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.

211 thoughts on A Green New Deal? Here Are Some Suggestions

  1. I do, drivers foot the bill, so others can freeload. As I said, I picked a state and did major research into the data. A huge chunk of the money is diverting for non-driving purposes. If you ignore data, then we are done here.

  2. I think we are done. The basic principles here never change.

    Thanks for a good debate, I hope the followers got something out of it.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  3. “I’m not sure how much of a status symbol a well worn beater is, but certainly a mobility necessity for most places.”

    – It is often difficult to understand the value of the status symbol unless you are inside that community; that said, for many lower income folks, items such as a car or a smartphone are incredibly important.

    “The single biggest factor people give for not bicycling, (when they live close enough to do so) is fear of motor vehicles. Reasonable, but not an unchangeable barrier. ”

    – I agree that is a big reason, though I can’t say whether or not it is the single biggest one. Is that your experience? I feel as if “the weather” might be tied for #1.

    “My reasoning for selling it as “traffic reduction” is not to appeal to those who might choose it, but to sell it to those who won’t. Not welfare but one less car to back up their vehicle, one more parking space.”

    – That is hypothetically possible, if for some reason these low income folks are driving the same roads and parking in the same spaces as others, and you would need to convince the majority that the change would in fact result in traffic reduction – that would be very location specific.

  4. SF has a pretty good transit system with homes averaging $1.2 million and 2 bedroom apartments at mid $4,000 levels – both well over double where I live WITH good transit. No rational expansion of SF transit and conversion of any rational portion of the parking lots & garages to housing would make any meaningful changes to those numbers.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  5. If you think simplistic analyses like that are more meaningful data than actual studies (which are easily accessible), then you were done before you made your first comment.

  6. No. With a more balanced transportation system nationwide, there would be more places where people who wished to do so could live the way they want to (primarily using transit and walking, and possibly cycling as well), and the exaggerated demand for the few places that support this would settle to a more reasonable level.

  7. Sorry, that is a pipe dream. The sort of high level transit that exists in SF, LA, NYC, etc. is simply not affordable in most of the USA, the population density is too low. I think you also discount the special nature of those metroplexes as to commerce, jobs, and particular desirability for some parts of living that makes the densely settled real estate escalate to very high prices. There is only so much land and when too many people want some, the price goes up.

    And remember, many people who live in places like Ann Arbor with a decent bus system and about 160,000 people including the students do NOT want to live in major metroplexes. It is a different lifestyle, one that I and many others prefer. Housing here is double that of some small towns within 25 miles, but doesn’t reach the insane prices of SF, LA, NYC, etc.

    If you pick your residence with respect to transit, and need to mostly go to the center of A2, you can rely on the buses. And six to eight months a year it is fine for cycling. But you will need a car to go across the spokes of the bus system in any reasonable time frame, or to go to any of the many small towns in the area with desirable restaurants, theaters, parks, etc.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  8. Germany shows that it is entirely possible to build small cities in such a way as to make transit viable and convenient. I am referring to the failure of America to do the same thing.

  9. There is more emphasis and affordability of transit in Europe because the gas is ~$6.00 a gallon, overall income tax rates are higher, societies were historically less affluent so (among other things) most people find it acceptable to live in smaller homes packed more tightly together, and a host of other major cultural differences that make many comparisons invalid.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  10. Those are all good reasons for concrete sidewalks, but I haven’t seen many that don’t have serious trip or spill hazards after a decade. They are fairly expensive to install properly and maintain for safety, although far less than a lane of “freeway.” This will be an even bigger issue as more Americans turn geriatric and falls can end their days immobile. Lawsuits add to the costs, and concrete is much harder than rubber. You are right that some common sense solutions would prevent problems, but common sense seems to be in short supply. I have walked on hardened rubber/plastic surfaces and they can be very smooth, but probably gouge easily, and crumble eventually. I posted a video of a British guy who’s invented a recycled plastic/rubber paint on compound to replace asphalt on my FB page Velorution2020. Don’t know too much more about it than that, but looked promising, can be any color, so saves on painting slow lanes yellow.

