Op-Ed: To Meet New York’s New Climate Law, We’ll Have To Break the Car Culture

The number-one greenhouse-gas offender, as always, is the internal-combustion engine.

Gov. Cuomo loves cars. Can he do what it takes to rein them in, as the new climate-change bill requires? Photo: Governor's office
Gov. Cuomo loves cars. Can he do what it takes to rein them in, as the new climate-change bill requires? Photo: Governor's office

New York’s passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — America’s strongest climate legislation — sets the state on a path toward greening the way we power and heat our homes, get around town, farm, and transport and manufacture goods.

The law seeks to make our economy carbon neutral by 2050, including a requirement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 85 percent. It mandates that we will obtain 70 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2030, moving to 100 percent clean power by 2040. A Climate Action Council of relevant state agencies and public stakeholders from all walks of life will set policy.

Julie Tighe, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Transit advocates know that no discussion on fighting climate change is complete without talking about motor vehicles; now state law has enshrined that principle.

Put simply: Transportation is the number-one source of greenhouse-gas emissions in New York State, and the number-one offender is the internal-combustion engine. It will be a huge challenge, but we need to reduce the use of cars.

There are 11.3 million registered vehicles in New York, the overwhelming majority of which contribute not just to climate change, but also to serious public-health crises, including asthma, heart disease, and traffic deaths.

Technology has provided some fixes. Because conventional gas-powered cars emit 10 times more emissions than electric vehicles, the electrification of cars and buses and other zero-emission technologies can contribute to solving our carbon problem.

Vehicle electrification alone, however, won’t solve the climate crisis. Electric-vehicle batteries require heavy metals, like cobalt and lithium, which will become more rare and expensive in proportion to the rise in electric-car production. Lithium prices have been steadily rising, and increased by 45 percent between 2017 and 2018. Battery disposal also represents a challenge. We are still developing ways to recycle electric-vehicle batteries on a mass scale and, until that gap is closed, they will generate waste.

Realistically, meeting the requirements of the new climate bill will require a reduction in vehicle miles traveled: that is, people will have to get out of their cars and onto public transport, bicycles (or other micro-mobility devices) or their own two feet.

There’s no question that changing New Yorkers’ habits will be hard — but the law will necessitate it. We have to break the car culture; to do that, we must make it easy and desirable to do so.  

Fortunately, plenty of alternatives to automobiles exist that can help us fight climate change. Such alternatives are in a much better position to succeed now that New York City has the first congestion-pricing plan in the nation.

Chief among them is a well-funded public transportation system in which subways, buses, and commuter rail work together. Yes, the city’s system desperately needs repair, and other systems across the state need more funds, too. If we are to truly make public transportation an alternative to cars, we must ensure the system runs smoothly and reliably; congestion pricing will help us do that.

Bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters are also vital to New York’s transportation future, but most urban streets will have to be redesigned for these modes of transportation.

The new climate law and congestion pricing should reinforce each other, however.

As congestion pricing opens up street space in Manhattan for alternative forms of transportation, the new climate law will create a holistic approach to redesigning streets statewide. Policymakers will devise land-use regulations promoting mixed-use streets in order to minimize reliance on personal cars and maximize opportunities for public transit, walking, biking, and other clean forms of transportation.

With a combination of electric or zero-emissions vehicles, a strong public transit system, and street infrastructure that can accommodate alternatives like bikes and scooters, New York will reduce emissions from the transportation sector and meet the requirements of the new law.

Julie Tighe is president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, a non-partisan, statewide environmental organization.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Breaking the car culture will require a restructuring of land use in the suburbs and exurbs. That is a much tougher nut that NYC.

  • Snapperhead

    You better ban Uber and Lyft from NYC – they’re hurting public transit and increasing traffic congestion.

  • Sassojr

    And increase the adoption of motorcycles and scooters – they reduce congestion, pollution, and road wear

  • We can do what we have the power to do here. These are measures that will encourage the car-dependent front-lawn types to move away, and will attract people who understand that urban life inherently means density, public transit, and walkability.

