By Liz Stanton
Cross-posted from Liz Stanton Consulting’s Public Goods Blog.
Getting ourselves, our kids, and all of the material goods of our economy from point A to point B resulted in 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in 2015. That’s 35 percent of all U.S. carbon pollution and 6 percent of global carbon emissions—just from U.S. transportation. Worldwide, transportation is responsible for one-seventh of all greenhouse gas emissions. To keep global temperature rise below 2°C (or even below 3 or 4°C) we’ll need a vast, all-encompassing transformation. Incremental changes—a little bit better gas mileage, a few more people taking public transit—aren’t going to cut it. Staying below 2°C, and thereby avoided a climate catastrophe, will require us to completely reimagine our way of getting around.
A new report from the Frontier Group does a good job laying out a detailed agenda for decarbonizing the U.S. transportation sector. The report discusses not just the policy reforms needed to achieve the basics—electrification of all vehicles paired with decarbonization of the electric grid—but also the more transformative, and therefore more difficult and more amorphous, changes that will be needed. Here are the parts that we don’t talk about enough:
· Changing the way we design our cities and towns: Much of the U.S. urban and suburban landscape can be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate without a car. Walkable cities, safe paths and dedicated lanes for biking, and public transportation that makes sense in a suburban setting are all essential to decarbonizing transportation.
· Changing our choices and behavior: Harder still, it won’t be enough to change the built environment. Car travel is the norm in most neighborhoods. Building safe reliable alternatives is a start but getting people to make different choices will require a societal shift in expectations.
Change is under weigh. Today, the cost of an electric vehicle is on par with that of a gasoline-power vehicle, and powering an electric vehicle costs less per mile than paying for gasoline. In a few states, non-profit groups are helping electric vehicle buyers to band together to get significant discounts from car dealers to make these vehicles even more affordable, like Refuel Colorado and the soon-to-be released Drive Green for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. (Stay tuned! Mass Energy’s Drive Green program is slated to begin in early November.)
Changing middle-class families’ vehicle purchases from gasoline to electric is a first critical step of many. To really make a difference in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions electric-vehicle adoption needs work in concert with the other shifts discussed in the Frontier Group report—greening the electric grid, smart urban and municipal planning, and changes in norms and expectations—and also resolve a few thorny issues.
First, to achieve total decarbonization of transportation public policy and technical innovation need to reach beyond cities and towns into rural America. We need solutions that fit the needs and constraints of rural families and businesses. Lower transportation costs would be a tremendous boon to rural communities. But the technologies that work for urban dwellers simply cannot accommodate transportation needs in sparsely populated areas.
The second challenge for decarbonizing transportation is making greener options available to low-income families. Public transportation systems need to reach all neighborhoods, operate consistently and efficiently, and be affordable. Poor communities clustered nearby to highways or industrial sites are some of the least walkable urban neighborhoods, and public transportation systems are rarely designed with the aim of connecting low-income housing with jobs, schools, and shopping. Whether living in the city or the country, driving is often the only or best option for many families, and buying a new car on credit is a privilege reserved for the middle class.
Making public transit and electric vehicles accessible to low-income families is no small task. But it’s a challenge that—if met—holds tremendous opportunity for reducing poverty in the United States. With good policy design, green transportation has the potential to be cheaper, quicker, and safer for all families.