St. Paul Impresses as ACEEE’s Most Improved City for 2020

Taylor Patterson, ERS

The 2020 City Clean Energy Scorecard, developed by ACEEE, recognizes energy efficiency achievements of cities across the United States each year. Not only does the Scorecard rank the most efficient cities nationwide, it also recognizes the most improved cities, the ones that have made the most significant strides toward greater efficiency standards and goals. Among last year’s most improved cities was St. Paul, Minnesota, which advanced 15 spots in the Scorecard rankings to the #16 most efficient city in the country. Zondits reached out to St. Paul’s Chief Resilience Officer Russ Stark, to ask a few questions about St. Paul’s energy efficiency journey, keys to success, and outlook for the future.

Q: What motivated St. Paul to take actions that led to the city’s 15-rank jump to become one of the nation’s most improved cities in energy efficiency?

Russ Stark: Mayor Carter’s election in 2017 and the creation of the chief resilience officer position in his office in 2018 helped accelerate some work that had been started previously to create a Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP), set aggressive goals and targets, and make significant changes to the City’s Comprehensive Plan. The CARP and Comprehensive Plan work came together to set a goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled in St. Paul 40% by 2040, after we realized that vehicle electrification could not happen fast enough to reduce community-wide emissions 50% by 2030 or down to net zero by 2050. Our City Council unanimously approved our new energy benchmarking ordinance in January 2020, after two years of a voluntary energy benchmarking program we had been running called Race to Reduce. Our work has certainly been aided by our involvement in the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, although the most significant results of that support will show up in 2021.

Q: The Climate Action and Resilience Plan states the majority of single-passenger car trips in St. Paul were for less than 1 mile, which provides opportunities to reduce GHG emissions through the development of alternative transportation methods, including the addition of 195 miles of bike paths for bikers, walkers, and other rolling transports (skateboards, scooters, etc.). Where does the development of the 195 miles of bike path stand?

RS: We had our biggest year for new bicycle facilities in the city’s history in 2020, completing 20 miles of new bikeways, with the majority of those being protected bikeways. We also added over 9 miles in 2019 (prior to the goal of 195 new miles being set), so with nearly 30 miles of new bikeways over the past two years, we are more than 15% of the way to meeting our goal.

Q: How have St. Paul residents responded to the urge to adopt alternative methods of transportation, such as utilizing the expansive bike paths?

RS: Biking continues to increase in St. Paul, particularly during COVID-19, but the pandemic’s impacts on staffing and budgets has reduced our ability to do the annual bike counts that we have been doing for several years. We know that utilization of bikeways increases dramatically the closer we get to having a complete network of safe routes; and, while we have made significant progress, there is still much work ahead. As recently as a few years ago every new bikeway involved a public fight over the allocation of roadway space, but those have largely subsided as our community has increasingly embraced the new infrastructure.
As with all cities, COVID-19 has been a big hit to our transit system, which will need additional federal support to retain service levels until COVID-19 subsides.

Q: Are there any concerns about St. Paul’s climate and snowfall expectations that may hinder the use of these paths?

RS: Our friends across the river in Minneapolis have shown that cold weather cities can still be great biking cities. Not everyone who bikes will bike year-round in our climate, but we are working to design our bikeways to encourage year-round use. Some of our older on-street bike lanes located next to on-street parking were designed in a way that made it very hard to clear them of snow, so our newer designs have taken those operational challenges into consideration.

Q: What role will the Climate Justice Advisory Board play in St. Paul’s energy efficiency efforts? Who makes up the board?

RS: The CJAB has not been seated yet! We are hoping to have the first members appointed in December and the first meeting of the new CJAB in January. The CJAB will help advise the mayor, the Council, and my team on the development of our climate action-focused projects and programs to help ensure that they are equitable and benefit our most vulnerable, front-line communities as least as much as they benefit other city residents.

Q: What do you think it will take to get people to buy in to the severity of climate change and see that we must adapt to a sustainable lifestyle? Do you see actions being more effective at the federal or state level? Or should this initiative be driven by cities, like St. Paul?

RS: I think the ways in which Americans have adjusted their daily lives during COVID-19 shows that, when we must, we are capable of making significant changes for the common good. I also believe that while individual choices matter, the big changes that we have to make are at the level of systems. In cities like St. Paul, we want to make walking, biking, transit, and other low-carbon transportation modes the safe and easy choice for most trips. We have the ability to make some of those changes on our own, but federal and state resources are a critical piece to making faster progress. The same is true of moving our buildings toward net zero carbon. We can get the ball rolling through programs and partnerships with our utilities and others, but the scale of the challenge will require state and federal action to support our efforts with resources and price signals. I think the American people understand the severity of climate change and are ready to take action, we just need the political will at all levels of government to make the needed changes. Hopefully, cities like St. Paul and many others can help highlight that many of these changes have positive ripple effects for addressing racial justice, creating good-paying jobs, and improving the health of our residents.

Q: Do you have advice for small cities looking to follow in St. Paul’s footsteps?

RS: Engage with your residents and business owners about why climate action is needed and involve them in identifying solutions and developing plans. Identify areas where your city is already spending resources but where those resources could be spent in a different way to advance your climate goals. And finally, partner, partner, and partner some more. We work with our utilities, our businesses, our colleges and universities, our county, our Metropolitan Council, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and more. Cities can’t do this work alone. You will be surprised what your residents are ready for!

St. Paul’s growth serves as both an inspiration and example for cities all over the country, both small and large, striving to achieve greater efficiency goals. No matter if a city is ranked first, 50th, or not at all, more can always be done to further efficiency achievements and, in doing so, allow a domino affect to lift economies, social justice, and equity in the process. St. Paul is poised to continue their commitment to hard work growth for years to come, and because of the unwavering dedication to a more sustainable way of life, the City has a green future ahead.

About Russ Stark

About Russ Stark, Chief Resiliency Officer for the City of Saint Paul