The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated there is a “rapidly closing window of opportunity” to “secure a livable and sustainable future” for ourselves and future generations. The current and future effects of climate change illustrate that climate change solutions are urgent and need to provide more than a “Band-Aid” fix. Rather than merely treating the symptoms of our society’s disregard for the environment, we must address the root cause of climate change and enact immediate, thorough, long-lasting solutions that decarbonize our society while also considering environmental justice communities. Climate change solutions must be comprehensive and analyze how communities were developed to prioritize the various elements of our modern society that have been a catalyst for climate change. The next step is then to work backward to undo the structure of our modern societies that is responsible for the continued damage to our planet; akin to removing a cancerous tumor rather than merely slowing the progression of the disease. It should be emphasized that the undoing of the car-centric nature of our society is not only crucial to stopping the progression of climate change, but it must be done in such a way that undoes the de facto legitimization of our car-centric society within the American legal system.
This article will use a case study of the Bronx to demonstrate the need for deep decarbonization and to show how community-level analysis of impacts is needed to implement deep decarbonization in a just and effective manner. Leading decarbonization policies focused on reducing emissions from transportation seek to incentivize and even mandate battery electric vehicles (EVs) to allow for personal transportation that does not pollute the environment with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Though this strategy is forward-looking, it does not analyze the mistakes made in creating a car-centric infrastructure in the first place which has caused countless harmful effects to communities and will continue to harm them even after the switch to EVs.
In 2019, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA or Climate Act) into law, which is New York State’s primary legal tool for combating climate change. The act requires the State of New York to reduce GHGs by 40 percent by the end of the decade and no less than 85 percent by 2050 (from 1990 levels). The CLCPA’s transportation strategy, the focus of this article, addresses the goals of the Climate Act by acting through the transportation sector.
Beginning with the theme of “transitioning to ZEVs and equipment,” there are two distinct approaches: 1. adopt zero-emission light-duty vehicles; and 2. adopt zero-emission trucks, busses, and non-road equipment. To achieve the first approach, New York will primarily use mandates to ban the sale of new, non-confirming vehicles (gas-powered) by 2035. Interestingly, the action plan acknowledges that this particular plan requires consumers to make the purchase decision themselves and suggests that the state use incentives and other measures to make the purchase desirable to consumers, especially those who are in low to moderate-income (LMI) communities. There is additional supportive language about the incentive program for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), which has the goal of achieving price parity with traditional gas-powered cars. The “feebate” program would impose a fee on fossil fuel vehicles and use those funds to provide rebates on ZEVs. The working group has acknowledged the impact on LMI communities and has suggested the state could exempt LMI consumers from the fossil fuel fee and increase the ZEV rebate they would receive. There are also suggestions for expanding the availability of ZEV charging stations with specific language about prioritizing disadvantaged (LMI) communities to aid in ZEV purchasing.
For residents of the Bronx, the transportation strategy presented by the CLCPA would mean a continued reliance on car-centric infrastructure. The first apparent issue is that this approach to encouraging ZEVs leaves communities like the Bronx with an unfair economic burden. The U.S. Census Bureau maintains a “QuickFacts” page with statistics from the previous five years, such as income, for communities with more than 5,000 people. For the five-year span between 2016 to 2020, the median household income for Bronx County (coextensive with the borough) in 2020 dollars was $41,895 and the per capita income in that same period was $22,749. EVs when purchased new are on average more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts. A July 2022 report from Kelley Blue Book (KBB) stated that the average cost of a new electric car in June 2022 was $66,997 with the average full-size car selling for $44,632. There are rebates available for a new car purchase, but the amount varies widely depending on the model. The federal tax rebate of $7,500 is only available for EVs under $55,000, unless they are SUVs, vans, or pickup trucks in which case the cutoff is raised to $80,000. At the New York State level, the rebate is only $2,000 and that is for vehicles with a 200+ mile range and a MSRP of under $42,000. Despite the efforts made to increase affordability, an electric car is still very much an expensive purchase for low-to-moderate-income residents of the Bronx.
The strategy for enhancing public transportation is not directly harmful to Bronx residents and other environmental justice communities, but it does not contain any specific language for how the Climate Act will fix New York’s public transportation. For example, one component of the strategy states that the state “should” work with communities and transit service providers to design and implement strategies that increase the utilization of public transportation alternatives to personal cars. Much more needs to be done to improve public transportation in New York, especially if these improvements are intended to make significant progress toward a sustainable future and healthy environment. In May of 2014, the New York City Department of City Planning (Planning Department) published a report about sustainable communities and transit-oriented development in the Bronx. The report notes that early population growth in the Bronx was tied to transportation access from railway lines, but gradually grew around subway stations as they began to develop. Today, much of the population density is found near mass transit access points, and mass transit is relied upon heavily for commuting as 90 percent of Bronx residents work in New York City or Westchester County. The section regarding transit use in the Bronx primarily focused on the utilization of the Metro-North Railroad (MNR). MNR stations in some of the most densely populated areas of the Bronx have some of the lowest ridership, and the Planning Department identified several reasons to blame such as price, service/frequency, difficult connections, lack of surrounding amenities, and cost. The report noted that the MNR in the Bronx represents untapped potential as the borough is set to experience population and economic growth in the coming decades, which echoes the concerns of the Climate Justice Working Group. Electric cars are one option for climate-friendly transportation strategies, but they must not be the only option for investment, especially if there are communities that would benefit from additional public transportation options.
Aside from the specific consequences of the above-mentioned plans, there are other issues that will remain. Even if the adoption of EVs is a success and does not burden environmental justice communities, the Bronx will remain divided by its various highways. There will still be under-funded mass transit systems, and limited green spaces for the borough’s most vulnerable residents to utilize during the hot summers to come. The best solution for the Bronx is one that takes the threat of climate change seriously by limiting the warming of our climate to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is recommended by the IPCC. Of course, the city and State of New York’s efforts cannot singlehandedly prevent the progression of climate change worldwide, but they can act in concert as role models for countries, states, and cities to follow.