Transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. And not enough is being done to fix that by our current president (in fact, Trump wants to make the problem worse).
With former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders both vying for the White House and working to highlight their sophistication on climate, you’d think they would each have strong transportation plans. And their plans deliver on some accounts, offering a vast improvement over Trump. Neither plan, however, is perfect.
A strong transportation plan would focus heavily on improving local transit options. High-speed rail is cool AF and important to replace the intense carbon pollution of planes. But that’s not going to help me or you get to the local grocery store. Improving local transit also makes us all less dependent on cars. Both candidates are clear they want fewer dirty cars on the road, but both of their plans still include a lot of funding for roads.
Let’s be clear: Cars are not the future. Buses, trains, and bikes are.
So we’ve laid it all out for you: their strengths, weaknesses, differences, and everything in between. Both plans are good, but they definitely have their quirks. Check it out.
While Biden certainly doesn’t have a history of doing much for the planet, his proposed climate plan isn’t the worst. That’s true for his transportation plan, too. For one, the former vice president plans to give Americans “an affordable, efficient way to get around without their cars,” per his plan. That means expanding public transit systems, building a national electric vehicle charging network, a national high-speed rail network, and making cities more walkable.
Biden’s plan is specific in that municipalities with a population of more than 100,000 will have “quality public transportation” by 2030. He’d accomplish this through light rail systems, improving existing bus lines, and investing in micro-mobility, such as e-scooters and bicycles.
“He goes into more policy detail on how he would improve transit, biking, and walking than you see in the Sanders plan, but he just doesn’t have those dollar figures attached to it, so it’s hard to say exactly how he’s going to prioritize things,” Ben Fried, the communications director for the TransitCenter, told Earther.
That’s Biden’s major weak point: He doesn’t attach a dollar amount to any of his public transit proposals. On the other hand, he does for repairing car infrastructure, such as highways, roads, and bridges: $50 billion. He’s also clear about funding for electric vehicles, saying he’d push the Department of Energy to invest $5 billion over five years to create 500,000 public charging outlets and test new technologies, such as roads that charge cars as they drive. The idea is that by 2030, we can drive anywhere in the U.S. with electric cars.
That’s all pretty dope, but cars are not the future—not even electric cars. Public transit is!
Leaving out a dollar amount for the public transit part of his plan was likely intentional, Ethan Elkind, the director of the Climate Program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, told Earther.
“Some of it could just be the politics of he didn’t want to have to explain the total costs of all these items he wants to pay for,” Elkind said. “It could also be he doesn’t want to start with a number that might hurt him in some way in negotiating if he were to get elected.”
Smart political tactic, Biden, but it makes your plan a little soft.
Where Biden is weak, Sanders excels.
“The big difference is that Bernie Sanders is proposing specific, hard numbers on transit investment, as well as high-speed rail investment,” Elkind said.
The senator proposes investing a huge dollar amount for his plan to transform American public transit: $300 billion. That’s the amount of money Sanders expects is necessary to increase public transit ridership to 65 percent by 2030. The senator, unfortunately, doesn’t offer details on how he’ll make that happen outside of wanting to end long car commutes and congestion.
That’s a whole lot of money, but completely reshaping transportation isn’t cheap to do in the timeframe necessary to make it climate-friendly. High-speed rail, for instance, will cost a separate $607 billion in this plan. Sanders does not include this in his public transit part of the plan. Biden doesn’t give us a dollar amount for his proposal, but Sanders offers a ginormous number that may raise some eyebrows in Congress.
“That’s an ambitious number,” Fried said, in reference to the $607 billion.
Sanders also wants to see more electric vehicles on the road, similar to Biden’s plan. Here, he also offers a dollar amount. His plan includes more than $2 trillion in grants to encourage low- and moderate-income families to trade in their old dirty cars for an electric vehicle. In order to ensure the U.S. is equipped to handle the influx of all these electric vehicles, Sanders would spend $85.6 billion to build a charging network, which is more than 17 times what Biden proposes.
And Sanders offers dollars amounts down the line. He doesn’t shy away from the costliness of the problem because he recognizes that the climate crisis is going to cost us a hell of a lot more. These huge numbers, however, may be difficult to get through Congress. That’s a huge problem to actually implementing.
Neither candidate offers the perfect solution to ending the climate crisis through transit. And that’s because of their emphasis on cars.
Look, people love cars. And in rural areas, people need cars. Proposing policies that ends highway expansion might not sit too well with those voters, and both Sanders and Biden are in the business of trying to win votes. But Fried said that’s the type of bold proposals the U.S. needs. Both candidates offer huge sums toward highways and roads. Biden offers $50 billion, and Sanders goes even further with $75 billion.
Road maintenance and repair is needed, but Fried raised the concern that this money may, instead, go toward highway expansion. And that would bring more cars on the road, increasing carbon pollution as long as internal combustion engines are the norm, and worsening gridlock. Sanders’ plan includes improving roads, and it’s not clear if that means expansion. Biden proposes giving money to cities and towns that manage their roads, but his plan isn’t clear on rules around how that money should be spent.
“Currently states are given money, and they can do what they want with it, so they can spend it on road expansion or repair, and the majority of the time, they choose to spend it on expansion,” Hayley Richardson, a senior communications associate at the TransitCenter, told Earther. “So if there are no requirements for state [departments of transportation] to use federal funding to fix roads, we’re just going to perpetuate the situation that we’re in today.”
In the end, neither plan is perfect as long as the potential for highway expansion is on the table. Is there such a thing as a perfect plan, though?
Elkind said Biden’s plan is more “comprehensive” as he goes into making cities walkable and micro-mobility. That’s something the Sanders plan doesn’t get into. Where Sanders excels, however, is in his transparency for what these plans will cost. Money talks, right? Cash is what’ll actually make things happen. Sanders’ transportation proposals also fit within his larger Green New Deal, which offers a complete revolution for the U.S. economy to tackle the climate crisis. As for Biden? It’s less clear how this plan will work in tandem with his overall climate plan.
Our transportation system needs to evolve. That means making cities walkable, improving local transit (not just fancy cross-country trains), and expanding bicycle paths. If transit is your voting issue, you’ve got some options to weigh. And either way, both offer a positive change from what we’re seeing under Donald Trump where even fuel efficiency standards are under attack.