Transforming Transportation in Michigan

When people think of Michigan, they think of cars. And for good reason: Michigan is the home of the American auto industry. We have a storied history of union workers building iconic vehicles. Finally, those vehicles are now going electric. There’s a lot to be excited about in this overdue transition, but there is much more that Michigan must do to transform its transportation sector in an equitable way and at the pace required by the climate crisis.  

A new Sierra Club report, with independent modeling from Synapse Energy Economics, shows what Michigan stands to gain from going beyond the gas-powered status quo and pursuing a clean transportation system.

Such a transformation would supercharge EV manufacturing in our state and across the nation. It would also enable Michigan to protect its communities from the worsening impacts of climate change and the toxic air pollution that comes with a system reliant on polluting vehicles.

A transportation system marked by sprawling highways and dependent on gas-powered private vehicles is not only unsustainable; it is also expensive, and harmful to everyone’s health, especially residents of communities already overburdened by pollution. 

Communities like the 48217 in southwest Detroit, a majority Black community known as Michigan’s most toxic zip code, are surrounded by many sources of pollution, including industrial pollution from refineries and highway traffic from cars and trucks. Reducing tailpipe emissions from motor vehicles and expanding access to reliable and affordable public transit, especially in highly-trafficked sacrifice zones like 48217, will prevent illness, respiratory disease, and countless premature deaths.

In order for Michigan to meet its own climate and public health goals, as outlined in Governor Whitmer’s Healthy Climate Plan, it’s going to have to ramp up its commitments and double down on more ambitious policies.

What does this mean? The current trajectory we are on does not align with our 2050 climate goals. We are going to need, at least, 100 percent EV sales by 2035 and a 7.5 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled (per vehicle) to get us there. Reducing the need to drive will require refashioning our communities so bikers, pedestrians, and public transit users can easily and safely move around and ensure that public transit is located next to affordable housing.

2050 feels far away, and it can be hard to imagine how our world will look nearly 30 years from now. The foundation we build now will have a lasting impact for decades, and so we must take action now to transform our transportation sector. Vehicles typically stay on the road for around 12 years, and big changes in land use will also take years to realize. The sooner we start, the better.