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Biden/Sanders Unity Task Force report falls short on climate

Last week, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign jointly released policy recommendations across a range of issues in partnership with Bernie Sanders supporters through a Unity Task Force. Climate change takes a prominent role in the 110-page report, but the proposal fails to call for the comprehensive changes needed to address transportation emissions. Here’s how the Unity Task Force recommendations fall short, particularly in comparison to the House’s new climate blueprint and the INVEST Act. 

We evaluated presidential candidates’ climate plans last November based on how well they address transportation emissions, and in February we scored their transportation proposals against our three guiding principles. Most candidates were heavily focused on promoting electric vehicles and strengthening fuel efficiency standards. Fewer offered concrete goals and targets for (or even addressed) the need to reduce driving by making it safer to walk and bike for short trips, making transit more convenient, supporting passenger rail, and prioritizing maintenance over road expansion projects that induce more traffic. 

So how does the Unity Task Force’s proposal compare to its predecessors in addressing climate and transportation? It largely follows in the same footsteps, with nods to investing in transit and passenger rail but no acknowledgement of the need to reform the base national transportation program that has produced communities where transit can’t serve people well. While the report includes brief language on the need to prioritize allocating transportation funds to transit and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, it says nothing about reforming the policies that prioritize car travel and congestion reduction above all else—policies that make it inconvenient, dangerous, or impossible to travel outside a car in much of the US.

CandidateElectrify vehiclesReduce drivingPromote bikeable/walkable communitiesInvest in transitSupport passenger rail
Biden'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.
Biden, circa November 2019500,000 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.
Sanders, circa November 2019100 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.

Check out how we scored Democratic candidates like Senator Warren and Andrew Yang on climate in this November 2019 blog

We can’t “prioritize” transit, biking, and walking without addressing the underlying problems with our highway program

As we said when we evaluated Biden’s transportation plan back in February, layering good programs on top of a program that causes the problems isn’t smart policy. We can’t simply invest more in transit on top of our current highway program and expect to see the emissions results we want, let alone by simply “encouraging” states to invest more in transit as the report calls for. Likewise, just investing more in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure won’t be enough to make it safer to bike and walk. Adding a bike lane to a dangerous high-speed, car-oriented corridor running through a community without making any other changes to reduce speeds isn’t giving more Americans the option to bike. And investing more in transit in a community where you have to wait for the bus on a busy road with nowhere to cross safely won’t bring us closer to making transit a public good as the Task Force envisions. 

We need to come to grips with the legacy of our highway system and fix the problem. We have invested in transportation for decades in ways that are bad for the climate and disproportionately harm low-income people and people of color, and we’ll continue to see the same results until we change the underlying policies that have led to those investments. 

A far cry from stronger recent proposals from the House

It is disappointing to see recommendations from Biden and Sanders’ task force that do so little to change the status quo, especially on the heels of much stronger and more comprehensive reforms proposed by the House. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis recently released a comprehensive legislative blueprint for tackling climate change that takes a much wider view—prioritizing repair, safety, and access in a holistic approach to promote more transit, biking, and walking and reduce the need to drive. The INVEST Act, recently passed by the House as part of the Moving Forward Act, introduced significant reforms to our core national transportation program along similar lines to those recommended by the Select Committee that could have far-reaching impacts for climate if adopted.

By contrast, the Unity Task Force report does not address reforming current federal transportation policy at all. Here are some specific ways it falls short by comparison:

1) No acknowledgement of the need to stop building needless new roads at the expense of maintenance

Unlike the Unity Task Force report, the House Select Committee’s blueprint calls for changes to our core highway program, including prioritizing maintenance over new road infrastructure. The INVEST Act would put requirements in place to hold states more accountable to doing so. While prioritizing repair may not be intuitive climate policy, it would make a huge difference in stemming the trend of inducing more driving and more emissions. The nation’s roads are deteriorating, contributing to a looming financial problem, yet states consistently underinvest in maintenance and build new roads instead. We have talked previously about how a 1 percent increase in lane miles can result in a 1 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. 

2) Lacks the focus on safety necessary to actually make walking, biking, and transit viable

As we discussed above, dangerous streets and disconnected communities pose a major barrier to taking short trips by walking and biking in many communities, and those same dangerous conditions can make it difficult or impossible to reach transit. The House Select Committee’s blueprint recommends requiring states to use Complete Streets and context-sensitive principles and makes numerous recommendations throughout to prioritize funding for walking and biking. The INVEST Act also takes a comprehensive approach to prioritizing safety. The Unity Task Force report does not address transportation safety at all. 

3) Nothing on measuring outcomes that matter for climate change

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, as does the INVEST Act. This is a major shift, and it will lead to significantly different outcomes if states are truly held accountable to these measures. The Unity Task Force’s report does not include any recommendations for measuring outcomes that matter for climate, nor does it propose  any concrete goals for reducing transportation sector emissions.

