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In push for clean transportation, Mass. focuses on electric cars over public transit

Massachusetts officials hope to dramatically expand the use of electric vehicles in the next decade.
Massachusetts officials hope to dramatically expand the use of electric vehicles in the next decade.NYT

There are two major strategies in the quest to eliminate climate-changing pollution from personal vehicles: Either get people to drive less and switch to public transit or other ways of getting around, or make the cars and trucks themselves less dirty — as in replacing them with electric vehicles.

The Baker administration is firmly embracing the latter option, with its latest climate plan focusing on vastly expanding the sale of electric vehicles, to at least 750,000 electric vehicles by the end of the decade. That would be a monumental increase, given that there are fewer than 18,000 all-electric vehicles registered in the state today.

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But the plan takes only fleeting interest in policies that would increase public transit, walking, and bicycling.

This divergent approach was in sharp relief when a state environmental official briefed the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s oversight board last week on climate strategies for transportation. Notably missing was much discussion about public transit.

David Ismay, undersecretary of climate at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, told the MBTA’s overseers that convincing more commuters to use buses, subways and trains, or to bike or walk, wouldn’t have nearly the same environmental benefit as huge growth in electric vehicles.

“We didn’t find a lot of bulk benefit there,” Ismay said. Even aggressive strategies to get people out of cars, he said, aren’t “capable of, by themselves, driving the kind of deep emission reductions that we need on the pace that we need them.”

Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts, and cars and light trucks account for the bulk of those. The state’s 2030 climate plan, released in draft form in December, calls for transportation emissions to drop by about a quarter over this decade, with electric cars doing most of the work.

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There is little argument that achieving this goal will require mass adoption of zero-emission vehicles, most likely battery-powered. But considering the seemingly endless debate over how to improve the MBTA, the lack of interest in transit has frustrated some advocates, especially since a 2018 Baker administration report on the future of transportation emphasized moving “more people in fewer vehicles.”

There are also implications for income inequality and social equity, given the high upfront costs to buy a car, especially an electric one.

“We need to be doing a whole host of things, and making sure that for every policy that is going to require families to spend a lot of money to gain access to a cleaner source of transportation, that there are similar options for people who can’t make that choice,” said Staci Rubin, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “I’m hoping the final plan reflects the ability for high-functioning and frequent public transit to get people out of cars and on trains and buses.”

Critics also argue that simply swapping gas-powered cars for electric ones wouldn’t address other transportation issues that have public health consequences, including traffic congestion, road safety, and runoff water polluted with tire particles.

But others see the state’s auto-centric approach as appropriate, reflecting a plain reality: Even in Massachusetts, home to one of the nation’s most widely used transit systems, most people get around by car.

“The Massachusetts climate plans are pragmatic in recognizing that personal vehicle ownership is well-entrenched in American society, and that any climate policy must be very careful to balance the climate objectives with acceptance by the population,” said Randall Field, executive director of the Mobility Systems Center at the MIT Energy Initiative.

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The state is not dismissing the role of transit. At his appearance before the MBTA board, Ismay said the transit system is important for climate goals because it already removes so many cars from the road.

“Certainly if we lost this transit system, we would see a lot of . . . trips currently handled by our public transit system be handled, now, by cars,” he said.

The climate plan also includes a goal to cut commuter-related driving by 15 percent, pointing to wider adoption of work-from-home policies during the pandemic. But commuting is a fraction of all travel, and overall driving would still increase, even with that reduction.

Other tactics in the Baker plan include establishing programs to make it easier for low- and middle-income residents to afford electric cars; ending the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035; improving and expanding vehicle charging systems; and implementing the multistate initiative to reduce vehicle emissions by tacking a fee on auto fuels, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

Electric vehicles are becoming more affordable as the technology advances and automakers debut new models. On Thursday, General Motors announced a goal to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2035. The Biden administration has also emphasized electric vehicles as a crucial environmental strategy.

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But achieving the state’s goal for 2030 would require about 50 percent of new vehicle sales to be electric, much higher than the forecasts of some analysts.

The state’s analysis determined the incentives for buying electric vehicles could cost hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars annually.

The analysis also considered carrot-and-stick ideas to get drivers to give up cars and switch to public transit. The most effective would require money — to significantly expand public transit — but also includes a type of disincentive that Governor Charlie Baker has previously opposed: a road-pricing plan that would charge drivers up to 10 cents a mile.

These approaches were not included in the climate plan, because they would be costly for drivers and expensive and time-consuming to implement, officials said. Even if they were adopted, the state found, there would still be an increase in driving in the coming decades, though at a slower rate.

“Transit, walking and biking are therefore a potentially important complement to electrification but by themselves cannot achieve reductions in [miles driven] at the scale needed,” the state said in one of its climate documents.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency for Greater Boston, is pressing the state to put greater emphasis on housing development as a climate tool, as concentrating new residences in dense communities and near transit stations would result in less driving. But that approach could be complicated by recent MBTA service cuts that are being made without a clear schedule for restarting canceled trains, said the planning council’s deputy director, Rebecca Davis.

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“Communities are not going to be interested in continuing to push for . . . housing development near commuter rail stations if they’re fearful the commuter rail will no longer be there,” she said.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.