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Imagining a Just Transition in Western Mass Part II

Part II: Transportation

By Sarah Field

Sarah Field’s five part series on imagining a just transition in Western Massachusetts will consider housing, land, transportation, energy, food, work and education over the course of the week. This is Part II, which will cover transportation. You can read Part I here. This series is published in collaboration with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative by over 250 outlets to cover climate change in the lead up to the U.N. climate summit on September 23rd.


Transportation is another area of climate impact that offers a shared community challenge. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cars and trucks currently account for almost one-fifth of the United States’ total emissions. Every gallon of gas used emits about 24 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. 

Our local transition can begin with our streets. Marty Nathan, a local doctor and organizer with Climate Action Now, talks about the importance of “complete streets” that are designed for safe and convenient travel by pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and transit riders, rather than streets that prioritize only the needs of cars. This includes the introduction of protected bike lanes and well-maintained and well-lit sidewalks, and timely and efficient clearing of snow from bike lanes and sidewalks in the winter. Sigrid Schmalzer, a professor of history at UMass and a Northampton resident, offers up the possibility of a car-free downtown Northampton as one possibility for reducing traffic and incentivizing other forms of transportation.

While we work to improve the usability of our streets, we can also be working to improve the viability of alternatives to driving. Valley Bike Share is one step in this direction, and multiple people who were interviewed for this article recommended an expansion of this program. Nathan also talked about the importance of teaching students to ride bicycles in public school, and possibly subsidizing bicycles and helmets for young people or for all community members. Another major need is the expansion of public transportation options, through an investment in electric buses. Nathan and Schmalzer both spoke about the value of making public transportation free and expanding service schedules and route coverage. Jarrett pointed out that public transportation solutions should take into consideration both “coverage” needs—that is, the use of transit by people who depend on it to purchase groceries and get to work and medical appointments—and “ridership” needs—the use of transit by people who have other options, but will take public transit if it is fast, frequent, and convenient. Designing routes and schedules for both of these use cases is critical if we want public transit to serve economic and environmental justice ends. 

While reducing the dependence on cars is critical, the rural nature of our community makes it likely that we will continue to need some cars some of the time. We should be building an infrastructure to support a transition to electric vehicles. According to Nathan, this includes increasing the availability of high-speed charging stations in public parking areas, potentially powered by solar arrays over parking areas. Jarrett has floated the idea of a community vehicle sharing service (like a cooperatively owned Zipcar) that would allow community members to rent a variety of electric vehicles by the hour or day. He points out that this would make it possible for many multi-car households to downsize to one car, would make it possible for some people to go car-free, and would provide lower-cost access to vehicle use for people who currently can’t afford them. Jarrett and Nathan both also discussed the possibility of building apps or other supports to encourage more ride-sharing and carpooling.

Changing our transportation system sounds expensive, but, as Jarrett points out, we are already collectively paying the costs of a car culture. The article “What is the full cost of your commute?” by Canadian researchers Christine McLaren, Caitlin Havlak, and Graeme Stewart-Wilson, examines the “true costs” of various forms of transportation:

For every dollar drivers pay into the system through direct taxes and levies in Metro Vancouver, for example, society pays $9.20 for infrastructure, road maintenance, increased healthcare costs due to air pollution and other impacts. In contrast, for every dollar bus riders contribute, taxpayers put in $1.50 collectively. While cyclists and pedestrians don’t contribute much financially upfront (if anything at all), their travel habits result in healthcare savings and improved workplace productivity thanks to the additional exercise they are getting. So their commutes, on average, contribute a net benefit to society.

Transitioning to a more diversified and sustainable model of transportation will require more up-front financial investment, particularly on the state level, but will result in a more equitable, healthy, and economically viable system over the long term, in addition to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Sarah Field is a person who likes trees, dogs, and snacks. She lives in Northampton. Artwork by Anya Klepacki, whose show “If the Future of This World Can’t Be Depended On, I’ll Make My Own” was featured in The Shoestring earlier this year.

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