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While electric vehicles hold big promise in 2021, another aspect of decarbonizing transportation could get major support this year: reducing car driving.
Cutting down on car trips isn't about guilt-tripping folks into abandoning cars. Many of us need to use cars. It's about providing much better opportunities, infrastructure and incentives for alternatives to driving including walking, biking, micromobility and public transit, as well as better options for remote work and urban housing.
Two transportation-related silver linings of the COVID-19 era are:
- Many cities quickly adapted to shelter-in-place orders by offering new mobility opportunities. Slow streets programs opened up roads for pedestrians and bicycles, while cities opened up parking spaces for outdoor dining, helping small businesses.
- Companies that can do so are making plans to embrace policies that could make remote work permanent for substantial portions of their workforce. For example, Salesforce announced last week its plan for flexible work schedules that offer some employees the opportunity to work entirely at home (wherever home happens to be).
The pandemic revealed the streets that we always needed.
Back in the day, Sadik-Khan helped then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg successfully remove cars from Times Square, and launched New York's bikeshare program, as Commissioner for the New York City Department of Transportation. Today, she advises mayors of cities around the world as a principal of Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consultancy created by the ex-mayor.
Now that, strangely enough, 2020 has primed cities to make choices about better streets for people (instead of just cars), 2021 is a prime opportunity to keep the momentum going by building back with lower-carbon transportation infrastructure. And that's not just about EV infrastructure. A lot of this work will be about creating better and more bike lanes, a major boost in funding for public transit (President Joe Biden is pledging $20 billion) and even encouraging city transportation incentive tools (such as congestion zones and tolls).
In the world of transportation, sometimes it's the non-tech ideas and solutions that could have a big effect on decarbonization.
Sadik-Khan is bullish about the newly appointed federal Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg. And you should be, too. She described him as "a secretary that looks at streets as more than moving cars." "This is going to be a new 'road order' and a new era," she said.
Sadik-Khan also explained why having a former mayor as DOT Secretary is "extremely important." "He understands what cities need," noting that mayors get in the weeds on budgets and community buy-in for new infrastructure projects. Buttigieg also just nominated another former NYC Commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, as his DOT Deputy Secretary.
While I spend a lot of my time reporting on the rise of electric vehicles, and the emergence of new climate-tech innovations, in the world of transportation sometimes it's the non-tech ideas and solutions that could have a big effect on decarbonization. Protected and expanded bike lanes are not a tech solution. Better-designed rapid bus routes are not a tech solution.
Sadik-Khan explained it like this:
The smart mobility innovation of this century is not going to be using tech to reduce traffic congestion. It's going to be about building a city where you don't have to drive in the first place.
At the Micromobility World event, I got to moderate a conversation focused on Scaling Unsung Climate Champions: 2-Wheelers (check out the video if you're interested); it featured transportation leader Dan Sperling and Formula E driver Lucas di Grassi, among others. What stuck out to me from this conversation is that transportation options such as micromobility are not widely seen as climate solutions compared to electric passenger vehicles. And really they should be.
Yes, I'm caught up in the excitement and idea that the internal combustion engine vehicle is finally being replaced by the electric car. But a whole other set of solutions — some not sexy and some controversial — will help continue to decarbonize transportation and help us move more off of a reliance on all types of cars, too.