A Green New Deal? Here Are Some Suggestions

Freshman New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pushing a "new Green Deal." Here's what it should include. Photo:  Kerri Evelyn Harris/Flickr/CC
Freshman New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pushing a "new Green Deal." Here's what it should include. 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.

  • TakeFive

    Woot woot; all for raising the gas tax. But the most fervent opposition has always come from the House. Yes, the Senate is more ‘rural’ by virtue of the vast majority of land being rural. Farmers rely on good roads to help get our daily groceries into stores. If you wish to demean suburbs, fine, but hating on rural America is counter productive.

  • Michael

    If we want cities to want more people, give them piece of the income tax levy.

    If we want cities to support local industry & jobs, give them a piece of the corp income tax levy.

    Or if we want to race to bottom where no cities want people, they spend their energies goosing the local retail sector, and it’s a continuous poltical food fight for transportation dollars…. then keep on making them rely on property & sales taxes & send all transportation dollars to state level DOTs subject to disfunctional annual appropriation processes.

  • Awake-and-Sing

    This is all terrific. Thank you.

  • Even Trump has signaled a few times that he’d be open to raising the gas tax.

  • wklis

    Less single-usage buildings. More multi-usage buildings, on more than two or three floors.

  • FormerMainer13

    a simpler solution may be to give people money to buy electric cars and invest more in a charging network. Many of these items would be very incremental (such as upscaling) and will result in pushback from people who view the climate change movement as being about control. Instead, get people to swap their car for a new, electric one.

  • AlexWithAK
  • FormerMainer13

    My comment was about reducing climate change emissions, not the urban air quality problems city residents face.

  • keegan

    I think 2-4 would be useful policy improvements. I don’t think they would have any significant impact on climate change but improve people’s lives. On the other hand, I’m not so sure about a gas tax. It seems like a good idea on the surface but after using tools like:

    https://us.energypolicy.solutions/scenarios/home

    it shows that a gas tax wouldn’t have that big of an impact on U.S. CO2 emissions. All the while, it would greatly burden the lower and middle classes. It just doesn’t seem worth it especially considering the recent gas tax protests in France. If we really want to tackle climate change we should be using data driven tools to find the most effective policies with the least amount of social upheaval and suffering for the lower and middle classes.

  • 5pinDIN

    We could avoid the regressive nature of a gas tax hike by adding a VAT to new cars over a certain weight. Not only would this incentivize the purchase of smaller (often more fuel efficient) automobiles, but it would ensure a progressive tax as SUVs are too expensive for lower income people to purchase new anyway.

  • AnoNYC

    Well I hope these elected officials who are sponsoring this green new deal will have access to these suggestions.

    Who or what organizations are typically informing these elects on issues of transportation and land use?

  • Patrick Jackson

    I somewhat agree, but AOC does not deserve anymore attention, given her generally ludicrous policy platforms.

  • crazyvag

    Could hurt to help education. Many people don’t know better how taxes shape development, sprawl and emissions. How can schools still be producing climate deniers?

  • Can’t be worse than the policy platforms of a whole lot of other people in DC.

  • All new cars tend to be too expensive for lower income people period.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    This ought to be the baseline of what we must do. There is so much more we ought to do, but nothing less than above needs to happen right now.

  • jcwconsult

    1) YES, the NMA has long been advocating to raise the federal gas tax to compensate for 25 years of inflation and index it for future inflation. Some states need to do the same.
    2) YES fix the existing roads. A few areas need completely new highways to address traffic flows from newly expanded residential areas. Many would benefit from added lanes using existing rights of way – including part time lanes at rush hours using shoulders.
    3) Better sidewalks, some to include bike lanes as are common in Europe, are a good idea. More bike lanes on minor streets roughly parallel to the busiest collectors & arterials to separate cyclists for safety make a LOT of sense. Better bus stops are an obvious need, many of the higher use ones to be built as shelters from rain & snow.
    4) Precisely how this might be done would control a yes or no from us. Choice is great but forced decisions on where to live, work, shop, worship, visit, etc. are not OK.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • eastmb

    You’ll have to weigh whether the green infrastructure is worth the perceived negatives of her other policy suggestions. You can always support her on this but not on other areas.

