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Do climate plans do enough on transportation?

Climate change has become a top issue for Americans, so how do the top Democratic candidates plan to reduce emissions? Here’s a brief look at what some of the presidential candidates are proposing when it comes to emissions from transportation.

A recent poll found that most American teenagers are “frightened” by climate change. It is no surprise then that candidates for president and members of Congress are releasing their plans to combat the climate crisis. So what do the Democratic presidential candidate front-runners say about transportation in their climate plans? Not nearly enough.

Virtually every plan released to date focuses on promoting electric vehicles (EVs) and strengthening fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards. While EV adoption and increased efficiency are essential for reaching any ambitious climate target, they will not be sufficient on their own to decarbonize the transportation sector.

T4America Director Beth Osborne explained why recently in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Transportation is now the largest single source of climate pollution and the vast majority of those emissions—83 percent—come from the cars and trucks that people drive to the grocery store or school or that deliver our Amazon orders. All that driving is why transportation pollution keeps increasing, despite gains in fuel efficiency standards and the adoption of electric vehicles. Between 1990-2016, despite a sizable 35 percent increase in the overall fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet, national emissions rose by 21 percent. Why? Because those improvements were accompanied by a 50 percent increase in driving. Cleaner and electric vehicles are essential, but they’ll only ever be a small part of the solution. For one, it takes a long time for the vehicle fleet to turn over. Even if Americans purchased nothing but electric vehicles starting today, gas-powered cars would still be on the road for at least another 15 years.

Emissions won’t drop fast enough if we pin all our hopes on EVs. We need to reduce the amount and distance people drive through better land use and by promoting transit, walking, and biking. Today, our federal policy incentivizes high speed, long distance driving—rewarding states that increase both with more money—and makes it far too difficult to build communities which provide people with transportation choice.

Even the Green New Deal fails to adequately address the need to reduce driving and rethink our land use decisions.

The climate plans & transportation

We took an in-depth look at the climate plans from the top eight presidential candidates (according to RealClearPolitics polling data as of November 1, 2019) for the Democratic Party nomination. We’ve also included Jay Inslee in our analysis, despite the fact that he dropped out of the race, because his climate plan is widely considered to have set the standard for climate plans.

There are some candidates running for the Republican nomination for president, but none of them have released climate plans. The closest thing President Trump has to a climate plan is the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule which could actually increase pollution.

Note: Investments, quantifiable targets, or policy proposals below are bolded; broad value statements or acknowledgements of an issue without a proposal to address it are not bolded.

PollingCandidateElectrify vehiclesReduce drivingPromote bikeable/walkable communitiesInvest in transitSupport passenger rail
n/aBiden's unity task forceSupport “cash-for-clunkers” style approaches to incentivize accelerated adoption of zero-emission passenger vehicles. Provide incentives for manufacturers to build new factories or retool existing factories in the United States to assemble zero-emission vehicles or manufacture charging equipment.“Encourage states to prioritize allocation of transportation funds for public mass transit, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and ensure transportation options and infrastructure meet the needs of tribal, rural, and urban communities to fully participate in zero-emissions transport.”“Encourage states to prioritize allocation of transportation funds for public mass transit, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and ensure transportation options and infrastructure meet the needs of tribal, rural, and urban communities to fully participate in zero-emissions transport. Make major improvements to public transit and light rail. Preserve and grow the union workforce within the rail, transit and maritime sectors.”

