5 transportation trends to watch in 2021

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 14, 2021

When it comes to curbing the climate effects of transportation, 2021 is shaping up to be an eventful year at the federal, state and local levels.

Climate hawks are increasingly focused on slashing planet-warming emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States.

Top of mind for many is President-elect Joe Biden’s promise to scrap President Trump’s rollback of clean car standards and set ambitious new tailpipe rules.

On Capitol Hill, Congress is poised to consider an infrastructure bill that could juice investments in electric vehicle charging stations, public transit and high-speed rail.

And in cities across the country, bus and subway systems will attempt to recover from steep ridership drops during the pandemic, while local leaders will consider whether to grant more space to people instead of cars.

“Certainly, we’re going to see a pretty significant change when it comes to people promoting and regulating clean transportation compared to the last several years. That, I think, kind of goes without saying,” said Anup Bandivadekar, program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Here are five trends to track in 2021:

Biden sets clean car standards

In 2009, President Obama invited the CEOs of major automakers to the White House Rose Garden, where he unveiled the most significant climate rules ever established in the United States.

The first-ever clean car standards were expected to eliminate 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime, according to an archived press release from the Obama White House.

But Trump weakened the Obama-era standards with his Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule, which only required automakers to make minimal improvements in fuel efficiency.

The game of regulatory pingpong will continue after Biden takes office Wednesday. The former vice president is expected to direct EPA and the Department of Transportation to set aggressive new clean car rules that exceed the Obama-era requirements.

Many environmentalists hope the rules are so stringent that only electric vehicles can comply by 2035, effectively phasing out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars nationwide (Climatewire, Oct. 29, 2020).

“We hope that the regulatory approach is to go big,” said Bandivadekar.

Congress eyes infrastructure bill

On the Hill, Congress is expected to advance a green infrastructure bill that could be Democrats’ best shot at passing ambitious climate legislation.

After winning two Senate runoff races in Georgia, Democrats hold a slim 50-50 edge in the chamber, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaking vote.

But infrastructure has historically held broad bipartisan appeal, and 2021 will be no exception. Even Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, has voiced support for infrastructure spending.

“I think that support from Joe Manchin is going to be really important to getting anything done over the next several years, just because without Joe Manchin’s support, nothing will happen in the Congress,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank.

The House last year passed a massive green infrastructure package, H.R. 2, that included $100 billion for public transit and $75 billion for clean energy.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is set to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is planning to draft a similar measure that emphasizes climate change and other progressive priorities.

“Senator Carper wants to ensure we invest in our nation’s transportation system in a way that better connects and uplifts working families to economic opportunity and jobs, meets the demands of the worsening climate crisis and paves the way for a zero-emissions future for our nation’s transportation sector,” a Carper spokesman previously told E&E News (E&E Daily, Jan. 13).

States tackle tailpipe pollution

Beyond the federal government, a coalition of three states and the District of Columbia will flesh out plans to curb emissions from cars and trucks.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington signed an agreement last month to launch the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program, a proposed cap-and-invest system for the transportation sector in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic (Climatewire, Dec. 22, 2020).

TCI-P would set a cap on carbon emissions from the sector in participating states. The cap would get lower each year. Fuel suppliers would need to purchase credits to cover their carbon pollution, with the proceeds invested in clean transportation projects. At least 35% of the proceeds would be earmarked for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that have historically borne the brunt of such pollution.

The program is “the most significant step states have taken together to address climate change and public health in many years,” Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, told reporters last month.

TCI-P could be up and running as soon as Jan. 1, 2022. It’s unclear whether other Northeastern states, such as New York and Maine, will join before then.

Transit gets back on track

As the pandemic grips the nation, many Americans have avoided buses and subways for fear of infection.

The steep decline in ridership has left transit agencies from New York to Los Angeles strapped for cash and facing steep service cuts.

Congress intervened last month with an infusion of $14 billion for transit in the latest COVID-19 relief bill. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which serves the nation’s capital, has since abandoned plans for drastic cuts, including the elimination of weekend service.

Still, the $14 billion in the pandemic stimulus measure was less than half of the $32 billion requested by transit advocates, who warn that service reductions could resurface later this year if lawmakers don’t provide additional relief.

T.J. Doyle, a spokesman for the American Public Transportation Association, said in an email to E&E News: “Securing additional financial emergency support remains APTA’s first goal. Public transportation has served a vitally important role during this pandemic and is an indispensable part of the social and economic recovery of our communities and our country.”

Cities prioritize people, not cars

The pandemic has forced cities to rethink how they use street space — and whether it should belong to pedestrians and bicyclists instead of automobiles.

Since the virus began spreading in the U.S. last year, more than 60 cities have closed streets to vehicle traffic to allow for safe walking and biking, according to a running tally kept by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Oakland, Calif., has closed 74 miles of roadways, while Minneapolis has shut down more than 30 miles. The District of Columbia even experimented over the summer with “streateries,” a new term that describes outdoor dining in blocked-off streets and parking spots (Climatewire, July 8, 2020).

Bandivadekar of the International Council on Clean Transportation said it remains to be seen whether cities will continue to embrace these changes through 2021 and beyond.

“We are by no means out of the pandemic in 2021. So it’s hard for me to see that some of those things will be unwound in a hurry,” he said. “But in the long term, it’s a real question.”