  • jcwconsult

    Fortunately, modern cars last much longer and used cars that have 100,000 miles on them without rust can be affordable & reliable.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • eastmb

    Electric cars are great, but you are still using 10x the energy at least of walking or biking. We should focus on electric cars for rural areas and other forms in urban ones.

  • newtonmarunner

    Those 100,000 mile cars (1) are less safe than today’s cars, and (2) take up the same amount of space in the big city (where land is scarce) as brand new cars — making the mobility of emergency vehicles and high capacity vehicles such as buses more difficult and the safety of pedestrians less safe.

  • newtonmarunner

    Like when AOC was advocating for mandatory parking minimums in Queens?

    Never in the history of mankind has a politician been good at transportation.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    If battery prices keep going down at recent rates, electric cars will cost less to buy than gasoline powered cars in the mid-2020s – not to mention the much lower operating costs. At that point, there will be a massive switch to electric cars without subsidies.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    Are you saying you are against all zoning laws?

    “forced decisions on where to live, work, shop, worship, visit, etc. are not OK.”

  • FormerMainer13

    i hope you are right, but I fear trusting the market to handle the transition.

  • FormerMainer13

    I agree, but it’s simply not realistic to expect people to switch to walking and biking at anywhere near the rates necessary to make a meaningful impact on climate change – let alone at a rate fast enough to fight climate change. Including walking and biking are a great piece of the puzzle, but insufficient.

  • eastmb

    Sure it is. For more than 99% of human existence walking was the only way to get from point A to point B. So it’s not unreasonable to expect it to once again become dominant.

  • FormerMainer13

    How do you think such a thing would happen? Tens of millions of people sell their homes in the next 10 years? Tens of millions switch jobs? Millions of businesses pick and move? Thousands of new schools? People suddenly decide they would rather walk? Such a complete and sudden reorganization of society, even if possible, would still leave us will millions of gas powered cars on the road.

  • jcwconsult

    NO, of course not. I advocate for free choice. If some areas are zoned to encourage more density per the article, that is fine. This is a big country which should permit people to choose from many lifestyles, places to live, places to work, etc.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    My comment was about new cars being too expensive, in part due to the required inclusion of many new systems, a statement with which I agree. In 2015 I sold a 2006 compact hatchback with ABS, DSC, airbags, sets of mounted winter & summer tires, and many of the other safety systems of 2015 cars. It had 167,000 miles and got the same fuel economy as when new.

    The thought that most city dwellers will not own cars so they can travel outside the deep downtown areas freely is a pipe dream for most of them. And the thought that many lower income workers will not live further out with longer commutes to be able to afford decent homes for themselves and their families is another dream.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Otto Carnage

    Any discussion of the so called Green New Deal must include our deadly, diseased, additive obsession with corporate capitalisms most important commodity, the automobile, and our cars first transportation system. And I’m not talking about switching to electric cars or robot cars because both those technologies are marketing vaporware. The privately owned automobile (POV) must die. The automobile has been a constant emitter of greenhouse gases since it was invented by Karl Benz, 120 years ago. Worldwide, traffic violence kills about 1.2 million people a year, mostly in the third world. Then you have to multiply that number be 3 to get the number of people injured, some with severe head and neck injuries who will require 24/7 care for the rest of their lives. Who pays for that, certainly not the auto makers or fossil fuel industry. Other health issues include a rise in obesity and diabetes due to lack of exercise in our drive thru culture. There are host of other problems caused by the cars first transportation system both physical and psychological. So its my opinion the the Green New Deal is magical thinking if it doesn’t include a drastic reduction or elimination of the POV. There is no such thing as a green car.