“We commit to public transportation as a public good, including ensuring transit jobs are good jobs.”
Invest in high speed passenger and freight rail systems, while reducing pollution, helping connect workers to quality jobs with shorter commutes, and spurring investment in communities more efficiently connected to major metropolitan areas and unlocking new, affordable access for every American.
1Biden500,000 new public charging outlets by the end of 2030 and restore the full electric vehicle tax credit.Altering local regulations to eliminate sprawl and allow for denser, more affordable housing near public transit would cut commute times for many of the country’s workers while decreasing their carbon footprint. Communities across the country are experiencing a growing need for alternative and cleaner transportation options, including transit, dedicated bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfares, and first- and last-mile connections. Ensure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world and will begin the construction of an end-to-end high speed rail system that will connect the coasts.
2WarrenZero emissions in all new light and medium duty vehicles by 2030.Expand and improve public transit across our country.
3Sanders100 percent electric vehicles powered with renewable energy.For too long, government policy has encouraged long car commutes, congestion, and dangerous emissions. Create more livable, connected, and vibrant communities.$300 billion investment to increase public transit ridership by 65 percent by 2030.$607 billion investment in a regional high-speed rail system.
4ButtigeigAll new passenger vehicles sold be zero-emissions by 2035.Switching from individual vehicles to public transportation not only reduces traffic congestion, but also reduces emissions while improving air quality.$100 billion over 10 years, which will include installing bike and scooter lanes.$100 billion over 10 years, which will include modernizing subways and other transit systems and deploying electric commuter buses and school buses.
5Harris100 percent zero-emission vehicles by 2035.Incentivize people to reduce car usage and use public transit...focusing our transportation infrastructure investments toward projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled and address gaps in first mile, last mile service. Funding robust public transportation networks to bring communities together.
6YangRequire all models from 2030 on to be zero-emission vehicles.$200 billion grant program to states to electrify transit systems.
7GabbardWhile Gabbard has not released a climate plan, she has introduced legislation in the U.S. House that would require all new vehicle sales to be 100% electric by 2035.
8O'RourkeRapidly accelerate the adoption of zero-emission vehicles.$1.2 trillion through grants and other investments, including: Transportation grants that cut commutes, crashes, and carbon pollution — all while boosting access to public transit.
--Honorable Mention: Jay InsleeInvest federal moneys and expand effective public policies linking community-based economic development to housing affordability and mobility. Promote vibrant communities, more healthy and walkable neighborhoods, and both the preservation of existing affordable housing and construction of new affordable units.Invest in expanding public transit and connecting people in communities through safe, multi-modal transportation options. More than double annual federal investment in public transit systems and incentivize expansion of transit networks.Provide major new federal investment in electrifying passenger and freight rail throughout the country, and offering federal investment to states and regional partnerships to expand ultra-high-speed rail.

Politicians think EVs will solve our transportation problems

It’s telling that each candidate has ambitious targets for EV adoption but largely lack policies and investments for other forms of transportation. While EVs will go a long way toward reducing transportation emissions, they don’t go quite far enough. As we’ve written about previously, an all electric vehicle fleet won’t reduce emissions enough to reach our climate targets.

Not only will EVs fail to address the climate crisis, but they will do nothing to address the larger shortcomings of our current transportation system.

EVs won’t make our communities more walkable, bikeable, or transit-oriented. We’ve designed many of our roadways and communities so that it’s almost impossible to get around without a car. People often have no choice but to sit in traffic to get to work and the grocery store. Electrifying everything won’t change this. Nor will it help those who can’t afford a vehicle in the first place, regardless of how it’s powered. We need holistic transportation solutions that make it safe, affordable, and convenient to get people where they need to go.

The elephant in the room

These plans are all missing any meaningful discussion and understanding of how land use and transportation are inextricably linked, likely because we tend to think that the federal government plays no role in land use decisions.

But federal transportation policy drives local land use decisions. Where we build roads and highways influences where developers build houses and stores. When we give states a blank check to build a new highway while giving them a minuscule amount for transit (if they can jump through all the regulatory hoops we apply to transit funding), we’re encouraging more sprawl. As houses, businesses, parks, and other daily destinations spread farther apart, people are forced to drive farther and farther, increasing our emissions in the process.

Federal transportation policy has an essential role to play in reducing transportation emissions and making our transportation system work for everyone. How we spend federal transportation money should reflect this and keep climate goals in mind. So far, it seems as though most Democratic presidential candidates don’t quite understand this.