  • Jonathan Teles

    I’m sorry but eliminating cars is not the answer for all. I have a plug in hybrid that can travel for 40mi on electric. My commute to school in the Bronx from Queens takes me less than 30 mins, I tried public transportation once and it took me 2 hours. There are some exceptions to the rule.

  • vnm

    Public transit can be slow but it’s also way less expensive for your commute. Achieving time savings comes at a financial cost that not everyone can manage. Do you get free parking at home and at school? Well, even if you do, if you’re making it to the Bronx from Queens in 30 minutes, I presume you’re taking the Throgg’s Neck, Whitestone or RFK Bridge, which means you’re giving the MTA $12.24 a day, which is more than twice what you’d give them by riding the subway. As long as you’re OK with that level of expenditure, keep driving. Question: How much would the toll have to be to get you to switch?

  • Jonathan Teles

    Well, with this last increase I do most days try to leave really early around 5:45 in order to allow for me to take the 59th street bridge and fdr, which increases my commute to 40-45mins, on the way back I’m stuck with a toll. I would love to take public transportation, but it increases my commute by double the time even in the worst case scenario. Our system is centered in going to Manhattan, ie. My wife makes it to her work in midtown in 30 taking a bus.

  • Sassojr

    If motorcycles/scooters were free on toll bridges, would you consider using one? How discounted would the toll have to be to get you to consider one?

  • Jonathan Teles

    I love motorcycles, used to have one in California, but weather out here doesn’t allow for full time riding, also roads, drivers and laws (no lane splitting) are much worse.

  • Vooch


    I owe you this article ( sorry its in german, but google translate works wonders there days). Its the news that 2/3s of fine particle pollution comes from brake dust, tire dust, and a bit from asphalt dust:


  • Vooch

    1) How would a congestion charge effect your decision making ?

    2) How would a true network of Protected Bikes lanes effect your decision making ?

  • Jonathan Teles

    Unaffected by congestion pricing as I don’t go below 60th st. I live right by Queens Blvd and since we had the bike lanes installed I use them to run errands instead of driving whenever possible, unfortunately the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges have 0 bike lanes so that makes it impossible to go that route.

  • Vooch

    if the bridges had protect bike lanes would you use them occainsionally ?

  • Car congestion will only be reduced when people are given practical solutions to get around. It’s easy to say people just need to walk on their own two feet but that is not considering large populations such as people with disabilities, the elderly and families. If articles like this explained how a mom of three who works full-time and needs to get her kids to after school activities can do all of this on public transportation (and doesn’t have a nanny to assist), then people might take it a little more seriously. In the meantime, people are going to continue to go from point A to point B in the quickest and most efficient manner.

  • Komanoff

    The author urged minimizing, not eliminating, personal autos. That said, are you the only teacher (I’m assuming you teach in the Bronx) commuting from your part of Queens? Can you carpool, which is what I did back in the day when I lived in Chelsea and taught in New Rochelle? And for my edification, could you break down the 2-hour transit commute, door to door? I’m not disputing you, just curious. Thanks.

  • Vooch

    The quickest and most efficent manner in NYC is cycling.

    Especially for the disabled and elderly as this article shows

    If one was serious about protecting the elderly, children, and Moms – we’d do evreything possible to return our streets to be as car free as possible.

  • RyanK

    I live in a north west suburb about 50 miles outside of NYC. Ban cars? Are you crazy? Look at a map of New York STATE. It is huge and vastly rural. How do you suppose people living in these areas will get around without cars when a gallon of milk might be 10 miles away. There are no trains, taxies, buses, or scooters. Biking? You think people living in Otsego county will get on a bike a cycle 20 miles on a zero degree day to get a box of cereal?

