Ask a Scientist: UCS Transportation Program Adds Equitable Mobility to Its Portfolio

March 12, 2024 | 10:18 am
Mitchell Johnson/Unsplash
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Cars and trucks are a lot cleaner than when I was growing up. In 1963, a typical car—which ran on leaded gasoline without pollution control devices—emitted 520 pounds of hydrocarbons, 1,700 pounds of carbon monoxide, and 90 pounds of nitrogen oxide every 10,000 miles traveled. In 1966, vehicles were responsible for nearly 60 percent of the 146 million tons of pollutants discharged into the air across the United States.

Thanks largely to the Clean Air Act, new passenger vehicles are 98 to 99 percent cleaner than they were 60 years ago when it comes to most tailpipe pollutants, including hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter. Even so, cars and trucks are still making us sick—and killing us.

Today, the transportation sector still accounts for more than half of the toxic air pollution in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and people who live, work or go to school near major roads have higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, impaired childhood lung development, pre-term and low-birthweight infants, childhood leukemia, and premature death. Yes, premature death. More than 20,000 Americans died prematurely in 2015 from tailpipe emissions, according to a 2019 study.

Tailpipe pollution also is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Writ large, transportation is responsible for 29 percent of US carbon emissions—more than any other sector—and car and truck emissions today represent 81 percent of the US transportation sector’s global warming pollution.

Until recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) Clean Transportation Program was called the Clean Vehicle Program because, as its name indicated, it concentrated on cars and trucks. Fifteen years ago, for example, it designed a virtual minivan—dubbed the Vanguard—that could meet California’s global warming emission standards at the time using existing technologies and fuels, demonstrating that the auto industry had the ability back then to produce cleaner cars. A few years later, it introduced the Half the Oil Plan, which spelled out how to slash oil use through greater fuel efficiency and new, innovative technologies, such as electric vehicles and biofuels. Soon thereafter, it began extolling the virtues of battery electric vehicles, which it continues to do today.

Besides maintaining its longtime effort to cut vehicle oil use, the transportation program has broadened its focus to include public transportation and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly development, which not only protect public health and the climate, but also improve overall quality of life. I recently caught up with Kevin X. Shen, a transportation program policy analyst, to talk about the program’s new equitable mobility work. Before joining UCS in 2021, Shen worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Work of the Future Task Force while earning a master’s degree in policy and transportation at the school. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: Our car-dependent culture does more than threaten public health and the environment. Even if we could snap our fingers and all of our cars and trucks ran on electricity generated by renewable energy sources, we would still have to deal with monster traffic jams, deadly car accidents, and road rage.

KS: Right. The fact is there are a lot more cars on the road than when you were a kid. In 1960, there were 61.6 million automobiles in the United States. At the end of 2022, there were more than 283 million. Now, traffic congestion is the norm in most US cities, and Americans travel more miles than ever before.

Given how much time we spend on the road, there has to be a better way than everyone driving their own car. Take commuting for example, which makes up less than 26 percent of all the trips people take. Even after the pandemic hit, when more people were working at home, US commuters on average still spent nearly an hour to get back and forth to work in 2022. That’s not healthy. According to a 2019 study, longer commute times have been linked to more stress, poorer mental health, and lower satisfaction with jobs and leisure time activities.

There also is an equity aspect to this issue. Black workers generally spend more time commuting than White workers, largely because of historic housing segregation. Likewise, people of color are more likely to have jobs that can’t be done at home. That makes the pain of commuting especially acute.

EN: The pandemic slammed public transportation. Many commuters who had been riding  buses or trains either started working at home—if they could—or started driving their cars to work—if they owned one—to avoid crowds. Bus and train ridership has rebounded somewhat since then, but it is not back to where it was before the pandemic, and transit agencies are facing major budget shortfalls. What needs to happen to fix this problem?

KS: When the pandemic turned the world upside down, not only did we come to appreciate the essential workers who kept basic services running, we also discovered how essential our public transit systems are. The federal government kept urban transit agencies running with COVID relief funding, and some transit agencies were able to evolve with the times. Transit agencies in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, for example, started increasing off-peak hour service to accommodate more flexible travel patterns and expanded service for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color where many residents do not own cars. Both agencies have been leading the way on recovering ridership, which has been steadily increasing nationwide since its initial drop in March 2020.

Now, as pandemic relief funding is running out and transit agencies are facing major budget  deficits, we’re at a tipping point. Without more funding, transit agencies will be forced to cut service, which will lead to fewer riders, less fare income, and … more service cuts. It’s a vicious cycle that would result in fewer transportation options and more people driving their cars and using taxis and ride-hailing services, which would mean more global warming emissions. To make sure that doesn’t happen, local, state, and federal authorities need to guarantee transit agencies’ financial stability so they can expand service, generate more ridership, and grow fare revenue.

There is a bill pending in Congress—the Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act—that would address this fiscal cliff head-on by authorizing more than $80 billion over four years with the goal of increasing transit service across the country by 38 percent. Much more than merely keeping public transit alive, this bill would make it thrive. Currently it has 88 cosponsors in the House and the backing of a coalition of more than 100 transit and labor groups.

