Here's Why the Green New Deal's Bold Transportation Ideas Are All But Impossible to Pull Off

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey's ambitious plan to remake America would require massive societal change—and neglects exciting future tech.

Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Last week, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey revealed their long-awaited proposal for what lawmakers and activists are calling "The Green New Deal." The far-reaching resolution includes a variety of very generalized strategies for improving economic equality and reducing climate change—the latter primarily by converting the electrical grid to renewable power sources, as well as updating, if not thoroughly rejiggering, the U.S. transportation infrastructure. The plan is meant to eventually spur specific legislation that will generate broad economic and environmental benefits to the nation.

The goals are ambitious. Ocasio-Cortez, the most vocal and visible proponent of the plan, wants to see the United States convert entirely to clean and renewable electricity by 2035. Coal would be replaced by solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, nuclear, and other sources. She also wants all energy consumption to produce zero emissions by 2050, whether via clean sources or carbon-capture tech. In terms of transportation, the plan calls for 100 percent zero-emission vehicles by 2030 and 100 percent fossil-fuel-free transportation by 2050. This includes all forms of private, commercial, and industrial transportation, whether land-, sea-, or air-based.

At The Drive, of course, we’re most interested in those transportation-related components of the proposal, and what they might actually look like, should the Green New Deal gain traction. What would it cost? What are the technological hurdles? And is it realistic to expect such changes on Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed timeline? 

Though the specifics regarding how to execute the plan are deliberately vague in the published proposal, the vision Ocasio-Cortez describes for transportation almost beggars belief: Massively expanding electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing; creating affordable public transit available to all Americans; eradicating every internal-combustion engined vehicle in the country; and building out a network of high-speed rail so expansive, air travel becomes no longer necessary. But while innovation and progress in all forms of transportation are vital to the future of our country, the Green New Deal's hyper-ambitious proposals may be too much. 

After all, the plan upon which this was modeled, FDR’s Great Depression-era New Deal, was born very much in a time of national economic crisis, and pure desperation—conditions that aren’t met today, stressful as the modern era might seem. (Though climate change is an immediate, scientifically-proven threat, we haven’t quite yet reached Dust Bowl status.) So let’s take a look at the deal's key transportation tenets to see whether they pass the sniff test.

First, there's the massive expansion in EV manufacturing—which, in turn, also must mean an expansion in EV buying. At the moment, electric vehicles comprise between 2-4 percent of vehicle sales each year, and far less than 1 percent of vehicles on the road. To think we can crank that number up to 100 percent in just 11 years feels profoundly unlikely, given that the cars have yet to draw meaningful consumer interest. (Of course, this assumes EV manufacturers will be able to meet that manufacturing demand by producing all those cars. Given the struggles all EV makers have experienced—Tesla most obviously—that, too, seems like a stretch.)

Still, an August 2018 study from research firm McKinsey & Company estimates that, thanks to improved range and features in EVs expected to come out by 2025, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road could grow to 14 percent by 2030. But that’s still an 86 percent shortfall compared with the plan, one that the Green New Deal will have to make up…how, precisely? The proposal doesn’t say.

Then there’s the matter of charging all those electric vehicles. Currently there are about 25,000 public charging stations in the U.S. and Canada, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. will need a staggering 20 million chargers total, McKinsey estimates, to accommodate the additional vehicles by 2030, at a projected cost of $20 billion. This includes countless home chargers and DC fast chargers—the latter of which, at $25,000, cost roughly five times as much as a conventional charger. Fully electrifying ground transport will thus require both a number of chargers the McKinsey report doesn’t even come close to revealing and some form of magic—or government incentives the likes of which the United States has never seen. 

Linked to this would be the eradication of every internal-combustion engine vehicle, which Ocasio-Cortez says should be “swift” following the conversion to all-EV sales. Remember, too, that this is set to begin just 10 years from now; vehicles have useful lives that go well beyond that range—on average, more than 11 years, according to IHS Markit—and there are already an estimated 300 million cars on the road. The vehicles manufactured between now and then alone could remain on the roads well into the 2040s—unless some draconian measure ("Cash for Carbon Clunkers?") is taken to remove all those ICE cars from the roads sooner, which itself would presumably be a fairly expensive and wasteful exercise. More realistically, the transition will be a protracted one, with EV manufacturing ramping up more or less in harmony with consumer interest and battery costs, stretched out over the next several decades. Internal-combustion will likely still dominate well past 2030.

The Green New Deal also advocates for building public transit that's accessible and affordable for all—and, furthermore, constructing a web of high-speed rail between cities to an extent that it could supplant the need for air travel entirely. The idea of revamping public transit from coast to coast has lots of appeal, but also monumental challenges, because cities all have unique shapes and forms and distributions of people and jobs. Many efforts to integrate rapid transit systems, whether light rail, subway, or bus networks, run up against shifting patterns in employment distribution and the matching changes in residential areas—not to mention the practical reality that, in many places, there's just no space for new rail infrastructure. Throw in the challenges of time and (often runaway) costs associated with large-scale transit projects—a report published in Citylab last year, for instance, found that new underground transit systems in the U.S. cost nearly $1 billion per mile, while above ground light-rail systems cost $100 million per mile—and mass transit plans on the scale posed by the Green New Deal seem hopeless.

