A Green New Deal? Here Are Some Suggestions

Photo:  Kerri Evelyn Harris/Flickr/CC
Photo: Kerri Evelyn Harris/Flickr/CC

More than a dozen members of Congress — most notably freshman New York lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — have called for a “Green New Deal” to address the worsening climate crisis.

But the document is vague on policy, beyond its call for “decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure.” That is welcome news because transportation needs to be almost fully decarbonized — and soon — to head off climate disaster.

But the “Green New Deal” needs to go farther than just changing what kinds of vehicles are sprawling all over the country while transit riders and pedestrians remain second-class citizens. So Streetsblog took the liberty of writing up some policy recommendations for Ocasio-Cortez and her 15 current co-signers:

#1. Raise the gas tax

We haven’t raised the gas tax in 25 years, so it continues to lose ground to inflation. Essentially, that means  we’re lowering the cost of driving — and, as such, encouraging huge SUVs — every year. Not acceptable.

Price incentives have to be part of the shift away from fossil fuels in transportation. The gas tax is a low-hanging fruit.

The regressive impact on the poor could be offset with a commensurate decrease in income tax rates at the lower levels or an expansion of the earned income tax credit.

But raising the gas tax is a crucial step. Studies show it would be six times more cost-effective at reducing emissions than fuel efficiency standards.

The main reason we haven’t done it is because the Senate is so rural. But there’s no excuse for radical progressives to be gun-shy about this powerful tool for decarbonizing transportation. Plus, it will help fund some of the transportation improvements — which will create jobs — that are the basis of the “Green New Deal.”

#2. Stop shoveling money at sprawl-inducing highways

No. New. (Free.) Highways. We can’t reduce transportation emissions while building billion-dollar interchanges.

Mega-investments in new highway capacity are not only extremely carbon intensive (hello asphalt?), but they assure more driving by encouraging low-density land use (sprawl).

Fix the highways we’ve got. And in fast growing areas, use variable tolling to manage congestion. And tear down some roads, like I-81 in Syracuse.

The Interstate Highway System is complete at this point. We need a truly new and “green” paradigm in infrastructure, not more of the same.

#3. Focus on low-dollar amenities like sidewalks and bus shelters

We’ve spent the last two generations building highways connecting every hamlet in America, but there are huge gaps in the infrastructure for everyone else.

We still don’t have the basics in place to make low- or no-carbon alternatives to sport utility vehicles — walking, biking and transit — safe and comfortable. Bus stops across the nation are a disgrace, lacking basic infrastructure like even a bench even in some of our biggest cities — but for the price of one mega-highway project, we could build bus shelters at every single stop.

In addition, in the U.S., we have enormous gaps in our sidewalk infrastructure. Even progressive cities like Denver lack complete walking infrastructure. About 40 percent of city streets in the Mile High City lack adequate sidewalks. In Nashville, it’s closer to 50 percent.

Building sidewalks is expensive. That makes them a perfect candidate for a large infrastructure stimulus.

Sidewalk investment would pay for itself in terms of improved public health. According to research by the University of Utah, men who live in walkable neighborhoods weigh 10 pounds less on average (for women it’s 6).

And don’t get us started on bike lanes. Too many cities listen to drivers and the parking-obsessed rather than street safety and cycling advocates.

#4. Incentivize cities to upzone

It’s not just lack of sidewalks that keep people from walking. Zoning rules across America separate people’s homes from destinations like stores, forcing them to rely on carbon-intensive driving instead of healthier active modes of transportation like biking, walking and transit.

Mostly it’s localities that control zoning. But the federal government can and should offer incentives for cities and suburbs to make the most out of investments in transit and walkability. The Green New Deal could double down on federal efforts to tie transit funding to increases in housing density around federal investments in walkable, sustainable transportation.

If we’re going to spend billions — and put people to work — “decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure,” let’s make sure we make it accessible to the people who need it most, rather than listen to NIMBYs who don’t like density or want to preserve their free parking.

  • jcwconsult

    If the roadway is engineered so that about 85% of the drivers feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to about 25 mph, it will operate with an 85th speed of about 25 with no enforcement.

    If that roadway is engineered so about 85% feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to about 40, it will operate that way – and no city will spend on or hire enough resources to keep the speeds at about 25 on all its collector & arterial streets because then the enforcement would become a huge cost item in the budget they cannot afford.

    It IS possible to re-engineer 40 mph arterials and collectors to operate at 25 with no enforcement needed, but there are significant negatives in many cases.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    It is entirely a market outcome.

