We’re missing the mark on reducing greenhouse gases in transportation, with proposed policies focusing exclusively on electrifying fleets and cap-and-trade systems while ignoring reducing demand.
Governor Cuomo’s recent climate bill, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed in June 2019, sets ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions New York State by 40% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The act mandates New York State’s Climate Action Council to outline a scoping plan with recommendations for reducing emissions across all sectors, including transportation.
The transportation sector is responsible for the greatest amount of GHG emissions in New York and nationwide. And it’s not cargo trucks and buses to blame—light-duty vehicles, which include SUVs, small and medium pickup trucks, sedans, and other passenger cars, account for 82 percent of carbon dioxide released in New York State.
In response, the State Departments of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Transportation (DOT) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) released a draft framework for a regional low carbon transportation policy. The draft framework outlines the creation of a carbon market cap-and-trade system, while noting, “individual jurisdictions… may choose to pursue complementary policies and programs to further enable GHG emission reductions from transportation, while also achieving other important policy goals, including air quality improvements, particularly in communities already bearing a disproportionate pollution burden, improved safety, and greater access to affordable, low-carbon transportation options. This could include coordinated infrastructure planning, land-use planning improvements, and the development of green banks and other innovative financing mechanisms.”
Similarly, a recent report from the Sierra Club outlined an approach to “Transforming Transportation in New York,” focusing almost solely on electrifying the transportation fleet in New York State.
Though the report outlines three scenarios—business as usual, fleet electrification, and fleet electrification with mode shifting—no serious consideration is given to reducing vehicle miles traveled. The group uses a conservative estimation for VMT reduction, 5 percent. Congestion pricing in New York City alone is predicted to result in a 6.7 percent reduction of vehicle miles traveled when implemented in 2021.
The state agencies and the Sierra Club are not alone—the few political representatives and environmental organizations who have incorporated transportation in to their climate action plans also focus almost solely on electrifying fleets. Climate action plans from democratic presidential hopefuls such as Biden, Warren, and Harris lay out plans for all new motor vehicles to be electric by 2030 or 2035. None set ambitious goals, metrics, or specific policies to address reducing the number of miles traveled.
Electrifying our fleet alone will not suffice. A 2019 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states, in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we must also shift mobility choices from low- to high-efficiency modes en masse, invest in public transit, transform urban planning to curtail sprawl and change the built environment to make walking and biking more accessible. Similarly, the California Air Resources Board predicts even with an ambitious 10 fold increase in electric vehicles in the fleet, we still need drivers to drive 25 percent fewer miles to meet GHG targets.
If we do not address vehicle miles traveled, we also completely ignore the litany of deleterious effects of cars on the environment and our society as a whole. In 2018, 36,560 Americans were killed in traffic collisions, with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at their highest since 1990 (6,283 and 857 deaths, respectively). An additional 2.35 million Americans injured or disabled each year. Traffic crashes cost America an average $230.6 billion per year, or an average of $820 per person per year.
We know electric vehicles are not the panacea for sustainable transportation—they’re incredibly dirty to produce. Electric vehicle production uses more greenhouse gases than to produce their gas-guzzling counterparts. The mining and extraction process for EV components, specifically lithium, nickel, and cobalt, pose serious ethical and environmental concerns—over half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children are paid a pittance in exchange for a 12 hour mining day. Mining the components is also water intensive, resulting in much-need water for agriculture to be redirected to the mining industry.
Electric vehicles will likely cause people to drive more as data show people drive more when gas is inexpensive. What will happen when the electricity to power your motor vehicle is a cheaper fuel than ever before? We’ll see increased congestion, more emissions, and the continued propagation of the harmful effects of cars on urban environments. The deleterious environmental impacts of personal motor vehicles will persist, including air pollution causing direct and indirect health problems; broken, disconnected communities; decimated local economies; and continued urban sprawl.
Americans drive an average 37 miles per day and own 1.16 cars per licensed driver. We spend $534 per year per person to build and maintain our road network. And that number is set to increase, Americans are driving more than ever—1300 more miles per person than in 1992.
We also know investments in public and active transportation pay off. A recent report from the rail-trail conservancy estimated a potential annual return on investment of connected active-transportation infrastructure could be as high as $73 billion+ in a modest scenario and $138 billion+ in a substantial scenario.
Decades of data on active and public transportation demonstrates that if you give people safe, connected and efficient options for commuting, people will use them. In the Buffalo Niagara region, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus implemented modest transportation demand management strategies on their 12,000 employee campus to create a 5 percent reduction in employees driving alone, from 88 percent to 83 percent. The 2018 GO Buffalo Niagara pilot study, which experimented with different strategies to encourage mode shift with 88 downtown employees for three months resulted in 4,068 single occupancy trips avoided. These pilot projects suggest even modest transportation demand management strategies such as discounted transit passes, guaranteed ride home and free bike share memberships can result in exceptional reductions in vehicle miles traveled.
So why do we continue to ignore the writing on the wall? Perhaps because we Americans love our automobiles. Perhaps because the often-democratic car manufacturing unions want to keep their production jobs. Whatever the reason, we must think more broadly about reducing the number of trips we take per American.
Across the globe, other countries are radically proactive about reducing their transportation-related climate change impacts. Paris has banned cars from the city center one day per month while building 1,400 kilometers in bike lanes. Madrid banned all non-resident cars from its city center last year, causing 138 additional Spanish cities to follow suit. China has built 2,000 miles of high-speed rail to reduce air travel within their country.
Meanwhile, in America, Elon Musk is building hyperloops to vacuum-shoot cars underground. The largest highway spending package ever was approved by congress in July 2019, with bipartisan support, dedicating $287 billion to primarily build new roads. The spending package was supported by Green New Deal co-sponsor Ed Markey, even though we know that more roads encourage people to drive more (a well-documented phenomenon referred to as induced demand). In the Buffalo Niagara region, NYSDOT and the City of Buffalo continue to insist on infrastructure that upholds level of service for motor vehicles alone, while ignoring the safety, comfort and health of residents and people walking, biking, and using transit.
We are condemned to drive, but we don’t have to be. In America, nearly half of trips are less than three miles. A quarter of trips are a mile or less. In addition to the solid standbys of biking, walking, and public transit, new technologies such as bike share, ride share and scooters, all accessible through our smartphones, are making it easier than ever to not drive. We need the infrastructure and political leadership to follow suit.