San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo: 'This is where the action is'

by John Stapel

In 1850, San Jose was the first city to be incorporated in California. Fast forward 180 years, and it will be the nation’s largest carbon neutral city, if Sam Liccardo has his way. The mayor, reelected in 2018 with 75 percent of the vote, has partnered with businesses to advance a mix of policies to decarbonize and densify San Jose. The 10th-largest U.S. metropolis has a disproportionate share of high-tech headquarters — Adobe, Cisco, eBay, Netflix and PayPal, to name a handful.

Under Liccardo's tenure the city achieved national "firsts," including launching the San Jose Clean Energy utility, the largest community choice aggregator, through which 95 percent of residents and companies purchase fossil fuel-free electricity. Options for transportation, which emits 55 percent of the city's greenhouse gases (GHG), diversified. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system extended into San Jose, where electrified Caltrain is being tested to ferry people to and from San Francisco, ditching diesel. Liccardo, an enthusiastic cyclist with the bone fractures to prove it, has advanced micromobility, including backing plans to expand hundreds of miles of safer bike lanes. Housing regulations required electric vehicle (EV) chargers and banned natural gas in new homes under his leadership. To address housing shortages, tiny homes sprung up. San Jose continues to work with Google on its mixed-use, 80-acre Downtown West development, which could introduce 4,000 new homes, one-quarter of them "affordable," powered by a microgrid, in about a decade.

GreenBiz caught up by phone with the outgoing mayor as he approached his two-term limit, three weeks after his final State of the City address. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elsa Wenzel: As you’re coming to the end of your two terms, more looking forward than looking back: What are you most proud of, and then what's also some of the unfinished business that you wish you had more time to work on?

Mayor Liccardo: I'm proud that as a community, we're finally seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel to get to a zero-emission future. We have decarbonized our grid to the point that 95 percent of our electricity is coming from GHG-free sources.

Just about every other city in this state needs to embark on a massive investment in microgrids.

We've dramatically changed our development pattern, protecting open space and hillsides preserving thousands of acres in places like Coyote Valley, a large open space tract south of my city, and investing massively in transit and high density development along those corridors. So there's a lot of great work being done throughout the city to get us on the path. The challenge, as we know, is that no matter how far along we've gotten, there's a lot more to be done.

Wenzel: I was reading that you drive a Chevy Volt and haven't washed it for a number of years.

Liccardo: It’s still unwashed.

Wenzel: What’s your experience of range anxiety?

Liccardo: The range anxiety is overwhelmed by the benefits. I think we're all inherently lazy; I certainly am, and the fact that I don't need to go to a gas station, and I almost never need to go to a repair shop, makes electric cars an easy choice for the inherently lazy because electric cars have much fewer moving parts, and the need for maintenance and repairs are dramatically diminished. So all those conveniences are great.

The challenge, of course, is they're expensive, and we need to find ways to make them more affordable and ultimately densify the city and other cities as well. We recognize there's simply not room in the world for all the cars even if people could afford them, and we need to start thinking about what we see much more frequently in Europe.

Wenzel: You’ve focused a lot on density and walkability, and so much has happened with transportation (in San Jose). Is that an area that you hope maybe other cities will start emulating?

Liccardo: Yeah, I don't think we have a choice. Any city that really grew after the advent of the automobile — and that's virtually every city in the west outside of maybe San Francisco and Seattle — has a sprawling suburban pattern of development. And that means that for cities like San Jose, between 60 and 70 percent of GHG emissions come from transportation.

[Want to learn more about how climate tech can help us address the climate crisis? Check out VERGE 22 — the climate tech event — taking place Oct. 25-27, San Jose, CA.] 

And while we're doing great work on electrifying buildings — we're the largest city in the country that mandates all-electric in construction — that doesn't move the needle nearly as much as finding ways to get people out of automobiles with internal combustion engines. So transportation really is the great challenge for cities. Since cities emit 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas; our focus needs to be on how we can enable mobility in a world without fossil fuels.

Wenzel: You’ve worked to bridge the gap between the public and private divides, with big corporations, and also nonprofits and communities. And you've spoken of having to get out of the way of the private sector. What does that mean? And how can businesses work better with cities and other leaders in government to advance climate solutions?

Liccardo: Well, it's important for mayors to recognize — and I think most do — the imperative of innovation. We're not going to get out of this doing things the same way. And thinking the same way, we need dramatic scaling of promising technologies. ... and all of that is going to require an enormous amount of investment by the private sector. And it's going to need civic leaders, particularly locally, to have the willingness to have their cities become the platform for that innovation, to become laboratories for it. We've been more than willing to be that guinea pig here in San Jose, and it's helpful because we happen to be in the most creative technological community on the planet, Silicon Valley.

But I think there are opportunities for every city in this country, and private sector leaders should recognize that many mayors will trip over themselves to be the exhibit hall or the platform for a technology that causes environmental impact. And so, the private sector should look at cities as partners and if nothing else, take advantage of the egos of all the mayors like me who want to be the first to do something, and to do it in a way that can be a model for other cities throughout the country. 

I just think about one particular problem, for example, around retrofitting existing buildings. It's fine to celebrate the passage of new building codes that require all-electric construction, for example, and solar and all those great things. But the reality is that 99 percent of our cities are largely built out. What are we going to do in the intervening 100 years, while people are using the existing structures?

We're going to need to see a lot of innovation around car sharing to ensure that more of our residents take part in electric transportation solutions, even if they can't afford a Tesla.