  • RyanK

    How does a Mom with kids get them to school, the doctors, etc on a bike? How does my 80 year old parents who live in Northern Queens get to the doctors or the supermarket? They can barely walk and you’re going to tell them to get on a bike or walk? The closet MTA bus stop is 8 blocks away and it does not go any where near where they have to go.

  • Vooch

    read the article I posted – it shows how easy it is for the elderly to get around on bikes. Also the safest.

    As for Moms with kids, thats also been solved long long ago. Moms travel with 3 and 4 littles kids using bikes routinely taking them to school, doctors, playdates, shopping, etc.

    Its not some mystery.

  • Joe R.

    If we’re successful places like that largely will no longer exist, so your points are moot. Suburbs only exist now because of vast direct and indirect subsidies. For example, utility companies are often obligated under law to serve both cities and suburbs. It’s more costly to supply sparsely populated areas with electricity or water, but the utilities are forced by law to charge everyone the same. City dwellers as a result pay more for these things than they otherwise would, while those in suburbs pay substantially less. If we start letting utilities charge based on cost, require builders of isolated housing tracts to maintain roads leading to them, and so forth, living in a suburb will once again become something only the wealthy or farmers can afford, as it was at the turn of the 20th century.

    Of course, if people are willing to live off-grid, generate their own power, grow their own food, and use well water then it’s possible to live in the country if you’re not wealthy. The big problem in the 20th century was the development of suburbs which offered all the amenities of cities but at a very sparse population density. That kind of development was never sustainable. Going forward, we can no longer afford to subsidize it. We’ll most likely start by not maintaining roads in places like upstate so they’ll eventually revert back to dirt roads. We’ll also eventually no longer supply grid power or water. Those who remain will need to become self-sufficient. That makes your driving 10 miles to get a gallon of milk moot. You’ll just go to your barn and milk one of your cows, like people did in the 19th century.

  • Joe R.

    If your parents can barely walk, they most likely can’t safely drive. Driving uses lots of things, including coordination and fast reflexes. These things all slow down with age, and yet we never retest people. We should retest people every 5 years starting at age 50, then annually over age 65. You fail the test, your driving days are over.

    The best thing for your parents would be to live with someone who takes care of their needs. Multigenerational households were how mankind lived for most of its existence. We need to go back to this for a bunch of reasons.

    Also, if we stopped setting things up for cars, then places wouldn’t be so insanely far apart. Your parents might have a doctor or supermarket a few blocks away. If they can’t walk far, they can use a mobility scooter. In fact, they can use one even now to run their errands.

  • Joe R.

    What time do you start work? If you start at 9 like a lot of teachers do then your morning commute is really taking you 2 hours and 15 minutes, not 40 to 45 minutes. You have to count the dead time in between when you arrive at work and when you can actually start working.

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  • RyanK

    Ah, got it. So the central plan is to not only ban cars but also relocate millions of people into the Cities. What happens when these millions of people don’t move into the Cities? You’ll get some box cars trains and force them at gun point into your utopian version of how we should all live? All of this is just the same ridiculous, unhinged pie in the sky, drivel I’ve heard for at least the past 30 years. I grew up in Queens, work in midtown but live 50 miles north of the city in a suburb. I would never want to raise a family in urban area. Cars are here to stay. Currently there are about 253 million vehicles on the road in the US, 3.7 million more than last year. Next year there will be more. I will happily be buying my 3rd car this summer.

  • 6SJ7

    In many parts of NYC away from the subway lines cars are also a necessity. Eastern Queens, parts of Southwest Brooklyn, Northeast Bronx and all of Staten Island.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Interesting — both the article and Google Translate.

    Steel dust, after all, is the biggest pollution problem in the subway for the same reasons. But there is probably a lot less of it. And more iron in the blood won’t kill you.

    The possible social implications of Google Translate, and the widespread availability of smartphones, are revolutionary. Suddenly it will be possible for people all over the world to communicate by texting. Imagine generations of teenagers who grow up communicating with their peers globally. They’d be a lot less likely to fall for the tribalist BS, I’d bet.