  • Stephen Simac

    Better sidewalks made from recycled rubber/pastel paint (to increase visibility and reflect solar heat) are cheaper than concrete or asphalt sidewalks, easier on feet and joints, less injurious during falls, lower carbon footprint than concrete, easier to repair, less likely to buckle and crack from tree roots. There are playground surfaces made from this material, as well as removable speed humps and tables, sidewalk ramps (rather than cuts). Theoretically, utility cables and power lines could be routed through insulated rubber paths, rather than burying them further reducing costs for undergrounding electric lines or digging up roadways every time there’s replacement cables. I haven’t seen this innovative solution, so may be technical reasons it won’t work, but some power lines are routed under concrete sidewalks, because pedestrians have been electrocuted when they stepped on the metal access plate.

  • Stephen Simac

    There is a tax incentive for corporations and fleet agencies to buy SUV’s and utility vehicles, instead of sedans.

  • Stephen Simac

    paying lower income people to give up private ownership vehicles with a basic yearly income, could work if called a traffic reduction solution. Frequently they have to own a car to keep a job, but they could find lower paid work closer to home if they’ve got their basics covered.

  • Stephen Simac

    Human powered enclosed trikes with electric motor assists will solve multiple social problems, including saving billions on medical costs from sedentary lifestyles, and unhealthy aging. A new improved SafetyCycle will get Americans over the fear hurdle of riding with traffic as a slower moving vehicle.

  • FormerMainer13

    That would help to some degree, but there would be cultural and social challenges in asking people to give up what many low-income folks view as a status symbol and a mobility necessity. Worth a shot though, as no single solution will be effective alone.

  • Courtney

    No to bikes on sidewalks. Bike have a place on the street. We can build protected bike lanes because bikes do not belong on the sidewalk. Anytime you see someone riding a bike in America on a sidewalk it is the result of policy failure.

  • Courtney

    You know what else is regressive? Climate change, pollution, etc.
    Typically projects that produce a lot of pollution are located in minority and low income neighborhoods. Folks who earn a low-income are most likely to be harmed by climate change and do not have the funds to just up and leave in the event their city or region is decimated by climate change.
    It would serve ALL people better if we invested our dollars in public transportation and we can do that by raising the gas tax and instituting congestion pricing in at least 50 of the top cities (in terms of population) in the United States.

  • Courtney

    Or we can beef up public transportation to such a degree it wouldn’t make sense to own a car and our cultural norms about “status symbols” will shift. We don’t need to give any more subsidies to the car industry and YES a tax credit or anything similar is a subsidy to the car industry. The car industry is a huge reason why we’re in this mess. They have bought our Congress and we’re stuck with a transportation “system” that is heavily titled toward single occupancy vehicles.

  • FormerMainer13

    “Or we can beef up public transportation to such a degree it wouldn’t make sense to own a car and our cultural norms about “status symbols” will shift. ”

    – That is a long term approach and society simply cannot afford to wait that long to see real progress on climate change. We need action, not a 50 year plan. I fully agree with that approach, but I don’t see as sufficient.

    “We don’t need to give any more subsidies to the car industry and YES a tax credit or anything similar is a subsidy to the car industry. The car industry is a huge reason why we’re in this mess. They have bought our Congress and we’re stuck with a transportation “system” that is heavily titled toward single occupancy vehicles.”

    – Anything else simply, respectfully, ignores reality and dooms us to more inaction.

  • Courtney

    BRT doesn’t take that long to implement. It’s also not like tons of cities can’t beef up their bus service.
    I don’t necessarily think this has to be an either or but I am simply tired of the subsidies going to the car industry and fossil fuel industry.

  • FormerMainer13

    “BRT doesn’t take that long to implement. It’s also not like tons of cities can’t beef up their bus service.”

    – I agree, and I support BRT but don’t see it, alone, or even mass transit, alone as being even near sufficient to fight climate change. BRT is an ancillary approach that will barely move the needle. The potential volume simply isn’t there.

    “I don’t necessarily think this has to be an either or but I am simply tired of the subsidies going to the car industry and fossil fuel industry.”

