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June 14, 2024 10:59 pm

Local News

We Can’t Drive Our Way Out of Climate Change

Credit: iStock

By Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch

A half dozen modular homes are crammed in the elbow of the offramp from I-785 to US 70 on the fringes of Greensboro. In east Durham, a largely Black neighborhood is wedged in a chute of air pollution between the railroad tracks and NC 147.

Underserved neighborhoods that hug I-77 in Charlotte. The homes that cluster around US 52 in Winston-Salem: All of these residents, and more, bear a disproportionate burden of air pollution from transportation.

These same residents, stranded on urban heat islands in homes without efficient heating and air conditioning, are often the most vulnerable to the health effects of climate change, supercharged by greenhouse gas emissions.

More than a third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are emitted by cars, trucks, planes, trains, buses and ferries. But the main villain is the single-car trip, millions of which we in North Carolina take each year. In that sense, every time we drive a gas-fueled car or truck, especially if we’re solo, we’re contributing to climate change and to the overarching problem of air pollution.

The NC Department of Transportation has issued its draft Clean Transportation Plan that lays out ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from that sector. 

The agency is accepting public comment online through March 15.

In addition, DOT is sponsoring two open houses tonight from 5-7 at:

  • Brushy Fork Baptist Church, 3915 U.S. 421 in Vilas, in Watauga County, and
  • City of Hendersonville Operations Center, 305 Williams St., Hendersonville

The draft plan contains ideas to increase the number of electric vehicles and charging stations, but acknowledges that this measure alone is insufficient. North Carolina has to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit, reducing “vehicle miles traveled.”  (The strategies for reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled per person are required under a settlement agreement over the construction of the I-540 toll road. The agreement was brokered after the Southern Environmental Law Center sued DOT on behalf of Sound Rivers, CleanAire NC and the Center for Biological Diversity.)

That’s a heavy lift for many of us, especially those who live in rural areas or neighborhoods unserved or underserved by reliable public transit, or whose roads are unsafe for biking or walking — which is to say, many places. It also includes service workers who can’t work from home — or people whose lack of broadband forecloses on the possibility they ever could.

Source: Federal Highway Administration

Even urban transit systems can be inconsistent. Ask anyone who’s commuted between Raleigh and Durham on the GoTriangle Express bus, only to miss the local connection upon arrival.

Or that Amtrak between Raleigh to Charlotte, a highly popular route, drops passengers off at a station in the Queen City that is disconnected from the light-rail system. (That situation is being rectified with a new transit center.)

Or that there is no passenger train station in Hillsborough or Winston-Salem, or that you cannot take one from Raleigh to the beach, or Charlotte to Asheville. 

The draft plan devotes many pages to environmental and social justice concerns as they relate to transportation: meaningfully engaging underserved communities about their transit concerns, not foisting theoretical solutions on their neighborhoods. 

Clean Transportation also means righting previous wrongs committed under the guise of “urban renewal” — a racist approach to planning and development. Force-feeding highways through these neighborhoods of color not only unraveled the communities’ fabric, but generations later, those same areas are now afflicted with toxic air pollution.

All of this, the plan acknowledges, takes money — federal, state and local — intentionality and commitment.

Yet notably, there is no mention of building fewer roads. The very industries that are required for road-building — mining, asphalt, concrete, timber — plus the smoke-spewing machinery that paves the new lanes — also contribute to climate change.

For example, the I-540 toll road, under construction in southern Wake County, embodies the problems that the plan aims to fix.

It is building more lanes for more cars and potentially even more vehicle miles traveled. It is jumpstarting car-dependent sprawl without the attendant public transit to encourage people to drive less. And yes, the route displaced several families from an underserved neighborhood: a mobile home park. In its wake, the people left behind not only can’t afford the highway tolls they have to breathe bad air.

Families who lived in the Blue Skies mobile home park in southern Wake County are being displaced by a major toll road. Meanwhile, NCDOT’s draft Clean Transportation Plan is trying to reduce the number of “vehicle miles traveled.” (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

And while we’re talking about transportation, Alamance and Orange County residents would likely be interested in the “US 70 Multimodal Corridor Study” to re-envision that busy thoroughfare.

Public meetings are scheduled from 5-7 p.m. at the following locations:

  • Tuesday, March 7, Passmore Center, 103 Meadowlands Drive, Hillsborough,
  • Thursday, March 9, Mebane Arts and Community Center, 633 State Road 1997, and
  • Tuesday, March 14, Hillsborough Town Hall Annex, 105 E. Corbin St.

Among the relevant numbers to this important discussion:

Greenhouse gas emissions 36 — Percentage of state’s greenhouse gases emitted by transportation in 2018
Of those greenhouse gases: 72 — Percentage that were emitted from light-duty gas vehicles, like cars and small trucks
9 — Percentage that were emitted by airports, railroads and ferries account

Drivers and miles
7.5 million — Number of licensed drivers in NC
36.4 — Average number of miles traveled per day, per person

More miles traveled, more vehicle crashes 1,783 — Number of people killed in car crashes in North Carolina, 2021
114,722 — Number of people injured that year

Commuting 27.6 — Average one-way commute, in minutes
77.2 — Percentage of drivers who commute alone
8.7 — Percent who carpool
1.6 — Who walk
0.9 — Who take public transit
0.2 — Who bike
10.3 — Who work from home

The carless 6 — Percentage of NC population without access to a vehicle
Of those without access, broken down by race and ethnicity: 12% — Black
8% — Native American 5% — Asian/Pacific Islander
5% — Latinx
4% — White
30% — Census tracts in North Carolina that are “transportation disadvantaged”

As NC’s population increases, more people will use transportation, especially in cities and suburbs. 10.46 million — Current North Carolina population
50 — Percentage of North Carolinians who live in 13 counties, all metropolitan
14 million — Estimated North Carolina population, 2050
99% — Future growth that is projected to occur in metropolitan areas and adjacent counties, also known as micropolitan areas. Franklin, Johnston, Union, Currituck and Columbus counties are projected to have the highest rate of growth over the next 25 years.