  11. I’m speaking from experience as a beater driver. Basically what I can afford, but hasn’t done much for my social status I’m sure. The weather is up there for sure, along with hills, head winds, crotch and neck pain, but survey says-(the last ones I’ve seen anyway) fear of collisions is tops, but could be regionally specific. Convincing motorists to see cyclists as legal vehicles was the intention with my 1981 Share the Road bike route sign and we’re still a long way from complete market penetration. Look Twice for One Less Car, my 2006 bike/ped safety graphic is meant to shift motorists from seeing them as annoying obstacles, to allies in reducing traffic and increasing parking. That hasn’t really caught on, but after 40 years of advocacy I take the long view to avoid despair.

  12. Your experience is certainly a common one but may differ given your local society and culture.

    I think progress has been made on having drivers accept cyclists – the biggest hurdle I see is that most drivers continue to fear cyclists on the road.

  13. You’ve got that backwards. Gas is about $6.00 a gallon in Europe because there is more emphasis on getting people to use transit. The high gas taxes are part of that policy. This is America’s mistake. The unbalanced transportation system in the U.S. is unsustainable.

  14. Gas is $6/gallon and other taxes are also much higher because Europeans expect to get a lot more for their total tax dollars from all sources – including health care, better welfare benefits, good roads, and other support systems.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  15. True, transit is better supported in Europe. Remember that until well after WWII, car ownership was much less common than in the US. By the 1920s, many ordinary working class people in the US could own cars – something that was much less true in Europe for another 30 to 40 years. Thus transit was better supported in the early 20th century and still is in Europe.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  16. Yes, I’m well aware. I’ve spent a little time in Europe. As I said above, this is America’s mistake.

  17. It was a mistake for America to produce cars at low cost and pay ordinary workers enough to afford them?????????????
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  18. No, it was a mistake to tear down and rebuild cities to make automobile transportation essentially the only option in many places. In the US, those living in poverty spend more than 15% of their income on transportation; the approximately 80% of that group without access to a motor vehicle are often locked out of opportunities to advance themselves because mobility is severely limited without the purchase of an expensive asset that requires costly maintenance and depreciates rapidly.

  19. If you look at the historic photos of both large and small cities from around the turn of the 1800/1900 century, the streets are very little different.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  20. Along with trams, horses, carriages, etc. all in the same width streets. Today we have cars, trucks, buses, and people.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  21. Except most roads have the vast majority of them sectioned off for the exclusive use of cars, and we have an incredibly expensive network of roads exclusive to cars that we can’t afford to maintain. And in many places people are afraid to get near the street, which is why we really *don’t* have many people in our streets. There are YouTube videos about how streets changed in America in response to the automobile. You should watch them.

  22. And in many places people are afraid to get near the street, which is why we really *don’t* have many people in our streets.

    Utter nonsense.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  23. With my 58 years of driving in 27 world countries and about 66 years of solo walking experience – I find your thought that many people are huddled in fear afraid to walk anywhere to be the most ridiculous utter nonsense you have ever uttered in our debates. Perhaps you have never been to downtown Chicago as one clear example – a place teeming with pedestrians until late into the night, along with fairly quick vehicle traffic.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  24. I suggest you rely less on your personal experience and questionable judgment and do some reading. There are plenty of surveys and studies out there about the perceived safety of walking in different environments and the effect that things like wide roadways and a lack of sidewalks have.

    That you think our streets today are equally walkable as streets in the 1800-1900s is just utterly bizarre. When cars first appeared on the scene, they were widely reviled for the danger they pose to users of public space. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea that pedestrians needed to be banned from a portion of streets for their own safety arose.

    Thousands of pedestrians are killed by people using cars every year. Again, your for-profit lobbying group should stop pretending like those lives are disposable.

  25. Where sidewalks are lacking in areas with any significant amount of pedestrian traffic, it is up to local residents to get the local governments to build sidewalks. Given that cars did replace the horse and buggy era, the notion that it should be safe for pedestrians to share the travel lanes with cars is nonsense.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  26. I’m glad you agree that the streets are less safe and less utilized by pedestrians now. It took a while, but you got there!

  27. Where sidewalks are lacking in areas with any significant amount of pedestrian traffic, those unusual streets can be less safe. For those that live on those streets, the ARE regularly utilized. I walk on one regularly as the shortest route to my local library and find the vehicle traffic is courteous and safe around pedestrians.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  28. You can’t judge the safety of infrastructure by restricting your evaluation only to streets that people already feel safe enough to walk on. Please, please learn how research is done.