  • Joe R.

    No, the general idea is a generational change where you might remain in the suburbs until you die but your children will live in either a city or a denser inner-ring suburb. Note also there is a whole range of density between Manhattan and the middle of nowhere. I live in a house in eastern Queens. It’s on a 40’x100′ lot which is zoned for up to 2 or 3 family. A mix of such single and 2/3 family homes can provide up to 20K per square mile, which is sufficient density to support public transit, biking, and walking. Despite that, you still have a nice amount of space.

    I would never want to raise a family in urban area.

    What’s wrong with an urban area like I just described? Why do people need to have a 4000 square foot house with a park-sized plot of land? That kind of development is unsustainable if lots of people live that way. The idea here is to go back to more sensible land use arrangements, such as existed prior to automobiles. If you want to continue to live in the middle of nowhere, then you would either make sure you earn enough to pay the true cost of providing urban style amenities (electricity, cable, paved roads, water/sewer, etc.) in such a place, or live off grid. The latter means generating your own power, digging a well for water, using a septic tank, growing your own food, including meat, and making do with dirt roads for the rare times you need to venture away from your residence.

    Cars are here to stay. Currently there are about 253 million vehicles on the road in the US, 3.7 million more than last year. Next year there will be more. I will happily be buying my 3rd car this summer.

    The idea isn’t to get rid of all cars. The idea is to make the need to own one optional for most people. Another goal is to goal private autos out of cities altogether. If you want to live in the middle of nowhere and drive around there, it doesn’t affect me. When you and millions of others drive into my city, it affects me in a huge, negative manner. That’s the thing. The benefits of a car mainly accrue only to the user. For everyone else they’re a negative. So the future will be a lot fewer motor vehicles in cities, mostly only emergency vehicles, buses, sanitation trucks, construction vehicles, delivery trucks, and paratransit. No more private autos. You can still have private motorized vehicles like e-bikes or e-scooters. Those are really the future of mobility in cities.

    I grew up in Queens, work in midtown but live 50 miles north of the city in a suburb.

    I really hope you’re taking commuter rail to work. If we have lots of development near rail stations then suburbs can sort of work. They would basically be like small towns, where you can walk or take a short bike ride for most errands, and take the train into the city for work. Sort of how older suburbs worked prior to the automobile.

    That said, back in the mid 1980s I commuted 70 miles each way to Princeton as a student. It was draining enough doing that for a few years. Anyone who commutes 50 miles each way to a job should frankly have their head examined. What’s the point of paying for a home you only sleep in? You would have been better off staying in Queens.

  • Joe R.

    I live in Eastern Queens. I never had either a car or a driver’s license. They’re not a necessity here. They’re a convenience.

  • Emmeaki

    That’s the problem with this whole country. Outside of places like NYC, everything is too far away. What idiots decided to design American cities with a bunch of houses and every single business miles away from where people live? Even if I had a car, I would not want to drive several miles just to get toilet paper or some basic necessities. This is why I’d never move to a rural area.

  • Joe R.

    Zoning is the entire problem. You’ll have different areas zoned for residential, commercial, educational, and industrial, often separated by miles of nothing. While in some cases it makes sense to keep industrial apart if there are noise or safety issues, there is no reason to have separate areas for the other three uses. Mixed use zoning should be adopted everywhere.

  • Joe R.

    And more iron in the blood won’t kill you.

    Unless you happen to run into this guy:

  • Vooch


    Tribalist Paranoia ? – true to a certain degree. Shamefully many of our leaders (local) thrive off creating paranoia – if I hear one more story about the cossacks……

    As for the data in the article. I’m hoping you can help make it more widely known. There seems to be a belief among many NYs that once the glorious future of BEV cars arrive; pollution will end.

    Thank you for all you do to hightlight the budget-Post retirement benefits saga.

  • Vooch


    Being a gov’t employee with a parking placard has its privilages doesn’t it?

