Maine's Green New Deal Has a Sprawling Blind Spot

To reduce Maine’s carbon footprint, we need to not only think about how to reduce driving (vehicle miles traveled), but also the kinds of places we are building.

To reduce Maine’s carbon footprint, we need to not only think about how to reduce driving (vehicle miles traveled), but also the kinds of places we are building.

Maine’s Green New Deal proposal has been lauded—rightfully so—for its focus on how sustainable industries support jobs and the economy. There’s a lot to love about a boost for workers in the green construction and energy sectors, but when looking broadly at the largest factors influencing climate change, Maine’s Green New Deal is, unfortunately, not that green.

The plan sets an ambitious long-term goal for renewable energy providers, requiring them to achieve 80% reliance on renewable sources, and calls on a wide variety of stakeholders for its proposed task force and commission. Maine’s plan includes incentives to retrofit homes, outfit schools with solar power, and gives special consideration to easing workers through the transition to renewables, which has earned it the support of labor rights advocates. So what's missing? Despite the comprehensive list of stakeholders, the plan is thin on specifics and barely mentions the most insidious cause of our structural energy inefficiency: suburban sprawl and the vehicle emissions associated with it.

Maine has always been a rural state that values independence. We're fortunate to have had comparatively little sprawl and congestion separating our town centers and rural areas, but if you travel along route 295 between Portland and Brunswick, or route 302 as far as Sebago Lake, chances are you've experienced commuter congestion that is nearly as bad as a Boston suburb.

If we don’t take a close look at the geographic and financial implications of how we get from one place to another, we risk falling into what Alex Baca from the non-profit Greater Greater Washington calls “the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform”. Vehicle emissions are still the greatest contributor of carbon across America. Powering our schools with solar energy is certainly a step forward, but if students and teachers are still driving long distances and street design doesn’t make walking or biking a safe option, then those benefits will be outweighed by the carbon impact of the traffic. Maine has traditionally been a State that cares deeply about the environment. Our culture is rooted in a practical and often times financially conservative approach to solving problems. So why are we focusing so much on technological solutions to a problem that boils down to how to do more with less?

Location matters above all else when it comes to our environmental footprint. Alissa Walker, urbanism editor for Curbed, breaks it down this way: swapping gasoline for electric power in our cars won’t help on it’s own. We need to decrease “vehicle-miles traveled” by giving people the ability to swap car journeys for another mode of transport, whether it’s walking, biking, scooters, busses, or trains. We should re-examine parking policies that promote driving and make unsafe streets a central part of our environmental conversation. We also need to focus on increasing shared trips instead of single passenger transit to reduce congestion and emissions. To be sure, not everyone is willing or able to replace their car journey, but if we really want to make a dent in our environmental impact (and budget expenses), shouldn't we explore ways to give more people the choice to walk, cycle, or use shared transit?

There are already folks in Maine exploring different ways of moving around in our state. It might seem far fetched to dream of a Maine that does not rely on cars, trucks, and SUVs for the bulk of its transportation, but it wasn’t even a century ago that our home state was criss-crossed by trains and streetcars. Maine has a history of vibrant town centers connected by transit. We don’t need to accept cookie-cutter, Massachusetts or Connecticut style suburbs as our future. Looking forward, there is progress both in Maine and nationally when it comes to curbing the cost of sprawl and diversifying transportation options. Portland recently announced its plan to roll out an electric bike share program, while Greater Portland METRO has been beefing up its bus fleet with new technology. A growing number of both public and private buses are moving people within cities and between communities. And affordable shared ride options are cropping up in rural areas and small towns across the state.

Across America, states and towns are looking at policies to reduce the mismatched incentives to locate new development in rural areas, which has tended to result in residential subdivisions and strip malls. Without government subsidies, the fact is that this pattern of low-density growth can’t pay for itself and it stresses both local and state budgets. It also leads to spikes in traffic congestion. Recognizing these costs, communities and states are changing policies and rules related to local parking requirements, traffic studies, school siting, zoning, taxes, and housing tax credits, with the express purpose of making growth more sustainable again. What if, in addition to tackling the green energy transition, our Green New Deal gave some attention to exploring policies for sustainable transportation, strategies to address the way we incentivise suburban sprawl, and how to bring this growth back our downtown areas where it is most frugal and sustainable. This kind of work will require substantial dialogue between the housing, transportation, and energy sectors and a rethink of many long-standing cultural norms and policies.

Part of the mission of the Build Maine conference is to inspire us to look beyond the status quo and apply Maine’s culture of ingenuity to build sustainable and prosperous cities and towns for the next century and beyond. Maine’s Green New Deal opens an important conversation about our future, but, as the saying goes, we can’t get there from here if we don’t examine the basic costs of how we build our cities and transportation systems.