Living Up to the Potential of Clean Transportation

17 Apr

Transportation accounts for a sizable share of our carbon output. In 2006 almost a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from the movement of goods and people. As we continue to tackle the task of curbing emissions from this unwieldy and varied sector of the economy, local governments and policymakers are devising techniques to integrate clean transportation investment into larger sustainability and economic development goals. Everyone seems to agree that we need to invest in improved (and more sustainable) transportation infrastructure, but a coherent transportation investment strategy that serves as a driver for economic development still seems to allude us.

Studies have shown that the clean transportation sector holds promise as a driver of economic development. For California in particular, the statistics are looking pretty good. The clean transportation sector leads in research and development employment in the Golden State’s green economy, accounting for 34% of total employment among seven sectors. In addition, employment in clean transport was one of the few growth sectors in the state economy during the downturn. The future holds even more promise with the pioneering efforts of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and L.A. Metro to leverage procurement of transit equipment to expand high-quality jobs and manufacturing in the U.S.

Leveraging investments in clean transportation to drive economic development holds promise, but there are also significant hurdles. Chief among them is the lack of federal funding to build, rehabilitate, and reimagine our aging transportation network. As we noted back in September, the lack of federal dollars has led to a patchwork of local initiatives (financed primarily through sales tax increases) to fund clean transportation improvements. These projects tend to be narrowly crafted and, in most cases, they aren’t explicitly tied back to economic development goals.

As cities and regions document the effects of increased investment in transit, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure, it is becoming clear that these projects typically create economic benefits. Unfortunately, these benefits do not always accrue equitably. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements may have the unintended consequence of accelerating gentrification. And, in some cases, new transit-oriented development projects  push out the transit-dependent populations that would benefit most from new bus and rail investments.

For the most part, we can agree that investing in clean transportation is a sound policy decision. However, the strategic framework that guides these investments must ensure that the economic development outcomes are both sustainable and equitable.

While investments in clean transportation have proven to have economic benefits, they aren’t usually tied to explicit economic development goals.  It is that type of focused, intentional strategy that is necessary to truly create sustainable economic development.

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