New City Hall Climate Teams Must Focus On Transportation Emissions Reductions, Advocates Say

New Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner and Chief Climate Officer Rohit Aggarwala addresses the media at City Hall. Photo: Dave Colon
New Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner and Chief Climate Officer Rohit Aggarwala addresses the media at City Hall. Photo: Dave Colon

It’s the perfect climate to reduce car reliance.

On Monday, Mayor Adams introduced his new climate team, highlighted by new Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner and Chief Climate Officer Rohit Aggarwala and Kizzy Charles-Guzman as the executive director of the newly created Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, an office which consolidates four other climate-focused mayoral offices (the Office of Climate Resiliency, the Office of Climate and Sustainability, the Office of Environmental Coordination and the Office of Environmental Remediation).

In her newly created role, Charles-Guzman will report to Aggarwala, whose stewardship of the DEP turns it into an agency with a mission to fight climate change with a focus on environmental justice.

Can Mayor Adams’s newest climate-focused hires help the city reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by making car and truck reductions in New York City part of their sustainability purview? Advocates say they can and they should.

“We’d like to see the new office tackle two problems: improving transit options and creating access for environmental justice communities, while also curbing harmful diesel emissions from trucks and other vehicles citywide,” said Tri-State Transportation Center Director of Climate and Equity Policy Jaqi Cohen. “Creating better access to mobility in transit deserts would mean collaborating with the DOT to advance solutions in specific neighborhoods like dedicated bus lanes and bike lane infrastructure, but curbing diesel pollution across the city requires a more comprehensive policy approach — from electrifying municipal fleets and mandating new charging infrastructure on streets to taking a deep look at the impact e-commerce has had on air quality and congestion in communities of color citywide.”

Monday’s introductory announcement and press conference focused more on issues other than the transportation sector, with Adams and his team specifically highlighting efforts to issue a comprehensive study on environmental justice, working on resiliency projects around the city, building out solar and other clean energy and Adams’s own desire to get the city to move away from supporting environmentally destructive meat and dairy industries.

When asked about how he’d reduce car and truck usage in the city, Aggarwala first talked about working to reduce building emissions and then basically said his office would support the Department of Transportation’s work on the issue.

“We’re going to be working to implement congestion pricing, to implement the pedestrianization and bus lane initiatives that the mayor and [Department of Transportation] commissioner announced,” Aggarwala said. “We will work together with DOT and a number of other agencies to ensure that it all falls together into a comprehensive plan. Under the law, a year from this coming April, I’d have to create the update to the comprehensive sustainability plan and that’s where you’re going to see a lot of that come together in a new form.”

Working with DOT leaves a wide purview for Aggarwala to get involved in, environmentalists pointed out.

“Moving New Yorkers out of single-occupancy vehicles via improved and efficient public transit and micro-mobility programs are all part of the solution for a greener transportation sector and reducing harmful emissions,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Julie Tighe. “We need to give people viable options to get out of cars. The bus network needs to be reliable and faster: that means more busways, bus lanes, and bike lanes that are protected and enforced. For vehicles that remain, we need to rapidly move to electric and in the interim shift to low carbon fuels. It is equally important that the city take a comprehensive approach to reimagine street space, by implementing the NYC Streets Plan and [Transportation Alternatives’s] 25×25, so that there is adequate infrastructure in place to meet the growth in sustainable transportation. As with any other major transition, the Administration must lead by reducing the size of the city’s fleet, using clean fuels, and more aggressively transitioning the remainder of the fleet to zero-emission vehicles.”

Advocates say that “collaboration” has to be more than just a buzzword, and has to extend to areas DEP has usually not considered like bus lanes and bike lanes if the city is going to hit its own greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 40 percent fewer emissions by 2030 and 80 percent fewer by 2050.

“They have to,” said NYC Environmental Justice Alliance Transportation Planner Kevin Garcia. “We know that if [the city] is attempting to achieve environmental justice, and it has these set climate targets, they’re going to have to look at the emissions from the transportation sector. Without doing that they’re not looking at the full picture and they’re going to miss the target.”

Transportation emissions have only fallen by about 5 percent since 2007 according to the city’s greenhouse gas inventory, from 16.53 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to 15.64 million in 2019 (those emissions fell to 12.32 million tons in 2020, in a year where economic shutdowns from the coronavirus reduced transportation activity across the board).

That drop lags behind the city’s overall 15-percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions since 2007, further underscoring the need to see transportation as a climate change issue.

In addition, car ownership rose during the de Blasio administration. According to the last Mobility Report issued by the DOT in 2019, car ownership rose 9 percent from 2010 to 2017, while the city’s population grew only 3.2 percent over the same time period. Car ownership jumped during the pandemic as well according to Crain’s, which showed that there were 140,000 new car registrations in the city in 2021.

Although the DOT, which has responsibilities like implementing the Streets Master Plan, is going to remain out front in efforts to install bus lane and bike lanes, transportation thinkers see a way for Aggarwala and Charles-Guzman to get their offices involved in clawing back space from cars. One observer suggested that as the DOT draws up plans for bus lanes, for instance, the agency can bring climate staffers in to chime in on the best places where potential lanes could have the most positive environmental impacts.

“If the DOT is reviewing the next set of bus lanes to go in, this could be an opportunity to then share it with the new team at DEP and say, ‘Based on our analysis, and our list of priorities, here is where we think this makes the most sense,’” said Regional Plan Association Vice-President for Transportation Tiffany-Ann Taylor. “They could ask does this line up with the neighborhoods that you have identified as being affected the most by negative emissions or other negative public health externalities? Why or why not? And does this also interact with other infrastructure work that you are doing in these neighborhoods? Why or why not? And what are the public benefits and the public cons if we were to move forward with this? That could provide another lens as to why are we doing the work that we’re doing in the neighborhoods in which we’re doing them.”

Rather than risking a kind of mission bloat if the climate team gets more aggressively involved in transportation policy, Taylor said doing so would provide an opportunity to highlight the positive climate aspects of the DOT’s projects.

“I think it opens the door for the opportunity for people to realize that yes, there are communities without a doubt that have unfortunately been overburdened by environmental injustice, because of our infrastructure,” she said.

For his part, Garcia said that DEP and OCEJ could work with the Department of Transportation and other city agencies on freight issues, from the environmental and street safety disasters wrought by truck traffic down to their offices getting involved in efforts to grow the city’s cargo bike industry.

“One thing that the new office will have to investigate is how to tackle emissions from last mile trucking facilities and the congestion it brings with it from these vans and these trucks. Because right now, these facilities are allowed to be built as-of-right in manufacturing zoned areas, and these areas tend to be near neighborhoods of lower income communities of color, and environmental justice communities. So the agencies are going to have to come up with ways to deliver goods using alternative transportation methods, such as electric vehicles or bikes or activating maritime transportation, while also figuring out when is the best time for these goods to come to the city and when they can be delivered throughout the day,” he said.