In late August, Sen. Bernie Sanders revealed his Green New Deal, the most ambitious climate plan of all the presidential candidates. It calls for complete decarbonization of both the energy and transportation sectors by 2030, by far the most aggressive timeline of anyone else running. An entire section of the plan is dedicated to transportation, outlining trillions of dollars worth of solutions for tackling the country’s single-largest source of carbon emissions.
It’s still not nearly enough.
All 10 candidates participating in the September 4 climate town hall have released climate plans, but most devote no more than a few lines to transportation, and only a handful go beyond strategies to electrify vehicles. Beto O’Rourke’s plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 includes an unspecified number of “transportation grants that cut commutes, crashes, and carbon pollution.” Former vice president Joe Biden also has a plan that includes an unspecified amount for pedestrian improvements, building dedicated bike infrastructure, and tackling sprawl—but also with a 2050 goal. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s plan aims to “support low- and no-carbon alternatives” including bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Sen. Kamala Harris’s plan includes a goal to reduce car use through “infrastructure investments toward projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled,” although there are no specific targets.
The Sanders plan gets the most credit for correctly framing the scope of this climate challenge, noting that transportation accounts for 29 percent of domestic emissions, and allocating a major chunk of the $16.3 trillion budget to address it. A grand total of $3.5 trillion is earmarked for grants, incentives, and other programs for Americans to acquire electric vehicles. Another $85.6 billion will be spent building an electric vehicle charging network. There’s $607 billion for a regional high-speed rail network, $407 billion to electrify buses, including school buses, and a final $300 billion would modernize public transportation.
“For too long, government policy has encouraged long car commutes, congestion, and dangerous emissions,” reads Sanders’s plan. “The Green New Deal will reverse these trends and create more livable, connected, and vibrant communities.”
But Sanders’s plan is still almost all about cars, even if they are electric. His proposals won’t erase commutes and congestion. And more livable, connected, and vibrant communities certainly won’t be created by offering incentives to buy plug-in vehicles and building more places to plug them in. This plan to comprehensively electrify America’s cars will use up almost one-fifth of the entire Green New Deal budget, more than what’s allotted to build a nationwide renewable energy grid and storage system—and much of that capacity would go toward powering all the EVs.
As a country we definitely must move to zero-emission modes of transportation as soon as possible—especially for those who make a living using vehicles. But what everyone else needs are more options. Like the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress, Sanders’s plan reveals a blind spot in federal climate policy. It’s not just our fossil fuel dependence that needs to be addressed, it’s our car dependence.
Each day that we continue to prioritize cars means more Americans will be displaced from their homes, diagnosed with chronic respiratory disease, or killed in traffic collisions so our communities can accommodate more vehicles. And even if all those vehicles are electric, they’ll still emit dangerous particulate matter, creating lifelong health issues for people who live near wide, busy roadways.
Cars are also expensive. In a country where many Americans are having trouble paying rent—something Sanders speaks about often—is our best solution for reducing emissions really going to be requiring households to purchase a new zero-emission vehicle just to continue participating in society?
Over 7 million Americans are behind on their car payments, the highest number in a decade. In our car-dominant society, having a vehicle is often a pathway out of poverty. But American families are becoming financially overextended—putting themselves at risk for predatory loan practices—just so they can get to work and school. Grants and tax credits might help offset some initial costs for EVs, but without more transportation options, we’re still spending too much of our money on cars. Why would we want to continue subsidizing driving and all its negative externalities?
A Green New Deal shouldn’t be offering an endless funnel of cash to automakers to perpetuate a resource-depleting industry; it should declare an end to the institution of car ownership. How can you promise to decimate fossil-fuel billionaires and then exonerate car manufacturers, who are often complicit in perpetuating a fossil-fueled future? Where are the bike superhighways, vehicle-sharing programs, pedestrian-priority streets?
Public transportation is a key component of Sanders’s plan, with a goal to boost ridership by 65 percent nationwide on “affordable, reliable, quick, and efficient” transit by 2030. That’s a worthy goal. (Especially considering falling ridership of the last few years.) So is his plan to build out the high-speed rail network proposed during the Obama administration. But you can’t pour billions of dollars into public transportation without a counterbalanced effort to decrease car trips. The plan says it will promote transit-oriented development, but this has become a complicated issue for many U.S. cities that are struggling to increase the residential density that would help more people accomplish those short trips without cars.
There are some elements of Sanders’ transportation plan, like a call to electrify school buses, which demonstrate high-level thinking about the impact of vehicles on the country’s most vulnerable populations. But the school bus plan is also the perfect example of why simply electrifying the transportation mode only solves half the problem.
Of course school buses—like all transit buses—should be zero-emission so kids riding them to school aren’t breathing toxic air. But how about mandating safe infrastructure so kids can walk and bike reasonable distances to school by themselves? How about putting the schools and the homes closer together? If it’s too inconvenient, dangerous, or unpleasant to get to school, parents are going to drive their kids instead. How about making public transit so efficient everywhere that we don’t need buses just for school?
In a poll before the last debate, voters named climate change as the top issue they wanted to hear the candidates talk about. In the first two debates, it hasn’t been discussed with any depth. That changes on September 4, when CNN will host the first-ever climate crisis town hall for Democratic presidential candidates.
In the first two debates, the moderators couldn’t seem to engage with the most basic quality-of-life issues facing voters—they didn’t ask a single question about housing, which might be the most universal issue voters face. But at least for this first climate town hall, in addition to one-on-one interviews with moderators, the questions will be coming from the audience. So we need to start asking questions. Questions like:
Would you declare a moratorium on highway expansions?
How would you increase the number of trips taken by bike?
Do you support congestion pricing?
Would you make public transit free?
Will you raise the federal gas tax?
Will you extend electric car incentives to include electric bikes and other small electric vehicles?
How will you repair the damage to communities of color created by the federal highway system?
We hear a lot about crumbling bridges and roads. How will you fix our crumbling or non-existent sidewalks?
How will you overcome political opposition to high-speed rail?
Will you require the federal government to only use EVs?
How will you encourage cities to add density in transit-rich areas?
These answers are even more important now that Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who was running as a climate candidate, has left the race. No one candidate will be consistently messaging on climate. In the same week, the Democratic National Committee ruled against holding an official climate debate. MSNBC will host another climate forum on September 19 and 20 that may help to keep the issue top-of-mind—but then what?
One-third of the country’s emissions are directly attributable to the fact that Americans must drive to survive, yet the quest for car-dominance is destroying us. This issue can no longer be ignored. The candidates might have social media-ready sound bites about how critical it is to address the climate crisis—but none of it matters if we cannot confront the climate crisis sitting in our own driveways.