    You do know that your placard is considered by the IRS taxable compensation. In Midtown, thats worth slightly over $1,000/month in taxable income.

  • Vooch


    Its terrifying to hear this repeatedly – someone’s elderly parents are too infirm to safely sit on a trike or walk to the corner bodega; But are perfectly capable of safely operating a 4,000lbs 300HP machine at 45MPH on NYC streets ?

  • @Larry Littlefield – What’s your source on “steel dust” (any language)?

  • @Vooch – I’ve been warning about brake dust and tire dust for decades. In San Francisco there was even a project to replace STOPs with traffic circles to reduce brake dust (but then the professionals got involved and made them too small to calm traffic and added STOPs since nobody would slow down for small traffic circles and then removed the traffic circles since they “failed”).

  • @Jonathan Teles – The article is about climate.

    Is your electricity not based on fossil fuels? Do you scrupulously only charge off-peak (many claim to, few do)? How well do PHEVs and EVs scale up to address climate change? What percentage of cars on the road do you imagine it will take until “off-peak” doesn’t exist?

  • @TooTall – If 80% of the population can use active transportation modes and/or a greater percentage can use transit, that frees up resources for the remainder who can’t.

  • Vooch


    I alwasy knew that brake and tire dust was a ‘thing’ but I didn’t realize that its 2/3rds of fine particle pollution.

    2/3s is yuge

  • @Vooch – Good point on 2/3s being yuge, that needs to be stressed more.

  • Andrew

    I’m sorry but eliminating cars is not the answer for all.

    Nobody said that it is. Perhaps driving a car makes the most sense for your personal commute. That doesn’t mean that it makes the most sense for everybody else who drives to work, nor does it mean that it makes the most sense for all of your non-commute trips.

    I have a plug in hybrid that travel for 40mi on electric.

    That’s great, but air pollution isn’t the only negative externality caused by driving. Other negative externalities include noise pollution, space consumption, and safety. (Not an exhaustive list.)

    And see the paragraph of this piece beginning “Vehicle electrification alone.”

    My commute to school in the Bronx from Queens takes me less than 30 mins,

    Except you later reveal that you leave home at 5:45, so unless you are productively working at 6:15, your commute functionally takes longer than 30 minutes.

    On the flip side, while I’m on the subway to work, I’m answering emails on my phone. While I’m commuting, I’m also productively working. If I drove to work, I’d lose that productive time.

    I tried public transportation once and it took me 2 hours.

    You tried it once?

    There are some exceptions to the rule.

    What rule?

  • Andrew

    I live in a north west suburb about 50 miles outside of NYC. Ban cars? Are you crazy?

    This piece does not suggest banning cars. It suggests “a reduction in vehicle miles traveled” and means of achieving that broad goal.

    Biking? You think people living in Otsego county will get on a bike a cycle 20 miles on a zero degree day to get a box of cereal?

    Maybe we could start by repealing the laws that render it illegal to open a grocery store in walking distance of a residential neighborhood.

  • Andrew

    How does a Mom with kids get them to school, the doctors, etc on a bike?

    If a bike doesn’t make sense for her, has she considered using the transit system?

    And why must mom escort her children to school and everywhere else they go? My parents certainly didn’t escort me to school when I was a child, and the city was a lot less safe back then.

    How does my 80 year old parents who live in Northern Queens get to the doctors or the supermarket? They can barely walk and you’re going to tell them to get on a bike or walk? The closet MTA bus stop is 8 blocks away and it does not go any where near where they have to go.

    They can barely walk but they still have the visual and mental acuity to drive safely? Just checking.

    By the way, you might want to take a look at who is inside the cars you see passing by. Are cars mostly being used, in fact, for the two use cases you raise? Certainly not in my experience – not even close.

  • Andrew

    The many people who live in those areas who don’t own cars, or who own cars but regularly use other modes, beg to differ. Transit does not comprise only the subway system.

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