Democrats’ Baffling Blind Spot On Cars

Transportation is the greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Why are all the 2020 candidates so scared to say it?
Illustration: Doug Chayka for HuffPost

Few objects symbolize America’s unique place in the world better than the automobile. Residents of the United States drive more than 37 miles per day, nearly twice as much as the average Swede or Norwegian. America has 1.16 cars for every licensed driver and spends roughly $534 per person each year building and maintaining its road network. Three out of four U.S. workers drive to work alone; fewer than 1 in 20 walk or bicycle.

America’s unique enthusiasm for the automobile has become one of the greatest challenges to solving climate change. Transportation is now the greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. And while utility companies are phasing out coal in favor of renewable energy, the auto industry is moving in the opposite direction. In March, the International Energy Agency reported that America’s oil use was rising more quickly than any other nation. In 2016, the average American drove 1,300 more miles than they did in 1992. Nearly every advance in fuel economy has been wiped out by more driving, bigger cars — or deliberate sabotage by the Trump administration.

And yet, no prominent Democrats have proposed policies to reverse this trend. The 2020 presidential candidates have put forward ambitious targets for weaning power plants off of fossil fuels, closing federal lands to drilling and dramatically increasing subsidies to electric vehicles. None of them, however, has acknowledged the urgent necessity for America to kick its driving habit.

“It’s difficult to imagine addressing the climate crisis in any meaningful way without taking on automobiles,” said Clayton Nall, a political science professor at Stanford University who specializes in infrastructure spending. “It’s not enough to convert vehicles to electric. And even if it was, it’s not likely to happen on a timeline that will address the carbon emissions problem. It’s a real blind spot.”

The absence of meaningful plans to reduce car use is conspicuous. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections show that the United States needs to electrify its vehicle fleet and significantly reduce driving by 2030 to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. In 2018, the California Air Resources Board estimated that even a tenfold increase in electric vehicle sales would still require residents to drive 25 percent fewer miles each year to reach the state’s emissions targets.

“It’s difficult to imagine addressing the climate crisis in any meaningful way without taking on automobiles.”

- Clayton Nall, professor, Stanford University

Both reports suggest taking drastic action to reduce car use. This could include raising gas taxes, increasing investment in public transit or implementing “decongestion pricing,” a toll for drivers to access heavily trafficked urban neighborhoods. Other countries have begun removing parking spots and closing down urban highways in major cities. Some have banned cars from entering their urban cores altogether. Last year, the EU committed to a 35 percent reduction in car emissions by 2030.

So far, these ambitious commitments haven’t been taken up by the Democratic Party. In July, the $287 billion highway bill passed out of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee with the support of Green New Deal co-sponsor Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The transportation spending package, the largest in history, will primarily fund the construction of new roads. Numerous studies have shown that building new roads does not reduce congestion and simply encourages Americans to drive. Despite a $420 billion maintenance backlog, the bill dedicates just $6 billion to helping states fix existing roads.

“Even if you look at the most ambitious figures in the Democratic Party, there’s less ambition to reduce driving than there needs to be,” said Nall. “It’s one of the only issues where they’re taking the safe route.”

Constructing new roads has been found to increase traffic by encouraging more city residents to drive.
Constructing new roads has been found to increase traffic by encouraging more city residents to drive.
Art Wager via Getty Images

2020 Candidates Dodge On Driving

Most Democratic presidential candidates have kept their commitments to reducing transportation emissions undefined. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, says he’ll help local governments fund “alternative and cleaner transportation options,” but doesn’t specify further. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a climate plan that includes a section on “green infrastructure” but doesn’t set any targets or policies. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the only candidate to include the phrase “reduce car usage” in any published plan, offers no specifics on how such a reduction would happen.

Other candidates are strangely unambitious. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has no aversion to laying out bold visions when it comes to health care and education, has set a target of increasing public transit ridership by just 65 percent over the next decade — an increase that would still see fewer than 1 in 10 Americans taking a bus or train to work. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s plan proposes $10 billion in new public transportation spending per year, an amount that could cover as little as 11 miles of new urban subways.

Leah Stokes, a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor who specializes in climate politics, said that while the Democrats’ plans are modest improvements over the current reality, they don’t go very far in addressing climate change.

“No one is proposing the radical reduction in driving that we need,” she said. “Even if these plans were implemented, they wouldn’t dramatically change the energy demands of the transportation system.”

Electric Vehicles Aren’t Enough

Electric vehicles are the only area of climate policy where Democrats are comfortable being ambitious. Sanders says he’ll electrify the entire transportation sector by 2030. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Warren have committed to converting all new vehicles to electric power by 2030. Buttigieg and Harris set the target at 2035.

Stokes says that all of these plans make the same mistake, however: “They stick to status quo density and they do nothing about the fact that the vast majority of Americans drive to work by themselves.”

Americans’ carbon footprint depends more on where they live than what they drive. Residents of lower Manhattan, for example, emit less than half as much carbon as residents of Nassau County, New York, a commuter suburb with larger homes and higher rates of car ownership. Providing Nassau residents with electric vehicles would have some effect on their carbon footprint, but the effect would be much larger if they simply moved closer to jobs, services and shopping.

There is also the problem of time. Americans own roughly 272 million cars. Only around 17 million, or 6%, are purchased new each year. Even if the candidates’ plans to reach 100% of new vehicles running on electric power by 2030 came true, it could take another decade before they reached the penetration necessary to significantly reduce emissions.

