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Our transportation system is designed to damage the climate: Here’s how to fix it

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A new report offers a roadmap to a carbon-free future

Electric vehicle charging station
Electric vehicle charging station
Shutterstock

Once a sci-fi fantasy, automated vehicles have now become a regular news item, with thrilling daily reports on the exponential speed of innovation. Tesla, Uber, Google, Otto, and the entire car industry seem to be racing towards a sophisticated, efficient, and high-tech future.

It’s exciting to see the way we travel and commute to work seemingly change in front of our eyes, but adapting driverless technology isn’t the only technological shift we need to make. Transportation needs to go green fast to help combat climate change, according to a new report by the Frontier Group, “50 Steps Toward Carbon- Free Transportation: Rethinking U.S. Transportation Policy to Fight Global Warming.”

Author Tony Dutzik spells it out in the introduction: the U.S. has the tools to make a carbon-free transportation system a reality. But currently, our national priorities, exemplified by our laws and regulations, are working at cross-purposes with attempts to fashion a greener future: climate analysis isn’t even a factor in planning. Here’s what’s wrong, and some of the steps government can take to move forward.


How bad is our current transportation policy? Pretty bad

The report doesn’t soft pedal the situation: “America’s transportation system has emerged as Climate Enemy #1.” Our cars, trucks, and vehicles represent the largest source of carbon pollution in the nation, and Americans produce more carbon pollution per capita than any other major industrialized nation. To make that worse, transportation policy and funding exacerbate the problem, focused on expanding highways, underfunding public transportation and sustainable options, and refusing to even factor climate change into long-term planning (the Obama administration just moved to require states to factor environmental review into applications for federal transportation funding).

It’s a classic example of following the money. The income tax exclusion for commuter parking subsidies pays out $7 billion per year, and the U.S. gasoline tax fails to even pay for the cost of maintenance for the roads we currently have, much less cover the damage caused by pollution, noise, and congestion. To do that, the gas tax, which hasn’t been touched by politicians in decades, would have to be raised $2.10 a gallon, according to non-profit Resources for the Future.

Want more? In many places, state laws bar state governments from using gas tax revenue for anything other than roads and highways. That means that in 24 states, home to 113 million people, the state government spends less than a penny per person for day on public transportation.

In short, if we want a greener transportation system, the government needs to not only create a level playing field, where we’re not subsidizing pollution-heavy vehicles and roadway expansion, but actively encourage and subsidize the development of cleaner, more efficient cars. Right now, for the most part, we’re doing the opposite.

It starts with better policy and zoning: the climate should inform decisions

Roughy a century ago, three developments helped lock in the modern U.S. transportation system: in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T and an era of cheap internal combustion; in 1916, Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act, which enshrined the current system of federally funded highway building; and that same year, New York City adopted the first zoning code, a precursor to many such sets of rules that would steer development, often in very car-friendly ways.

Dutzik’s report outlines a number of policy changes that would help shift resources towards building better infrastructure as well as encourage more sustainable habits. State and federal governments can put caps on carbon pollution, and make sure climate damage and the cost of pollution is factored into planning, giving sustainable options an upper hand. States such as California, New York, and Oregon have started down that road, but more movement is necessary.

Public funding should focus on low-carbon options

Though many states and local governments may say they want to move towards greener, more efficient transportation, the realities of the funding system discourage more radical shifts. Federal and state dollars are often geared toward roadway expansion and repair; shifting these formulas and matching funds can open up more money for greener developments.

States have also found success with transportation demand management (TDM), strategies that counter congestion by focusing on incentives that drive shared rides and alternative modes of transportation. Steering funds towards these programs can help shift the balance away from our crowded streets. The public certainly seems drawn to transit when it’s an option: mass transit ridership hit an all-time high in 2014, and according to the Transportation Research Board, current public transportation services reduce travel and greenhouse gas emissions by about 10 percent.

Reward the right transportation choices

The government could ramp up the use of subsidies and tax breaks to fund transportation research and target resources towards fighting climate change. But right now, the tax code tends to favor driving via sales tax exemptions for motor fuel and parking subsidies; many local governments even tax carsharing services like car rentals, discouraging more widespread adoption, and shared mobility solutions, such as bikesharing, aren’t covered in traditional commuter benefits. Changing these rules so our tax code matches our transportation priorities would make a huge difference.

Phase out older, carbon-heavy vehicles

Supporting public transportation and mass transit are key, but perhaps the most gain can be had in greening our fleet of cars and trucks. Federal and state policy should encourage alternative energy production, to support electric vehicles, and be more aggressive with emissions and mile-per-gallon standards, to make those on the road cleaner and more efficient. Recent renewable energy policies at the state and federal level, which have more than tripled wind energy production and boosted solar energy by 30-fold, suggest these kinds of shifts can be achieved.

Encourage communities and planning that helps the planet

Changing how our communities are designed can shift our energy usage patterns and help cut carbon out of our transportation system. The current system of housing subsidies favors single-family homes, via mortgage deductions, and sprawling suburban developments over urban infill and multi-family buildings.

Encouraging urban development, removing parking demands that drive up building costs, and updating zoning policies, as the Obama administration suggested, can help steer new construction towards more dense, walkable areas. It can make a massive difference: according to research by the Urban Land Institute, focusing future development takes place in urban and walkable neighborhoods could reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions by 9 to 15 percent by 2050.

Public money should be a catalyst for green technologies

Transportation funding can help incubate and develop a new generation of climate-friendly transportation technology, if government makes that a priority. Innovative thinking, data collection, and experimentation should be the key. Currently, the Department of Transportation has overseen a series of new, innovative approaches to updating our transportation system, including the Smart City Challenge, seeking to spur new high-tech transportation systems, as well as guidelines for autonomous vehicle policy that include sustainable development goals.

State and local bureaucracies can also embrace the changing landscape by reducing barriers to collaboration, reforming procurement procedures, and experimenting with new transit technologies.