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U.S. Can’t Decarbonize Transport without Driving Less, New Analysis Warns

Transportation programs that emphasize electric vehicle use without also limiting the distances people have to drive won’t be enough to achieve rapid decarbonization, Transportation for America and Smart Growth America warn in a report issued earlier this month.

“With transportation accounting for the largest share of carbon emissions in the U.S., we’ll never achieve ambitious climate targets or create more livable and equitable communities if we don’t find ways to allow people to get around outside of a car—or provide more housing in places where that’s already an option,” the two organizations state. “Even forward-looking states like California that are doing far more to convert their fleets to electricity have acknowledged that they will fall far short of their climate goals without also reducing how much everyone drives overall.”

And yet, “it seems like climate-focused policy-makers have a single-minded obsession with the silver bullet solution of everyone in America buying a brand new electric car,” the groups add. “And they do this while completely ignoring an underlying system that requires everyone to drive further every year, kills people walking in record numbers, and creates communities that cut people off from jobs and opportunities.”

Too often, climate and environmental policy seem to assume that “the amount people drive is outside of anyone’s control,” writes Transportation for America Director Beth Osborne, in a foreword to the report. “As if the increase in driving is inexorable—a force of nature or, at least, economics, that is impossible to contain. Rarely do we look at the things governments are doing, at all levels, to make driving the easier choice, if not the only choice.”

Those problems with the built environment “also lead to cost burdens and limited economic opportunities that usually fall hardest on communities of colour,” she adds. While there’s been growing interest in land use changes that would make it possible for more people to drive less, “the current laser focus on electrifying vehicles could lead to a future where we reduce emissions, while ignoring all other tools for near- or medium-term emissions reductions and leaving all of the generational inequities in place.”

That’s a climate problem as well, the report states, since the U.S. will never achieve the ambitious carbon reductions it needs without offering alternatives to mobility by car.

“For 70 years, we have built our communities in ways that make it difficult and unsafe to access daily needs outside a vehicle,” the report states. “In these communities, locating jobs and services far from homes requires more driving; makes transit and sharing rides inefficient; and causes traffic and delay to grow, even in communities with stagnant or declining populations.”

And there are other negative impacts when that’s the way a community is designed, “such as increased pedestrian fatalities and poor health outcomes caused by dangerous roads,” the report continues. “These negative outcomes don’t accrue evenly, either: lower-income and communities of colour are more likely to suffer from asthma or other respiratory disorders because of where roads are built.”

But “market demand for compact, connected, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods continues to outpace supply by a very large amount, making those neighbourhoods unaffordable to even the middle class, much less those who can’t afford a car.”

The two organizations call for a five-part response to the problem:

• Clearing “onerous government regulations” that make it impossible to locate more homes where people can drive less;

• Encouraging short trips by making safety the priority in street design;

• Enshrining greenhouse gas reductions and lower driving volumes as goals for the U.S. transportation system;

• Investing heavily in other forms of mobility;

• Making access to destinations a priority.

Days after the two organizations issued their report, Bloomberg CityLab reported that the pandemic has been a “brutal test” for the country’s biggest transit network, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York.

In 2017, “aging infrastructure, political squabbles, and crowding had pushed the system to the brink, and the MTA embarked on a $54-billion campaign to improve service, with new subway cars and buses, refurbished tracks and stations, and modernized signals,” CityLab writes. “But progress on those investments has been dramatically disrupted by COVID-19, which saw MTA ridership plunge by more than 90%. As the city went into lockdown in March 2020, New Yorkers were faced with an unprecedented mass transit challenge: how to save the system that keeps the city alive.”

Click here to download a copy of Driving Down Emissions by Transportation for America and Smart Growth America.