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You can’t be a ‘climate mayor’ if you’re making more room for cars

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Sorry—that’s not how it works

Mayors across the U.S. claim they want to stop climate change but keep widening freeways, protecting parking, and incentivizing sprawl.
ifoto/Shutterstock

Since last June, 402 U.S. mayors have joined the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, a group also known as the Climate Mayors, which was formed when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accord.

These mayors pledged to uphold the climate agreement, which was established to try and limit the rise of global average temperatures to 2.0 degrees Celsius—and aim for even more progressive targets.

Yet nine months later, this coalition of mayors, which represents 69 million Americans across 47 states, is still not doing enough to address the elephant in the atmosphere: the inextricable link between our cars and climate change.

“We will intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ current climate goals, push for new action to meet the 1.5-degrees-Celsius target, and work together to create the 21st-century clean energy economy,” reads the widely-shared statement from the Climate Mayors last June. “The world cannot wait—and neither will we.”

The urgency of that statement has become more clear in 2018. Scientists report the commitments of the almost 200 countries that signed the Paris agreement are not proving effective. Global emissions have started to rise again after remaining flat for three years.

“It’s not fast enough. It’s not big enough,” Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research told the Washington Post. “There’s not enough action.”

In the U.S.—which is historically the largest carbon polluter in the world—transportation has now surpassed power plants as the greatest contributor to climate change. As the cost of renewable energy sources like solar and wind plummets, paving the way for widespread adoption, the only major roadblock for many cities attempting to achieve those climate goals is an inability—or unwillingness—to reduce emissions from vehicles.

If these 402 U.S. mayors are truly adhering to the goals set forth in the Paris climate accord, then none of them can build infrastructure that encourages more emissions by more cars and trucks. And, furthermore, they can’t support any type of urban growth that pushes cities out instead of up.

Unfortunately, it’s a place where hardly any U.S. mayors are stepping up to lead.

Take, for example, this week’s Climate Mayor action, which responds to the Trump administration's weakening of fuel-efficiency standards in vehicles. Instead of offering a bold framework for reducing or eliminating the numbers of vehicles on the streets of these 402 cities, these mayors are hyping their embrace of electric vehicles, namely the purchase of 114,000 new electric vehicles from U.S. automakers.

Electric vehicles made up less than one percent of U.S. vehicles purchased last year, with a large majority of owners in just a handful of cities. By the time that widespread adoption of electric vehicles—or even shared vehicles—are able to make the slightest dent in U.S. emissions, it will be too late. Not just from a climate standpoint. But also from a density standpoint.

Unless new, affordable housing is placed in walkable, transit-adjacent neighborhoods where people can live without cars, the growth of cities will drive emissions even higher. This is especially true for the movement of goods. Sprawl doesn’t just lengthen commutes, it increases the distance of vehicular trips needed to make deliveries.

Unfortunately the infrastructure plan put forth by the Trump administration—if one can call it a plan—incentivizes car-centric development. The plan to “rebuild our crumbling infrastructure” will be paid for by ending major transit grant programs and zeroing out federal support for Amtrak. Unsurprisingly the plan does not address climate change and has been called “smoke and mirrors” and a “scam” by public transit advocates.

But cities don’t need to rely on a federal infrastructure plan to get started. Some cities are having success taxing ride-hailing services and using the money to pay for transit improvements. Heck, with those revenues, a city might even be able to make public transit free. Many states have a gas tax, but a slightly more progressive idea is road pricing—charging drivers by vehicle-miles driven instead of taxing gasoline.

Instead of building highways, knocking down apartments for parking lots, or rallying to “save” single-family housing, U.S. mayors need to be charging drivers to enter cities, approving affordable housing near transit hubs, eliminating parking requirements, and building out a robust bus network.

In fact, only one U.S. mayor has committed to doing all those things—Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. This week, Durkan announced a suite of transportation reforms, including congestion pricing to drive on busy downtown streets, as part of the city’s climate action plan. Ironically, although Durkan embraces the goals of the Paris accord, she didn’t technically sign the Climate Mayor agreement. Her predecessor did.

Climate agreements like the Paris accord are not legally binding, of course, which is part of the challenge if the U.S. wants to see results. But if U.S. mayors are going to go “all in” for climate, their constituents need to tell them to find new ways to cut down on cars in their cities.