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Where the candidates stand on transportation

Moving the U.S. toward a zero-emission future

A sleek, aerodynamic high-speed rail train in Florida passes through an intersection. The photo has a graphic red and blue treatment themed to the election.
The future of high-speed rail is at stake in the 2020 election.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

By nearly every metric, the U.S.’s transportation system is in dire need of a federally funded overhaul. Over 40,000 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes per year, and 7 million Americans are on the verge of defaulting on their car loans. Transit ridership is down in virtually every major U.S. city, while traffic congestion—and carbon emissions—have increased.

In recent years, modernizing the U.S. transportation system has become an even more crucially important issue for the country. Transportation is now the largest and fastest-growing contributor to climate change. As of last year, transportation accounts for nearly one-third of U.S. emissions—more than the generation of electricity.

But transportation remains a blind spot in federal policy. Weaning the country off fossil fuels will only address part of the crisis—many of the country’s transportation problems are attributable to its car dependence. Yet Congress—including three of these candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, all of whom co-sponsored the Green New Deal—is set to approve a five-year highway spending bill that will expand roadways, with few provisions for reducing emissions.

On the campaign trail, 2020 presidential candidates are talking about how making major changes to the way Americans get around can improve the economy, reduce carbon pollution, and make jobs and schools more accessible. But while many of the candidates have released dedicated housing and climate plans, few have specific plans around transportation and infrastructure. Here’s what they’ve said so far; Curbed will update this post as new information is shared by the candidates.

Transportation is at a pivotal moment

A major shift in the U.S.’s transportation strategy could radically reshape society, eliminating emissions, making transportation networks more resilient, and saving lives. But most candidates aren’t calling for major changes to transportation policy yet (beyond promises to electrify cars—we’ll get to that in a minute).

For most of 2019, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s climate plan was the only one to address transportation comprehensively—yet it still relies heavily on private electric vehicle adoption. High-speed rail, freight, and public transit are all accounted for, and one-fifth of the $16 trillion budget is earmarked for grants, incentives, and other programs for Americans to acquire and charge electric vehicles.

In fact, the bulk of transformative change around transportation comes in Sanders’s housing plan: “Encourage zoning and development that promotes integration and access to public transportation to reduce commuting time, congestion and long car commutes,” it reads. “Prioritize projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create walkable and livable communities, and reduce urban sprawl.”

Like Sanders, pieces of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s transportation policy are scattered throughout various plans. Her education plan, for example, has safe routes to school funding to improve safe walking and biking infrastructure for students that would greatly benefit communities overall. A strategy to increase public transportation access in low-income communities is part of her green jobs plan. “We know that increasing public transportation rates and decreasing vehicle miles traveled is one of the best ways to reduce emissions,” the plan says.

In November 2019 former New York City mayor and climate philanthropist Michael Bloomberg entered the race, debuting his own “clean transportation” plan in January 2020 as one of three pillars in his climate plan, which centers a reduction in emissions around walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods. It was the first to include explicit strategies to reduce greenhouse gases and improve air quality nationwide by giving neighborhoods better access to zero-emission transportation options.

Only former U.S. Rep. John Delaney proposes raising the federal gas tax, which experts have argued could pay for transportation improvements while discouraging driving. It hasn’t been raised since the 1990s.

Reducing vehicle emissions

Decisions being made now about vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards have the power to affect the impact of cars on climate and clean air. Several automakers inked a deal to adhere to California’s stricter emissions standards, defying the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to roll back fuel efficiency requirements. Now the Trump administration has threatened to revoke California’s emissions waiver.

There are only about 1 million electric vehicles currently on the road in the U.S. (and more than half of those are in a single state: California). Although there are existing rebates and tax credits to incentivize the purchase of EVs, the only federal policy addressing the need to move exclusively to electric vehicles would ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2040, a deadline that exceeds scientific recommendations for eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

Six of the 10 candidates running at the time were asked during CNN’s climate town hall if their plans would require Americans to drive EVs. All said yes, but their plans contain different timelines. Warren—who heavily adopted Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate plan after he left the race—was the first to announce a strategy to electrify all new vehicles by 2030, which was the earliest deadline named among candidates at the time.

Some candidates have a “cash for clunkers” program as part of their plan, where older vehicles could be traded in for zero-emission models, or programs that would help subsidize the purchase of EVs for lower-income families. Electrifying school buses is another common policy point for candidates.

Moving freight is also a huge challenge when it comes to eliminating emissions. Sanders has a large chunk of his climate plan devoted to electrifying the trucking industry. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang—who said at the climate town hall that he’s been endorsed by Tesla founder Elon Musk—had a plan to automate the freight industry using electric self-driving trucks, including by appointing a “trucking czar.” He left the race in February.

Fast-tracking high-speed rail

Amtrak may have just started high-speed non-stop service on one critical corridor, but overall, plans for the country’s network have stalled. Fast, frequent rail could have a transformative effect on the U.S.—not only from rail that links major cities, but also regional rail that can increase employment opportunities for suburban and rural communities.

During the CNN climate town hall, former vice president Joe Biden, who was known as “Amtrak Joe” for riding the train from his Delaware district to D.C., talked about how his high-speed rail plan would “take millions of vehicles off the road.” His plan prioritizes building the national high-speed rail network proposed under the Obama administration, including California’s beleaguered system.

Sanders’s plan also includes a huge push for high-speed rail, with $607 billion allocated for a regional high-speed rail network. This plan acknowledges the political will needed to overcome opposition. “The reason high-speed rail has not worked in the United States is because we have not built the political mobilization needed to demand the funding needed to complete this vision,” the plan reads. “Together, we will create the movement needed to develop high-speed rail.”

