How Massachusetts can move toward zero-carbon transportation

We can transition to a clean, efficient, low-carbon transportation system. What would that look like in Massachusetts?

Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts

We can transition to a clean, efficient, low-carbon transportation system.

That’s the message of Destination: Zero Carbon, a report released this week by Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group.

Today, transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States, with light-duty vehicles (like cars, pickups, and SUVs) contributing the greatest share of those emissions. In fact, America’s light-duty vehicles emit more carbon each year than the entire emissions of any country in the world except China, India, Russia, and Japan.

The report outlines three strategies to transition the United States to a zero-carbon transportation system:

1. Ensure that all personal vehicles sold after 2035 are electric.

2. Electrify all transit and school buses by 2030.

3. Double the number of people who travel by walking, biking and public transit by 2030.

When we achieve these goals — along with a transition to an electric grid powered by 100% renewable energy — virtually every trip will be powered by renewable energy, or taken by foot or by bike.

How can we make progress toward these goals in Massachusetts?

At Environment Massachusetts, our top priority is to transition Massachusetts to 100% clean and renewable energy, from sources like the sun and the wind. When we say “100% renewable energy,” we mean not just the energy we use to generate electricity, but also the energy that powers our transportation system and heats our homes and businesses.

The 100% Renewable Energy Act (H.2836), filed by Representative Marjorie Decker and Representative Sean Garballey, will put Massachusetts on a path to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and 100% renewable energy for transportation and heating by 2045.

A majority of legislators have endorsed the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act. Currently, the 100% Renewable Energy Act is pending before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which must approve the bill before it can move to a vote of the full House and Senate. Passing this bill would go a long way toward achieving a zero-carbon transportation system.

The Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) is another important initiative to reduce carbon emissions from our transportation system. TCI would establish a cap on transportation emissions in Massachusetts and other states, and generate revenue that could be invested in clean transportation options.

Here are some other steps the Commonwealth should take to implement the recommendations in Destination: Zero Carbon:

1. Ensure that all personal vehicles sold after 2035 are electric.

Permanently authorize and fund incentives for electric vehicles: While the first modern electric vehicles (EVs) only hit the road in the late 2000s, today there are more than 40 EV models on the market. In 2018, 360,000 EVs were sold in the United States. EVs are more than three times as efficient as cars powered by fossil fuels. Increasing the deployment of EVs will reduce emissions and clean up our air today, and these benefits will only become greater as the percentage of our electricity generated with renewable energy grows.

The MOR-EV program, offered by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, provides rebates of up to $2,500 for the purchase or lease of electric vehicles. Together with the federal EV tax credit, MOR-EV makes buying an electric vehicle a more affordable option. Since its creation in 2014, MOR-EV has incentivized the purchase of more than 15,000 zero- and low-emission vehicles.

Funding for MOR-EV has been inconsistent. Legislation recently passed by the Massachusetts Senate would permanently authorize the MOR-EV program, but doesn’t provide a funding source. TCI is one possible source of revenue to fund MOR-EV.

Expand the electric vehicle charging network: For EVs to become the default option, we need to make it easier for people to charge their cars where they live and work. Massachusetts has taken some steps in this direction, such as providing incentives for employers to install EV charging stations in their parking lots. Incentives are also available to install EV chargers at multi-family residential buildings and lots accessible to the public. But there is more that can be done.

We should require new residential and commercial buildings and parking garages to include EV chargers, and for a certain percentage of parking spaces to be “EV-ready,” with wiring configured to easily install EV chargers in the future. Last year, the Commonwealth’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards adopted a policy requiring only a single EV-ready parking space in new commercial buildings with more than 15 total parking spaces. While this action is a step forward, it is far short of what is needed.

Additionally, the Commonwealth should mandate the installation of chargers along major highways. The Massachusetts Senate recently voted to require electric vehicle charging stations at all service plazas along the Massachusetts Turnpike by the end of 2022.

Set goals to phase out fossil fuel vehicles: Representative Jonathan Hecht has filed An Act relative to a clean transportation future (H.2869), which would prohibit the registration of vehicles powered by fossil fuels beginning in 2038. In practice, this would mean that all new cars registered in Massachusetts would be EVs or other zero-emission vehicles.

