Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change is going to require major changes. For transportation, it will require a reduction in transportation modes that burn fossil fuels.
While transitioning to electric vehicles is often highlighted, especially in Michigan, the more effective change is increasing the number of people traveling by bicycle (or e-bike), in public transportation, or on foot. The way to do that is to make these modes easier, safer, less expensive, and prioritized (i.e. faster). Complete Streets and trails must play a major role.
Addressing Climate Change is an opportunity to accelerate our work. It’s also an opportunity to mitigate the effects of a changing climate by managing increased stormwater runoff and reducing urban heat islands.
So what are we doing?
Council for Climate Solutions
In September of 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Directives to create the MI Healthy Climate Plan that puts Michigan “on a path towards becoming fully carbon-neutral by 2050.”
The Council on Climate Solutions was formed to develop recommendations for this plan. We served on the Council’s Transportation and Mobility workgroup, which had two main focus areas: transitioning to clean vehicles and reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). We worked primarily on the latter with partners at the Michigan Environmental Council and Transportation Riders United (TRU).
During this work, we also helped get Transportation for America on the Council’s agenda to talk about the necessity of reducing VMT.
In October 2021, the Transportation and Mobility Workgroup Recommendations were presented to the Council.
Recommendations to Council
Our goal was to develop recommendations that could be realistically implemented and produce real results — getting more people biking, walking, and using public transit. So while a carbon tax on fossil fuels is the most obvious and simple solution, we knew that would not get through the legislature or administration.
We also learned that reducing VMT is seen as a negative by MDOT. Their 2045 Transportation Plan associates reduced VMT with a stagnant economy. To avoid this, we proposed following Colorado DOT’s lead and implement GHG emission budgets for road agencies. This would discourage road widenings (which increase VMT) and encourage road agencies to support Complete Streets and public transit. It could be enforced through road funding, so it had teeth.
Another recommendation was a statewide Safe Systems approach to improve safety for bicycling and walking. We argued that safety is one major reason why more people don’t choose these greener travel modes. While this was not among the top-5 recommendations, it will be required by the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure bill.
Another recommendation we’d pitched was changing Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding priorities. This could be a major funding source for better biking and walking, but instead groups like SEMCOG have prioritized reducing motor vehicle delay which can induce more VMT. Or, in some cases, it has led to reducing walkability by removing crosswalks and delaying pedestrians by requiring that they press a button to get a Walk signal. This also was not a top 5 recommendation.
As expected, many of the recommendations focused on transitioning fossil fueld vehicles to electric in order to largely keep the transportation status quo and prioritize Michigan’s automotive industry. The recommendations ignored the additional greenhouse gas emissions created by manufacturing EVs. However, we did manage to get electric bikes included when it came to incentizing electric vehicle purchases.
City of Detroit
The City of Detroit has also been taking major steps to reduce greenhouse emissions:
- Mayor Mike Duggan joined the Climate Mayors Coalition in 2017 as well as its Steering Committee. Duggan has also committed to Paris Climate Agreement.
- City Council adopted a greenhouse gas ordinance that commits the City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from city operations by 35% by the year 2024 and 100% by the year 2050
- The Office of Sustainability developed the Sustainability Action Agenda which includes the goal of reducing municipal and citywide greenhouse gas emissions.
- The Office has also begun work on the Detroit Climate Strategy that will “lead to major reductions in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
Of course, the city’s investments in public transit, biking, and walking will also reduce VMT and emissions.
- Council on Climate Solutions, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy
- Detroit Climate Action Plan, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice
- Detroit Climate Strategy, City of Detroit
- Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda, City of Detroit
- Detroit Transportation Emissions, Google Insights
- Driving Down Emissions, Transportation for America
- U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization: A Joint Strategy to Transform Transportation
- Analysis: Bay State’s EV Rebate Program Overwhelmingly Benefits Wealthy Suburbanites, Streetsblog, February 2021
- Governor Whitmer Announces Bold Action to Protect Public Health and Create Clean Energy Jobs by Making Michigan Carbon-Neutral by 2050, Governor’s Office, September 2020
- The environmental impact of today’s transport types, TNMT
- 2021 City Clean Energy Scorecard, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
- Transportation Planning for People & The Climate, RE-AMP Network
- There’s an affordable EV out there displacing twice as much oil as electric cars, Electrek, September 2023
- Electric bikes are creating a new economy in Detroit, Bridge Detroit, January 2023
- Low-Carbon Transportation Means More than Electric Vehicles Alone, ACEEE, November 2022
- Protected Bike Lanes Protect the Climate, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, October 2022
- How Fast-Growing Colorado Is Tackling Its Transportation Emissions, Rocky Mountain Institute, June 2022
- We need to redesign cities to tackle climate change, IPCC says, Fast Company, April 2022
- Electric cars vs. fewer cars?, Planet Detroit, October 2021
- How to end the American obsession with driving, Vox, September 2021
- We Are Going to Need a Lot More Electric Delivery Bikes, Citylab, September 2021
- Our Driving Habits Must Be Part of the Climate Conversation, Rocky Mountain Institute, August 2021
- Less funding for road expansion, billions for greener transportation projects possible with CDOT rule change, Colorado Public Radio, December 2021
- A Proposed Rule Would Target Colorado’s Polluting Road Projects, Colorado Public Radio, August 2021
- Opinion: Climate change has hit home. What’s government going to do about it?, Detroit Free Press, August 2021
- The climate change mitigation effects of daily active travel in cities, ScienceDirect, April 2021
- Cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities, The Conversation, March 2021
- New study shows converting to electric vehicles alone won’t meet climate targets, University of Toronto, September 2020
- What If We Kept Our Cars Parked for Trips Less Than One Mile?, EPA, June 2015
- The Efficiency Dilemmna, The New Yorker, December 2010