Much has been said about Colorado’s air quality recently. Greenhouse gasses, ozone, and fine particulate matter all play a role in our air quality. Road transportation and wildfires are two of the largest contributors to particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in the United States. Climate change is expanding our wildfire season.
In a recent guest column, Dr. Tony Gerber correctly and concisely states that “[w]hat we put on the road is one the few ways we can directly control air pollution, and the American Jobs Plan understands that clean energy, clean transportation, and healthy communities are interconnected.” The nexus of health, wildfires, and climate change could define our state’s character going forward.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gerber handicaps Colorado in the fight for better air by talking only about electric vehicles, or EVs.
EVs are important, but should be the least of our efforts, not the most. Their carbon emissions are only half of an internal combustion engine car, whereas an e-bike emits one-tenth as much carbon. Their PM 2.5 emissions are only half of an gas-powered car, because the EVs still throw off brake dust and tire wear.
Yes, we need EVs, but they are not our silver bullet. If we want to improve our air and our traffic, the research is clear: we need to spend our efforts putting bikes — electric or fully human powered — and buses on our roads. Along with those measures, we need to change our roads so we prioritize the best modes of transportation for the job.
Systematic problems require systematic solutions. Who in our government has the authority to change what’s on the road, how much road exists, and how we divide the road between different uses so we have cleaner air and efficient commutes? There are a few critical state agencies in this space:
The Colorado Dept of Transportation is a major player. A historical focus on roads operated, rather than people and goods moved, created the traffic jams and ozone alerts we see now. Your city’s department of transportation probably follows in CDOT’s footsteps of car-mandatory mobility.
In theory, CDOT’s upcoming greenhouse gas budget rulemaking process may create binding caps on the greenhouse gases released. More likely, past experience leads us to believe that residents, not CDOT, will face the only serious consequences for missed goals. With CDOT’s historical inaction on greenhouse gases, state environmental and health agencies have to overcompensate to achieve their own goals, with mixed success.
The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment recently proposed, then retracted, a proposal to nudge large employers to, in turn, nudge their employees to switch travel modes under the Employee Traffic Reduction Program.
Employers can have a role in providing amenities for people who bike or ride transit just like they often provide amenities for drivers, but employers don’t control the infrastructure between home and work. It is no surprise that the business community pushed back against bearing the weight to solve a problem while the agencies with the most power shirk responsibility. Furthermore, CDOT touted the promise of the traffic-reduction program shortly before the program was diminished in scope, undermining CDOT’s claims to multi-agency collaboration.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission can implement rules for what comes out of a tailpipe, but they can’t change the road infrastructure. Besides, a recent commission scandal may also have undercut its ability to lead.
The Colorado Department of Energy has been the lone example of how to live up to its mandate. In addition to a stellar track record of the challenging task of transitioning our electrical grid towards cheaper and cleaner fuels, the Energy Department has supported electric car, electric bike, and electric bus purchases.
Our road system, much like these agencies, reflect the political will of the state. Roads are a shared space, and the space we give each method of using them is political, not technical. EVs nicely sidestep the political process, but our air quality doesn’t give much consideration to our political discussions.
Without CDOT and local governments changing our roads, buses will continue to be stuck in car traffic; very few people will ride a bike because of safety concerns. Many — not all — trips can be replaced with a bus ride, bike ride, or a walk if we make those trips easy and safe. But, if we don’t change our roads, cars still will be the safest and quickest choice for almost every trip. That guarantees more bad air.
Past choices led us to today’s air quality and traffic problems. Deferring to the politics of the past by preserving the status quo only guarantees more of the same problems that affect every Coloradan.
There’s reason for hope, though: Colorado’s tax- and spending-limits in the Constitution have prevented many expensive boondoggles that other states engage in, giving us flexibility few states have. We can have better air and less traffic without raising taxes, so long as we start using the right tools when they’re appropriate. That takes the political courage to meet the moment across the board.
Chris Miller is a mediocre but passionate hiker, biker, climber, and skier. Professionally, he is an infrastructure data scientist, a board member of YIMBY Denver, and active member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby.