With all eyes on President Biden’s Earth Day climate summit Thursday, it’s important to understand how his $2-trillion infrastructure plan proposes an unprecedented shift in federal spending away from highway expansion and toward public transit. The ripples from this historic shift in the land of urban freeways are already starting to be felt in Canada and around the world.
While the growth of electric vehicles garners much of the media attention, reducing car dependence is also essential. Moving to electric vehicles is of course an urgent climate action, but it’s insufficient on its own.
The New York Times correctly notes that this “transformation is necessary” given the climate emergency and that there are powerful forces pushing continued expansion of urban highways and neglect of public transit, walking and cycling. Transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S., the second largest in Canada, and among the fastest-growing globally.
Under the Trump administration, the federal government worked with groups funded by Koch Industries and other oil and gas interests to hobble public transit and boost highway boondoggles. Already under Biden the Federal Highway Administration has put a proposed $7-billion Texas freeway expansion on hold, citing concerns that the scheme would violate human rights through displacement and worsening air pollution in communities of colour.
This shift in U.S. policy is the result of a prolonged struggle by Black communities and human rights groups, climate justice groups like the Sunrise Movement, sustainable transportation groups such as Transport for America, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club. The new U.S. climate test, which emerged from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, recommends ensuring “infrastructure projects that require federal approval or receive significant federal funds or financing consider climate change . . . and identify and invest in all opportunities to avoid, minimize and mitigate climate impacts.”
This struggle will continue, and the outcome is far from certain.
Canada’s forgotten climate test
Canadian MPs endorsed a similar climate test almost five years ago, when the NDP and Greens helped pass Liberal MP Andy Fillmore’s private members’ motion M-45 calling for analysis of the greenhouse gas impact of infrastructure funding proposals and for funding reallocation to projects that reduce climate pollution. Then, in December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most of Canada’s premiers signed the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The framework has weaker language than M-45 but still commits the federal and provincial governments to “shift from higher to lower-emitting types of transportation, including through investing in infrastructure.” Examples include transitioning from driving to transit and cycling as well as using rail to move freight instead of trucks.
Canadian climate test commitments have been largely ignored by the federal and provincial governments as greenhouse gas pollution from transportation continues to climb in parallel with oil and gas.
In the U.S. and Canada, campaigners are pushing for federal intervention to stop state and provincial highway expansion projects. When the Department of Transportation put a $7-billion highway expansion in Texas on hold in March, it prompted numerous groups to file requests for similar action against highway expansion projects across the country.
In Canada, a growing coalition of residents, environmental organizations and municipalities are demanding a full federal environmental assessment of two new highways proposed in the Greater Toronto Area, Highway 413 (also known as GTA West) and the Holland Marsh Highway. In March, Toronto city council voted 19 to one to join a number of smaller municipalities in opposing the $6- to $10-billion Highway 413 and requesting a federal environmental review. According to the CBC, “Mississauga, Vaughan, Halton Hills, Halton Region and Orangeville have voted to oppose the highway, while Brampton, Caledon and Peel Region have voted to call for a federal environment assessment.”
Governments deny induced traffic
New highway capacity in and near urban areas just fills up with cars — if you add 10 per cent more capacity, you will get about 10 per cent more traffic (and 10 per cent more greenhouse gas pollution) and worse congestion. Urban highway expansion makes money for oil companies, car companies, and road construction companies — and makes getting around harder for ordinary people.
This is referred to as “induced traffic,” and the climate impacts are stark. For example, the Sightline Institute estimated that each extra lane-mile added would increase greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years.
The evidence for induced traffic and the resulting climate impacts is beyond doubt. But governments routinely ignore, downplay, misrepresent or outright lie about these consequences. Recently, expert witnesses in a court challenge testified that carbon pollution from England’s planned £27 billion of highway expansion projects would be about 100 times greater than what the government claims.
In Canada, governments often misrepresent the climate impacts of highway expansion. For example, Ontario’s Highway 413 website suggests that “congestion . . . creates carbon emissions” and falsely implies that this massive highway expansion would reduce these emissions. The NDP government in B.C. is even more blatant with their misinformation, routinely claiming that highway expansion projects reduce greenhouse gas pollution. For example, it claims that adding two-person “high occupancy” lanes to Highway 1 in the Fraser Valley will “reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Not to be outdone, the federal government claims that their highway expansion spending will “contribute to reductions in GHG emissions by addressing bottlenecks.”
One of the key messages that the U.S. sustainable transportation movement has been advancing for decades is “fix-it-first” — meaning that the maintenance and repair of existing highways, roads and other infrastructure should be prioritized above highway expansion. Biden’s infrastructure plan references the idea, but uses the term “fix it better,” a turn of phrase which has not yet been defined.
Investing in keeping roads and highways in good condition is crucial, but when pressured to shift away from expansion to maintenance, governments often attempt to disguise expansion as repair. In Canada and the U.S., getting true fix-it-first budgets will take a lot of pressure.
When you make a car lane into a bus lane, a protected bike lane or more space for pedestrians, people drive less and traffic “evaporates.” Even establishment sources like a recent OECD International Transport Forum report recognize the science of evaporating traffic and recommends that cities “use road space reallocation to proactively manage traffic” and reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
A decisive moment
Vancouver’s recently approved Climate Emergency Action Plan aims to reallocate at least 11 per cent of road space to reduce “vehicle ownership and kilometres travelled by vehicle.”
Other cities, including Amsterdam, Bogotá, and Seoul, are far ahead of Vancouver in reallocating road space and creating more pleasant urban spaces.
People also need to travel to and from smaller communities, as well as between cities. A high-quality public highway bus and passenger rail network is an essential element of any effective climate action strategy, not least because it would help bridge the urban-rural political divide.
This change in U.S. transportation policy didn’t happen spontaneously. Multiple groups had to come together to put transportation spending on the political agenda, and the same groups will have to push even harder to get the policy implemented.
Canada is arguably far better positioned than the U.S. to make a decisive shift away from highway expansion and car dependency towards a healthier and more diverse transportation system.
Canada’s transit ridership is closer to U.K. levels than the U.S.’s very low levels, Our MPs have already voted for a climate test for infrastructure, and Vancouver’s climate emergency plan is a powerful model.
The logical next step to make this shift a reality is for people and organizations from coast to coast to demand a full federal environmental assessment for Highway 413 and the Holland Marsh Highway in the Greater Toronto Area.