    – I think it’s both – all ideas should be used because all would be necessary to be effective. I only didn’t mention mass transit ideas in my post as I felt the idea was already addressed in the article.

  • Ward Kennedy

    I enjoy reading these comments far more now that I have blocked jwconsult.

  • newtonmarunner

    With cars, positive incentives (e.g., tax credits to purchase something more energy efficient) aren’t nearly effective as negative ones (e.g., sin taxes). Studies have consistently shown this.

  • FormerMainer13

    I guess I wasn’t clear enough. Sin taxes are not sufficient here, and I was not talking about mere tax credits. To put a finer point on it, gas cars need to be phased out completely and the government needs to give people money to buy new cars – not merely nudge them to do so, but require that they do so.

  • jcwconsult

    Or a failure of authorities to recognize and build for protected bike lanes on wide sidewalks for cyclist safety. Go to Berlin, many places in France, and then see the best ones in Reykjavik, Iceland signed as two direction lanes of bike path with clearly marked pedestrian crosswalks across the bike paths where pedestrians needed to cross them to get to street crosswalks or bus stops. If done properly, they work very well – without robbing travel lanes on arterials & collectors needed for high volumes of commuters, shoppers, tourists, visitors and commercial vehicles that need efficient travel in and out of city centers.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Tyrell Track Master

    Lets roll!

  • LinuxGuy

    Do not need higher gas taxes, need to spend the money ON THE ROADS FOR CAR USE.

  • Courtney

    You do realize commuting, shopping, visiting, and commercial activity can be done by bike, right? It’s also the most efficient in terms of carbon produced (or actually not needed) and space? Not to mention the health benefits of walking.
    There are folks in Switzerland and Iceland moving furniture via bike. It can be done. Folks in the United States are just so inundated and brainwashed in car culture to imagine anything different.

  • jcwconsult

    For people who live within moderate distances of the destinations and particularly in relatively flat areas, yes for some of those people. But despite the occasional over-the-top photo of the 83 year old lady who will bike 12 months a year in the snow belt up and down hills – most people simply refuse to give up the comfort of their cars. Bike commuters in almost every area are less than 10% of the total and a LOT less in bad weather. Many who have debated me know I am interested only in practical solutions that become realities in the real world.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Bi-Partisan Political Veterans Team Up to Design a New Gas Tax System

|
Transportation reformers around the country have long been disappointed at politicians’ unwillingness to raise the gas tax to pay for infrastructure. It seems, to many, an obvious and necessary solution for the chronic underfunding of our transportation system. Meanwhile, to the politicians, it is just as obvious that raising consumer taxes during a recession is […]

Would the New Senate Fuel Tax Deal a Death Blow to the Transport Bill?

|
Eight Democrats yesterday joined nearly the entire transportation universe, from road-builders to transit advocates, to warn the three Senate authors of a new climate bill against raising gas taxes without using the money for infrastructure. Their message, translated from the often impenetrable language of Washington: Imposing new fuel fees that are not routed to transport […]

Petition: Support a Climate Bill That Invests in Green Transportation

|
At the end of March, representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey introduced an ambitious federal climate bill. This is the real deal — the legislative centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to combat global warming. Transportation contributes about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., so any climate bill will have to green […]

Could a New Kind of Fuel Tax Help Break the Senate Climate Deadlock?

|
Even before the Senate environment panel pushed through a GOP protest to approve its climate change bill, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and John Kerry (D-MA) were working behind the scenes on a so-called "tripartisan" plan that can win enough votes in Congress’ upper chamber to make nationwide emissions cuts a reality. (from […]

Will New Oil Supplies Slow the Transition to Green Transportation?

|
What if peak oil doesn’t take care of gas-guzzling by cutting off the supply? The Saudi oil fields may be finite, but new sources like the Canadian tar sands and the North Dakota oil shale keep opening up. That poses a challenge to the shift away from carbon-intensive transportation, according to Deborah Gordon, who studies transportation oils […]