Transportation and the Green New Deal

If you follow the people I follow on Twitter, the last few days have included lots of chatter (often pained) about the transportation elements – or lack thereof – in the Green New Deal. Given that transportation is the single largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions (and because the sector relies on direct use of fossil fuels more than, say, buildings), transportation ought to the focus of any climate policy.

So, why isn’t it? The Green New Deal was (and perhaps still is) more of a slogan than an actual policy proposal. Earlier, the think tank Data For Progress released their policy proposal.

The key transportation elements include fairly weak language about increasing “access to” transit and bike facilities, paired with much stronger language about electric cars:

  • 100% Zero Emission Passenger Vehicles by 2030
  • 100% Fossil-Free Transportation by 2050
  • Modernize Urban Mobility and Mass Transit
    The growth of cities, the rapid change in vehicle technology, and the need for low-carbon transportation means that the way in which we move ourselves and goods from one place to another is going to change forever. This transition needs to be executed thoughtfully to meet the needs of cities and the scale of change required. Large investments are needed to increase access to safe pedestrian and bicycle travel, low-carbon bus rapid transit, and electrified light rail.

The twitter commentary jumped all over this: why not address land use at all? Why such wishy-washy language on transit and bikes? Why not mention any host of technocratic ideas and policies that will be useful tools in decarbonizing transportation?

A few arguments in defense of this proposal:

  • These things are popular. Data for Progress has done a great deal of polling and message testing. They make a convincing case that these elements are not just effective, but popular. As important as land use is to addressing climate change, I can understand how it’s not the best item to lead with.
  • Lead with strong messaging. Support among technocrats and wonks is required to execute any idea, but the technocrats are often bad at messaging and not a natural fit to build a successful coalition (Jeff Tumlin has made this point regarding road tolling and congestion pricing)
  • It’s better than anything else on the table. The proposal, as it stands, is light years better than anything else anywhere close to the agenda of anyone in power.

Still, the critiques aren’t wrong, per se.

  • Nothing on land use. Slipping in a plank to abolish single-family zoning might be unpopular (Minneapolis’ recent planning efforts aside), particularly at the national scale.
  • Transportation should be a bigger focus: Alon Levy made a persuasive case here for why the GND must focus on transportation. And, naturally, lots of transportation elements are indeed quite popular – and could be framed to emphasize that popularity.
    • Stronger language for transit and safety mandates (something simple yet radical, like vision zero) could be a more popular way to frame the trade-offs required to meet these aggressive goals.
  • Nothing is free in this world. Leading with a popular message framework for something as big as a new New Deal is by definition incomplete; a first step. But there’s a risk of politicians skipping over the trade-offs required to implement the plan. This might be premature, but something that needs to stay on the radar.

Given how early in the process the GND concept is, we should all give the benefit of the doubt, particularly given Data for Progress’s efforts on polling and messaging. But decision-makers still have to grasp the trade-offs involve.

As an example, read Alissa Walker on California, electric cars, and the disconnect between the Air Resources Board and the state’s Transportation Commission. Both bodies are charged with addressing climate change, but they operate in silos. The Transportation Commission has assumed electric cars will do the trick, while the CARB has done the math, and shown conclusively that electric cars are not enough – the state needs to drive less.

This is the big concern: setting a big goal is vitally important, both because of the scale of the problem and because of the potential motivation for a radical change. But radical change will require trade-offs, and it doesn’t help to mislead the public about the nature of the trade-offs involved – just look at the omnishambles that is Brexit.

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