Transportation Ideas for a Green New Deal

The idea of a Green New Deal (GND) has been generating a lot of political excitement in progressive circles of late. It’s also generated a lot of capital-D Discourse online, with transportation and land use wonks (myself among them) noting that one of the draft GND documents floating around is notably weak on those issues, and that the movement in general has seemed reluctant to be bold on transportation and land use topics. Unsurprisingly, some more libertarian-leaning urbanists types are skeptical that transportation and land use are a good fit for a GND structure; while I think that position is worth some consideration, I am of the opinion that there is plenty enough work to do to spend multiple hundreds of billions of federal dollars on transportation and land use, should we have the desire to do so.

So what would an urbanist/transportation wonk’s GND look like? I start from the principle that a GND should in fact be all of the things it promises:

  1. Truly green
  2. New, changing systems and institutions to fit a new reality
  3. A deal in all senses of the word: a fair shake for the people; a set of compromises between potentially competing interests; and an efficient set of spending priorities that doesn’t waste money

One implication of 3)–and something that has been disputed in the online discourse as of late–is that everyone is going to have to give something up. We can’t produce a true GND simply by going after “corporations” or “the rich”–while higher levels of taxation and redistribution are almost certainly necessary, they are equally certainly insufficient to achieve an environmentally sustainable society all on their own. Specific problems require specific policy solutions, not just an overall progressive orientation that skips over the details. It’s not going to be green unless it reaches virtually every American.

That being said, I would imagine that to gain sufficient ground in its core political constituencies (and, you know, to do its job of righting historical wrongs), any GND will have to fulfill the core missions of redistribution and desegregation. Redistribution, because American society is highly unequal, and that was most of the point of the original New Deal; desegregation, because we need to correct the mistakes of the original New Deal in failing to see that ideal through, and because infrastructure and planning–the particular topics of this post–have traditionally in the US enshrined segregation rather than fighting it, and we need to do better now.

But enough with the serious aspects and amateur political analysis! The fun part of trying to influence a grand political idea that’s still in the early stages of formation is what transit geeks call crayoning: throwing creative and potentially infeasible, but often highly specific, ideas out there to see what sticks. So here are, in no particular order, a few ideas. Not all are mine, originally, and I try to give credit where due.

