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Year In Review 2021: The Bad News

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It's time for our year-in-review. Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

To put it mildly, 2021 was a bit of a roller coaster. Federal "infrastructure week" turned into infrastructure year (with about a couple trillion in unfinished business still pending), and the bill that finally passed Congress missed a whole lot of marks on sustainable transportation advocates' wishlists.

Last year's historic wave of protests urging American cities to reimagine the role of police on our streets were met with a disappointing response among local leaders and voters. And along the way, the pandemic-prompted surge in roadway deaths followed America into the new year, even as the traffic congestion that was supposed to stop drivers from speeding returned to pre-COVID levels.

It's been a rough go. But hopefully, we can learn a little something from it all.

Here were the five biggest bummers on the Streetsblog beat last year, and a few thoughts on what we can take away into next year. (Don't worry: we'll have the good news tomorrow.)

Traffic violence on the rise...

Pretty much everyone agreed that 2020 was the most violent year on America's streets in recent memory...until 2021 came around.

Back in March, federal regulators confirmed that the per-mile death rate on U.S. roads had increased 8.4 percent between 2019 and 2020, which was the largest one-year increase since 1924. Worse, some of the largest increases occurred in communities of color, with Black road users alone experiencing 23 percent more deaths during the first year of the pandemic than the year prior.

The roadway death rate for 2021 hasn't been calculated yet, but we do know that deaths themselves increased a staggering 18.4 percent between the first six months of last year and this one, flummoxing experts who were sure that the carnage would subside once traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels and drivers had a little less room to speed.

The most popular theory right now is that a combination of factors are to blame, including a spike in SUV sales that are more likely to kill vulnerable road users and the occupants of smaller cars, as well as changing commute patterns that have thinned out the daily rush hours and spread faster-than-average car traffic more evenly throughout the day.

But the full explanation probably won't be known until next year — and in the meantime, advocates are still waiting for bold action to keep the numbers from climbing even higher. (More on that tomorrow.)

...And legislators were slow to respond

Even before those devastating 2021 numbers dropped, advocates were calling for transportation leaders to take radical action to get roadway death numbers down to zero, as cities and even entire countries around the world have already done.

After months of intense campaigning from advocates at Families for Safe Streets and other road safety organizations, Washington lawmakers introduced a non-binding resolution that would state Congress' intention to eliminate U.S. road deaths by 2050.

But even that simple promise — which, again, would carry no consequences should American transportation leaders fail to fulfill it — wasn't one most electeds were willing to make. By November, fewer than 10 percent of members of Congress and just 13 percent of Senators had signed onto the pledge.

Advocates certainly aren't giving up, and they've even won a few more officials to the cause in the last few weeks, including Democratic superstar Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who signed up as a cosponsor just a few days ago. But lawmakers' hesitancy to embrace Vision Zero even as headlines about the traffic violence crisis piled up was a low point in this dark year — and in 2022, a lot of representatives will need to do a lot better to earn the support of sustainable transportation advocates.

Bad news for pollution — even during a pandemic

Even if the quarantine era didn't bring about a plunge in deaths on U.S. roadways like advocates hoped, it at least brought about a dip in pollution...though not as big as it could have been if the country relied less on cars.

In 2021, advocates got the disappointing news that the transportation sector had remained the largest source of U.S. transportation emissions in 2020, even though many Americans were sheltering in their homes for much of the year.

And all those months of quarantine also created the perfect conditions for an accidental experiment in automobile-related ammonia emissions, which researchers revealed were probably being under-estimated by as much as a factor of five, since they were largely being misattributed to agricultural sources before.

EV-mania instead of mode shift

U.S. lawmakers did offer a solution to 2021's disappointing pollution numbers, but not one most sustainable transportation advocates could fully get behind.

Newly inaugurated President Biden went big on electric vehicles in 2021, making them the centerpiece of his massive Build Back Better plan before congressional negotiations forced him to whittle it down.

That wouldn't be a problem if he and other world leaders had gone even bigger on initiatives to boost transit, biking and walking, but as the United Nations' November climate summit made all too clear, they didn't.

Transport conversations at COP26 focused almost entirely on vehicle electrification with almost no mention of car-cutting strategies, drawing the ire of advocates who say the science is clearer than ever that humanity can't make its emissions-reduction goals in time to avoid the worst impacts of global warming unless we all drive a lot less.

An infrastructure fight with disappointing results

Running parallel to the contentious (and still-ongoing) debate over Biden's Build Back Better bill was another historic piece of infrastructure legislation: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will dictate how US DOT spends money on its core surface transportation programs for the next five years.

Reactions to the IIJA have been mixed since the bill began its messy journey into law under a totally different name, but many sustainability advocates agree that Congress squandered a pivotal opportunity to address some of the most glaring structural problems with how America funds transportation. State agencies still won't be required to repair the highways they have before building new ones, which activists fear will undermine historic investments into transit, equity and broad road user safety.

There are some silver linings to the bill, but we'll save those for the "good news" post. For now, let's pour one out for the radically progressive reauthorization bill America could have had — and set our sights on a new year, and all the new opportunities to fight for better transportation policy that come with it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

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