Take the Next Exit: Getting to Decarbonized, Equitable Transportation

Elec­tric vehi­cles (EVs) are going from zero to six­ty, as this Depart­ment of Ener­gy report on EV infra­struc­ture trends shows. This increased inter­est is spurred by chang­ing con­sumer pref­er­ences, recent state poli­cies (such as zero-emis­sion vehi­cle man­dates for sales in Cal­i­for­nia and New York), and fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion (such as the 2021 Infra­struc­ture Law and 2022 Infla­tion Reduc­tion Act (IRA)). With EV invest­ment accel­er­at­ing, it is time to con­sid­er what a just tran­si­tion to a decar­bonized trans­porta­tion sec­tor looks like.

As with the ener­gy sec­tor, there are fears that this shift could neg­a­tive­ly affect work­ers, and calls to ensure that EV and clean ener­gy jobs are good jobs. Unit­ed Autowork­ers mem­bers recent­ly explained that they are con­cerned that automak­ers will take advan­tage of the EV tran­si­tion to de-union­ize auto man­u­fac­tur­ing and dri­ve down work­place stan­dards.”

There are some options to address this. For exam­ple, Illi­nois Attor­ney Gen­er­al Kwame Raoul recent­ly recov­ered over $700,000 in unpaid wages for work­ers hired by sub­con­trac­tors to build an EV pro­duc­tion line at a Riv­ian Auto­mo­tive Inc. plant. An Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute report pro­pos­es that any tax­pay­er sub­si­dies for EVs should come attached with spe­cif­ic require­ments on labor stan­dards in the indus­try, and with mea­sures to boost” domes­tic pro­duc­tion. The IRA includes sev­er­al EV tax incen­tives that could pro­vide labor safe­guards by incen­tiviz­ing busi­ness­es to pay work­ers pre­vail­ing wages, uti­lize appren­tice­ship pro­grams, and source mate­ri­als domes­ti­cal­ly.

The race to decar­bonize trans­porta­tion rais­es oth­er equi­ty con­cerns too. A cen­tu­ry-long-exper­i­ment with per­son­al vehi­cles has exposed some real down­sides to car-reliant trans­porta­tion plan­ning, includ­ing acces­si­bil­i­ty and afford­abil­i­ty, pub­lic health impacts of high­way projects and traf­fic, and pub­lic safe­ty. Regan Pat­ter­son, for­mer Trans­porta­tion Equi­ty Research Fel­low at the Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus Foun­da­tion, dis­cuss­es these draw­backs in a recent pod­cast, explain­ing how trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture exac­er­bates racial health, safe­ty, and eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties. A Green­lin­ing Insti­tute report elab­o­rates on these con­cerns, not­ing how cli­mate change deep­ens inequity caused by trans­porta­tion plan­ning.

The Green­lin­ing report iden­ti­fies some solu­tions, includ­ing shift­ing invest­ment from high­ways and per­son­al vehi­cles to mass tran­sit and oth­er mobil­i­ty solu­tions that offer mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits (e.g., health, eco­nom­ic and hous­ing secu­ri­ty, dis­place­ment pre­ven­tion, access to clean tech­nol­o­gy and people’s abil­i­ty to live where they work”). Pat­ter­son also sug­gests we can reduce these harms by embrac­ing mass tran­sit, micro­mo­bil­i­ty (such as elec­tric bikes and scoot­ers), vehi­cle shares, and oth­er alter­na­tives to the per­son­al car. She points to some exam­ples: Michi­gan plans to replace Detroit’s I‑375 with a tree lined, bike acces­si­ble boule­vard; San Fran­cis­co replaced a high­way with the Embar­cadero walk­way. The Nation­al Cau­cus of Envi­ron­men­tal Leg­is­la­tors also argues that states can reimag­ine the trans­porta­tion sec­tor by pri­or­i­tiz­ing active trans­porta­tion, pub­lic tran­sit, and tran­sit-ori­ent­ed devel­op­ment” and high­lights sev­er­al 2022 state laws aimed at doing so.

Scal­ing up EVs also requires sig­nif­i­cant resource extrac­tion. EVs require six times more min­er­als to man­u­fac­ture than inter­nal com­bus­tion engine vehi­cles. One study found that expand­ing domes­tic min­er­al min­ing threat­ens cul­tur­al­ly impor­tant areas over which Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties lack con­trol. There are glob­al impli­ca­tions as well, as the min­ing of mate­ri­als need­ed for EVs has been linked to envi­ron­men­tal injus­tices in the glob­al south. A study of the equi­ty impacts of EVs found dis­tri­b­u­tion­al injus­tice through­out the EV life­cy­cle and rec­om­mend­ed gov­ern­ments reg­u­late to improve bat­tery recy­cling process­es and grid reliance/​affordability, and con­sid­er the appro­pri­ate mix of EVs and trans­porta­tion alter­na­tives. Delv­ing into these con­cerns, a recent Atlantic arti­cle finds that with robust bat­tery recy­cling, a closed loop for mate­ri­als is pos­si­ble, but this will take time.

Every tool in the cli­mate tool box is impor­tant, and there is ample evi­dence to sug­gest EVs are an effec­tive one. Equi­tably address­ing the impacts on the trans­porta­tion sec­tor will require crit­i­cal think­ing. But there are plen­ty of options for build­ing a fair, and excit­ing, mix of trans­porta­tion solu­tions.

The author would like to thank Ter­ri Ger­stein, Direc­tor of the State and Local Enforce­ment Project at the Har­vard Law School Labor and Work­life Pro­gram, for her valu­able feed­back on this piece.