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House’s new climate action plan takes a page from T4America’s playbook

Last week, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a new legislative blueprint for tackling climate change that incorporates a number of T4America’s recommendations. The blueprint goes beyond merely electrifying vehicles to take a much wider view—prioritizing repair, safety, and access, and promoting transit, biking, and walking. 

Riding a Citi Bike in New York City. Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr’s Creative Commons

For too long, electric cars have been the sole focal point of legislative efforts to reduce transportation emissions. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases (GHG), contributing 29 percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions—and the majority of these emissions come from driving. Electric vehicles (EV) would seem like a guaranteed way to bring those emissions down, but they are not enough. Increasing rates of driving are negating even impressive gains in fuel efficiency and EV adoption. Between 1990-2016, a 50 percent increase in driving negated a 35 percent increase in overall fleet fuel efficiency brought on by the implementation of CAFE standards. This caused emissions to rise by 21 percent over the same time period. 

To truly bring down transportation emissions, we need to think #BeyondEVs. We need to stop building expensive, unnecessary new roads that just increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We need to stop making car ownership a prerequisite for participating in the economy. We need to actually measure emissions from the transportation sector, and penalize states for pursuing projects that fail to bring those emissions down. We need to focus on the low-carbon modes that can improve people’s lives: transit, walking, and biking. 

This is what we recommended to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in November 2019 when they asked us for strategies to reduce emissions. The Committee released their new legislative blueprint for tackling climate change last week, and we are incredibly pleased to see our recommendations shaping the transportation section. 

Here are the T4America recommendations for moving #BeyondEVs that found a home in the new blueprint. 

Measure what matters: Greenhouse gas emissions and access

The House blueprint recommends creating a new performance measure for greenhouse gas emissions, requiring states and metro areas to measure emissions and then create plans for lowering them—just like in the INVEST Act. “It gets a lot harder to justify building a new highway (that you probably can’t afford to maintain anyway) when you have to reduce emissions with your federal dollars, considering that every 1 percent increase in lane miles results in a 1 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled,” as Smart Growth America wrote in this more expansive blog on the House blueprint.

The blueprint also takes steps to increase access to jobs and services by all modes, a climate-forward proposition that starts to make moving people—not just vehicles— the focus of transportation funding. “The House Select Committee adopted our core priority to start measuring access to destinations, directing states and MPOs to start evaluating how well the transportation system is facilitating access to housing, jobs, and critical services by any and all modes—similar to provisions that were included in the INVEST Act,” as Smart Growth America wrote in this more expansive blog on the House blueprint. The blueprint also directs agencies to analyze how low-income communities and communities of color experience difference degrees of access to jobs and services. 

Make roads safer to walk, bike, and ride transit

Walking, biking, and riding transit are the lowest-emitting modes of transportation, but dangerous streets and disconnected communities make them difficult for many Americans to reap their benefits. The Committee makes numerous recommendations throughout the plan to prioritize funding for low-carbon transportation, especially walking and biking—and not just by increasing funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program, which receives only a meager $750 million for biking and walking projects across the country.  

Measuring access instead of vehicle speed, as noted above, would begin to improve safety for all road users by measuring access by all modes—that includes walking, biking, and riding transit. But the plan also recommends requiring states to use “complete streets” and context-sensitive principles, using language that actually comes directly from T4America’s long letter of recommendations for the Committee. 

Stop building needless new roads by prioritizing maintenance

Prioritizing repair is not the kind of strategy that is on the radar of most climate advocates, but it would in fact make a huge difference by stemming the trend of inducing more driving, making it an incredibly effective climate policy that could be easily implemented. How so? The nation’s roads are deteriorating, contributing to a looming financial problem, yet states consistently underinvest in maintenance and build new roads instead that bring increases in emissions. As we found in our report Repair Priorities (cited by the House Select Committee in their blueprint), between 2009 and 2017, the percentage of the roads nationwide in poor condition increased from 14 to 20 percent. At the same time many states continued to spend a significant portion of funding to build new roads. 

As we discussed above, building new roads increases driving, with every 1 percent increase in lane miles resulting in a 1 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. Prioritizing maintenance means that states can’t use federal funds to build new roads while neglecting their basic maintenance needs—a requirement that was included in the recently-passed INVEST Act. 

It’s time to go #BeyondEVs—and the House majority agrees

With driving contributing the majority of U.S. transportation emissions, it’s time to shift our focus from reducing pollution from all the cars to asking: “why do we need all those cars in the first place, and can we drive them less overall?” Because we know that electrifying cars isn’t enough. We will not be able to electrify vehicles faster than vehicle miles traveled are increasing—the consequence of our national transportation strategy prioritizing vehicle access above all else. 

To substantially reduce our GHG emissions, we need to couple electrification with strategies that cut to the heart of our problem: too much driving. We’re pleased to see so many of our recommendations included in the Committee’s blueprint, and are excited to continue to push the needle towards reducing emissions with our new partners in the House.

5 Comments

  1. Louise Baxter

    3 months ago

    agree

  2. David D Stout

    3 months ago

    Meritorius proposal BUT MISSES THE NEEDED CHANGE= stop use of fossil fuels. People will not stop driving any time soon so new vehicles and new buildings CANNOT USE FOSSIL FUELS. We must BAN Fossil Fuel using vehicles and buildings VERY SOON, not years from now.
    We must endorse the Hydrogen Future NOW as it is (generally) Fossil Fuel free.
    Climate Scientists say we have NO OTHER CHOICE.
    Will mankind every learn (that SCIENCE trumps politics and other nice ideas).
    David D. Stout.

  3. Stephanie Stout

    3 months ago

    Yes, we need more than electric cars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we should stop regarding cars as the transportation norm for all people. We need extensive networks of frequent mass transit, both bus and rail and preferably electric in ALL American cities. We need to expand the track capacity of our existing rail network, upgrade the signal system, ELECTRIFY the mainlines, replace street and highway crossings with overpasses and underpasses, and implement frequent intercity passenger service on 45,000 route miles throughout our nation. True High Speed passenger rail can replace airlines on the busiest routes between major cities, but the basic rail network is needed to connect the small towns and medium size cities with the major metropolitan area and carry most our nation’s long distance freight.

    • Lloyd Skaalen

      3 months ago

      Excellent comments by the Stouts; however, we must avoid EV car congested roads by making it less costly for urban travel with walk distances less than 15 minutes, or the equivalent time on EV bikes or scooters.

  4. Lloys Skaalen

    3 months ago

    Excellent recommendations to reduce POVs and short-haul airlines; however, more automotive infrastructure should be made too; including the job opportunities for “drivers”.