise found within the network of AGU members. The project idea was great, but not entirely within AGU’s wheelhouse.

To other teams currently pursuing TEX projects and for those that anticipate doing a TEX project, the team recommends:

  • Be brave and don’t be afraid to ask tough questions.



The City of San Francisco, CA and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which manages the city’s transportation multimodal sector, are pioneers in climate action and transportation sustainability. Since 1990, citywide greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced 23 percent however there are significant challenges ahead if the City is to meet ambitious midcentury climate goals. The San Francisco transportation sector, which generates approximately 44 percent of all citywide greenhouse gas emissions, has only been reduced 7 per cent since 1990. Therefore, in order to meet ambitious midcentury climate goals the transportation sector need to be transformed.

The transformation of San Francisco’s transportation sector to meet greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability goals is guided by a Transportation Sector Climate Action Strategy which is updated every two years as mandated by Proposition A,  passed by voters in 2007. This Strategy provides a visionary and realistic framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through seven program areas which contain a number of specific strategies and targeted actions:


  • Prioritize Transit
  • Integrated Land Use and Transportation
  • Pricing and Congestion Management
  • Travel Choices and Information
  • Complete Streets
  • Shared, Electric, Connected and Automated
  • Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure


Over the past few years, the transportation sector in San Francisco has been evolving rapidly, with new travel options and fuel sources being integrated into the transportation system. However, it is not clear if the changes will complement or frustrate the city’s broader climate goals.  Therefore, a data driven platform and adaptive management approach, grounded in real time data that accurately reflects the local multimodal transportation system and the associated greenhouse gas emissions, is desired. This platform and approach will support more effective sector specific climate action plans, policies and projects.


Over the coming years the SFMTA and its partners are seeking to work on the following phases of this project. This TEX project is specifically focused on Phase 1 of this multiphase project.


Phase 1: Consumer behavior is changing within San Francisco and it has the potential to impact a number of policy goals such as the city’s ambitious climate policy framework.

This change is largely being driven by changes in the mobility and technology sectors. Examples of this change involve mobility and delivery service providers such as Amazon, Instacart, UberEATS, and FedEx that offer a range of delivery service throughout San Francisco. This work should focus on describing the environmental / climate impacts of service delivery vehicles / mobility service providers within San Francisco. The emphasis should focus on how the changes in consumer behavior are impacting trip typologies, vehicles miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, are these services reducing overall trips, vmt and emissions? The output of the research should be a 3-5 white paper that also describes the ideal data environment that would allow for improved monitoring of this rapidly evolving component of SF’s transportation system. References to existing research / published material should also be developed.

Phase 2: Develop a robust data (qualitative and quantitative) platform that will guide the City in creating and maintaining the suite of indicators to support implementation of the Transportation Sector Climate Action Strategy

Phase 3: Create a clear and transparent data visualization and data dissemination tool that can be easily updated and maintained over time.

Project Team

Community Lead

Tim Doherty is Senior Planner for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). He joined in the fall of 2015 and is helping to lead the Sustainability Program and he is updating the Climate Action Strategy which provides a policy framework to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also increasing the resilience of the transportation system to future environmental change. Tim graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Biological Science. After graduation, Tim served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras. Upon returning, he joined the National Park Service as a biologist in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He received his MS from UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and spent six years as a planner with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and three years with the NOAA Office for Coastal Management.

Scientific Lead

Tom Felter is the recently retired manager for the Energy Innovation Department at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, CA.  Ongoing work in his department includes study of the feasibility of zero emission vessels on the Bay and elsewhere, design and build of the mobile testing apparatus currently in use by the State of California for qualifying hydrogen fueling stations, valuable intellectual property in wind, solar and energy storage, and significant effort with industry to commercialize our efficient thermal management inventions this year.