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Get the most from federal energy and infrastructure dollars

AFP PHOTO / Thomas B. Shea
People walk through the flooded waters of Hurricane Harvey on Telephone Rd. in Houston on August 27, 2017. AFP PHOTO / Thomas B. Shea

Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed into law last year, millions more Americans could soon experience the thrill of accelerating from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than two seconds. Electric cars press drivers against their seats and make passengers scream like they’re on carnival rides.

The precise G-force depends on the model, but all EVs offer multiple benefits for their owners and society. They liberate us from gas pumps, oil changes, regular visits to mechanics, tailpipe emissions and intimidation by muscle cars gunning their engines at stoplights.

As EVs creep toward 400 miles per charge and charging locations become ubiquitous, the only disadvantage to owning one is that EVs are usually more intelligent than their owners. They have many cutting-edge features owners probably won’t use. One brand, for example, offers karaoke soundtracks for singalongs.

However, EVs aren’t miracle workers. Sitting in a traffic jam is no more pleasant in an EV than in a gas guzzler. On average, each American wastes nearly 100 hours sitting in traffic while they could be spending time with family or writing the Great American Novel.EVs don’t liberate us from poor urban design or the congestion that develops when a growing population overwhelms a city that didn’t plan for it.

Fortunately, the authors of the IRA and the 2021 infrastructure bill thought of that. As good urban planners point out, America’s cities were designed for cars, not people. The agencies that administer these new funds, and the municipalities that receive them, should flip the script. This new money isn’t to accommodate cars — it’s to ensure mobility for everyone. The IRA offers funds for streetcars, subways, light rail, neighborhood walkways, bicycle lanes, easier access to transit and even the development of transit-oriented housing districts.

As the policy organization Transportation for America points out, more diverse mobility options “will help reduce emissions, make our roads safer, promote public health through more walking, biking, or rolling, (and) connect more people to opportunity.” They will also allow people who do not own or cannot drive cars full access to what cities offer.

In addition, federal agencies can encourage grantees to consider how infrastructure and mobility can help communities adapt to the growing stresses of global climate change and limited funds. For example, cities can reduce transportation costs, air pollution and infrastructure investments by growing upward rather than outward as their populations increase.

Cities can encourage new housing developments to create “20-minute neighborhoods” where residents can get to grocery stores, schools, churches and other assets in a 20-minute walk, bike ride or public transit trip. When Barcelona, Spain, realized that 60 percent of its public space was for cars, it created “superblocks” by combing nine house blocks into one, banning traffic above 6 miles an hour, and reclaiming space for bikes and pedestrians. It plans to make it possible for 80 percent of trips in the city to be on foot, bike or public transport by next year.

These solutions are important to keep in mind as climate change is making flooding and heat waves more deadly. Heavier rains cut off transportation routes and overwhelm stormwater management systems. New York City found that green roofs — the rooftop gardens that absorb rain and carbon dioxide while insulating the interior spaces below them — reduced runoff into its water system by as much as 75 percent in the summer and 40 percent in winter.

With pavement covering 40 percent of a typical American city, the United States is ranked the world’s fourth-most impermeable country per capita. Impermeable streets and parking lots absorb enough solar heat to raise air temperatures as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Permeable paving materials reduce heat gain and allow rainwater to reach the soil and recharge aquifers. The Chinese call cities that do this “Sponge Cities.”

Houston is one American city that wants to be a sponge. After the catastrophic 1,000-year flood from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, city officials realized buildings, roofs, streets and parking lots made the damages considerably worse. So, the city began a “green stormwater infrastructure” program to floodproof with rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavements, urban forestry, constructed wetlands and other natural drainage. It’s part of a larger green development program the mayor calls “futureproofing.”

Over 40 million Americans live along rivers where flood disasters destroy infrastructure and buildings. Cities like La Crosse, Wis., have found that “green streets” reduce local flood damages as well as runoff and stormwater system failures that worsen floods in downriver communities. Good watershed neighbors consider their downstream impacts when planning infrastructure.

There is a lesson here for federal agencies as well as grantees. They should consider the many positive and negative effects infrastructure has on society, the environment and the economy at regional and local scales. They should squeeze co-benefits from every dollar, including those tangential to traditional infrastructure. Finally, federal agencies should ask communities to identify those benefits in their grant applications to encourage holistic planning and obtain maximum benefits from every federal dollar.

As cities know too well, opportunities like this don’t come around that often.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags Cars Climate change emissions extreme heat extreme weather flooding Fossil fuels Global warming hurricane Public Transit Renewable energy urban design William S. Becker

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