I’ve set myself to a question that’s been eating at me for years: how would my work be different if I was fully dedicated to addressing climate change? I’ve been working in transportation for the last decade and a half, always with a personal goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But that mission has always been at best just one (sometimes small) piece of whatever problem I was working on.
Over that same fifteen year period, transportation has become the single largest source of emissions in most wealthy countries. It’s still growing, even while other sectors (like electric power) have reduced their impact. Simply put, transportation is not (even close to) doing its part.
As I’ve done my own research, I’ve been surprised by the lack of what I was hoping to find: plans, anchored at the city or regional level, that describe how a given location will deliver the deep decarbonization of passenger transport that will be required in the coming decades (50% cuts by 2030, zero emission by 2040, say). To my knowledge, no such plan exists in North America today.1
That lack of grounding of increasingly ambitious national climate proposals in real urban locations produces bizarre outcomes, where stated objectives are divorced from reality. Climate mayors end up pledging to expand highway infrastructure. Advocates for electric vehicles ignore the need to incorporate other paths to decarbonization, like transit and walking. Transit advocates protest any attention paid to electric vehicles, on the grounds that all cars are bad. The largest transport conference in the world lives in climate denial.
It’s my contention that without any grounding in data, we’ll continue talking past each other. As David MacKay, author of the very-much-worth-reading ‘Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air’, once wrote: ‘we need numbers, not adjectives’. But data and tools that allow you to combine and propose strategies to, say, increase adoption of electric vehicles and boost transit ridership and increase housing density in a specific market are very hard to come by.
I decided to take small steps to address that problem. I created a very – very – simple ‘model’ (I hesitate to even use the term) to provide some very – very – rough estimates of what it might take to get a metropolitan area – in this case, Boston – to a 75% cut in urban transport emissions by 2040. That deadline and target were chosen arbitrarily, but they are a decent stand in for the kinds of very aggressive cuts consistent with a path to keeping the world to a 2C rise in temperatures. I invited students to show up on a cold night in late November to use the spreadsheet model to propose their own solutions.2
I was bowled over by the response. Thirty five students trekked through the cold, packed into a classroom, and threw themselves into the problem. They debated different paths to the same goal, using numbers that were at least roughly grounded in reality. And they proposed scenarios that would deliver the kinds of cuts that are needed.
One workshop, obviously, is just a very small step. But we can’t expect political leaders to take bold action if we’re not effectively advocating for what is needed. Most cities have not outlined what it will take to deliver deep cuts in transport emissions. To have any hope of delivering them, that’s where they need to start.
Original photo credit Louise Gravel, poor photo editing mine
The political pressure for bold action on climate is building. Based on past history, the momentum to adopt a 2030 or 2040 or 2050 zero emission mobility plan will likely originate outside of government. How will the community of transportation advocates and professionals build plans that can deliver the radical targets now being talked about?
If any of this sounds interesting, I’m teaching a class at MIT at the end of January on these topics and plan to continue the conversation, in whatever way makes the most sense, beyond this year. Please reach out if you’re interested.