As for high-speed rail, that conversation has been going on for decades, as Americans have gazed longingly at the super-speed trains racing across Japan and Europe.  An analysis of high-speed rail’s potential in the United States in 2013, published by libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, painted a grim picture, though, dinging it on every front from economic to environmental, and citing the geography of the United States—far different from that of Europe and Japan—as a severe limiting factor. People, the study found, would rather just fly. On the other hand, more optimistically, a San Jose State University study published last year that focused on the impact of the California high-speed rail project specifically found economic benefits in terms of job creation, and the long-term benefits of regional rail access as the U.S. population grows.

This brings us to a major elephant in the room: air travel. The authors of the Green New Deal clearly aren’t fans of it, and who could blame them? At present, the airline-designed hub-and-spoke system, along with the strain of security, makes travel tedious and dreary. More critically, however, air travel also accounts for significant carbon emissions worldwide, impacting both pollution and human health, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency. But given the ever-surging popularity of air travel—as evidenced an International Air Transport Association prediction that it will double between 2016 and 2035—claiming that high-speed rail could successfully supplant the travel needs of over a billion flyers in the U.S. alone in that time span is a profoundly daring assertion.

It also misses the potential of aviation to contribute to the solution, particularly through the emergence of its own innovations. New electric vertical-lift aircraft—a.k.a flying cars—are in the pipeline of scores of startup high-tech firms and industry stalwarts such as Bell, Boeing, and Airbus. These vehicles—likely more legitimately “autonomous” than ground vehicles will be anytime soon—could launch a new age of aeromobility, allowing for fast and efficient transport from rooftop to rooftop or suburb to city. They won’t replace roads, subways, and light rail in moving hundreds of thousands of people every day, but they’re part of the solution, just as self-driving cars will be. Longer-range visions also include hybrid regional aircraft and, eventually, fully electric airplanes plying short routes. When you consider that of the roughly 20,000 airports in the United States, 15,000 are vastly underutilized local private airports ideal for light electric commuting—and when you further consider that basically no new infrastructure would need to be added—it should be a no-brainer to include aviation in the laundry list of future innovations that will move the Green New Deal forward.

Likewise, left out of AOC and Markey's proposal is any reference to percolating innovations in the realm of computer-assisted driving, which has the potential to improve urban congestion and overall traffic efficiency. It will do this by taking control from the driver in specific scenarios, allowing for precise close-quarters driving. Persistent communication between vehicles themselves (V2V) and the infrastructure (V2I) will further help manage traffic flow, with cars routing themselves for optimal flow. If the technology plays out as anticipated, and cities integrate it in smart, beneficial ways, the need for massive transit projects could be severely minimized. Most people, it can safely be assumed, would rather cruise down a highway in their own vehicle as part of an autonomous road train than having to navigate to and from crowded rail systems every day. Throw in autonomous freight and delivery services better distributed throughout the day—which, if done smartly, could be a force multiplier rather than a job-taker—and cities could be able to even further diminish congestion. Will all this stuff be here in 10 years? Absolutely not. But neither will anything else the proposal hopes for.

But in the end, the Green New Deal is not just about the costs, logistics, and benefits of planes, trains, and automobiles. Countless other variables could conspire to reduce this plan to a shadow of Ocasio-Cortez and Markey's original vision. The effort could be hit by technological hurdles; battery technology, for example, might not improve as fast as expected. Economic recession or global conflict could slow things down any number of ways, despite the generally growth-encouraging New Deal vibe. And that's not even factoring in the resistance to the plan amongst the bill sponsors' own party, let alone antagonistic Republicans. 

Which, in turn, brings us to the other elephant in the room: What people want. More to the point, where Americans want to live, and how they want to get around. Huge swaths of the population loathe mass transit—not just because it’s often slow and messy and inconvenient, but because many people value being masters of their own pace and possibilities, frustrating traffic notwithstanding. (Some actually enjoy driving, too.) While individual vehicle ownership consumes money and energy, and the ownership hurdles hinder many—and those issues need to be addressed—for just as many, it’s not a huge deal, and something that brings pleasure. If that weren’t the case, explain the perpetual survival of luxury car brands like Mercedes-benz, Audi, and BMW...or the recreational appeal of sports cars and off-roaders...or the constant grand-slam sales of pickup trucks.

Sure, those can all be electrified, given time. But steering significant portions of their owners to public transit might prove too challenging, especially as the increasing efficiency of cars and the congestion-reducing potential of driver-assistance systems takes the wind out of mass-transit. Cars aren’t just lifestyle tools, they’re part of our culture. Even absent mass transit options, not everyone will be happy Uber-ing around or summoning autonomous private cars through an app. Americans like owning cars. Maybe we’ll also like owning electric flying cars one day, too, but if this country has proven anything since its founding, it’s that it values agency, individuality, and personal freedom.

Of course, these preferences could change, especially as younger generations start defining the mobility landscape. And grand visions sometimes still succeed despite the obstacles in front of them. After all, new technology could enable the scaling of public transit options to perfectly match the populations that most benefit from them, without necessarily cramming passengers into dreary trains, buses, and subways. Many who try EVs or move away from car ownership could find themselves digging the change. It’s certainly possible that enough of this vision will take, and that enough individual components will fall into place, that the Green New Deal’s goals will eventually be reached...even if not exactly as the original plan envisions.