Nearly a hundred Philadelphia policymakers, public health practitioners, environmentalists, and citizens attended a public roundtable discussion Tuesday evening, which focused on Philadelphia’s transportation and public health policy.
The event, hosted by PennFuture and Clean Air Council, featured speakers from SEPTA, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Philadelphia Department of Health, and the Eastern PA Alliance for Clean Transportation. Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) delivered an opening keynote.
“People have become deaf to the horns of traffic. Instead of planning for clean air, we plan for congestion,” said Bullock. “People want sustainable transportation, and fighting for these programs can increase the quality of life for all Philadelphians. We need to fight for those who do not have a seat at the table – our elders and our children.”
Transportation recently surpassed electricity generation as the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States.
[Editor’s Note: In Pennsylvania, the largest contributor is electric generation-- 104.7 million tons in 2012, industrial sources-- 80.3 million tons and transportation is third at 64.74 million tons, as inventoried in Pennsylvania’s recently published 2015 Climate Action Plan Update (page 17).]
Rep. Bullock called attention to the 126 annual deaths in Philadelphia from poor air quality and also highlighted transportation’s economic burden. “Transportation is the third largest cost to low-income people, behind food and shelter.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released the Technical Assessment Report on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and carbon pollution standards for cars and light trucks, which revealed that automakers are rapidly adopting stronger fuel economy strategies for model years 2022-2025. But experts say that we need to think beyond fuel economy.
“A lot of lower-income people are dependent on cars because they live in the city but work in the suburbs. There is an equity issue that needs to be addressed when we talk about behavioral change,” said Christine Knapp, director at the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
“Something that’s really important for behavioral change is for people to understand the risks of driving a vehicle that emits pollution,” said Jessica Caum MA, MPH, CPH, assistant program manager in Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness at the Department of Health.
Air pollution and climate change is increasingly placing a heavier burden on Philadelphia.
In 2015, Philadelphia suffered four red ozone days for the first time in three years. Exposure to outdoor air during red ozone days poses a threat to public health, even without a pre-existing sensitivity, such as asthma.
This year, Philadelphia has already witnessed three red ozone days, and broke a 114 year old precipitation record as well as a 1999 heat record.
“The simplest and easiest solution to our air quality issues is the enforcement of our anti-idling regulations,” said Tony Bandiero, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation.
“We need to eliminate the need for cars by supporting denser development so that people can walk, and encourage mode shift so we use cars less,” added Knapp.
“SEPTA is converting its bus fleet to hybrid and battery electric. Right now, the best thing we can do is to get people to ride public transit,” said Erik Johanson, director of innovation at SEPTA. Fuel taxes “allow us to invest in better transit, but with a carbon tax there is the potential for more regenerative income.”
Pennsylvania is ranked seventh nationally in carbon pollution from transportation and has benefited from an influx of federal funding for electric buses and charging stations, in addition to new transportation infrastructure like traffic lights, multi-modal trails, and bus stops.
“Workplace electric vehicle charging is one the best options available,” Bandiero said. “I hope the utilities get involved because we all pay utility taxes.” But Bandiero cautioned, “keep your mind open to all types of fuel sources — there is no silver bullet.”“Are the Ubers and Lyfts of the world good or bad things,” asked Johanson. “They can work together for and against public transit. We are in a very, very disruptive moment in transportation history.”