In 2010, the Michigan Department of Transportation was planning on spending a few billion dollars widening some highways through Metro Detroit, my homeland. MDOT (and the regional council of governments supporting them) faced community pushback, but in the end, plans went ahead.
While Michigan's situation is particularly sad given the state's population exodus and Detroit's lack of a regional transit system, it's the same story across the country. Despite the growth of transit-friendly cities, and despite evidence that building more capacity fails to decrease congestion, taxpayers continue to hemorrhage billions to grow our highway system.
But the most significant downside to all this receives scant attention: the climate impacts. Transportation has surpassed electricity as the country’s primary source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, oil pipelines in the US have galvanized the climate movement like nothing else. From Keystone XL to Dakota Access, pipelines have become a symbol of the world we want to move away from. But the leaders of these movements rarely (if ever) mention transportation, even though the oil running through these pipelines will be used primarily for transportation. Instead, they tout clean energy:
Reducing transportation emissions is more complicated that swapping one energy source for another: it requires us to zone for density and mixed uses; grow funding and accessibility for public transit, walking, and bicycling; fix the federal transportation bill; scale up EV adoption and shared mobility; use alternative fuels and efficient technology for aviation and shipping; and lots more.
The climate community's lackluster approach to transportation translates into lackluster political leadership. Already, Hillary Clinton has indicated that she’ll increase highway capacity as part of her infrastructure plan if elected president. Highway proposals should be scrutinized as vehemently as coal plants: both lock in emissions for years to come.
A wonky list of policy demands doesn’t mean that movement-building isn’t possible around transportation. Just look at what the Netherlands was able to accomplish when people fed up with traffic fatalities took to the streets in the 1970s. Pithy, straightforward campaigns like Strong Towns’ #NoNewRoads and U.S. PIRG/Environment America’s new report 50 Steps to Carbon-Free Transportation are the kinds of things climate activists should be able to get behind. When transit's on the ballot, as it is in communities across the US this election, climate hawks should get out the vote. And advocates should scale up solutions that help address emissions in other sectors like agriculture too. It’s time to start thinking bigger than clean energy.