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Zoning norms slow efforts to cut transportation pollution in Connecticut

Connecticut won’t achieve its 2030 climate targets if it leans on electric vehicles alone to lower transportation emissions. The state also needs to convince residents to drive less.

The state Department of Transportation is trying to figure out how to do that. As part of a broader carbon-cutting initiative, the agency aims to reduce the number of annual vehicle miles traveled by 400 miles per person by the end of the decade. 

But their strategizing may be undercut by a major obstacle: local zoning policies that prohibit dense residential development. 

“It’s actually land use that most impacts vehicle miles traveled — the further away that people live from where they need to go, the more miles they are going to drive,” said Robert Bell, the DOT’s director of strategic and environmental planning. “Changes in land use development patterns is the biggest ticket item. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont charged the department with setting a 2030 goal to reduce vehicle miles traveled as part of his carbon-cutting plan in 2021. In its report setting a goal of a 5% reduction by 2030, the agency emphasized that its tools alone cannot compensate for land use patterns. 

Local zoning overwhelmingly favors single-family homes spread out on individual lots, as opposed to multifamily homes and apartment buildings. Single-family homes are allowed on more than 90% of the state’s land, while multifamily housing with four or more units is permitted on just 2.2% of land, according to an online zoning atlas developed by Desegregate CT, a pro-housing advocacy group.

In order to reduce the rate of growth in vehicle miles traveled, “municipalities would need to consider amending zoning laws to allow denser development, particularly near their downtown centers,” according to the agency’s report. 

A bill supported by Desegregate CT would do just that. Under so-called “Work Live Ride” legislation, municipalities that zone for multi-use districts near mass transit that meet certain housing density and affordability requirements would receive priority for a variety of state grants and assistance programs. 

Building more transit-oriented districts would deliver equity, economic and environmental benefits, said Pete Harrison, director of Desegregate CT. 

“Common sense tells us that we can’t keep building car-centric subdivisions further out from urban cores and expect any progress on auto emissions reductions,” he said. 

Lamont included funding for Work Live Ride in his initial budget proposal to lawmakers, but that funding was not included in the Appropriations Committee’s counter budget, Harrison said. The legislation is now being considered along with other housing legislation as part of one big omnibus bill, and Harrison said he is hopeful that the measure will emerge mostly intact before the session comes to an end next month. 

In the meantime, transportation officials have identified a number of programs under their control that can help reduce vehicle miles traveled. 

For example, the Community Connectivity Grant Program provides construction grants of up to $800,000 for local initiatives that improve safety and accessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists in and around community centers. The program has awarded more than 100 grants totaling around $38 million so far, and is currently accepting applications for the next round of awards, Bell said. 

The agency has a “road diet” program that reduces the number of auto lanes on a multi-lane roadway, allowing for wider shoulders for bicyclists. 

And when it comes to public transit, the agency’s Time for CT initiative is aimed at reducing travel times on commuter rails, making it more convenient for commuters. And the CT Rides program engages with large employers to promote alternative forms of worker transport, such as carpooling, vanpooling, and bicycling. 

“There is not a direct link between vehicle miles traveled and any of these programs — it’s driven by population growth, land use development, gas prices, the economy,” Bell said. “But we still want to analyze our programs as to how effective they are at influencing people to make a mode switch.”

The agency is expected to provide an update on its progress at the end of the year. 

Jay Stange, coordinator of the Transport Hartford Academy, which advocates for residents who don’t have cars, said he is excited about the policy and thinks the 5% reduction is doable. The 400 miles per year target amounts to about a mile less per person per day. Since at least a third of residents’ car trips are less than 10 miles, Stange said, “there are a lot of options to address the low-hanging fruit of those short trips.” 

One of the newest is a rebate program for electric bikes. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will roll out the program on June 28. Residents can receive a $500 rebate off a bicycle purchased for less than $3,000 from a Connecticut retailer. Low-income residents and residents of environmental justice communities are eligible for an additional $1,000 off. 

“We think that’s going to be one of the pieces of the puzzle,” Stange said. 

At the same time, however, Harrison expressed concern that policymakers are working at cross-purposes to cutting car emissions with their recent discussion about slashing funding for and service on the Shore Line East commuter rail due to low ridership levels.

“One step forward, one step back,” Harrison said. “You can’t support transit-oriented districts without having an equal commitment to supporting and expanding transit service. At some point you have to take a leap of faith and say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

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