By Lauren Bailey
COVID-19 is striking neighborhoods that were already suffering before the pandemic: one of the most likely indicators of severe respiratory illness is living in an area with high levels of air pollution. Many of these communities also endure high rates of poverty yet are home to the essential workers on the front lines of the crisis. This pandemic has put the inequity of our climate crisis into stark contrast and has made the dire need for reductions in toxic emissions even more clear.
Bridging the gap between rhetoric and the real-life solutions that our policymakers must implement proved difficult long before this current crisis. Transportation accounts for 38 percent of Connecticut’s carbon emissions, making it the most polluting industry in the state. Long commutes, rural sprawl and sparse public transit are just some of the factors that keep Connecticut’s residents in their cars.
As many of our routines have been put on hold, it has become clear how much we drive during daily life, and how much every aspect of our towns and cities are built around our cars. Many neighbors are realizing that their roads do not safely allow for walking and biking for leisure, let alone travel. Poorly maintained or nonexistent sidewalks and bicycle lanes make it difficult, and oftentimes dangerous, to get around in anything but a vehicle.
The state’s most recent transportation plan, Connecticut 2030, just makes that problem worse, calling for twice as much spending on roads, interstates and bridges than transit and rail investments. Meanwhile, the state’s bonding bill that was passed right before the state Legislature closed due to COVID-19 included several expensive interstate widening projects for I-84 and I-95.
COVID-19 has not only exposed the inequalities at the heart of our transportation policies, it has revealed the truth many of us suspected: a lot of those meetings could, in fact, be emails. In a time where telecommuting and working from home will likely long outlast formal quarantines, traffic is unlikely to bounce back to prepandemic levels, meaning there will be less need for massive road-widening projects.
But essential workers — many of whom do not own cars and rely on alternative transit — will still need to get around. Fortunately, many cities and towns already have plans for sidewalks and safe, connected bicycle routes. These are shovel-ready projects that will provide safe alternatives for many driving trips — they just need to be built, and state policy should do more to support them.
What are some of the bright spots in an otherwise grim forecast? The town of Fairfield adopted a Complete Streets policy in late 2018, and Stamford has requested bids to improve street safety conditions for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles. Greater Bridgeport is investing in a large alternatives analysis to broaden residential opportunities near train stations, changing the way we build new housing by prioritizing access to public transit.
Connecticut residents are ready to cut emissions, stop climate change and take a stand against companies that prefer to put profits over people. The Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI, is a proposed multistate policy that would give Connecticut a double shot in the arm to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions while investing in clean transportation opportunities. TCI would help ensure that fossil fuel polluters pay their fair share while helping to make Connecticut’s transportation system work for everyone — whether you drive, walk, bike or ride a train or bus.
COVID-19 is demonstrating in real time that for thousands of Americans, dirty air is becoming a death sentence. Connecticut must work to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. That starts with investing in intuitive transportation solutions that work for our cities and towns — and planning in advance for walkable, transit-oriented development. Connecticut’s participation in the Transportation and Climate Initiative is vital not only for our health, but so that we can invest in green transportation and infrastructure jobs to build a resilient and sustainable future.
Lauren Bailey is the climate policy director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.