Last April, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced an unprecedented lockdown, Americans came along for the ride in a climate science experiment.
Daily carbon dioxide emissions — in large part driven by the transportation sector — were down by about a third, according to Nature. Massachusetts and other states saw residents increasingly rely on walking, biking and other transit options, shining a light on the adverse effects of car-centric infrastructure such as air and noise pollution and rising fatalities among pedestrians and bikers, according to a recent report from the nonprofit MASSPIRG Education Fund and think tank Frontier Group.
The researchers called for a systemic overhaul to reverse a “public health disaster.” To create a safer, more sustainable transportation system, the U.S. and Massachusetts must ramp up electrification of public fleets, double the number of those who choose options other than cars and design more “complete streets” for safe mobility for all users regardless of age, ability or mode of travel, the report found.
“Almost half of the global drop in emissions during the pandemic was attributable to the decline in road traffic alone,” Frontier Group’s James Horrox, who co-authored the report, said in a statement. “As we emerge from the pandemic, we have choices to make. With the right policies, we can deliver huge benefits for public health and the environment by making it easier and safer for Americans to drive less and live more.”
The report, dubbed Transform Transportation, examined national and state data and came the same week President Joe Biden rolled out a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that includes heavy investment in roads, bridges and highways paired with a focus on green infrastructure, combatting climate change and creating jobs.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also promised to apply an “equality lens” to projects, noting “Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources. We will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”
City officials in Boston called for similar transportation and infrastructure overhauls in November. Then-Mayor Marty Walsh announced a Zero-Emission Vehicle Roadmap to curb climate change through new green infrastructure, emissions-cutting targets and ongoing efforts to shift travelers from personal vehicles to public transportation, walking and biking. The city plans to install electric vehicle charging stations in every neighborhood within two years and electrify and decarbonize most of the municipal fleet over the next few decades.
The research by MASSPIRG and Frontier Group showed that pollution from cars, trucks and other vehicles — known to increase risks of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, asthma and dementia — leaves more than 10,000 Massachusetts residents dead every year. Additionally, Americans with long commutes are at higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and high blood pressure, the authors said.
More than 300 people die and several thousand are injured in vehicle crashes across the state annually. Last year, more than 50 pedestrians and nearly 70 cyclists died in traffic-related accidents in the commonwealth, part of a rising trend across the U.S. since 1990, the report said. In 2018, more than 6,000 pedestrians and more than 800 cyclists died in traffic accidents nationwide. In some urban areas, pedestrian deaths made up 40% of all traffic-related deaths, the report said.
“Our current transportation system is wreaking havoc on our health and the health of our planet,” said MASSPIRG Transportation Advocate and report co-author John Stout. “Decades of car-centered investment strategies have left us with inefficient and dangerous transportation infrastructure.”
The groups also noted that the transportation sector is the country’s biggest contributor to global climate change, and that Massachusetts is no different: transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Emissions-cutting policies and improved vehicle standards, however, have helped significantly cut emissions in the state despite increased road traffic and population over the last decade.
The report calls on policymakers to shift more Americans from their own vehicles to public transit or to walking and biking. But they also called on local and state leaders to “electrify all transit and school buses by 2030 by getting transit agencies, school districts and utility companies to adopt commitments for zero-emission electric buses as well as encourage the federal government to provide technical assistance and financial support to help states plan charging networks, route adjustments and vehicle procurement.”
The groups called on action from federal lawmakers to require “that all new light-duty cars and trucks sold after 2035 are electric and all new medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold by 2040 are electric.” They cited California’s regulations, adopted by 10 other states, requiring automakers to sell a set percentage of electric cars and trucks; all in-state cars and trucks purchased after 2035 must be zero-emission, according to an executive order by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Purchases of zero-emission vehicles have already been trending upward, thanks in part to federal and state subsidies, along with improved technology and increased vehicle range. Almost 330,000 electric vehicles were sold in 2019, more than 2% of all U.S. vehicle purchases, with many drivers taking advantage of rebates and programs that reduce charging costs, the report found. Such incentives are even more effective when combined with education for consumers, including through partnerships with dealerships.
But the nation’s network of charging stations must expand and be easier to use, the authors argued. Too often, charging stations are nowhere to be found or are not open 24 hours, and sometimes they do not allow for the quick, easy payment found at gas stations.
Transportation and health advocates in the Bay State had already been calling for reform long before the pandemic, according to Chris Dempsy, Director of the Transportation for Massachusetts advocacy coalition.
“Pre-pandemic, Massachusetts had the country’s worst traffic congestion,” Dempsey said. “Our soul-crushing gridlock holds back our quality of life, raises the cost of doing business, and worsens the quality of the air we breathe. We don’t want to go back to that status quo — and we don’t have to if we invest in transit, walking, biking and electric vehicles. This report calls for our transportation system to be the most efficient in the country. Massachusetts residents deserve no less.”