The arrival of COVID-19 across the world has led to massive reductions in vehicle use due to travel restrictions enacted to minimize the spread of the virus. In the midst of the current upheaval, many individuals have discovered opportunities to rediscover their local communities. Municipalities have taken unprecedented steps to close off streets to through traffic to allow more space for physically distant walking and bicycling, and, in many cases these streetscape improvements are likely to stick around even as travel restrictions ease.
Many scientific studies have examined the potential health impacts of air pollution prior to the onset of COVID and seen increased asthma rates and additional serious health issues in more polluted areas. The advent of COVID has highlighted the need to better address these community health and environmental justice issues because individuals suffering from compromised lung capacity or other maladies appear to have significantly higher mortality risk if they contract COVID-19.
The recent reductions in vehicle use have contributed to clearer, less polluted skies above many of our urban centers – a powerful demonstration of the potential benefits of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel powered transportation. A question on many policymakers’ minds is what will happen as travel restrictions are loosened and more effective treatment and prevention of COVID becomes available?
Media coverage across the country has offered many perspectives on what our new normal for transportation systems might look like, including higher rates of telecommuting, improved infrastructure to support walking and bicycling, opportunities to accelerate adoption of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs), and more. Many environmental advocates are pushing for “green stimulus” programs that may include infrastructure and market development activities to support clean transportation. These programs could help get laid off workers back on the job and contribute to our future well-being. In late May, over 80 environmental organizations issued a letter to Congressional leaders calling for stimulus programs that would accelerate clean transportation manufacturing, invest in EV charging infrastructure, deploy electric buses, and make EVs more affordable for consumers and businesses. Similar conversations are also happening closer to home as state legislatures grapple with their COVID responses.
On the EV front, many automakers have at least partially restarted their production facilities, but it may take months for their supply chains to fully tool up. A few manufacturers have announced changes to some of their EV product plans as a result of these issues. GM has said they are delaying the launch of a significant update to their Bolt all-electric vehicle as well as a new “electric utility vehicle” that were supposed to arrive in late 2020. Ford has canceled a project with Rivian to develop a Lincoln SUV (although other Ford-Rivian products may still be on the way) and a minor delay to the launch of the Mustang Mach-E coming later this year or early next. Other EV manufacturers are undoubtedly facing similar operational challenges that may require additional time or investments to fully resolve.
Stimulus support could help automakers transition more of their production to EVs while additional incentives or other programs to reduce upfront EV purchase costs will help increase consumer purchase consideration. Support for EV fast charging infrastructure would also help address another critical barrier impacting EV adoption.
Stimulus support to electrify public transportation vehicles, including transit and school buses, would similarly boost bus manufacturers and provide long term benefits to reduce vehicle operating costs and improve their environmental performance. Many public transportation providers are reconfiguring seating, fare collection (or fare-free operations), or other aspects of their services to reduce COVID risks for their riders and staff but may require significant operating support to fill in budget gaps brought about by COVID-related issues and accelerate investments in greening their fleets.
Cleaning up our transportation system will benefit our families and future generations, but challenges persist, including the current oil glut driving down gasoline prices and giving some drivers less motivation to consider other options. You can help by making greener, healthier choices for your household and lending your perspective to local, state and federal deliberations as policymakers grapple with COVID-related transportation challenges and opportunities.
David Roberts is the Drive Electric Vermont coordinator. He has driven all-electric vehicles for the past 7 years and says if you have to drive, drive electric.