Several other candidates have mentioned high-speed rail, but there aren’t comprehensive plans to fund the network or eliminate political roadblocks. Klobuchar’s rail support is part of her infrastructure plan (see below).

Building for walking, biking, and transit

In 2019, Congressional leaders introduced the Complete Streets Act, which would funnel some highway investment dollars to safe streets projects. While most of the transportation policy proposed by candidates centers around EVs and high-speed rail, some candidates have packed their climate plans with additional proposals for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, as well as local transit. Bloomberg’s plan (the details of which are below) is centered around these types of investments.

Biden includes an unspecified amount for pedestrian improvements, building dedicated bike infrastructure, and tackling sprawl—but with a 2050 zero-emissions goal that’s a few decades behind other candidates. Klobuchar aims to “support low- and no-carbon alternatives,” including bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and increase investments in public transit “with a focus on decreasing barriers to opportunity,” particularly for “low-income communities and communities of color.”

Only Sanders includes specific metrics for increasing transit ridership: He wants to boost it by 65 percent by 2030, including building “more livable, connected, and vibrant communities” through transit-oriented development. “For too long, government policy has encouraged long car commutes, congestion, and dangerous emissions,” the plan reads. Specific investments will also target helping seniors, people with disabilities, and rural communities.

Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigeig is one of the “climate mayors,” a coalition of mayors who are prioritizing low-emission mobility solutions in cities, but hasn’t outlined more specific details as part of his own climate plan. He did give an interesting answer at a campaign event about reducing sprawl, and how building roundabouts in South Bend prevents deaths and decreases emissions. And he has a major public transit investment as part of his infrastructure plan, including a national Vision Zero goal to eliminate traffic deaths.

On World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Crash Victims in November, Warren posted a widely shared tweet pledging to “end traffic violence,” but doesn’t have strategies to do so listed in any of her plans.

Where are the infrastructure plans?

During the 2016 presidential election, infrastructure was a big topic. Candidates touted comprehensive transportation proposals to create jobs while fixing the country’s “crumbling roads and bridges.” Such a plan has still not materialized under the current administration, but House Democrats are now pushing for a version of an infrastructure plan that would address climate resilience.

Many candidates have said they want to boost infrastructure spending, but only Klobuchar has a $1 trillion plan which she says will be her top priority as president. The plan focuses on not just “crumbling roads and bridges” but also public transit and rail. It will be paid for by an infrastructure bank and higher corporate taxes. At events, she uses the Minneapolis I-35 bridge as an example of how she’ll get projects done fast. The bridge collapsed in 2007 and was rebuilt in a little over a year.

Buttigieg wants to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over 10 years, framing the proposed investment in the nation’s buildings, transportation, and workforce as a way to both create jobs and build more sustainable, resilient communities. His plan would also focus attention away from large cities and make sure that federal grants, including “smart city” programs, would spur innovation in smaller municipalities.

Bloomberg’s late-entry buzz

in January, Bloomberg revealed a plan that got transportation advocates excited: a proposal to replicate his walking and biking successes as New York City mayor, and a senior advisor, Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation principal for Bloomberg Associates and former New York City Department of Transportation head, who helped turn busy thoroughfares like Times Square into pedestrian-only zones. “One part of the plan that’s really important is getting people out of cars,” she told Curbed. “Not just getting people to drive less, but also investing in the network that makes alternatives to driving possible.”

Bloomberg’s plan to reduce American reliance on cars would be achieved in much in the same way he got New Yorkers onboard Citi Bike, the country’s most successful bike-share program, for example—by making investments that make the car-free options more attractive. This would also mean shifting funding priorities at the national level from car-centric infrastructure to zero-emission infrastructure. “Americans increasingly prefer to live in communities where it’s easier to take transit, bike, or walk to get where they’re going,” the plan reads.

But Bloomberg has also been attacked by transportation advocates for the aggressive policing policies put in place while mayor, including stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately targeted black and brown men and was denounced as racial profiling. Bloomberg has repeatedly apologized for the practice.

How the candidates get around

Candidates have been captured riding subways and trains much more during this campaign than in 2016, tickling transportation advocates. The influential Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, or NUMTOTs, endorsed Sanders, who responded with a pro-transit message to the group’s 180,000 members showing him riding a bus.

After running for a train, Warren made an endorsement announcement on another train, and in the quiet car, no less. Biden, who rode Amtrak home from the inauguration in 2017, was seen on the train hours after announcing his campaign in April.

Bloomberg rode the subway daily as mayor (most of the way) and is riding transit in the cities he visits, including taking questions while riding BART in Oakland, California.

As a Tesla enthusiast, Yang often spoke about his love for electric vehicles. “You feel like you’re driving the future,” he said at the climate town hall. “We are all going to love driving our electric cars.” He also showed up to interviews on his bike.

Perhaps the most impressive cycling credentials belong to Klobuchar, who biked across the country with her dad when she was a teenager. She was also on the Yale cycling team and regularly talks about her rides on Minnesota trails. Although he’s since left the race, Beto O’Rourke held a live chat aboard a Bolt bus from New York City to Boston and famously rode off on a fixed-gear bike last February when asked by reporters if he was running for president.

And until the high-speed rail network is built, candidates are still using planes to make campaign stops. Buttigieg and Klobuchar were photographed seated next to each other on a United flight.

The rest of the time, most of the candidates do ride around on buses—well, their campaign buses, at least.