Less driving = better lives
As traffic picks up, we need to encourage other ways to get around
WARM WEATHER, open storefronts, and one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates have given many the feeling that life is returning to normal here in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, going back to business-as-usual also means getting back to the same—or worse —amount of sitting in traffic. Boston has some of the country’s worst traffic levels in the country, and we are already exceeding pre-pandemic levels in some parts of the city. Rather than return to the status quo, we can and must reimagine what a transportation system that protects people and the climate could look like for Massachusetts.
Traffic doesn’t just make us late to work or short of temper—it can also make us short of breath. Too many cars and trucks on the road means dirtier air and more dangerous streets, especially for those without a car. On top of deadly air pollution, hundreds of people die in vehicle crashes in the Commonwealth every year, while thousands more are left severely injured.
Our transportation system causes pain, both personal and planetary. Transportation is now the number one source of greenhouse gas emission in Massachusetts. Unless we change the way Bay Staters get around, we will not be able to begin to tackle the climate crisis nor improve the safety of the roads running through our communities.
The current federal infrastructure discussion has the potential to transform our transportation network both in Massachusetts and across the country. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan presents us with a roadmap to leave our state’s history of car-centric transportation infrastructure investments in the rearview mirror and invest in healthier and more sustainable ways to get around. The reauthorization of the long-term transportation spending plan, which just passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with unanimous bipartisan support, makes some necessary progress on safety, climate emissions, and walking and biking, although it preserves our car-centric status quo in many ways and can be improved.
But it’s not enough to simply decrease the amount people drive. We need to pair this with an effort to improve safety and accessibility for all travelers so that alternatives to driving can truly thrive. In our initial consideration of the surface transportation reauthorization bill in the Senate, we were able to pass a bipartisan amendment that would provide $1 billion to connect active transportation routes—trails, walking paths, and more—into a comprehensive system that allows individuals of all ages and abilities to reach their destinations within and between communities. But we must now build on that amendment and keep promoting safer, more equitable, and more climate positive infrastructure as this debate continues.As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot return to the transportation status quo in Massachusetts, which included rising air pollution, dangerous and pothole-filled roads, and nation-topping traffic congestion—especially as the link between COVID-19 cases and poor air quality shows the dangers of ignoring mobile pollution sources. Instead, we need more decision-makers in Washington to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to create policies that will transform transportation here in Massachusetts and beyond. By providing clean, healthy and safe alternatives to personal car travel, we can create a new “normal” in which the easiest, cheapest, and most pleasant ways to get around don’t involve being stuck behind the steering wheel.
Ed Markey is a senator from Massachusetts and John Stout is the MassPIRG transportation advocate.