  1. Federal R&D investment into battery technology. Better batteries are clearly key to any lower-carbon future. They are essential to electric vehicles of any sort that use road infrastructure, and as much as us transit purists might object, we will need a ton of electric cars if we have any hope of fighting climate change in the coming decades. I’m not sure the battery technology is up to the challenge for larger vehicles, though; electric buses have an uneven track record in the US thus far, and while I’m fairly confident they’ll get where they need to be eventually, perhaps some targeted federal help can speed up the process. We also need to build out a network of charging stations for electric cars, scooters, and bikes, some of which will need to be quite high-capacity. On the rails, batteries offer a potential partial replacement for expensive traditional electrification, but are highly unproven. Matt Rose of BNSF, the best-run of the Class I freight railroads (especially as regards infrastructure investment), brought up the idea of battery locomotives in a recent interview, so the industry–traditionally a conservative one–is at least thinking about it. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for public-private cooperation on a grand scale. Finally, batteries are often constructed from quite dirty materials obtained under ethically questionable (at best) circumstances, meaning that a progressive vision of how to obtain the materials under a progressive foreign policy is incredibly important.
  2. Ban (or enforce the ban on) requirements that applicants for jobs have a vehicle, except where having a vehicle is actually necessary for the job (and in that circumstance employers should help or entirely pay for the vehicle). This question is probably already illegal but I just heard someone mention it at a party and it comes up not infrequently on Ask A Manager (where the comments are sometimes respectful, sometimes vile). Making a big deal out of banning this question won’t make everything better or, probably, make a huge impact on carbon, but perhaps it can kickstart a sympathetic PR campaign.
  3. A national high speed rail network. This is, obviously, the biggest of all the bigs in terms of actual infrastructure, but it’s absolutely a federal priority, and should be; it could be the green equivalent of the Interstate Highway System. Shifting a ton of trips to HSR would also reduce flying, lowering carbon emissions immediately while also decongesting a whole bunch of airports. An HSR network isn’t going to touch all corners of the country but has the potential to spread wealth and economic activity away from major coastal centers; the classic example I like to give on this is the potential for an Empire HSR system linking New York City with cities like Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, not to mention Toronto on the other end. Workers and companies would have the choice of being able to relocate to cheaper, but still urban and potentially very pleasant, areas while retaining easy access to major centers.
  4. Make the entire US transit system accessible to wheelchair and other mobility devices.  H/t on this to Ellen. Yes, this is something have been taken care of by local authorities years ago, and the failure of systems like New York to provide basic accessibility is nothing short of shameful, but if we’re going to be spending tons of money on infrastructure, with an equity lens, let’s just get it done while we’ve got the chance. I think it’s the perfect chance for technical transit activists and disability activists to unite on influencing a GND:  it involves manufacturing and skilled labor (both for platforms+track work that would be needed in some places); it solves a technical problem; it uplifts a highly marginalized population (disabled people) AND makes transit more efficient; and it has little existing constituency.
  5. Process and planning reform. I can’t touch on this in a ton of detail given my day job as a cog in the federal transportation planning machine, but let’s just say there’s a lot of room to improve the process by effectively regionalizing planning; coordinating transportation and land use planning; and emphasizing equitable representation and outcomes. These two threads from Will Stancil and his respondents are worth your time:
  6. Subsidize transit fares and passes for the lowest-income individuals. Much attention is being given right now to New York City’s messy attempt to roll out lowered fares for low-income folks (the program was supposed to roll out today and…didn’t), but there’s a lot of room to use federal money to help out here. Systems across the country are hiking fares to patch financial holes, which lowers ridership from price-sensitive riders; one way to fix that is to use the federal government’s financial muscle creatively. 
  7. Transform commuter rail into regional rail. This is, obviously, my hobby horse, and I’ve written about it more than perhaps anything else; but suffice it to say that in the US we spend a ton of money operating trains on a paradigm of highly niche peak service for white-collar commuters that exists basically nowhere else in the world. Federal leadership–perhaps making it clear that running trains that way is not acceptable as suburban demographic change accelerates–is sorely needed. 
  8. Expanded federal operating support in smaller metros. As I understand it, the federal government once provided more operating funding to transit agencies in smaller metro areas, but it was cut under Reagan, with the excuse that locals were using it to substitute for providing their own funds. Which may have been true, but it’s not an excuse for the poor service that current funding levels allow in many American cities. This could take any number of potential paths, but as part of a GND the federal government should provide massively expanded operating grants to many transit agencies, in return for: no reduction, or even an increase in, state and local commitment; zoning laws, parking regulations, and other policies, changing to support transit; and a commitment to maintaining minimum levels of service much higher than they are today. 
  9. Figure out the future of driving pricing. This one has easily been the most controversial online; a lot of left-leaning people are quite resistant to the idea that driving should cost more. And indeed, a progressive GND should rebate the proceeds of any road/driving pricing scheme in a redistributive way (perhaps indirectly, through massively better transit, land use, and affordable housing). But a GND just isn’t green without taking on driving directly–even electric vehicles generate considerable pollution from the tire-roadway interface, not to mention the danger they pose to pedestrians, cyclists, etc. We can’t escape that. And there’s a lot to figure out, what with EVs, AVs, TNCs, and all the other acronyms.

That’s far from an exhaustive list of my GND ideas, but I’ve written plenty, and the road pricing question leads into perhaps the most important discussion at the moment: why bother with the discussion. Isn’t any GND a good GND? My thoughts on this are derived from part of my very long thread on this topic from a few days ago.

Like, I suspect, most of the people I talk to online, I think the GND is a very exciting concept. But it could go screwy in a number of ways, one of which is not listening to the right people about the scope and/or the details. Generalist activist/wonk types, much less “normal people,” often don’t realize, or like to confront, the tradeoffs inherent in very technical topics.

There’s a strong element of the American left (at least online, and probably not a majority, but they’re certainly loud) that likes to project the idea that we can make progress on climate and sustainability while only impacting villains–corporations, richy-rich people, industrial farmers, etc. This is not true! Projecting that image certainly makes the GND an easier sell. But talking about a cleaner future in which a strong majority of *all* Americans have not had to radically revise some aspects of their daily lives is a lie. I would also argue that it’s bad Left politics, because we *should* be organizing around the concept and action of solidarity. But that’s something of an aside. 

Data for Progress‘s version of the GND is only one vision; much remains to be fleshed out; and they have a good track record of listening. But I already see in the document and the surrounding discourse tendencies toward the idea that the GND can be executed solely on the backs of convenient villains. And it’s from us, from the technocrats and the policy specialists and the geeks, that those shaping the GND are going to have to realize that that cannot be the case, and develop alternatives. It would be easy to fall into the trap of ideological purity and not listen.

And to those activists and politicos and elected officials running the show I say: please don’t go down that path. Instead: illuminate tradeoffs. Work on solidarity. Don’t BS your way through a difficult, wrenching process. Remember you need specialists to help frame that process, in the same way we need activists to help reach the public. Only working together can we make this happen in a productive way.