You can’t avoid climate change these days. Wildfires, super storms, and increasing intensity of floods and droughts are staring us in the face. The simplest way to address this is by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to clean, renewable energy. But that still leaves many people asking, how do we get there with a society filled with gas guzzling cars, dirty heavy-duty trucks and massively polluting airlines? The truth is we cannot solve the climate crisis without also making big changes to how we get around. We simply can and must do so.
It all comes down to simple math: Transportation makes up 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States — slightly more than our electricity sector. And it takes a toll beyond climate: Cars and trucks are responsible for large amounts of harmful air pollutants linked to a litany of health concerns, ranging from asthma to lung disease and even premature death.
Even states that are making progress on clean energy are moving like snails on car-related emissions. So how can we get people to embrace new transportation solutions that don’t include fossil fuels?
Electric Cars are Just a Start
When the media covers the concept of changing our transportation modes, the focus is typically on electric cars. On one level this makes sense: Electric cars exist, and there’s a lot of interest in expanding charging infrastructure and incentives to make these cars more affordable. Senator Chuck Schumer recently announced a plan to build out electric vehicle infrastructure for personal automobiles, with the goal that all cars would be clean by 2040. While this timeline needs to be faster, his proposal includes some good provisions for supporting the buildout of charging infrastructure and providing access to electric vehicles for low-income people.
Still, there are a number of challenges related to a future where everyone is driving electric cars. Cost is still a considerable hurdle. While prices of electric vehicles have come down significantly in the last few years, the average price tag is still over $50,000, making them out of reach for most families.
The other major barrier is the capacity to charge all these new cars. This includes charging infrastructure and wait times, which can vary from 30 minutes to almost a day for a full charge. And while technology will continue to develop, the issue of infrastructure is more complicated. This will likely require major upgrades to the electric grid, including power generation, transmission and storage.
Public Transit and Bikes are Paramount
While electric cars are part of our climate solution, we need a broad-based plan to build a more sustainable transportation system. Public transit and sustainable communities that promote walking and biking should be at the core of the transformation.
Focusing on a public transit system that is affordable, practical and reliable provides some obvious advantages to a clean energy transition. An electric bus fleet can better coordinate charging infrastructure by cycling buses in and out of service to charge, and have more flexibility to charge when demands on energy generation are less in other sectors. Light rail and subway systems can be powered directly from the grid, removing the challenges of charging batteries on every vehicle.
Additionally, there’s an option that doesn't require any upgrades to the electric grid or expensive batteries: Creating more opportunities for people to walk and bike safely in their communities. That means prioritizing a mix of development over stripmalls and parking lots, and transport corridors that build more bike lanes and sidewalks instead of just creating room for more cars.
Ships and Planes Can Be Supplemented with Better Options
Even after all of these changes, that still leaves air travel, long-haul shipping and other commercial vehicles that are responsible for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in our transportation system.
While startups and manufacturers are now developing and selling electric trucks and aircraft, there are major technological barriers to achieving fully electric fleets. Investing in research and development at public universities can help to overcome these barriers. Meanwhile, while this will all require federal investment, all levels of state, county and federal governments can start investing in sustainable transportation today.
We also must remember that rural communities will face their own challenges with transitioning to sustainable transportation, a reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can ensure access to health services, education, workplaces and other needs. Some of these solutions are a combination of public services such as electric buses, bike lanes and on-demand ride services, which are sorely needed in rural areas even now. To help support the transition to sustainable rural transportation, federal and state governments must provide resources to evaluate and develop clean transportation systems in these communities, which may help end decades-long inequities in rural transit.
The Real Challenge Isn’t About What’s Possible, It’s About Who’s Stopping Us
While there are technical barriers to sustainable transportation, the biggest obstacles are political barriers being thrown in our way. Entrenched fossil fuel interests have significant influence over our political and economic systems, and are pushing policies that will protect their profits at the expense of public health, the environment and our planet.
By organizing grassroots campaigns, the people have stopped fossil fuel infrastructure projects and made significant progress toward clean, renewable energy. We must continue pushing against fossil fuels and false solutions, and challenge public officials to build a sustainable transportation system that leaves dirty, polluting vehicles behind.