This summer’s series of extreme wildfires, hurricanes, and tropical storms have made it more apparent than ever that the effects of climate change are here.
Limiting the damage caused by future disasters will require a whole-of-government approach — one not limited to what the federal government can do. There’s a host of ideas that states and municipalities could implement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in some of the world’s biggest polluters: American cities.
According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles have some of the highest per-capita emissions totals in the world. The study broke down cities’ emissions based on sector, using the most recently available data (from 2009 and 2010), and found a large portion of those emissions come from transportation.
Data from the EPA shows that the transportation sector is actually the biggest source of pollution in the US, and that light-duty vehicles (or passenger cars) are responsible for 58 percent of those emissions. Overall, the EPA’s research — and the 2021 study — reinforce the fact that the transportation systems of American cities over-rely on cars in ways that are not sustainable should the US actually want to approach its stated greenhouse gas reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030, a number it has to reach in order to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius or less.
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Reducing driving is difficult, however, because American cities, particularly those across the Southwest, are built for drivers. Biking and walking are often not options, and public transit, where it exists, does not typically serve trips that do not involve going from a city’s outskirts to its downtown or back.
“There’s really only one rational way to get where you’re going, and it’s typically not direct,” said Jeff Speck, a city planner and the author of Walkable City. “It’s typically organized around the assumption of driving as the only viable transportation mode.”
The greenhouse gases produced by this reality are not inevitable. They’re underwritten by federal, state, and local policy, from the initial construction of the interstate highway system to the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill, where the $39 billion in new funding for public transit is dwarfed by $110 billion for improving, expanding, and building new highways, bridges, and roads.
Transforming American cities to be more walkable isn’t easy, but there are measures local authorities can take to create a safer, more democratized transportation ecosystem that can positively affect the climate crisis. I spoke with several urban planners, transportation scholars, and advocates to learn about the most important strategies for curbing car reliance in cities. From those conversations arose the following solutions — all of which are implementable on the municipal level.
Make streets safer for bikes and pedestrians
Many of the car trips that people take are within biking distance — say, to dinner, or an activity like a movie theater. But people may choose to drive because riding would be dangerous. They might have to cross a highway or bike down roads where there are no bike lanes.
Places where bike ownership thrives — which can be as big as a city like Amsterdam, which has such a widespread bike network that cycling is favored over driving, or just a college campus — have prioritized bike and pedestrian safety over cars.
In most American cities, particularly in the suburbs, that’s not the case. And when the efficient movement of cars is considered paramount over the safety of any other mode, accidents and fatalities occur. The car-centric transportation system is contributing to a consistent yearly uptick in pedestrian casualties; they rose 21 percent in 2020, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
“The problem is, the minute you leave the local [road], you probably enter an environment in which it’s not safe to bike because the bike lanes aren’t separate,” Speck said.
By adding protected bike lines — separated from car lanes by a barrier for safety — biking becomes a safe, accessible alternative to shorter drives. Essentially, bike lanes have to be set apart by something other than “a scrap of paint,” said Ralph Buehler, the chair of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. This is something that became clear during the first year of the pandemic: the GHSA found that 2020’s uptick in pedestrian deaths came despite traffic decreasing by up to about 42 percent at the peak of the pandemic. Reducing traffic alone doesn’t make biking and walking safer; the streets themselves need to be redesigned with safety in mind.