New Biden-Harris Blueprint for Decarbonizing Transportation

ASLA 2022 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Shirley Chisholm State Park. Brooklyn, New York. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Lexi Van Valkenburgh

The Biden-Harris administration has released the U.S.’s first comprehensive blueprint for decarbonizing the transportation sector. To reach the administration’s goal of a net-zero economy by 2050, nearly all greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for a third of total emissions, will need to be eliminated. The plan will leverage funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act and be jointly implemented by the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The blueprint calls for “improving community design and land-use planning” in order reduce emissions — areas that landscape architects identified as key priorities in the recently released ASLA Climate Action Plan and Field Guide to Climate Action.

The plan focuses on the carbon, health, and equity benefits of denser development connected by safer and more accessible sidewalks, bike lanes and trails, and public transit.

ASLA 2022 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Midtown Park. Houston, Texas. Design Workshop, Inc. / Brandon Huttenlocher – Design Workshop, Inc.

“More compact cities and towns with a mix of commercial, residential, and civic uses close to each other reduce the distances between where people live, work, and recreate, which makes active modes of transportation and transit even more viable and allows people to spend less time sitting in traffic,” the plan states.

Other priorities of landscape architects that are included: equitable transit-oriented development, affordable housing, and leveraging rights of way (ROWs) for climate benefits. The blueprint specifically calls for enabling federal, state, and tribal ROWs to be used for renewable energy generation, energy transmission infrastructure, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and stormwater management.

In addition to reducing emissions through the design of communities and transportation systems, the blueprint calls for building out electric vehicle (EV) networks and swapping out fossil fuel vehicles for EVs, with the goal of half of all vehicles being zero emission by 2030, which will also yield real economic and health benefits.

At the Transportation Research Board (TRB) 2023 Annual Meeting, Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, zoomed in on the EV part of the story.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved electric vehicle infrastructure deployment plans submitted by all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. These plans will leverage $5 billion to build EV chargers every 50 miles along 75,000 miles of U.S. highways, creating the backbone of a new national network.

An additional $2.5 billion in grants will be provided to spread EV chargers more equitably through both urban and rural communities.

“We can use these funds to put chargers in front of multi-family housing developments in low-income communities,” Buttigieg said. “And rural drivers need to cover larger distances, which means they can get even better gas savings. Most rural people live in single-family homes, so they can charge their vehicles at home. We want to meet people where they are.” (What he didn’t mention is EV chargers can also be co-located next to public parks, like Canal Park in Washington, D.C.)

Canal Park, Washington, D.C. / © OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

At TRB, Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy, also highlighted the cost savings EVs can provide all Americans. “To charge an EV — to ‘fill it up’ for a 300-mile range — costs about $12. In comparison, filling up a gas tank averages $49. That saves more than $35 every time. If you are filling up your tank once or twice a month, that’s huge savings.”

In addition to making EV chargers more accessible, the administration is focused on reducing the cost of EVs overall.

“With new incentives, drivers can save $7,500 on a new EV at dealerships. So a $25,000 Chevy Volt becomes a $17,500 vehicle.” There are also $4,000 in incentives for used EVs.

The administration is also investing in electric public transit, with the goal of zero emission buses, light rail, subways, and trains. “This will mean healthier air and cost savings for communities,” Buttigieg said.

New policies are designed to ensure more of the net-zero transformation is home-grown. “We are also focused on the supply-side with new manufacturing and industrial policies that will put more people to work,” Granholm said.

The U.S. has seen more than 75 EV battery companies set up shop in the U.S. With new incentives, they are moving into EV battery manufacturing and processing critical rare earth metals. “We will rely on China and other countries less because of these policies.”

The administration is expecting energy demand to increase with more EVs. One potential strategy is to leverage the batteries of millions of parked, plugged-in EVs to supply energy back to the grid. EV batteries could increase the resilience of the energy grid by providing an additional distributed power supply, forming virtual power plants. “There are virtual power plant pilots, and utilities are super interested.”

Still, to meet increased demand and climate goals, an additional 25 gigawatts of renewable energy must be added to the grid in coming years. This new energy is needed to ensure “those EVs aren’t powered by coal-based electricity.”

New utility-scale solar and wind power plants mean more opportunities for landscape architects and planners to better integrate facilities into communities, reducing scenic impacts, and ensuring they support pollinators and ecological restoration efforts. Transmission lines also need to be sited in consideration of existing scenic, cultural, and ecological assets.

Purdue solar headquarters / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis

Buttigieg argued that the country is shifting to renewable energy and EVs, and this transformation can’t be stopped. The Biden-Harris administration has been trying to further optimize this shift, focusing on: “Will this transformation happen fast enough to address the climate crisis? Will this transformation be made in America? Will the benefits be distributed equitably?”

Above all, Buttigieg and Granholm see the climate and infrastructure investments as significant economic development opportunities. Improving communities and building new transportation, energy, and EV infrastructure will lead to “good paying jobs.”

And equity remains a core focus. For example, companies that build renewable energy facilities in underserved communities, including legacy fossil fuel communities, can receive up to 60 percent off their taxes. “Through the IRA and infrastructure act, we can structurally correct structural inequities.”

Landscape architects can help local governments and communities fully connect the dots with these funds, so that renewable energy and EV investments can be a driver of denser, healthier, and more multi-modal communities.

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