The all-EV approach won’t work

Transportation decarbonization also requires getting people out of cars

THERE’S A LOT of federal and municipal leadership in Massachusetts working hard to address the existential problem of global warming and the local public health crisis being caused by long-term exposure to particulate matter.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has taken swift action to move the Green New Deal from rhetoric to reality by signing a Fossil Fuel Divestment ordinance, initiating a two-year, fare-free bus pilot on three MBTA bus routes, and calling on other municipalities in the metro inner core to join Boston in this groundbreaking effort to transform the bus transit experience.

In Congress, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley have advanced sustainable mobility with their Freedom to Move Act, while House Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal has spearheaded federal efforts to provide states with net new funding to invest in critical transit and rail systems, including electrification of bus and rail equipment.

Collectively, these initiatives can help improve transit and rail service delivery in ways that encourage more people to use transit as a viable alternative to driving a personal vehicle stuck in chronic traffic congestion. This is a critical moment in the effort to reduce carbon emissions, as was made clear during the recent global COP26 conference. That is why it is so disappointing, and regrettable that Massachusetts has no credible plan to effectively reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

We’ve known for some time now that the transportation sector is the largest contributor to carbon emissions in Massachusetts.  This is a dubious distinction shared throughout the nation, where almost always the single largest contributor to the global warming crisis is the transportation system.  We’ve also known for quite some time why this is: the burning of fossil fuels by our light duty vehicles (passenger cars, SUVs, light trucks) and by other fossil fuel-powered transport systems (air travel and rail). There is no lack of clarity about this. Just look at the tailpipe of your personal vehicle and you can see the problem right there, magnified many thousand-fold by everyone else who is driving to destinations in Massachusetts.

You know me by now, and you know I am a strong advocate for the use of more sustainable transport modes like buses, subway and commuter rail trains, cycling, and walking.  I believe that the future of a stronger metro Boston depends in large part on government acting to encourage and facilitate more use of these modes.

That does not mean I wish to engage in a “war on cars” – far from it.  I own and drive a car and have done so since I was able to get a driver’s license. There’s no escaping the reality of our current built environment, which was designed and constructed in the last century and which remains with us today as a legacy of that fading auto-centric era. Reducing transport sector carbon emissions doesn’t require a war on cars; it requires acting deliberately, through strategic equipment and infrastructure investments, new service delivery models, and new fare policies to provide more people with the access and mobility they need via transit, rail, cycling, and walking.

Few doubt the urgent necessity of reducing transport sector carbon emissions. The question is: how?  Political leaders often seek paths of least resistance, as they often hold political popularity in higher esteem than political courage. This path has been paved by hopes that we can reduce vehicular carbon emissions to zero by moving everyone to all-electric vehicles by 2050. Let me explain.

Massachusetts has set a laudable goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.  Last December, Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, issued an interim Clean Energy Climate Plan for 2030, which attempted to set 2030 milestones for the state to achieve on its way to a net-zero 2050. I expressed concern at the time, in a letter responding to the secretary’s request for input, that the plan’s near-exclusive reliance on the transition of the Massachusetts light duty passenger vehicle fleet to electric vehicles was unrealistic, unachievable, and inequitable.

The interim plan and the transportation sector technical report that informed its transport sector recommendations rely on the widespread adoption of electric vehicles to the effective exclusion of other approaches, including mode shift (shifting some people from cars to transit or rail).

There are many problems with an “all-EV” approach to transport sector decarbonization, not least that it ignores the time value of carbon emissions. It has been shown conclusively that because emissions are cumulative in nature, and because there is a short window of time to reduce them (as was underscored at the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow), carbon reductions achievable in the short term have more value than carbon emissions projected for the long term. Thus, under any circumstances, a Massachusetts decarbonization plan must be rooted in short-, medium- and long-term actions that Massachusetts can take and control. Massachusetts can act in the short term on travel demand reduction strategies that can have a measurable impact on emissions reduction while the Commonwealth advances a long-term EV strategy.

The problem is this: current state transportation policies are literally driving people to drive more, and those people are driving vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Let’s look at the facts.

The governor’s recent abdication of a carbon assessment on the wholesale price of gasoline, the so-called TCI (Transportation Climate Initiative) program, means that we have walked away from one potentially effective way to use pricing to encourage mode shift.  This rejection of pricing as a tool is in keeping with the governor’s prior veto of a plan to undertake a road pricing pilot, using a federally funded and supported value pricing program.

