By CHRISTIAN ROSELUND
Climate change is an issue that can no longer be ignored. We can already see its fingerprints in more damaging and more frequent hurricanes and other storms, one of many consequences, which will worsen as temperatures rise.
Narragansett Bay has already experienced an increase in invasive species as its water warms, and sea-level rise threatens many Ocean State communities.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in October was clear: To avoid potentially catastrophic temperature increases, we need to dramatically reduce emissions by 2030, and preferably sooner.
While Rhode Island is moving toward decarbonization of electricity under the Raimondo administration, there has been far less attention to decarbonization of the largest source of emissions in the United States: transportation.
Rhode Island has deployed three electric buses and is planning a rapid transit route in downtown Providence, but far more action needs to be taken. The task of decarbonizing transportation is huge, but some tasks and approaches are easier and more impactful than others.
Due to the historical built environment in the inner core of the Providence metro area, investments in bike, pedestrian, and mass transit infrastructure could be among the most effective means to rapidly reduce transportation emissions.
Pre- and post-automobile cities
The inner core of the Providence metro area is unlike many other urban areas. As Providence is one of the oldest cities in the United States, this area has an urban fabric more akin to European cities than Sunbelt cities such as Houston, Atlanta, or Los Angeles that grew rapidly after World War II.
Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls were built and incorporated well before the advent of the automobile, and for many generations residents of Providence and surrounding areas went about their daily lives on foot, by streetcar, and by other non-automotive means, including bicycles.
In fact, the populations of both Providence and Central Falls were larger in 1910 — before the widespread ownership of personal automobiles — than they are today. And yet these three cities remain the population center of the state, with more than one in four Rhode Island residents living in there.
The dense structure in these older cities is inherently more well suited to mobility based on bicycles, walking, and mass transit. Unfortunately, decades of prioritizing automobiles over other forms of transportation infrastructure, with the resulting scarring of the urban fabric, have left us with inadequate systems to make bicycling, walking, and mass transit effective and safe means of transportation.
This isn’t the case in many European cities. Cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen show that with the right infrastructure choices bicycling, walking, and mass transit can be the dominant means of transportation for most residents in 21st-century cities as well.
EVs alone may not deliver in time
The approach of the Raimondo administration and many of the conservationist nonprofits in Rhode Island has been to emphasize deployment of electric vehicles (EVs) to address transportation emissions. EVs will be a vital part of the decarbonization of transportation, particularly for suburban and rural areas where providing effective solutions for transportation by bicycles, walking, and public transit is inherently more difficult and expensive.
But this emphasis on EVs misses the other benefits of bikes, walking, and transit, including fewer deaths of children, and it alone may not deliver decarbonization on the timeline which is necessary for us to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
While some nations are setting deadlines for automakers to move entirely to EVs, it’s not clear how long it will be until EVs replace internal combustion engines in the new car market. Few analysts expect EVs to take over the market before 2030.
But replacement of EVs in the new car market doesn’t end transportation emissions from cars. Today the average car stays on the road for seven to nine years. That means when EVs become, say, 50 percent of the market, the remaining 50 percent of internal combustion engine cars can be expected to be around and emitting carbon dioxide for several more years.
It also will be difficult to make EVs available to low- and middle-income populations. Even though EVs are already cheaper than new internal combustion engine cars on a lifetime basis, for many Americans the purchase of an automobile is limited by upfront costs, and upfront costs for EVs are higher and may remain so for some time. When you add in the limited availability of used EVs, many Americans could still drive gas-powered cars for the foreseeable future.
As such, EVs on their own may not deliver the needed reductions in greenhouse gases in time, and it would be far wiser to deploy multiple strategies than relying on EVs alone to deliver the needed progress.
The coming (political) storm
It’s not a question of whether we as a society and Rhode Island as a state will take bold action on carbon emissions. It’s a matter of when. Sooner or later the choice to either limit emissions or doom ourselves and future generations will simply be too clear to avoid, and it will be politically impossible not to.
And as internal combustion engine automobiles are the largest source of transportation-related greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, we will have to limit their use.
When we do, there will be tremendous political fallout. The recent “yellow vest” protests in Paris over fuel taxes point to the kind of backlash that will likely happen when we limit usage of internal combustion engine cars.
To avoid this, one option which will likely be deployed is to provide incentives for low- and middle-income residents to buy EVs. For this to be effective on a condensed timescale, it could be massively expensive, which presents another political problem.
Because these will be such difficult problems, it’s imperative to also take action on other ways to reduce transportation emissions, including massively shifting priorities toward building expanded infrastructure for bicycles, pedestrians, and mass transit, and away from a focus on automobiles in dense urban areas.
One feature of note is that as the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority operates a fleet of buses, it will be easier to shift this over to electric models than it is for individual residents, as the state can access cheap capital for RIPTA and the agency isn’t as subject to being limited by upfront costs as individual consumers are.
There has been significant good will and vision by some Rhode Island cities, such as Providence, to shift transportation infrastructure choices to provide a larger place for pedestrians, bicycles, and mass transit, including Central Falls’ complete streets ordinance, the first in the state.
Unfortunately, many of the key roadways through Providence and Pawtucket aren’t owned by these cities. They are owned by the state of Rhode Island and controlled by Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT). And these include the largest gaps in existing bicycle infrastructure.
Additionally, our sole public transit agency is a state agency. Both factors mean that the point of responsibility for many of the actions that would allow us to create the necessary infrastructure is at the state level.
To date, the Raimondo administration has show limited vision regarding progressive transportation policies that would enable us to reduce emissions, and the position of RIDOT director Peter Alviti toward all forms of transportation infrastructure that aren’t automotive has been openly hostile.
We need a vision of transportation infrastructure investment that is very different from the one that we have today, and the Raimondo administration needs to change its ways and act decisively if it’s to lead on this issue.
The administration can continue to delay, but in the long run there will be no easy political choices for decarbonizing transportation. And as such, it’s imperative to act on the low-hanging fruit: bicycle, pedestrian, and mass transit infrastructure for cities.
This issue is not only unavoidable, but urgent. Tomorrow may be too late to start building the infrastructure that we need.
Providence resident Christian Roselund is bicycle commuter and an advocate for progressive transportation solutions.