Sanders’ plan aims to speed up this process by offering a “cash for clunkers”-style grant program that would purchase electric vehicles for low- and medium-income drivers. Over 10 years, the plan would cost $2.1 trillion, enough for roughly 54 million EVs at today’s average price of $36,600 each. It is the largest single expenditure in Sanders’ $16.3 billion climate plan.

Matthew Lewis, a climate and urban policy consultant in Berkeley, said Sanders’ plan is an inefficient way to spend such a large outlay. “Even as a symbolic victory, it’s not much of a victory,” Lewis said. “It’s like, ‘Congratulations, you just threw away enough money to build a great public transit system in every city in the country.’”

Rapidly expanding America’s electric vehicle fleet has implications for the climate. Stokes estimates that meeting the Democrats’ targets would require roughly doubling America’s electrical capacity. Studies have found that if this additional capacity came from coal-fired power plants, the resulting rides wouldn’t be much better for the climate than hybrid vehicles. Plus, the production of electric vehicles is itself a carbon-intensive process that involves mining cobalt and lithium for the battery and smelting steel for the frame.

“Depending on how much you drive, a car that’s 10 to 12 years old might actually be better for the environment than replacing it with an electric vehicle,” Lewis said.

“Politicians are good at talking about how to spread around goodies, but it’s much harder to talk about everyone sharing in the pain of conservation.”

- Clayton Nall

Then there are all the knock-on effects. One of the most reliable statistics in urban planning is that when gas prices fall, Americans drive more. Buying electric vehicles for millions of Americans could encourage them to spend more time on the road, worsening congestion and encouraging even more emissions. And electric cars are still cars: All of the other negative impacts of driving — from pedestrian deaths to the health effects of long commutes to the harmful “microplastics” shed by rubber tires — would remain firmly in place.

“No matter what, transitioning to clean energy has to involve a systematic reduction of energy demand,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who runs a research project on Americans’ carbon footprints.

“Otherwise,” he said, “you solve one problem and end up with a bunch of new ones.”

Why Are Democrats Reluctant To Talk About Cars?

The most obvious explanation for Democrats’ four-wheeled blind spot is that reducing car use is politically unpopular.

“Campaigning against cars is like campaigning against hamburgers,” Cohen said. Densifying cities is controversial and public transit is stigmatized throughout most of the country.

There are also more complicated incentives at play. Electric vehicle subsidies enrich automakers, whose unionized workers tend to lean left. The first two states to vote in the Democratic primary, Iowa and New Hampshire, are full of rural voters unlikely to find gas taxes and bike lanes appealing.

“If you’re talking about a dense city, then it’s a viable conversation,” Cohen said. “If you’re talking about anywhere else, it’s a chicken or egg paradox” — before politicians can propose denser housing or better public transport, they need a base of constituents who want them. In most of the United States, however, decades of disinvestment and sprawl have made it all but impossible for those constituencies to form.

“If you don’t live in a place where anything other than driving is a viable option,” Cohen said, “then the specter of losing your car or cheap gas is pretty terrifying.”

The features of the Democratic base also play a role. A senior climate adviser who has worked in both politics and civil society (and declined to be identified because her views could jeopardize her current position) said environmental advocacy groups generally don’t lobby Democrats to include reductions in car use in their platforms. Donors and civil society groups simply don’t think it’s an efficient use of their resources.

“Depending on how much you drive, a car that’s 10 to 12 years old might actually be better for the environment than replacing it with an electric vehicle.”

- Matthew Lewis, climate and urban policy consultant

“The theory in climate advocacy has always been to go after the gettable tons first,” she said. That means prioritizing areas where federal regulations can reduce carbon emissions quickly and painlessly. At the federal level, that means tightening regulations on power plants. Promoting urban density, public transport and reductions in driving just aren’t worth the political capital it would cost to achieve them.

Policies to reduce driving also pose a communication challenge. It’s hard to connect seemingly unrelated policy areas like housing density to carbon emissions. Many Americans think of climate change as a problem caused by fossil fuel companies, not their own commuting habits.

“Politicians are good at talking about how to spread around goodies, but it’s much harder to talk about everyone sharing in the pain of conservation,” Nall said.

But perhaps the greatest challenge is how few voters can imagine living in places that don’t require driving.

“Americans struggle to understand what public transit would do for their lives,” Stokes said. “Because the transit is shitty in so many places, they assume it will always be shitty and will make it harder for them to get around.”

On the bright side, international experience indicates that a future with less driving may not be the dystopia voters and politicians fear. Restrictions on cars in European cities have been overwhelmingly popular. Decongestion charges in Stockholm and London were loathed before they were implemented but beloved soon after. In 2016, Barcelona closed streets to cars in a single neighborhood. Now, after citywide demand, it is replicating the “superblock” program in five more.

Things may even be changing in the United States. After a yearslong legal battle, New York City finally banned cars from a heavily trafficked east-west thoroughfare to clear the way for buses. The plan has earned rave reviews from transit riders. Opponents’ predictions that extra traffic would spill over into nearby streets have not come to fruition — cutting off the roadway seems to have incentivized New Yorkers to get where they’re going some other way.

Reducing transportation emissions and battling climate change, Lewis said, will require doing a lot more projects like New York City’s.

“We need to do the reverse of what we’re doing,” Lewis said. “Right now I have to drive a car because the transit is such a mess. We have to make it so I have to take the bus because driving is a mess.”

Illustration: Doug Chayka for HuffPost

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