    You must live in the only place in the country where drivers are courteous and safe to pedestrians.

  29. Also, it’s disingenuous for someone from a reactionary group of “motorists” to say that is up to citizens to get local governments to build sidewalks when you actively oppose efforts by local citizens when they do so.

  30. Please cite where I or the NMA in general opposes building sidewalks. You are spouting utter nonsense.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  31. Try reading for comprehension next time. It was a mistake to build a one-sided transportation system that forces most people to rely on the automobile for short- and medium-distance trips and on flying for longer trips.

  32. So, once cars were affordable for average working people, train systems already existed for many long distance trips and for those that didn’t want to drive, and long before commercial flying became viable for average working people – we should NOT have built a fine road system allowing people the freedom to go when and where they wanted in our vast country?

    It would have taken an all-powerful dictator to stop that great advance in freedom – and to force residence groupings tight enough to make transit viable to most places.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  33. If you think Ann Arbor is the only place in the US that I have witnessed primarily courteous driver behavior around pedestrians in my 57 years of driving, then you are simply wrong. It is the norm.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  34. It amazes me that you are so completely ignorant of history. It took the power of the federal government to wrench the U.S. transportation system into its current shape, with massive subsidies to build up the road network to the point where the automobile became a reasonable choice. It took still more massive subsidies to continue twisting it to the point where the automobile became the only reasonable choice for local travel in most of the country.

    This is not a market outcome; it’s the result of enormous levels of government intervention. Stop pretending otherwise.

  35. It amazes me you don’t understand that things went that way because it was what the voters and taxpayers wanted. You totally discount the values of time and freedom of travel – when and where you want to go, with personal privacy, multiple stops, late night travel, holiday travel, carrying what you need including large loads of people and goods, the ability to live in any city or suburban neighborhood chosen by work, chosen for schools for your kids, chosen by the particular house you like regardless of whether it is close to work, etc. These personal choice things have great value to the people who pay the bills and voted to get the network of roads to use to have those choices. This is totally a market outcome, chosen by the voters and taxpayers who pay the bills.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  36. The interstate system was built on the promise that it would reduce congestion, lower the number of traffic deaths, and reduce the strain on the courts. Now the US has some of the worst congestion in the world, more traffic deaths per capita than almost every other developed country, and law enforcement and the judicial branch spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to get scofflaw drivers to behave in a civilized manner. The interstate system remains the most expensive public works project ever (well beyond its original budget) and “finished” decades behind schedule.

    So yeah, saying that the highway system was somehow a “market outcome” is ignorant at best. And that’s not even getting into the massive protests that arose around nearly every freeway project.

    And the whole argument about “time and freedom of travel” is equally misguided, which you should know. Cars cause congestion. More efficient modes enable far more people the freedom of choice and the freedom of movement, and it costs society far less when people ride a bus or a bike.

    Cars might be an unfortunate necessity for the countryside and are needed in poorly-designed suburbs, but they’re not a prerequisite for freedom. In urban environments, they’re a liability and a hassle.

    Your fringe anti-accountability, pro-single-occupancy-vehicle lobbying group needs new talking points.

  37. Unfortunately, you are wrong on every count. Interstates are our safest roads with a fatality rate two to four times lower per mile traveled than rural highways and other roads. They very strongly made overall travel a lot safer.

    Enforcement and judicial resources squander their scarce resources trying to defy the realities of safe driving behavior and end up robbing mostly safe drivers for the dastardly crime of driving safely for the actual conditions. Those resources COULD be spent to enhance safety, rather than bring squandered mostly for profits.

    You refuse to recognize that when people have the choice of a private trip in their car in an urban setting that takes 20 minutes versus walking to and from the transit stop and riding for an overall trip of 35 minutes, a VERY high percentage of people prefer the shorter and more pleasant trip in their car. Time and freedom of travel mean a lot to most people, even if they are irrelevant to you.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  38. Oh, there were referenda on this? Can you point me to documentation on some of them?

    Also, apparently you don’t understand what “market outcome” means, so here’s a clue: Market outcomes happen without government intervention.

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