By Emma Foerhinger Merchant
Though scant on details of what a transportation overhaul might look like, the Green New Deal — really a framework designed to generate more specific policy proposals — has already caused a partisan stir around what a remade and more just transit system might look like.
The resolution released last week from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey is, at its core, an outline to transition toward an environmentally friendly and equitable economy. Transportation makes up just one part. Politics are stacked against the deal, and it’s unlikely to pass the Republican-led Senate. But experts in the clean transportation space say it could serve as a roadmap to spur conversation and help crystallize ideas for the future transportation system.
The resolution doesn’t explicitly include transportation goals in its call for a “10-year mobilization,” but it does call for an overhaul of the transportation system and the elimination of all its pollution and greenhouse gas emissions “as much as is technologically feasible.” According to the resolution, that should happen in part through investments in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, public transportation and high-speed rail.
Like the other sectors the resolution addresses, transportation policies must also work to right systemic injustices. A FAQ distributed at the same time as the resolution — which is not a part of the official document — also named a goal to replace every internal combustion vehicle, put charging infrastructure “everywhere,” and create alternatives to air travel (a point that’s caused alarm among the GOP and shrugs from others).
The document, while broad, is also very ambitious. Deployment of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, plus the decarbonization of transportation sectors like aviation and shipping, are far from reaching the levels set forth in the Green New Deal’s goals.
But experts say there are policies that can get us closer to the goals through a combination of community input, technological innovation, aggressive targets, and transparency. How quickly that can happen, however, remains unclear.
“We’re in a space right now where we’re seeing political headwinds from many different directions. But one thing that will be necessary and critical throughout is to make sure we have the foundation that can allow us to achieve these goals,” said Natasha Vidangos, vice president of research and analysis at the Alliance to Save Energy. “There are many, many ways that we could get to the level of ambition articulated in the Green New Deal document.”
A policy wish list
As Vidangos noted, there is a vast array of available options. But Hana Creger, environmental equity program manager at the Greenlining Institute, says the broad scope of the resolution is a boon rather than a burden.
“While to some folks the Green New Deal’s transportation vision seems too vague, I believe that’s really the intent,” said Creger. “There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution across the board. […] The ultimate decision on how to get there should be informed by the needs of individual communities.”
In outlining the priorities that would help the country achieve the Green New Deal’s goals, experts did note a number of common policies and regulations. The top-level goals: reducing emissions, opening more transit options and electrifying as many vehicles as possible as quickly as possible, in ways that benefit all, rather than prioritizing a few.
The electrification goal applies to passenger vehicles but also heavy-duty freight, buses and off-road vehicles. Getting there requires massive rollout of charging infrastructure that can support more EVs, part of what Vidangos calls a “clean chicken-and-egg arrangement,” because it’s difficult to encourage consumers to buy more EVs if they don’t have a way to charge them.
Creger highlights the need to divert significant funds to communities that lack transportation access. Even if mandates come from the federal level, Creger said laws should prioritize local involvement to choose between clean transportation options such as biking, efficient transit, walking and electric vehicles that are most suited to the community.
Experts also say that rather than rolling back corporate average fuel economy standards, which the Trump administration moved to do last year, federal policymakers should strengthen them. The same goes for federal tax credits for electric vehicles, which now sit at $7,500 for the first 200,000 cars a manufacturer sells. Tesla and General Motors have already hit that 200,000 cap, triggering a stepdown in the incentives attached to a purchase of their vehicles.
“We’re not at a point where, from a public policy perspective, we can move away from consumer incentives to support the purchase of electric vehicles,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director at the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Kodjak said the situation also requires mass education of consumers.
Right now, electric vehicles represent between 1 and 2 percent of U.S. auto sales. And even as their market share has taken off, consumers have evinced an appetite to drive more miles and purchase less-efficient SUVs. Shifting that behavior will require not only more efficient single-passenger vehicles, but also a wider array of options.
“The iron law of transportation infrastructure is: If you build it, they will come,” said Hal Harvey, CEO at Energy Innovation. “So, if you build more freeway miles, you get more cars. If you build more bike paths, you get more bikes.”
Prioritizing transportation equity
Prioritizing equitable mobility options, Greenlining’s Creger explains, is essential for any Green New Deal transportation policy. Historically, road construction and pollution have impacted marginalized communities more than wealthier and whiter ones, cutting them off from economic opportunities while harming health.
A 2006 report from the Brookings Institution showed that metropolitan planning organizations, the decision-making bodies for large sums of transportation funds, have also had a disproportionate number of white members compared to the metropolitan areas they represent.