Well, we need a massive investment and retrofits, and that's going to take a lot of innovation because the costs are beyond the reach of modest income homeowners or business owners. We’re going to require a lot of innovation and financing, whether that's something like commercial PACE (property assessed clean energy financing) or public bonds or anything else, and it's going to require a lot of technological innovation in mechanics and the science of how you can upgrade an electrical panel and replace a gas stove less expensively and more nimbly — and we have to do it in a world where we don't have nearly enough skilled labor in any of those fields, in places like the Bay Area or other large metros. So those are huge challenges, and we desperately need private sector innovation to help us.

Wenzel: In terms of equity and where that overlaps with climate challenges and solutions, how do you see businesses stepping up or not? What do you hope businesses will do specifically around some of those gaps?

Liccardo: When we talk about equity, it's fundamentally an obligation of the public sector; we recognize how critical it is to ensure that we are meeting the needs of underserved communities and addressing long-standing injustice, including racial injustice, in our cities. The job of private sector companies is to make money, and it's hard to do that if your only purpose is to address equity. So you recognize that that's a natural tension there. 

The great contribution, I think, of businesses in the private sector is around how we can move down the cost curve. How do we make electric vehicle access less expensive, right? I mentioned gas water heaters: How do we enable more residents of multifamily apartments to be able to benefit from heat pumps and electric water heaters? Those financial barriers can be dramatically reduced, both as innovation on the product side, as well as on the financial side …That's where we really need business, and us, to do the job of focusing our resources on addressing applicable goals, and at the same time that we're incentivizing businesses to (get) in the game.

Wenzel: You came to your office shortly before the Trump administration came to power, and you and many other mayors stepped up to band together and try to fill some of those gaps in sustainability and climate that were left by the federal government. Now that you're kind of on the same page with the administration in Washington right now — and we've had the Inflation Reduction Act pass, and also California has huge sweeping new laws — what are the opportunities there for San Jose or for Silicon Valley more broadly, now that there is more support?

Liccardo: It certainly gives more opportunity, and it comes in the form of billions of dollars in federal and state dollars to invest in climate solutions, not just for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but for adaptation, for example. For now, it's pretty hard for ways to finance massive expansion of our recycled water infrastructure through advanced water purification, so those are things that are really important for adaptation as well as for climate, greenhouse gas production. 

But the fundamental task for mayors I think is the same before I took office as after. We've got basically three imperatives: invest, implement and innovate. By invest, we got to find the dollars … that can actually move the needle in a significant way. Implementing is always hard and requires taking the long view because if this was easy, it would have been done a long time ago.

Private sector leaders should recognize that many mayors will trip over themselves to be the exhibit hall or the platform for a technology that causes environmental impact.

And then innovation, we have to be constantly looking for better, faster, cheaper things, technologies and approaches. …Those basic tasks haven't changed, whether [Donald] Trump's in office or [President Joe] Biden's in office, because the challenge is so massive. As much as President Biden has been a great help to many local communities, through his leadership, and through his efforts to get legislation over the goal line, we still have a very steep climb ahead. 

Wenzel: You've had a lot of crises while in office … COVID-19 is maybe the most dramatic one, shutting things down and all of the associated problems. What have you learned from some of your crises in office that could be applied to solutions to the systemic challenges of the climate crisis?

Liccardo: It's been said many times before, but it deserves mention: Never waste a crisis. We saw through the pandemic, for the first time, the ability to eliminate red tape and get things done more nimbly. For example, we have a huge homelessness crisis in California and many other parts of the West. And after beating our heads against the wall building housing — it would take five or six years to get through a process and get constructed at $800,000 per unit, with Bay Area construction costs — we found more innovative approaches with prefabricated housing.

We built on unused public land near freeways and built it at a small fraction that cost less than $100,000 a unit, built in a matter of months rather than years. We were able to do that in a pandemic because a lot of the rules went away. When you've got a crisis, you could never overestimate the cost of inaction — and the ability to move red tape away to get things done is incredibly valuable.

Similarly, for example, we had a horrible mass shooting here — actually, we've had three in my tenure. But the one I think with the national attention was the VTA [Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority] rail yard shooting. It helped to focus sentiment in a way that hadn't been focused before on doing something proactive about gun violence. We became the first city in the nation … to require gun insurance of all gun owners...Those kinds of things only happen because a crisis shapes our view of the world and the red tape suddenly becomes less important than the fundamental outcome.

Wenzel: You're in a place with thousands of tech companies and people who are on the cutting edge of technology and sustainability … (For) other communities that don't have that same level, which is most cities, how do you think they can … channel their own innovators locally?

Liccardo: Yeah, as the expression goes, the future is everywhere but it's not evenly distributed. There's a lot of opportunity to bring that technological innovation to other parts of the country, because there are relatively low barriers to entry. As we think about everything from software, artificial intelligence, these are not endeavors that require massive amounts of capital, infrastructure and investment. More than anything, they're around investments in the human mind. So there's great opportunity throughout the country, and certainly we have more than our share here.

As the expression goes, the future is everywhere but it's not evenly distributed.

What I think is important is for mayors wherever they are in the country to build strong relationships with their local universities … as thought partners that can help explore the technological landscape and ways to bring out public benefit. … I don't think anyone should feel intimidated because they don't have a Silicon Valley address.

Wenzel: What’s missing from these interviews you do around climate, sustainability, equity?

Liccardo: Going back to the basic premise that many of our emissions are coming from cities, or that this planet could quickly become uninhabitable. It seems to me mayors are right at the front-line here, and this is an extraordinary opportunity for innovative people who want to have an impact. The point of all that is, I would make a pitch for the bright, young next generation to think about public service in their local communities because, as the bank robber said in response to the question "why I want to rob banks," "That's where the money is." This is where the action is.

Wenzel: Great, so now the question you can't answer, I'm sure, is what is next for you? Are you staying in public service?

Liccardo: I'm still sprinting; we've got a lot more to do here in the last few months. So I'll know more about that sometime in December or January.