Opinion: We can’t pedal our way out of the climate crisis

Break the Cycle

Opinion: We can’t pedal our way out of the climate crisis

The Long Island Expressway, flooded by the remnants of Hurricane Ida (Tommy Gao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA-4.0)

On September 1st, three days after Hurricane Ida’s deadly landfall in Louisiana, what was widely billed as the storm’s “remnants” swept through the New York City metro area, submerging massive portions of its roads and transit system in floodwater and leaving at least 52 dead in stranded cars and illegal basement apartments. This event did not reveal anything about the city’s aging, ill-maintained infrastructure, per se. Rather, it simply underscored—and not for the first time—how wholly unequipped the system is to deal with climate change, the escalating consequences of which overwhelmingly burden the poor.

The response from the planning and design community was predictable, with many raising up familiar hobbyhorses. By expanding New York’s bike lane infrastructure and discouraging car use, advocates argued, we can actually begin to combat climate change. Should that seem a particularly narrow solution to a globally diffuse problem, you might familiarize yourself with the data: Transportation, after all, accounts for 29 percent of carbon emissions nationally. This attitude matched the tone of September’s “climate week,” during which the United Nations General Assembly convened to discuss actionable strategies on the subject. To mark the event, the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority ran subway ads meant to rally, or simply affirm, riders: “Fight climate change. No driving required.”

If only it were so easy. In truth, the transportation sector responsible for that 29 percent statistic includes much more than private vehicles, with planes, trains, and ocean liners all contributing to the overall count. Decreasing traffic congestion in New York (or anywhere else) would certainly result in improvements to local air quality, but by any calculation, even the immediate elimination of the city’s hordes of private cars would have a profoundly negligible effect on freezing global emissions, which is what is needed to prevent future devastating hurricanes and flooding. And while it makes sense to seize on these moments of more acute public awareness to consider climate solutions, to do so in such a misguided way is not only unproductive but truly a step in the wrong direction. It essentially floats an easy solution—“one weird trick”—that ends up trivializing a deeply grave, desperately urgent crisis.

Much of this progressive, “ban cars” activism regurgitates the principles of New Urbanism, a planning philosophy stemming in part from the midcentury work of Jane Jacobs and more recently promoted by the Congress for New Urbanism as well as an active internet culture exemplified by the Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTs), a kind of clever yet lowest-common-denominator forum for anti-car critique and, of course, fun memes. New Urbanism fosters an ideal of car-free streets, mass transit, housing density, and mixed-use development. But the seminal literature of these ideas is now 60 years old, and its extrapolation along ecological lines requires a different set of global considerations.

A flooded fountain in central park
The Bethesda Terrace and Fountain overflowing in Central Park the day after Hurricane Ida (Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons, accessed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

What plagues New Urbanism as a contemporary reform tendency is not a lack of noble intentions nor even a paucity of supporting data, but rather a dogged solutionism. Here, New Urbanists ardently believe that a greener world can be reverse engineered by way of municipal tweaks; that the ills of climate change can be boiled down to such reductively classed phenomena as “car culture” or low-density zoning while ignoring the capitalist regimes of urban inequality that give rise to these phenomena in the first place.  An oft-cited 2017 Carbon Majors report found that just 100 fossil fuel–producing companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the New Urbanists insist that planetary salvation is to be found in regressive taxation schemes like congestion pricing and the elimination of parking minimums for new housing developments.

Research does indicate that expanded bike lane infrastructure and higher density zoning can indeed contribute to reduced emissions—for example, an August report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change lists less car use as one of many possible mitigation strategies for climate change. But these strategies are not itemized by scale. To put things into context, a Rails-to-Trails conservancy report from 2005 estimated that a best-case national scenario for improving public transportation, increasing walking and biking over driving, and encouraging mixed-use development could reduce total US emissions by up to 91 million metric tons of CO2 annually—out of over 6.5 billion, resulting in a difference of less than 1.4 percent. Per New York City’s official 2016 inventory, eliminating every single on-road vehicle in the city, of any kind, tomorrow, would amount to an annual reduction of 15 million tons of CO2—or, working with RtT numbers, somewhere around roughly 0.2 percent nationally. The question is not whether any benefit would exist at all, but how substantial it would prove on a global scale, and how quickly. This is hardly the silver bullet many of the NUMTOT’s ilk imagine. And given the immensity of the crisis before us, by the time any realistic plan to reduce city driving were to be implemented, it would be too little, too late. One imagines Eric Adams, New York’s next mayor and dedicated cyclist, regaling the press with the ecological virtues of the city’s new bike lanes as he canoes along them.

Interventions at the municipal level can prove meaningful, but not for the same purposes. Improved drainage to prevent flooding, new trees for shade to prevent overheating, fortified levees and subway repair, and safer affordable housing can all make a difference in the short-to-medium term. But these measures can only temporarily mitigate the effects of climate change, not deter the process of climate change itself, because such a task is simply too massive to be situated fully within the realm of localized urban policy.  Even the ongoing initiatives of the C40, a coalition of 97 global city mayors working toward the goals of the Paris agreement (54 of which are “on track” to hit their individual goals), can’t seem to slow the rising tides. In June, the Coalition for Negative Emissions found that, barring drastic scaling up of global efforts, the world will fall short of the Paris agreement’s 2025 climate target—reducing global emissions by 100 billion metric tons of CO2—by some 80 percent.

Not all New Urbanists are so blinkered. Some have suggested that an effective environmental policy can be situated within a Green New Deal, even as the latter pursues different strategies. (For instance, the GND carbon tax targets industrial polluters rather than the individual motorists charged in congestion pricing.) As a federal proposal for reducing fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions, with modernizations like 100 percent renewable electricity and an overhaul of the nation’s transportation system, the GND would ostensibly be more likely to meet the goal of net zero global emissions by 2050. Some GND measures appeared in an earlier version of President Biden’s just-passed infrastructure bill before it was largely stripped of its climate change provisions. In the hands of an impotent and likely ill-fated Democratic congressional majority, passage of any more meaningful iteration of such legislation in the near future faces some very long odds.

Regardless, the true adjudication of these planetary conditions occurs geographically farther and farther removed from wealthy American cities, in the sphere of industrial production. To say nothing of the radical shift away from the capitalist mode thereof that will be required to actually avert mass death, materials used to construct and fuel the products of sectors like transportation, construction, and agriculture are far more consequential than how those products are later consumed—eco-conscious trends in the latter realm have affected precious little change in the former.

The sphere of production also encompasses that which deters production. While some work towards a Green New Deal, others embrace methods outside a more palatable Overton window. Industrial sabotage—in the form of disabling excavators and blowing up oil and gas pipelines—directly targets an industry that, per a 2021 Energies study, accounts for 9 of the 10 top carbon polluters. It’s not exactly a fringe position. The ecologist Andreas Malm’s recent book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline—more incendiary than practical from a political standpoint—was sympathetically reviewed in the New York Times. Should this tactic be pursued in even the most isolated instances, its efficacy would still likely exceed some of the best-case scenarios for local transportation reform. In New York state alone, just preventing new pipelines currently under consideration, by whatever means, could reduce future emissions by 12 percent over the next 20 years. Drastic, large-scale measures are eminently necessary; we can’t pedal our way out of the climate crisis, and we can’t afford to pretend otherwise.

Leijia Hanrahan is a writer and researcher in New York City. She can’t drive.