Democrats’ Climate Plans Lack Vision for City Transit

Photo:  Steve Bott/Wikimedia/CC
Photo: Steve Bott/Wikimedia/CC

The Democratic presidential candidates are racing to release their climate proposals ahead of Wednesday night’s primary debate. But we’ve yet to see a candidate come forward with a really compelling vision for addressing America’s unhealthy relationship with cars.

Senator Elizabeth Warren today unveiled her climate plan, borrowed largely from that of Washington Governor Jay Inslee. But even Warren (known for her wonkiness) and Inslee (for his climate zeal) stopped short of reimagining how our cities and suburbs could function in a way that gives residents alternatives to driving for every trip.

Warren’s plan, like that of  Senator Bernie Sanders, which was released last month, focuses a great deal on converting the vehicle fleet to run on electricity. Swapping out gas tanks for batteries will be an important part of lessening carbon emissions from American transportation, and will be expensive. Warren says she wants to make all new vehicles electric by 2030 — and the electric grid 100 percent renewable by 2035.

But Warren’s Medium post outlining the plan doesn’t mention walking or biking — and she only briefly mentions wanting to “expand and improve public transit across our country.”

What’s missing?

The gaps and omissions are worrying.

Even when the Democrats’ plans devote paragraphs on making American infrastructure more climate resilient, they don’t mention sidewalks — or the appalling lack thereof. They don’t mention bus shelters, or the squalid conditions in which bus riders are forced to wait in America. These are key ways that American infrastructure is not up to the challenges of our era.

Jay Inslee’s “Freedom from Fossil Fuels” plan, for example, makes zero references to: buses, cities, transit, land use or trains (except to use the phrase “gravy train.”) Bernie Sanders’ plan, while being extremely ambitious in a lot of ways, even proposed billions in spending that could be used to widen highways.

Some activists have become frustrated, referring it to “the liberal blind spot for cars.”

To be fair, Inslee’s climate plans (he has six, totaling 218 pages) go into more detail about reducing car use. His “Evergreen Economy for America” plan calls for doubling public-transit spending. It also calls for providing local, state and tribal governments with “much-needed resources to invest in expanding public transit and connecting people in communities through safe, multi-modal transportation options” and for expanding federal incentives for affordable, transit-oriented development and regional land-use planning.

The plan says this “includes local transportation plans that promote biking, walking and micro-mobility, such as electric scooters and e-bikes.”

So at least biking and walking get a good solid paragraph that says the right things.

Reducing car use

Kamala Harris, meanwhile, deserves credit for explicitly pointing out that we need to reduce car use — something the other candidates sidestep.

Harris’s plan says:

“We must also incentivize people to reduce car usage and use public transit. This starts by funding robust public transportation networks to bring communities together and focusing our transportation infrastructure investments toward projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled and address gaps in first mile, last mile service.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says Americans must reduce their driving trips by about 20 percent and electrify the fleet in order avoid the worst effects of climate change.

But Harris’s outline doesn’t emphasize ways of reducing driving — for example, zoning changes — to the same extent it does other goals, such as creating and preserving jobs or constructing green buildings.

Perhaps the subject will come up during the debate — but, more likely, it won’t.

That’s a shame, because a large federal spending program like these Democratic proposals provide an excellent opportunity to rethink the systems that have helped make transportation the country’s largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions. Investment in amenities such as better sidewalks, more bus-service hours, and thoughtful rezonings, could not only help save the planet — it also could promote public health and make our country more equal.

12 thoughts on Democrats’ Climate Plans Lack Vision for City Transit

  1. The lifestyle hypocrisy of the main purveyors of [Insert cause] in this case Climate; pretty much eliminates any penchant of responsibility or enthusiasm for whatever they’re proposing. it’s hard to extol the virtues of something you’re not practicing personally.

  2. Ever contemplated that today’s challenges re: air quality, clean energy and space usage actually require a ‘reformat’ of people’s most favorite transport mode, the car?

  3. @Ralph P…the bigger issue is a reformat of land use/planning, along with the myriad issues that come with it. The car is favored for a multitude of reasons, much of which is built into how we design both communities, as well as transit. And for mid-size and small cities, along with towns, transit is a virtual non-starter as a significant solution.

  4. We must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2035-2037 to avoid roasting our own children right off large areas of their only planet by 2060-2075.

    Right now all facets of the US food supply emit 24% of US greenhouse gas emissions, leaving none for any form of transport other than food transport.

    Home and building HVAC emissions, electrical generation emissions, and refrigeration come to another 20% of US greenhouse gases.

    We must also build and maintain our water supply, wastewater treatment infrastructure, and critical bridges.

    Do you see any emissions budget remaining for any form of transport? We won’t be able to afford the required carbon emissions to even make cars, buses, trains, or even bicycles after 2030. No steel, no concrete, no aluminum, no copper, no metal of any kind.

    I don’t see this story ending well as the value of 90% plus of the residential and commercial property in America is quite dependent on being able to supply it. Do cities grow all their own food locally within walking distance of all residents?

    If not, your city isn’t sustainable and can’t afford any other carbon emissions.

  5. The only way to significantly reduce car use is to charge directly (not just for cars, but all road users except pedestrians) a usage fee that will pay their fair share of the cost of building, repairing, and maintaining roads. Right now the amount that cars pay (via taxes) for use of the roads is far less than the cost that cars actually impose. However paying directly for road usage is antithetical to all of the socialism everywhere and always that the Democrats espouse, so they will never be able to solve this problem. (Of course, the Republicans will never be able to solve it either, but for different reasons.)

  6. The Dems want to win not lose in 2020.

    Reminds me of Adlai Stevenson being told by a supporter that every thinking person she knew was voting for him. “Madam”, he replied, “To win I need a majority.”

  7. Looks like “gizmo green” is in vogue with these candidates. As politicians, they want to promise the voters they can eat their cake and have it too. We don’t have to reduce consumption or change our lifestyle. We just need to switch to electric vehicles and solar and we can consume to our hearts’ delight. The Orginal Green solution: consuming less (walking, biking, & transit instead of cars) gets no attention because no politician wants to upend the apple cart to that degree.

  8. Biden talked about high speed rail at the CNN forum. He said that making trains faster than cars would get cars off the road. One problem is that some of my relatives live in suburban sprawl. Driving the family car means that we can go directly to where my family lives. Taking a train means renting a car or taking an Uber to where my family lives, both expensive options. If you want people to take the train for trips, cities need to denser.

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