When President Biden recommitted the US to the Paris Climate Accord on his first day in office, he set into motion what will undoubtedly be an ambitious climate strategy. Already, with his executive order to replace the federal government's massive vehicle fleet with US-made electric vehicles — quickly followed by a ground-shifting pledge by General Motors to sell EVs only by 2035 — we are witnessing a flurry of actions aimed at reducing emissions across various industries and sectors. After four years of backtracking, the US is on the cusp of a meaningful policy response to climate change.
Unfortunately, the electric vehicles and charging stations that Biden has signaled will take center stage in his transportation climate strategy are not nearly enough to solve the problem we face. Transportation contributes the largest (and still growing) share of carbon emissions in the US, and electrification is a critical requisite to a carbon-free future. But in order to achieve climate targets, the US must significantly reduce its use of cars, period.
The good news is, with new leadership in the White House and the Department of Transportation, we can make much-needed changes to expand transit, biking and walking options, and to bring people closer to the places they need to go.
The truth is very simple: If we continue to design our communities and transportation systems to require more driving alone, even if it's in an electric car, it makes decarbonization far harder. According to Rocky Mountain Institute's analysis, the US transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goals — requiring that we put 70 million EVs on the road and reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20% in the next nine years. Even under the most ambitious EV adoption scenarios, we must still reduce driving. And while 2020 saw a Covid-induced drop in VMT, SUV sales continue to climb, and so too will VMT.
Enhancing transit, biking and walking — as well as building more housing closer to jobs, schools, groceries and other necessities — will reduce car dependency and make decarbonization far easier. And, unlike electrification, these strategies could be implemented without having to rely on the whims of the American car buyer, the compliance of reluctant automakers or the long timeframe required to overhaul the national fleet. They also bring meaningful co-benefits, like saving people money on transportation, improving safety and public health, and reducing barriers to economic mobility to those who can't afford to drive.
What we lack is the necessary political will or understanding.
The situation facing California is a perfect example. At the same time that California is seeking sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035, the state legislature continues to prevent much-needed housing reform that would put more housing closer to the things people need. As a result, California has 3.4 million fewer homes than it needs to meet demand. This pushes affordable housing farther from jobs and basic needs, forcing people to spend more on transportation and increasing overall carbon emissions. This approach, which is standard across the country, also pushes more affordable homes into fire-prone areas rather than more climate-resilient locations.
As the Golden State is demonstrating, trying to solve emissions with electric vehicles alone will leave current inequities in place, with millions of Americans struggling to afford their car payments, living in places where they can't even safely walk across the street, or relying on underfunded transit systems with sporadic and infrequent service.
While it will take major acts of political courage, curbing emissions through sweeping changes to land-use patterns and infrastructure is possible, especially now. The Biden administration may be emphasizing electrification, but it is also signaling that it wants an all-of-the-above strategy against climate change. The president's choice for secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, is another optimistic signal. As mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg's policies around street design, traffic safety, and parking demonstrated the power of investing in alternatives to automotive infrastructure.
Expanding the approach that Buttigieg took in South Bend to the federal level could have far-reaching effects. As a playbook for how the country could do it, here's what we propose.
1. If we are serious about curbing emissions, we must end the practice of allowing states to build new fossil-fuel-intensive highways or expansions while ignoring the backlog of maintenance needs for our deteriorating existing roads and bridges. Repair must be the first priority.
2. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels should immediately prioritize funding to encourage more trips taken by walking, biking or other non-automotive means, as we argue in a recent Transportation For America report. Prioritizing safety for people instead of speed for vehicles is one way to get there. In California, Governor Newsom could issue another executive order to mandate Complete Streets and eliminate the ban on converting vehicle travel lanes to transit-only lanes on state roads. Congress could pass a federal Complete Streets policy, which was introduced but not advanced in the last Congress. And the US Department of Transportation could make such a policy easier to implement by adopting a Complete Streets policy of their own and removing the numerous procedural federal hurdles to transit- and pedestrian-friendly designs. They could also incentivize states to do the same.
3. Struggling public transportation systems are particularly in need of emergency operating funding given the impacts of the pandemic on ridership. The Biden administration has proposed providing $20 billion in the next recovery bill to preserve transit service through the rest of the pandemic. But both the states and the federal government could also invest in transit as the economy recovers, with the same commitment that the country made to constructing a national highway system in the 1950s. There is currently an effort in the US House of Representatives to bring transit funding up to the level of highway funding. That would be a good start. States could take the same action to make it possible for most people to reach jobs and essential services without a car.
3. Cities and states could enable more location-efficient, mixed-use, infill, and inclusive housing by legalizing more types and sizes of housing. Portland and Minneapolis have recently modeled how to end the restriction on duplexes, triplexes and other types of in-demand housing across vast swaths of their cities. This would involve removing discretionary reviews to make it easier to build "missing middle" housing, which can help address affordability while putting more homes closer to key destinations. It would also mean eliminating minimum parking requirements, which drive up the cost of housing by requiring all residents to pay for the cost of parking, whether needed or not. The federal government can support this by also considering the location efficiency of its own buildings and all federally funded development, including affordable housing and economic development programs from the Economic Development Administration to the Rural Development Administration.
4. The good news is that the transportation system is almost completely within government control and can be changed with relative speed with the government's own investments. By making that system more climate friendly, we can also make it more supportive of public health and broaden access to economic opportunity — whether you own an internal combustion engine vehicle, an electric vehicle, or no car at all.
Beth Osborne is the director of Transportation for America, an advocacy organization made up of local, regional and state leaders.
Ben Holland is a senior associate on Rocky Mountain Institute's Urban Transformation team, where he works on urban mobility and land use practices aimed at achieving a zero-carbon transportation system.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.