What is Active Transportation?
Charlie Cobb, the Active Transportation fellow reflects on his introduction to active transportation and his realization of the importance of it.
When I first found out what my role would be within the Resilience Corps program, I was honestly conflicted about whether or not I should accept it. I applied to the Resilience Corps because I wanted to do work that would have a real impact and increase the resilience of Maine communities in the face of the climate crisis and I wasn’t sure that supporting “active transportation” (whatever that was) and improving the mapping of public walking and biking trails would really address those goals. However, after spending the past four months working in rural Idaho, I was feeling very homesick for New England. I also enjoy being outside and I love maps, so I decided I would take the job.
And, I’m so glad I did! As it turns out, active transportation (which, as I soon learned, includes all people-powered modes of transport (mainly walking and biking)) is very relevant to the climate crisis (and public health and racial and socio-economic equity). Active transportation is relevant to the climate crisis because inactive (passive? traditional? fossil fuel-driven?) transportation produces more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than any other sector in the US1. In 2018, transportation accounted for 28% of all US emissions, and 83% of transportation emissions came from cars and trucks1. In Maine, the statistics are even more staggering, with 54% of GHG emissions coming from transportation in 20172. Furthermore, due to decades of car-oriented policies and development decisions that enable (and force) people to drive more, emissions from transportation have increased 22% from 1990-2017, despite gains in fuel efficiency1. While much of the transportation sector can be decarbonized by the adoption of electric vehicles, transitioning to EVs will take so long, that without expanded active and public transportation, we will not even come close to meeting our climate targets1. Indeed, according to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, under current policies, EVs will account for just 7% of the global vehicle fleet by 20301. Therefore, the promotion of active transportation to enable people to drive less will be essential if society is to meet our climate targets and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Beyond its massive climate impacts, our current car-oriented transportation system also has big negative impacts on public health. From 2008-2017, 49,340 pedestrians were killed by cars in the US, and BIPOC, low-income people, and older adults were disproportionately harmed3. Additionally, the vast amount of pavement used to create the parking lots and multi-lane highways that cars require, exacerbates the urban heat island effect, leading to greater instances of heat stroke1,4,5. Furthermore, emissions from cars worsen air quality, leading to increased frequencies of respiratory illnesses4,5.
Along with its negative public health impacts, car-oriented development is also inherently inequitable. Not everyone can afford a car and in an environment that is designed for car transportation, it can be difficult for those without cars to access essential services (healthcare, grocery stores, jobs, etc.). Additionally, car-based transportation infrastructure has historically been concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color, and has served to either displace these communities or make walking and biking much less safe3. Here in Portland, Maine, the Franklin Street arterial displaced an entire neighborhood of mostly immigrant families when it was constructed in the 1960s, and it remains a barrier to safe walking and biking today6. Sadly, there are thousands of transportation projects like Franklin Street throughout the US, and the impacts that they’ve had on communities of color remain largely unaddressed.
The Franklin Street arterial
At this point, I hope that I’ve convinced you that our current car-oriented transportation system has serious negative impacts on the environment, public health, and racial and economic equity. However, you may wonder if active transportation is actually a viable alternative to the personal car. In some cases, it’s not. Having lived in a rural area pretty much all my life (Portland is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in), I will be the first to admit that you need a car to live in a rural area. However, in a city or large town, where most of your destinations are within three miles, active transportation becomes much more viable.
As I walk Portland Trails’ trails for my service, I imagine what the city might look like without cars. I imagine community gardens, parks, and high-density affordable housing in the place of parking lots and multi-lane freeways. I imagine how much safer and more comfortable I would feel walking and biking if there were fewer cars, slower speed limits, better street crossings, and more walking and biking trails. I think of how nice it might be to hear the sounds of the ocean and the birds, instead of the constant drone of cars. I think back to the very beginning of the pandemic, when everybody was at home hoarding toilet paper, and I remember going out for a bike ride on the muddy dirt roads in my hometown and tangibly feeling how much clearer the air was with hardly any cars on the roads. It was probably the cleanest air I have ever breathed. How great would it be to get that every single day?!
One of the aspects of the climate crisis that I struggle with the most is loss. At 1.1 C of warming, we have already lost so many lives, homes, traditions, species, and glaciers, and even if we’re able to limit warming to 1.5 C, more loss is guaranteed. To cope with these feelings of loss, I try to remind myself that if we address the climate crisis properly, we will also have a lot to gain - like cleaner air and more equitable cities where people without cars can get around just as easily as those with them. In this way, active transportation represents my hope for a safer, cleaner, and more just future, and despite my initial misgivings, I’m thrilled to be working on it.
Charlie grew up in the small, rural town of Westford, Vermont. As a kid, Charlie spent lots of time hiking, cross-country skiing, and exploring Vermont’s Green Mountains, leading him to develop a lifelong commitment to conservation. This commitment led him to attend Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where he graduated in 2020 with a BA in Environmental Science. After graduation, Charlie worked a variety of jobs from election campaigning to youth ski coaching, to hardware store retail. Most recently, Charlie worked in an AmeriCorps position, constructing cattle fences and monitoring fish health for the Federal Bureau of Reclamation in Cascade, Idaho. In his free time, Charlie enjoys cross-country skiing, hiking, mountain biking, running, and kayaking. He also likes to read books, watch Netflix, and spend time with friends. As a Resilience Corps member, Charlie is excited to learn about and explore the Greater Portland area and help create a more viable and accessible active (non-car) transportation system.