2021 will be a big year for the United States when it comes to kickstarting a domestic EV revolution. But next year also will provide major opportunities for companies, citizens and policymakers to make sure that there is a just transition to zero-emission vehicles and that the process of cleaning up transportation emissions is equitable.
Robert Bullard — commonly referred to as the father of environmental justice — said last week at the National E-Mobility Equity Conference that with the election of President-elect Joe Biden, "the world has changed. There are great opportunities to move policy toward just transportation."
Bullard, a professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, has been writing about transportation and racism for decades. He's written 18 books including "Highway Robbery: Transportation, Racism and New Routes to Equity" and "Just Transportation: Dismantling Race & Class Barriers to Mobility."
To Bullard, the disturbing fact that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities is just the latest injustice in a long history of America's systemic racism. And oftentimes transportation — from bridges to buses to highways — has been used as a tool to perpetuate inequity.
But Bullard urged attendees of the virtual conference to "be ready," as billions of dollars will be unleashed for infrastructure through the new administration. "This is not a time to be nice. We have turned out to vote and now it's time for the spigot to open, and we can unwrap and unravel this depression," Bullard said.
This is not a time to be nice. We have turned out to vote and now it's time for the spigot to open, and we can unwrap and unravel this depression.
The incoming Biden administration, indeed, has a unique opportunity to advance climate policies and tie them with social justice considerations. On Biden's transition website, the administration notes that it will "ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build — creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal."
Along with America's new leadership in the White House, companies are also increasingly embracing the intersection of social justice and climate. Apple recently pledged to invest $100 million into creating a Racial and Equity Justice Initiative (REJI), which Apple says it will use to transform systemic disempowerment into empowerment.
At our VERGE 20 conference last month, Apple Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives Lisa Jackson explained the intersection of equity and climate: "It all comes together because we know that the co-pollutants of CO2 from fossil fuel, and from the fossil fuel-burning power sector and transportation sectors, are all part of that justice equation." She also noted: "We've always said that climate change is an economic opportunity. How can we make sure that opportunity is spread equally?"
Alongside federal policy and corporations, cities also will play an important role in a movement to just transportation. For example, in the absence of federal leadership over the past four years, local leaders such as those in Austin, Texas, have stepped up and found creative ways to get aggressive and equitable transit programs approved. In the most recent election, Austinites for the first time approved Project Connect, a $7.1 billion plan to add 27 new miles of rail service, an expanded all-electric bus system and affordable housing along new routes.
Even with new federal support, mayors and grassroots leaders will continue to play a huge role in driving a just transportation movement. As transportation moves toward an electric, shared and autonomous future, it'll need to be equitably available to all, as well.