Dear Democrats: Check Your Blindspot on Climate & Transportation

After awakened grassroots energy and major wins in Virginia and Alabama, Democrats’ chances are looking up in 2018. Polling shows a public souring on the Republican party just as Democrats are flooding the field with new candidates – over five times the number of candidates as Republicans in House races alone.

This brightens prospects for climate action. While there are certainly Republicans who are taking leadership on climate, the issue remains largely, frustratingly partisan: In 2016, House Republicans in Congress cast pro-environmental votes only 5 percent of the time compared to Democrats’ 94 percent, according to the League of Conservation Voters Scorecard.

But climate change demands a level of action even Democrats have been slow to embrace, particularly when it comes to the country’s worst carbon polluter: transportation.

Since 2016, transportation has produced more carbon emissions than the electricity sector and is showing no signs of slowing. Trevor Houser and Peter Marsters at the Rhodium Group attribute this to more cars on the road (otherwise known as Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT) and stalled progress on fuel economy.

Given a Democratic National Platform that calls for federal action on climate change, and a Paris Agreement that essentially asks countries to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by around 2060, one would expect the party to universally embrace policies that lower fuel use and VMT, but this hasn’t been the case.

In Washington state, one of Democrats’ first actions after gaining control of the legislature was to pull funds out of the state’s voter-approved transit plan. In Washington, DC the Democratic city council passed a bill to subsidize car parking near a dense, downtown Metro station to the tune of $36 million despite the city’s stated commitment to climate action and affordable housing.

Portland, OR, often lauded (and mocked) for its progressivism, has faced backlash from constituents for its willingness to expand the Rose Quarter freeway which runs through the city. And in sprawling Northern Virginia, newly elected Democratic state legislators Karrie Delaney and Danica Roem campaigned on expanding highway capacity on I-66 and Route 28. The situation isn’t helped when journalists on the left fail to scrutinize these proposals, parroting the “more roads are good roads” mantra.

President Obama’s 2012 fuel economy standards were a major achievement, but the rest of his record on transportation was problematic. The 2009 stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) gave highway and bridge construction nearly $28 billion, more than any other line item. Obama later proposed rules that would require infrastructure projects to consider climate impacts, but it was too late to make a difference on his own infrastructure spending.

Obama also threw a wrench into global efforts to curb transportation emissions by preventing US airlines from paying Europe’s carbon price on air travel. He was unanimously backed by every Democrat in the Senate. Obama appeased environmentalists by promising to address airline emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organization at a later date, but he failed to follow through.

Democrats in the House recently proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan (“A Better Deal”) in response to Trump’s plan, which they rightfully criticize for its handouts to big corporations and flaunting of environmental regulations. But the Democrats’ plan doesn’t address climate mitigation, offering vague directives on the need to “improve road quality.” In light of the challenges we face, this is a huge missed opportunity to present a ambitious vision for next-gen infrastructure.

Addressing transportation emissions might seem trickier than addressing emissions in other sectors, but that’s precisely why the party needs to get its priorities straight.

Policymakers could start by emulating California. The state plans to put five million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 by ramping up rebates and charging station availability. In 2008, California also passed SB 375 to reduce VMT through high density development, increased funding for alternatives to solo driving, and pricing schemes to discourage driving. In LA, advocates like Los Angeles Walks and urbanists like Alissa Walker are calling for prioritizing the simplest transportation mode of all: walking. California has a long way to go to shake off car culture, but its lively willingness to try multiple tactics is precisely what’s needed to address the problem.

The Democratic party should also update its platform and infrastructure proposal to reflect what’s actually needed to meet zero emissions targets necessitated by the climate crisis. An infrastructure plan that calls for “building a clean energy economy” and making infrastructure investments with climate impacts in mind is simply not consistent with “expanding our roads” and unabashedly celebrating record auto sales. Until the auto industry stops lobbying against clean cars, the praise is underserved.

Finally, government agencies should harmonize their goals. Our transportation system is not only accelerating climate change, it’s damaging our health, our economy, and equality. Agencies that address these issues should work together to reduce transportation emissions. Maybe when these connections are evident, Democrats will stop rubber-stamping a system that isn’t working for us.

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