America’s transportation system is a leading contributor to climate change worldwide – and, as of this past spring, the number one source of carbon pollution in the United States.
That is not an accident. There is a direct line from the policy decisions the United States has made over the last century – decisions that have almost universally moved the country toward deepening dependence on fossil fuel-powered personal cars – to the climate-altering reality of today.
And while it has been more than a quarter-century since global warming first burst into public consciousness in the United States, many states still commission major highway expansion projects, raise speed limits, shift road costs from drivers to other taxpayers, and make countless other critical decisions about our transportation network with only the most cursory consideration of their impacts on the climate – and sometimes not even that.
If America is to fulfill its commitment, made as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, to do our share to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, we need to do better. We need to upend transportation policies – some of them dating to the end of the horse-and-buggy era – that set us back in the fight against climate change. We need to eliminate barriers to low-carbon technical and policy innovations. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to get the incentives right so that low-carbon transportation choices are truly the cheapest, easiest, most convenient and most comfortable choices every American can make.
Our new report, 50 Steps toward Carbon-Free Transportation, lays out a series of common-sense principles for this revolution in transportation policy, identifies the many ways current state and federal policies fall short, and suggests a series of practical public policy steps we can use to move America toward real solutions.
The report is a follow-up and companion to our May report, A New Way Forward, which described a New Transportation Toolbox of strategies, technologies and measures – some new and some old – that can help us to move toward zero-carbon urban transportation. A key insight of that report was that the most effective strategies to fuel the transition to carbon-free transportation are likely to emerge at the local and regional levels, and to vary from place to place.
That’s not a particularly controversial statement these days. Everyone wants to talk about the innovations happening in cities around the country, many of which are truly exciting and bring great promise.
Yet, every city is constrained to some degree by state and federal policies. If federal and state policies are fueling highway expansion, luring businesses and industries out of city centers, stifling innovations such as shared mobility and the creation of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, and subsidizing single-occupancy car commuters, even the most innovative and committed cities are going to find themselves swimming against the tide. Meanwhile, less committed and less innovative cities – which must also reduce their emissions if the nation is to meet its climate goals – might be tempted to stop swimming altogether and simply be carried away on a flood of state and federal money and policy inertia.
50 Steps toward Carbon-Free Transportation calls on the U.S. to envision a future in which public policies support and fuel local innovations and carbon-cutting strategies, rather than standing in their way. It challenges us to acknowledge the entrenched political and bureaucratic forces that inhibit true reform at the state and federal levels and to assemble the policy platforms and winning coalitions that can successfully challenge them.
There is no time to waste. With growing talk of a major push on infrastructure investment in the new administration and increasing urgency around climate change, we no longer have the luxury of repeating the mistakes of the past.
Three-quarters of a century ago, policy-makers and the public envisioned a future in which the automobile delivered prosperity and freedom. While the auto age was accompanied by material progress, it also came with dreadful side effects: carnage from crashes, polluted air and water, destruction of communities to make way for freeways and parking lots, traffic congestion, road rage, the financial albatross of car ownership, and emissions of carbon pollution that are heating up the globe and threatening life itself.
It’s time to think anew about how we get around. We hope that 50 Steps conveys the urgency of our situation, the depth of the reforms we need to make, and the benefits that policy change can deliver, not only for our climate, but also for our health, our safety, our economy and our quality of life.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.