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Rising to the Political Challenge of a Carbon-Free Transportation System

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.

If we are to eliminate transportation’s contribution to climate change by mid-century, we will likely need to do some things in the coming years that currently seem politically impossible.

Our upcoming report, A New Way Forward, lays out some of the options: cities might embrace a new vision for urban growth that enables millions more people of all income levels to live low-carbon lifestyles; regions might unite to ensure that an emerging system of shared, autonomous and connected cars is sustainable and beneficial for the public; the public and decision-makers might finally overcome the political dominance of the fossil fuel industry in order to transition all of our motorized vehicles to run on clean, renewable fuels.

All of these are tall orders. None of them are truly impossible.

Yet none of them can realistically be achieved through incremental public policy “fixes” of the type that tend to dominate our current public policy debates. All will require a more profound level of change – a reordering of long-standing political, economic and social relationships and attitudes. They will require transformation.

If we accept that transformation is necessary to decarbonize our transportation system in time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming (and for the sake of the rest of this blog post, at least, we will), then it becomes imperative for us to understand how transformation occurs and the role public policy can play in making it happen.

To grossly oversimplify, there are two pathways (summarized neatly in this 2012 paper by researchers at the World Resources Institute and several universities) by which public policy can lead to broad-scale societal transformation.

One pathway is through the passage of major policy initiatives with the power to transform entire sectors of society at a single stroke. Think Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, the Affordable Care Act, or comprehensive climate legislation.

In normal times, these types of seismic policy changes are considered to be such heavy lifts as to be politically impossible. But when the stars align just right, brief windows of opportunity can emerge to make them achievable. Strong vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards, for example, faced implacable opposition by automakers for decades. That is, until the Great Recession, when the automakers needed the then-new Obama administration to come to their rescue. Suddenly, stronger environmental standards became an acceptable price to pay for the salvation of an industry, putting America on the path to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles over the next decade and beyond.

The second pathway relies on self-reinforcing loops of policy, political, economic, cultural and technological change that quickly ramp up the scope and ambition of incremental policy shifts to transformative effect. Cycling advocates, for example, might convince a town to build a protected bike lane, bringing more cyclists onto the road, which creates political demands for more bike lanes, which, when built, draw even more cyclists onto the road. Cycling becomes acceptable social behavior, politicians begin competing for cyclists’ votes and businesses for cyclists’ patronage. Pretty soon (well, in a couple of decades maybe), you wake up one morning and find you’ve become Amsterdam.

It is never that straightforward, of course. But the point is that the initial increment of change represented by that first bike lane was small – so small as to barely be worth noting at the time – but because it was self-reinforcing, acting intrinsically to expand the political coalition behind it, it had the ability to catalyze dramatic change down the line.

There is a catch, however. Both the “big leap” and the “virtuous spiral” pathways, to be truly effective, have to alter underlying political, economic, technological and/or social realities in lasting ways. Otherwise, “big leap” policies will be chipped away at over time by opponents or ignored by entrenched bureaucracies, and incremental changes will remain incremental or even, in the worst case, unleash political forces that make future incremental change harder, not easier to achieve.

All of this has a few implications for how we might decarbonize transportation.

First, it means that climate advocates and transportation reformers need to be ready to take advantage of brief flashes of opportunity for “big leaps” when and if they arise. That means that we need to articulate an ideal vision – or, more appropriately, a series of open-ended visions that communities can adapt to their own needs – of the future as we might like it to be, and be ready with a transformative policy vision that can help usher that future into being at the moment when opportunity strikes.

Being ready to articulate that vision at the right time requires being able to have robust public debates now about policy alternatives that – at the present time – appear politically impossible. It requires us to suspend our skepticism, our snark, and our comfortable world weariness for just a second to contemplate what a transformed world might look like.

In a provocative 2013 paper, transportation researchers Greg Marsden and Iain Docherty wrote the following: “If change is conceived as only possible at the margins, then it is axiomatic that it is politically acceptable to plan only for marginal change. And so the structures and processes that deliver incremental policy change are reproduced as a result.”

To restate using a quote often erroneously attributed to Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Or, to restate again, only if you can dream it can you then proceed to do it. Acknowledging that dreams sometimes come true is the first step in opening the door for transformative change.

The second step is to pay very close attention to the interactions between policy change and the world around us.

When decision-makers and advocates consider greenhouse gas mitigation strategies, we often ask which public policies can deliver the biggest reductions in carbon emissions in the shortest time at the lowest cost. As people who aspire to analytical rigor, working in an atmosphere in which climate science gives us little room for error and resources are limited, we tend to try to answer that question with numbers. We run models. We consult peer-reviewed literature for data on how previous policies have worked out in the past. We gauge our prospects of success against a “business-as-usual” path grounded in historical experience and our best possible understanding of the future.

All of which is very useful to do. But, as someone who has done this kind of analysis for more than a decade, it is an analytical framework that assumes, at a very fundamental level, that true transformation is impossible. Those of us who have done these analyses know that the forecasts of “business-as-usual” on which they rely are often not very good. We know intuitively that public policy interventions don’t always have the same effects in every place at every time under every conceivable circumstance. And we often fail to highlight the simplifying assumptions that make empirical analysis possible, but that can also lead to a dangerously circumscribed view of the world and the realistic possibilities for change.

Perhaps the most important of those simplifying assumptions is the assumption that all else is equal – that the policy choices we evaluate do not alter the culture, individuals’ life decisions, the composition of political coalitions, the pace of technological progress, or the thousand other factors that make the real difference between a transformed future and a somewhat greener version of the problematic present. At their best, our conventional policy analysis tools enable us to evaluate a few, well-documented second-order effects (rebound effects, induced demand, and the like) or to consider a few alternative scenarios as sensitivity cases. Rarely, however, do those tools enable us to discern between policies that are capable of catalyzing broad-scale change and those that spend their entire lives vulnerable, on the defensive, and self-limited in their effects.

If we are to succeed in transforming transportation, therefore, we need richer tools for understanding the interaction between public policy and the world around us. We need to look beyond static models to embrace the complexity of the real world. In A New Way Forward, we suggest narrative as a potentially useful tool, and play through a few examples of how cities might use narrative to game out future chains of events leading to a zero-carbon transportation system and to identify the key policies and tools – often hidden in surprising places – that can unlock opportunities for transformation.

The good news for all of us is that the universe of technologies, policies and tools that can enable transformation is expanding rapidly. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss some of these new opportunities for progress – and the urgent need for new thinking in applying them to transportation problems.

Previous posts in this series:

1. We Can Do It: A Zero-Carbon Transportation System Is Possible

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