    When center cities get too crowded, congested, business real estate gets too expensive, affordable personal living space is too small, both the people and the jobs move to the many suburbs of a metro area. If you live in a western suburb but your job is in a southern one, it is nearly certain you will drive for 20-30 minutes to go to work — rather than take 40-60 minutes by transit.

    Except for a handful of central metroplexes, transit is a far less desirable method of travel for most people. Time, convenience, privacy, comfort, etc. have high values for most people and most transit does not provide those desirable attributes. So the market outcome is to drive affordable cars.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    It’s remarkable how resistant you are to the fact that choices that are dependent on government intervention are, by definition, not a “market outcome.”

  • Sincerely

    It’s disingenuous to say that speed limits shouldn’t be lowered to safe levels because cities don’t have the money to enforce safe speeds constantly. Even sporadic enforcement results in fewer traffic deaths, and at some point we should probably start expecting people who use cars to take some responsibility.

    I’d like you to list those “significant negatives” that you consider more important than human lives. Especially since studies have repeatedly shown that switching to more human-centered streets results in cleaner air, more successful retail, and often even less congestion overall.

  • Sincerely

    Except you actively work against offering freedom of choice, because you oppose measures that would even the playing field to allow the possibility of real choice. Whenever active transportation or transit investments are suggested that encroach even
    a tiny bit on the privileged position of automobile users, you love to bring up nebulous “negative consequences” that largely don’t exist (and are far outweighed by improvements in safety).

    You can’t point to the large number of people who use cars and pretend like that’s a free choice when (as you love to point out) in many places of the US you currently can’t get around much without a car — not because cars are so intrinsically convenient, but because we’ve foolishly been constructing our environment around them for decades.

  • jcwconsult

    It is remarkable how little you recognize the value of freedoms affordable cars have provided to ordinary people for over a century now. Please note the use of cycling and transit for commuting are declining in the US. See USA Today story of 1/2/19 and the CATO Institute report of 11/18/18.

    Governments provided roads because that is what the citizens demanded to use their freedoms of travel = a market outcome.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    When 85th percentile speeds remain the same (+/- 0 to 3 mph) when limits are changed, it is ludicrous to say safety improved. Sporadic enforcement is a for-profit racket, leaving the actual speeds essentially unchanged when enforcement isn’t there.

    If cities reduce speeds with engineering and are willing to accept more congestion, diversion to smaller streets never designed to carry the loads of arterials & collectors, and movement of some jobs & businesses to outlying areas that don’t have those negatives — they are free to do so. We think it is unwise in many cases, but it IS within the power of cities to do that. Have you actually never seen decimated downtowns with very few normal shopping choices, mostly boutiques & restaurants able to pay the high rents, and thriving shopping centers away from downtown?

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    For a century now, we constructed road systems because that is what the taxpayers demanded = a market outcome. Anyone who thinks high transit use similar to NY, Boston, SF, etc. is viable in most of the US – probably has virtually no knowledge of the vast majority of this country.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • LinuxGuy

    Anti-car people do not value freedom. It is their way or nothing.

  • Sincerely

    Urban freeways were almost all built over the protests of locals. It was a top-down decision. Learn some history.

    I’ve traveled in every state except Hawaii, Alaska, and Nevada. I’ve lived in the Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast. More relevantly, over 70% of people in the US live in urbanized areas, defined as “densely developed” with a population of over 50,000 people. Many of the remaining 30% travel into relatively dense urbanized areas for work. That’s even after decades of car-centric “planning” that encouraged sprawl and restricted options. Transit-oriented infrastructure and development would serve the vast majority of Americans. Anyone who thinks otherwise probably has no understanding of urban planning; in this conversation, they probably work for an extremely biased, for-profit, anti-accountability fringe lobbyist group.

  • jcwconsult

    The “top-down” building of urban freeways was to serve the enormous numbers of commuters, shoppers, visitors, tourists, and commercial traffic needed to keep the cities viable.

    The definition of “densely developed” needs re-examination. My town has about 120,000 permanent population plus about 45,000 students. It is in no way “densely developed”. It spreads over wide areas with an excellent set of collectors and arterials which make it possible to go from far corner to far corner in about 15 minutes by car. The sort of transit-intense service used in NYC plus central cities like Boston, SF, LA, Chicago, etc. would be so ridiculously expensive that no one would even suggest it. Note that I and a majority of voters supported a new tax for better bus service and recently voted to extend it.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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