The governor’s objection to road pricing is particularly vexing because it is totally inconsistent with his plan to move everyone to an electric vehicle.  Think about it: if we successfully move everyone to an EV, as the governor’s plan currently proposes, then state gas tax revenues are reduced to zero. That blows a huge annual hole (over $800 million) in our state transportation budget.  What’s the plan to replace this funding? There is none.

The failure to effectively address transport sector carbon emissions reductions is equally apparent in the state’s deliberate decision to ignore the MBTA’s chronic operating budget crisis, a crisis exacerbated by its heavy reliance on fare revenue as a major source of that budget. This is both a legislative and gubernatorial failure.

Fares make up roughly one third of the T’s operating budget, and if we have learned anything over recent years it is that fare revenues are highly unstable. Fares are successful at one thing: suppressing ridership.  When former Boston mayor Kim Janey initiated a free bus fare pilot on the 28 bus, ridership shot up by about 30 percent.  You read that right – 30 percent. Similar ridership increases have been experienced in Worcester and Lawrence after they, too, instituted fare-free bus programs.

The data here is consistent and clear: fares, an unstable revenue source, also suppress ridership at a time when we should be looking to increase post-COVID ridership across the system. More riders mean more people able to access jobs, healthcare, school, and other destinations. More riders can also mean fewer carbon emissions if there is even a modest amount of mode shift away from driving.

Taking more aggressive steps to provide more frequent service all day long is another short-term measure than can boost ridership and encourage mode shift.  Not everyone has the privilege of working from home or having flexible work hours, but for those who do, more frequent service delivery can provide the freedom and flexibility they need to choose transit or rail over driving.  This is particularly true for commuter rail, where the T has made a laudable effort to move to 60-minute frequencies. The next step should be to introduce 30-minute frequencies across the system, on as many routes as possible.

We’ve seen ridership across all MBTA modes rise to reach levels approaching the T’s most optimistic scenario for ridership return – and this is happening without any significant interventions or policy changes by the state. Imagine how ridership could increase with state-sanctioned interventions and policies designed specifically to reduce fares and improve service frequencies. That’s not just good for the T, it is critically important in the struggle to reduce carbon emissions.

But we aren’t doing any of these things. The administration isn’t candidly dealing with the underlying causes of the T’s unstable operating budget.  It walked away from TCI. It isn’t taking a serious look at road pricing. Instead, the administration’s carbon reduction plan places all its bets on the hope that every driver in Massachusetts will own an EV by 2050 – and that 1 million cars in Massachusetts will be all electric by 2030 – without a realistic assessment of what it will take to achieve those ambitious goals, including whether and how we will make this transition equitable for all state residents.

Decarbonization equity isn’t something you hear a lot about, but it needs to be front and center in the policy discussion. In order to achieve a transition to all EVs, the state anticipates having to dole out massive public subsidies to auto owners. These subsidies will go, especially in the early years, to largely white, wealthy suburban commuters. What’s the comprehensive plan to ensure decarbonization equity?  There is none.  Also, what’s the plan for charging electric vehicles owned by people who live in communities like East Boston, mostly triple deckers without driveways or garages?  How will that work?  Again, there’s no state plan.

Massachusetts in 2021 deserves better than a carbon reduction plan that remains unrealistic, inequitable and incomplete. And Massachusetts needs a carbon emissions reduction plan that takes into account the public health impacts of long-term exposure to particulate matter, the stuff that comes from brake pads and tire friction.

Recent studies have shown that airborne particulates are causing significant health threats to people living in inner core communities, and this form of air pollution does not disappear with electric vehicles. Massachusetts cannot decarbonize by turning a blind eye to the negative public health impacts of an auto-centric metro Boston powered by electric vehicles.  EVs are one answer to carbon emissions but they come freighted with their own bundle of negative externalities that we ignore at our peril.

Reducing carbon emissions equitably isn’t easy. It requires political leaders to take decisive action in the short term, to effectively communicate the importance of thinking and acting differently about finite resources like urban streetscapes, to invest in equipment and resources that combine to encourage mode shift to transit, cycling, and walking for as many people as possible.

Meet the Author

Not everyone will be able to avoid driving. Achieving climate change goals doesn’t require a declaration of war on cars. It requires a declaration of stepped-up support for and investment in more sustainable mobility for more people. It requires a commitment to decarbonization equity. It requires, in short, a lot more than we are doing, and time is not on our side.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a TransitMatters board member.