A Green New Deal for Transportation

Emily Kennedy

Author: Emily Kennedy is a graduate student in the Weitzman School of Design studying City Planning with a concentration in Sustainable Transportation and Infrastructure Planning.

The transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, contributing to 29 percent of the nation’s total emissions. The majority of these emissions come from driving. The reality is, we have become far too reliant on cars. It is time for transit triage. We need a Green New Deal for Transportation.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 led to the growth of the highway system and, by linking gas taxes to the Federal Highway Trust Fund, allowed the government to subsidize highways. This guaranteed a stream of money, providing 90 percent of the funding used to build the interstate highway system. Meanwhile, as highway construction benefited from public funds, regional transit systems and railroads struggled. To this day, while Congress continues funneling 80 percent of federal transportation funds into highways, only 20 percent is allocated for public transit. This imbalance continues to tilt policymakers and politicians toward favoring automobiles as the dominant mode of transit over multi-passenger transportation systems. It also has encouraged land use planning to give preference to cars. In order to shift this narrative, it is necessary to fund alternative modes of travel by increasing public dollars that support public transit and by investing in a safe and connected bicycle network, shifting federal subsidies away from highways.

Imagine cities, large and small, where parking spaces were scarce but rapid transit buses were abundant. Today, parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the U.S. because cities have been planned around minimum parking requirements. The endless quest to satisfy peak demand for free parking uses precious city land. The result is available and low-cost parking at great societal cost. As progressive parking expert Donald Shoup argues, as long as we continue to make minimum parking requirements a condition of development, we subordinate almost every other function of our cities to the need for free parking and cars as transit.

While more rural areas may have separate demands, a Green New Deal for Transportation would ensure that people in urban settings have safe and convenient ways to reach their destinations using shorter trips, shared trips and alternative modes of transportation.

How do we get there? For starters, we already have the money. It’s just being spent in the wrong ways. The average American consumer spent $8,427 a year on automobile transportation in 2016, yet they spent far less to build new or expanded quality bus lines. It’s time to shift our priorities.

It will take more than money. It will also take good planning because while federal transit policy revolves around building and expanding projects — adding transit lines and roads — not enough has been done to improve transit effectiveness, such as frequency and speed of service.  Those conditions are necessary to make public transit more attractive to potential riders.

While fossil fuel-based transportation is a major contributor to climate change, automobile-dependent cities struggle with air pollution, degraded infrastructure and flooding, extreme heat and intense winter storms. To reduce transportation’s carbon footprint, it is essential we stop the continuous expansion of roads. By prioritizing new highways, roads, and more lanes instead of public transit, biking, and walking, we undermine economic, equity and climate goals.

The answer is to transition to a more environmentally sustainable and socially just transportation system. The moment has never been more pressing as COVID-19 threatens transit agencies across the country and unveils the deep inequalities associated with our lack of investment in these systems. The United States must implement a Green New Deal for Transportation and that includes the following:

1. Stop subsidizing the use of cars. One reason our country is so reliant on car ownership is because we have overly promoted personal vehicles and underfunded public transit options. One promising alternative is through congestion pricing which disincentivizes single-occupancy vehicle trips by charging users during high peak times and encouraging travelers to use non-car alternatives, such as cycling, walking and public transit. The funding received through this pricing system would be directed towards transit, making it a more attractive alternative. However, this system requires strong and competitive alternatives to driving—specifically, frequent transit and safe, comfortable cycling and walking routes that can support those who can’t afford the congestion charge. Another solution is to implement vehicle parking policies that reduce or eliminate off-street vehicle parking minimums. Mandated parking minimums, which require developers to provide vehicle parking regardless of whether it is needed or used, increase the cost of housing, reduce density, and limit overall mobility. With less space devoted to parking, there is more room on the street for better cycling and walking infrastructure.

2. Better subsidize public transit. If we want to encourage more shared modes and fewer automobiles, the government should invest more in public transit and less on automobile infrastructure. This means recasting the Highway Trust Fund to devote more public dollars to transit than to the creation of new highways and roads. This also will allow public transit agencies to focus on delivering better transit frequency and speed of service, not just more transit infrastructure.

3. Invest in a connected and safe bicycle network. Half of all trips made are three miles or less. Fewer than 2 percent of those trips are made by bicycle, while 72 percent of them are driven. Cycling can easily replace short automobile trips, but installing protected bicycle lanes is necessary to ensuring people feel safe while cycling. Well-lit and well-maintained bike lanes that connect with greenways, low-speed low-volume streets, and cycle highways are a few ways to form a robust cycling network throughout a city.

A Green New Deal for Transportation represents a vision that aims to put fast, reliable transit service within walking distance to as many homes and jobs as possible. It seeks to normalize cycling and walking as sustainable modes of transit. There is a need to re-balance our current policies, which wrongly prioritize ineffective road expansion over transit investment. Just adding dollars to transit isn’t enough. While this seems like a big task, we have little choice. The future of humanity depends on reducing carbon and the transportation sector is polluter number one.

This submission was edited for clarity on June 15, 2020. Originally published on April 22, 2020.

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