EN: Back in 2021, Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which included the largest federal investment in public transit in history of $109 billion over 5 years. What will it do, and what still needs to be done? Will the law help transit agencies deal with their looming budget crises?

KS: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a lot of climate-friendly investments across the board, from electric vehicles to public transit. Some of the law’s most notable transit-related initiatives include:

  • $7 billion for the Carbon Reduction Program, which is available for many emissions-reducing projects, including public transit.
  • $5.6 billion in low- or no-emission bus grants that transit agencies can use for electric buses.
  • More than $26 billion in capital grants that transit agencies can use to buy new buses, construct new facilities, and build new train lines.
  • A $1-billion Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhood Grant Program to restore communities that were carved up by highways during the days of so-called urban renewal, which destroyed many thriving Black neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the law will not do much to help transit agencies dig out of their budget holes, and it is not all rosy for other reasons. It also included the largest ever federal investment in highways—$432 billion over 5 years—which could easily undermine many of the law’s transit benefits depending on how it’s spent. In fact, according to researchers at the Georgetown Climate Center, the law could actually increase transportation sector global warming emissions if its funding is squandered on widening and expanding highways, which does not ease congestion.

That’s where UCS comes in. States ultimately will decide how the money is used, but it can be difficult to follow their decisionmaking process. State transportation departments often post hundreds of pages of planning documents with hardly any mention of what the projects actually entail. Some of our coalition friends are even using ChatGPT to try to make sense of it all. With a little perseverance—and perhaps a Rosetta Stone—we and other transit advocates hopefully will be able to shed some light on how the infrastructure law money will be spent and ensure that all community stakeholders are at the decisionmaking table.

EN: Global warming emissions from vehicles are higher per capita in the United States than in any other country, and Americans have fewer transportation options. Is there any country in particular that provides a good model for the United States?  

KS: Around the world, from Dar es Salaam to Tokyo and Santiago to Paris, there are a lot more alternatives to driving a car than here. Even in Canada, whose car-oriented infrastructure and history of sprawl is similar to ours, 10 percent of commuters take public transit while only 5 percent of US commuters do. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are among the top five cities with the highest bus and train ridership in North America, largely because they invested in transit service throughout the 1960s and 1970s when cities in the United States were ripping up their streetcar tracks. Many Canadian cities also had more compact development than comparable US cities and, as a result, the same level of transit service goes a much longer way. Today, Canada and the United States subsidize public transit at similar levels, but we get much less for our money.

EN: Are there any examples of states that have created more transportation options and lowered emissions?  

KS: As our Clean Transportation Program Director Steven Higashide reported in a column last November, Washington has been leading the pack by making critical investments in light rail and bus service in Seattle, requiring large companies to help their employees find alternatives to driving to work, and improving bike infrastructure. As a result, driving in Washington has declined more than in any other state since 1996, and transportation-related emissions per capita have dropped significantly.

I should add that Washington state’s progressive transit agenda didn’t happen due to a stroke of good luck. Voters made it clear that transit is a priority, and statewide advocacy groups worked closely with elected officials to push the state in the right direction.

EN: Tell us a bit about the Clean Transportation Program’s plans to promote equitable mobility in Massachusetts. The Boston-Cambridge metro area is already ranked among the top 10 best public transportation systems in the country. Where are you looking to have an impact? 

KS: Unfortunately, being recognized as a top public transit system in the United States does not say much. Anyone living in the Boston metro area will tell you that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been struggling recently. What locals call the “T” experienced a series of serious safety problems a couple of years ago that led to much-needed repairs. But even though the number of shutdowns and slow zones has declined, the agency recently issued a study indicating that it will need $24.9 billion to ensure that its system is in a state of good repair, roughly seven times its annual budget. And that is just how much the T will need to get to a baseline. There is still a demand for more—and better—service.

In any case, better public transit in Massachusetts is just one aspect of a broader agenda. We’re working with other advocacy groups to hold the state accountable for its professed climate goals. In particular, state officials have been relatively quiet about more transportation choices as a strategy in their plans. They also have failed to adequately involve community members when deciding how to make federally funded climate-oriented investments. That shouldn’t be happening. Across the state, from Boston to Springfield, we’re looking for Massachusetts to make road, transit, biking, and walking infrastructure investments that can help it remain a national leader in addressing the climate crisis.

EN: What other plans does your campaign have going forward to expand transportation options and strengthen communities?

KS: One thing I’m really excited about is an upcoming project to support transportation professionals—from engineers to planners to academics—in their efforts on climate and equity. Their expert input, when paired with robust community engagement, could be particularly influential in the transportation planning process, which until now has largely been based on outdated, obscure models and plans that are difficult to decipher.

Throughout much of US transportation planning history, public officials have authorized highway expansions that have decimated communities and designed streets for cars, not people. Many transportation professionals now acknowledge this sorry legacy and want to do something about it. As UCS prepares for the next big federal transportation bill, which Congress will tackle in 2026, we are building a network of motivated changemakers to prod elected officials and transportation agencies to put people and climate front and center in transportation policymaking.