A Modern Transportation System Should Move Marginalized Communities Forward
Transportation is a part of life. It connects us to work, school, the doctor, and our families and friends. But what we’re using to get us from point A to point B is dirty, outdated, and not working for everyone.
We can build a modern transportation system that’s efficient, affordable, accessible, and clean. And we can do it in a way that prioritizes people in the poorest and most polluted communities in the country.
Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the health, environmental, economic, and social problems with our transportation system. This is not only a public health and environmental issue, but it is also an economic and social issue where access to clean, affordable, reliable mobility options can expand job opportunities, education, and health and wellness, and improve quality of life.
That’s why Green for All recently launched our #FuelChange campaign to bring clean cars, trucks, and buses to communities overburdened by transportation pollution and underserved by transit options.
An opportunity in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic
Twelve states across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and the District of Columbia, convened by Georgetown’s Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), are working to design a regional carbon pricing program that would cut carbon emissions in the transportation sector and invest in modernizing our transportation system. The states announced in December that they would develop a regional cap-and-invest program by the end of 2019.
Green for All is informing this regional clean transportation program in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. We’re working with state and local racial justice, transit justice, income inequality, and frontline community groups to develop a set of policy recommendations that are rooted in addressing the needs of the most impacted communities. The details of the program will determine whether the price on carbon addresses the gap between privileged and marginalized groups.
Under a cap-and-invest model, states would set a strict limit or ‘cap’ on carbon emissions. They enforce this cap by requiring polluters to have permits, or allowances, relative to their carbon emissions. Polluters bid on these allowances through an auction, and states collect the proceeds from the sales, generating new funds for investments.
These investments can go to increasing electric vehicles, expanding and improving public transit, affordable housing near transit hubs, and walking and biking infrastructure. The program is estimated to raise between $3-6 billion a year regionally.
It’s a model that’s been used elsewhere — California has a cap-and-trade system and the electric sector is regulated by a cap-and-trade program in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Similar programs have reduced emissions, saved consumers money, and created jobs across the region as a whole. While many consider these programs a success, a closer look at the community level shows that not everyone benefits equally. We have the opportunity to learn from these lessons and make this system better.
A lesson learned
A carbon pricing mechanism is designed to accomplish one thing: reduce carbon emissions in the most cost-effective way possible. That narrow focus does not include a value for equity and the most impacted communities are still left behind. Without intentional consideration of equity, a price on carbon takes a larger percentage of paychecks from low-income earners and makes economic inequalities worse. When we value cost-effectiveness over all else, we risk leaving behind the most impacted communities.
When carbon pricing efforts pass without equity stakeholders at the table, it can exacerbate inequities, whether intentionally or unintentionally. States getting an influx of new funds with no strings attached has led to the money getting raided for general funds. When carbon pricing markets are designed with business-friendly ‘flexibilities’ like carbon offsets, the health benefits of reducing emissions aren’t seen in the communities who suffer from tailpipe pollution. Low-income communities and communities of color don’t have access to the economic incentives, including tax cuts, vouchers, and rebates that tend to go disproportionately to wealthier, whiter communities.
It’s valid that communities who have already been given the short end of the stick would be skeptical of the program. They deserve transparency, inclusion in the decision-making process, and some assurances the program will result in net positive environmental, health, and economic benefits. If state regulators want the support of these constituents, they should be prepared to set some ground rules to earn their trust.
Now’s the time to get it right
The good news is we can take the best practices and lessons learned from the carbon markets that have come before us. We can establish policy guardrails that shift systems of power to uplift those who have been historically marginalized, invest in community-led solutions, and create pathways out of poverty.
State officials participating in the Transportation Climate Initiative have recognized the need to address equity considerations as part of the program. What exactly that means is still an open question. Now is the time for groups who have skin in the game to tell our governors how we want to build a clean, equitable, affordable, and accessible transportation future.
Eleanor Fort leads Green For All’s clean transportation policy and advocacy work out of Boston, MA. She brings more than a decade of experience running campaigns to pass policies that build a sustainable and equitable future, and is an expert in clean transportation issues through an equity lens.
Previously, Eleanor was the Clean Vehicles Campaign Manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she supported progress on fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, and autonomous vehicles, and held automakers and the oil industry accountable for spreading misinformation, blocking progress, and producing polluting products.
Before working with scientists, she mobilized the businesses community to advocate for climate, energy, and transportation policies with Ceres through Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), a coalition of major consumer brands that believe tackling climate change is an economic opportunity. Eleanor also worked on clean water, open spaces, waste, and other environmental issues with Environment Massachusetts as a Preservation Advocate.
Her work throughout her career has sought to integrate environmental, social, and economic movements that directly serve the people who stand to benefit the most and intentionally work to reconcile disparities and privileges. She gained organizing skills as an alumna of Green Corps, a fellowship for grassroots environmental organizing, as well as working as a staff and volunteer for various city, state, and federal office political campaigns. She currently serves on the board of Alternatives for Community and Environment, a 25-year-old local environmental justice organization based in Roxbury, MA. Eleanor graduated from Vassar College where she studied political science and geography.