If cities really want to fight climate change, they have to fight cars

This story was originally published by Slate and republished in Grist.

On June 1, the U.S. Climate Mayors — a network of more than 300 city leaders, including the mayors of the country’s five largest cities — published a commitment to “adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement.” The cities would carry out the promises Donald Trump had abandoned.

I have bad news for this feel-good caucus. Want to fight climate change? You have to fight cars. In the nation’s largest cities, cars account for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Nationally, transportation is now the single largest contributor to carbon emissions.

And it gets worse, at least from a political perspective. Mayors can fund transit, build bus and bike lanes, end free parking, and reform building codes that require it. (Though they mostly don’t.) But ultimately, the only way to combat American automobile dependency is to reform the way we build, and in particular, to help avoid low-density settlement patterns that make it impractical or impossible for Americans to get anywhere without a personal car.

Berkeley, California, is a great case study. More than 90 percent of voters there picked Hillary Clinton in November, and Jill Stein outperformed Donald Trump. If there’s an American polity with more evident devotion to fighting climate change, I don’t know where. The town is home to the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mayor Jesse Arreguin has promised to introduce a bill to bind the city to the commitments of the Paris Agreement.

But even in Berkeley, liberals have a blind spot when it comes to housing policy and the transportation choices it requires. As a councilman in 2014, Arreguin pushed a ballot measure putting super-strict conditions on new development. It failed, but his elevation to mayor in November was seen as a reproach of his opponent Laurie Capitelli’s pro-development record. 

…The fewer people live in Berkeley and other job-rich, close-in Bay Area cities and suburbs, the more people have to drive. More than half of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cars and trucks.

The city’s 2009 Climate Action Plan got it. Reducing vehicle miles traveled is “imperative,” it says. “The most effective strategy for reducing VMT in the long-term is to site new housing near transit.” It notes that between 1999 and 2006, the city failed to meet the target housing production set by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA. Between 2007 and 2014, the city built about half what the RHNA called for. Yes, that period coincided with a major recession. But Berkeley still lags behind the eight-county Bay Area’s RHNA goal rate of 57 percent.

That plan also passed the buck: “While Berkeley should continue to build more housing, greater emphasis should also be placed on other transit-rich communities that have not met their RHNA goals for accommodating the region’s growth.”

It’s not wrong. In some ways, it is unfair to single out Berkeley. There are many, many worse actors in the Bay, especially the job-rich, house-poor suburbs of Silicon Valley. Nearly every single city that considers itself a beacon of environmental progressivism has parking minimums, among a host of other policies that perpetuate the status quo.

Corporate actors are hapless: Apple, which is pledging to spend a billion dollars fighting climate change, just built a headquarters with 11,000 parking spaces that condemns its workforce to decades of car commutes.

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