We can’t tackle climate change if we ignore the main polluter — transportation

We can’t tackle climate change if we ignore the main polluter — transportation
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The 116th Congress has begun, and for the first time in years, climate change is on the national agenda. The House of Representatives has established a select committee on “the climate crisis.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote in the Washington Post that his caucus wouldn’t sign on to an infrastructure deal unless it addressed climate change. Progressives are coalescing around a “Green New Deal,” which calls on the federal government to decarbonize the economy while creating green-infrastructure jobs.

Missing from these efforts, however, is a whole-hearted stab at cleaning up transportation, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. To do that requires efforts to reduce driving, which would mean reversing the current course of federal policy.

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For the past half-century, the story of U.S. transportation has been almost unceasing growth in driving. Post-war transportation engineering valued moving private vehicles faster and further. Across the country, governments built and widened highways to enable flight from cities, and also widened roads within cities themselves.

These priorities have been reflected in, and abetted by, federal policy. This fiscal year, the government devotes over $41 billion to the federal-aid highway program, with only about $13 billion dedicated to transit and a mere $850 million dedicated to biking and walking (in a set-aside for “transportation alternatives”).

Bigger roads haven’t solved congestion; they’ve just allowed development to spread further from cities, leading to even more traffic. In the process, we’ve built places where driving is the only way to get around, despite the high expense of owning and maintaining a car. Even in cities, it can be much easier to drive than it is to walk, bike, scoot or take transit. We’ve paved and sprawled our way to the most energy-intensive transportation system in the developed world, and simultaneously made it harder to escape poverty.

This system forces so much driving that electrifying vehicles can’t solve the problem. Even if every vehicle in California was electric, and three-quarters of energy came from renewable sources, driving would still need to decline by 15 percent for the state to reach its climate goals.

It seems obvious that addressing the climate crisis requires more transit and multimodal streets. But that’s just a start. Environmental groups have said that an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy can’t solve climate change; it’s not enough to build renewables if the country doesn’t wean itself off of fossil fuels. Similarly, an “all-of-the-above” approach to surface transportation doesn’t cut it. It’s not enough to build more transit, as long as federal policy continues to subsidize the highway-and-sprawl machine.

Unfortunately, “all-of-the-above” is the approach taken in the infrastructure blueprint released by Senate Democrats last year. It would provide a big boost in federal grant programs for transit and rail. But it offers no changes to the federal-aid highway programs; instead, it would “preserve the existing programs for distributing funds while providing funding certainty for ten years.”

Similarly, the only report that currently outlines what a Green New Deal might look like, from think-tank Data for Progress, calls on the country to “modernize urban mobility and mass transit,” but has nothing to say about curtailing the federal highway program.

How could we start?

Federal transportation policy should be explicitly tied to climate goals. A first step would be for the U.S. Department of Transportation to revive a requirement that states measure greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation system, which was scrapped last year.

States should be required to run the numbers on highway projects. If they want federal dollars, most transit expansion projects have to prove their worth through the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program, which judges projects based on mobility and congestion relief, environmental benefits, economic development, cost-effectiveness, and local land use context. Major road expansion projects could be put through a similar process if they want federal support.

Metropolitan areas and cities should get more of the pie. Local officials have rebelled against the roads-first agenda, recognizing that their businesses and residents demand more choices. Scores of cities have built protected bike lanes, and places as different as Richmond, Columbus, and Boston are putting buses first on more of their streets. The National Association of City Transportation Officials now publishes its own street design guides, providing a multimodal alternative to traditional road engineering manuals.

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But states control nearly all federal-aid highway dollars. As the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has found, states keep using this leeway to plan road projects that destroy neighborhoods, don’t solve congestion, and enable more driving — all while costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. 

Instead, federal policy can support a transportation system that supports stronger, less sprawling places, that offer more choices in how to get around. Walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods are more cost- and carbon-efficient, and there’s substantial unmet demand for them. Biking, walking and transit projects even create more jobs than road projects, according to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute and Smart Growth America, an important consideration for Green New Deal supporters. 

Making the changes listed above would signal an end to highways-as-usual, a policy that has helped birth the climate crisis and worsened inequality in cities and suburbs. We can do better by our people and our planet. 

Steven Higashide is research director at TransitCenter and a member of the Transportation Research Board’s committee on transportation demand management. His upcoming book is "Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight For Effective Transit." Follow him on Twitter at @shigashide.