These are all major blindspots in the Unity Task Force report. We must address the problems embedded in federal transportation policy to reduce transportation emissions and make our transportation system work for everyone, and it seems like Biden and Sanders still don’t understand this.

6 Comments

  1. Alan Ranford

    3 months ago

    I see little attention to longer range transportation. Most of the world is in process of building High Speed Rail systems. Japan was the originator and many other countries have followed. China has built a network linking all of their major cities. Up to about 1500 miles H.S.R. is faster than air overall and produces far less emissions. California Florida and Texas have projects in various stages of progress but we need a national plan to bring us into the 21st. Century. and drastically reduce emissions.

  2. Robert Munson

    3 months ago

    Thanks for putting transportation in perspective… both for what we can expect from Presidential candidates and for the emerging alternative transportation policy.

    While it might be convenient to think Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders could save metropolitan advocates many years in developing travel alternatives, the progress made by the House with its INVEST Act proves that Congress and each metro is the correct organizing focus for now.

    The next House and Senate will have to hand the Executive a Surface Transportation Reauthorization that expands the federal role in developing safe and effective alternatives.

  3. Marcia Ciro

    3 months ago

    This plan from Biden’s campaign is disappointing, but not surprising. Anyone who thinks he will be innovative doesn’t know who Biden is. We have no choice; we have to stop the bleed. But true innovation will probably rest with the states until the federal government can recover from 15 years of presidential and congressional breakdown, if they can.

    On making streets safe: It is true that we will fail to truly make walking and biking safe unless we address dangerous roads and high speeds. However my experience of “complete streets” in my community has fallen far short of doing that. The problem in my view are the road engineers who seem to be trained to focus on car traffic first before anything else. They never talk to the surrounding communities to learn what the daily issues are; instead, they count cars a few times a day and use that to come up with “plans”. Then they present this “data” as proof for their myopic designs, as if all you need are traffic numbers to figure out walking and biking habits.

    Some of those plans in my community, Watertown, have been ridiculous. It’s like they have seen the light of long-used European inclusive street design, but failed to figure out how it would really work in America, where cars have been king for years. They also never consider motorist behavior. Some plans I’ve seen in my town would make one change that would cause previously quiet streets to become thoroughfares—it’s obvious to anyone in the neighborhood what a motorist would do if faced with a new choice, but the road engineers are clueless. Community meetings serve only as ways for neighborhoods to organize and stop the plans, if they hear about it in time—by then it is too late to truly influence the design. We need to address the shortcomings of the professionals we hire to design streets.

  4. Don Burn

    3 months ago

    To me one of the biggest improvements would be to basically eliminate long haul trucking. We can use rail to move containers to from one hub to another and reduce trucking to a more local model. I have never seen a candidate propose that, even though our current rail infrastructure could be competitive if you truly factored the cost of highways into the trucking. Ironically this was a proposal that was discussed at the time the Eisenhower pushed the interstate system

  5. Stephanie Stout

    3 months ago

    While true High Speed Rail does a great job in moving masses of people between major cities in Europe and Asia and can eventually replace most domestic air travel, not one mile has been built in North America due to high cost and relatively underdeveloped transit and intercity passenger ail. None of the countries with true HSR built their systems without first building good mass transit systems in their cities and optimizing their intercity passenger rail systems for short, medium, and long distance travel. A single HSR line could take a decade to build from scratch, and North America needs LOTS of them, but first we need to expand mainline track capacity, upgrade signal systems, electrify, replace street and highway crossing with overpasses or underpasses, and provide frequent passenger trains on 45,000 route miles of our existing railway system to serve big cities and small towns. Our entire conventional intercity rail system can be upgraded in about a decade before the first HSR lines are being build. Stop using Amtrak and VIA as political footballs and use them as the cornerstone of a modern ground transportation system. Reformat our intercity bus systems as local feeders for the modernized rail system instead of transport of last resort for the underclass. Require that ALL cities have a good urban mass transit system and provide federal funding for the bus and rail lines.

  6. Michael Erickson

    3 months ago

    This article makes many great points. The entire transportation system is designed from top to bottom and east to west to profit from and rake in taxes on the sale and use of single-occupant vehicles. Industry took over the system, government initially fought and lost against industry, and now in the vast majority of situations supports and protects the current outdated harmful intransigent transportation system. Change must be swift and complete. Joe and Bernie fall far short…especially on electric long- and short-range transit, and human-powered modes. I love this article’s statement that “We can’t simply invest more in transit (and bikes/peds) on top of our current highway program and expect to see the emissions results we want, let alone by simply “encouraging” states to invest more in transit as the report calls for.” WE NEED TO DISINVEST CARS OUT OF DOT’s and use the money remake American Transportation for All!