Even now, as detailed by a March 2018 Greenlining report, “low-income communities and communities of color suffer the most from transportation-related pollution, high transportation costs, and a lack of access to safe, reliable transportation options.” Newer technologies like electric vehicles and ridesharing systems are also more accessible to affluent people, while autonomous vehicles may cause job losses that impact some communities more than others. And research has shown that access to cars is associated with low-income people finding jobs and moving into neighborhoods where they have more access to resources like better schools.
“There’s a lot of inequity in the current system and lots of situations where as we transition and transform transportation, we need to ensure that we don’t make the system even more inequitable,” said Michelle Robinson, director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s a critical issue that should be on par with the top priorities of reducing emissions and reducing oil consumption in transportation.”
The Greenlining report, of which Creger is the lead author, cautions that without community consultation, planners could embed similar issues into future policies.
Greenlining lays out a three-step mobility equity framework that identifies a community’s needs, weighs the pros and cons of certain transportation decisions and ultimately leaves decision-making with the community. It aims to foreground community engagement to avoid the pitfalls of transit planning that leaves out the voices of what the Green New Deal calls “frontline and vulnerable communities,” such as indigenous communities and rural areas.
“We want to make sure that in creating these new transportation options under the Green New Deal, that we’re prioritizing those mobility options that are most equitable and accessible,” said Creger.
Public and private
In unveiling the resolution, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said the Green New Deal would assist in “building solutions in places where the private sector will not.”
And though the document focuses on public policy, advocates say it will require a great deal of cooperation from corporations and likely significant investment from the private sector.
“You can’t do this with the public sector alone,” said Energy Innovation’s Harvey. “Ninety-plus percent of all energy decisions are made privately.”
The clean transportation industry would have to grow significantly to help meet the goals. In 2030, energy research and consulting group Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables forecasts that 16 percent of vehicles will be electric, including plug-in hybrids, in its base case. Producing all those batteries would require more than three Tesla Gigafactories. To get to 100 percent EV sales would require more than 20 Tesla Gigafactories, according to Ravi Manghani, director of energy storage at WoodMac.
“Neither of those numbers are insurmountable, but clearly will require massive amounts of investments from the industry,” said Manghani, who added that state policy struggles — like California’s issues with high-speed rail — expose the difficulties in transitioning the transportation sector.
“I’m not necessarily presenting a pessimistic view, but rather pitching for a massive overhaul in the current state of infrastructure investments,” he said.
So far, utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, along with startups like ChargePoint and Greenlots, have led initiatives to deploy more charging infrastructure. Companies such as electric bus maker Proterra have pushed electric vehicles into more segments, helped along by commitments like California’s to purchase only carbon-free bus buses by 2029. And corporations with big fleets, such as Walmart and UPS, are working to electrify, but cite issues like charging infrastructure as big barriers.
“If you think we’re going to substitute or replace the private sector’s control of the economy, we’re deluding ourselves,” said Harvey. “It’s a matter of setting public standards that are requirements.”
Kodjak at the International Council on Clean Transportation says the scope of the deal necessitates a “big, broad, bold partnership” that includes government agencies, environmental and labor groups, as well as corporate interests. That type of coalition has the best chance of crafting policies that align with the resolution’s call for just and environmentally-friendly jobs while transforming transportation.
Vidangos at the Alliance to Save Energy pointed to the collaboration between California, the auto industry, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration on auto-emissions standards as an example of how parties can work to find solutions amenable to all. “We need to see more of that kind of dialogue,” she said.
In September, the Alliance to Save Energy helped launch a group aiming to cut energy use in transportation by 50 percent by 2050. Leaders of the group include the mayor of Fort Worth, Texas and representatives from Audi and National Grid. But even achieving the 50 percent reduction goal set out by that group “requires us to basically fire on every cylinder,” said Vidangos. And, she added, “the ambition in [the Green New Deal] takes it a step further.”
Seizing the momentum
While the document continues to face serious political challenges — Sen. Mitch McConnell this week said he would put forth a vote in the Senate, where the resolution is expected to fail — experts say that doesn’t mean its proposals shouldn’t be seriously considered.
“There’s no question this is the most ambitious [climate] policy that has been advanced in the United States both in terms of the timeline and in terms of its scope,” said Dan Lashof, U.S. director at the World Resources Institute. “I’m not ready to say it’s feasible or to dismiss it as impossible at this point.”
What’s more important, experts said, is seizing the momentum the document has created to start a conversation and craft serious legislation.
“We’re not out of the starting gate yet, much less thinking about the finish line,” said Harvey at Energy Innovation. “We cannot do this by saying, ‘Let’s cross our fingers and hope by then we get it all done.’ Start now — and start with serious projects.”