President Joe Biden has taken what he calls the "biggest step forward on climate ever" by signing historic legislation to address the looming climate crisis. The bill allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at reducing planet-warming emissions, ranging from subsidies for wind and solar farms to tax credits that will help consumers retrofit their homes with energy-efficient technologies.
But even proponents of the legislation admit that these efforts, at best, will reduce U.S. carbon emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade—impressive, but short of the 50 percent reduction goal that President Biden has set. It's become increasingly clear that federal commitments alone won't be enough to move the needle on climate. State and local governments also need to step up—and they can by embracing a slate of innovative reforms to reduce traffic.
Traffic, which virtually disappeared during the early days of the pandemic, is back with a vengeance. In fact, Americans logged more miles behind the wheel in the 12 months ending with May 2022 than any other 12-month period in history, according to the most recent federal data.
This congestion isn't merely annoying. It's also disastrous for the environment. Carbon emissions rise in tandem with traffic congestion, as idling vehicles belch out fumes. Mitigating congestion and enabling vehicles to maintain the most fuel-efficient average speeds could reduce carbon emissions from vehicles by roughly 30 percent, according to University of California at Riverside engineers.
And unfortunately, ongoing changes in consumer behavior are further exacerbating traffic, especially in cities.
The growing popularity of on-demand delivery apps among the 83 percent of Americans who live in urban areas has led to more vehicles on our already congested streets. Curbside lanes are routinely clogged with motionless delivery and ride-share vehicles. They pollute and block traffic while their drivers wrangle packages or wait to collect food orders. They disrupt cyclists and drivers who are left with no option but to swerve into the path of oncoming or passing vehicles.
Nobody likes this status quo—not residents, not business owners, not the pedestrians who choke on exhaust, and especially not the delivery drivers and companies who pay enormous annual parking fines. Fortunately, cities can fix this curbside circus while simultaneously slashing emissions and improving residents' quality of life. Many have already pioneered promising reforms.
Just look to Los Angeles and Santa Monica, which recently introduced the nation's first Zero Emissions Loading Zones to support the curbside needs of commercial electric vehicles. These zero-emission areas will help incentivize delivery companies to move toward electric fleets and cut down on idling combustion engines—all while serving as a blueprint for other cities to follow suit.
Meanwhile, other cities are using artificial intelligence to collect real-time insights on curb and alley usage while automating curbside services. Municipalities can deter traffic congestion by deploying these cameras, sensors, and computing power to monitor when cars are parked or loitering alongside curbs, thus hindering traffic.
Charging vehicle owners by the minute for this curb time—by using license plate scanners and billing owners by mail, just like many toll booths do—not only discourages needless loitering. It actually saves drivers time too, since they no longer face the hassle of finding, and often downloading, a parking payment app. And there's certainly no need to fish around for quarters to feed the archaic parking meters still present in some cities.
Pittsburgh has already implemented one such program that explores the use of automated loading zones to reduce delivery congestion and support city climate goals. Since it launched in April, curb dwell times have already fallen by nearly 30 percent on average.
Of course, cities could also structure rates so that electric vehicles pay less than tailpipe emitters for curbside use—or charge premium prices for behemoth vehicles, as we're seeing now in Washington, D.C. The usage fees will generate steadier revenue for cities, compared to the status quo of sporadic ticketing. And they'll help incentivize drivers to choose more environmentally conscious vehicles.
When the excitement around the new climate legislation fades, it's our cities that will still be choked with traffic—and it's those cities that must leverage available technologies to reduce the gridlock. It won't merely save residents time and safeguard their health, but will be a driver of tangible change to protect the planet.