2. Electrify all transit and school buses by 2030.

Adopt electric bus commitments: LA Metro plans to transition to all-electric buses by 2030, while New York’s MTA has committed to transition its entire fleet to electric buses by 2040 and add 1,800 electric buses within ten years. The MBTA is piloting a handful of battery electric buses along its Silver Line routes, but has not made a firm commitment to add more electric buses to its fleet.

Advocates are asking the MBTA to make at least 50% of the buses purchased in the 2021-2024 Capital Investment Plan electric, to purchase only electric buses starting in 2030, and to transition to a fully electric fleet by 2040. The Senate’s clean transportation bill would set similar 2030 and 2040 targets for the MBTA. Additionally, Representative Dave Rogers has filed legislation (H.3121) that would require all school buses and transit buses in Massachusetts to be electric vehicles by 2035.

While the MBTA has lagged on electric bus implementation, some regional transit authorities (RTAs) and municipal governments have moved more quickly. Transit authorities in the Pioneer Valley and Worcester have deployed electric buses, and the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority plans to replace its entire 33-bus fleet with electric buses. Concord, Amherst, and Cambridge participated in a pilot program to test the use of electric school buses. Regional transit authorities and school systems across the Commonwealth should work to transition their entire bus fleets to zero-emission vehicles.

3. Double the number of people who travel by walking, biking and public transit by 2030.

Ensure that walking and biking are safe, accessible, and enjoyable: Every trip taken by bike or on foot is a trip that requires no gasoline. Unfortunately, our streets are not always designed to make it safe or easy for people to get around without a car.

Some recent road projects have done a better job of prioritizing bike and pedestrian travel. For example, the redesign of Commonwealth Avenue between the Boston University Bridge and Packard’s Corner in Boston includes a protected bike lane in both directions, separated from traffic by a curb and a row of parked cars.

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration is also investing in off-street bike infrastructure. The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs recently announced a $13.7 million grant to complete the Northern Strand Bike Trail, which connects Everett, Lynn, Malden, Revere, and Saugus.

Improve bus service: Our bus system should provide safe, reliable, clean, and affordable transit for all of us. But when buses have to share the road with cars, traffic can lead to severe delays.

To make bus service faster and more reliable, communities such as Everett, Cambridge, and Watertown have set aside designated bus-only lanes on key routes. In Arlington, a bus-only lane on Massachusetts Avenue reduced the length of the average bus trip between Arlington Center and Porter Square by six minutes. Expanding the network of bus-only lanes, along with providing more frequent service, would improve the experience of bus riders across the Commonwealth.

Officials in Everett and Somerville recently applied for a grant to study extending Silver Line bus rapid transit service into their communities from its current terminus in Chelsea.

Adequately fund the regional transit authorities: Outside of the immediate Boston area, Massachusetts’ 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) are often the only public transit option available. A lack of adequate funding for the RTAs has led to significant service cuts. Baseline funding for the RTAs was set at $87 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget, an increase of $5 million over the previous year. Governor Baker has proposed $90.5 million for the RTAs in his 2021 budget, an important step toward adequate transit service.

Improve and expand commuter rail and subway service: It seems like hardly a week goes by without news of a breakdown or major delay on the MBTA’s commuter rail and subway systems. Aside from bringing our rail lines up to a good state of repair, there are several ways the MBTA can provide expanded and improved service:

  • Regional Rail, a proposal introduced by the advocacy organization Transit Matters, would provide frequent, all-day service along commuter rail lines. By replacing diesel locomotives with electric trains, building elevated platforms for level boarding, and making other infrastructure improvements, the MBTA could make commuter rail service faster and more reliable. The MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board has endorsed the vision behind regional rail and outlined initial improvements to the Fairmount, Providence, and Rockport lines.
  • The Green Line Extension, scheduled to be completed in December 2021, will increase access to public transit in Somerville, Cambridge, and Medford. Other proposals to expand the region’s subway and light rail system include further extending the Green Line to Route 16 on the Medford/Somerville border; connecting the Blue Line with the Red Line at Charles/MGH; extending the other end of the Blue Line from Wonderland to Lynn; and replacing the Needham commuter rail line with Orange Line and Green Line service.
  • South Coast Rail will bring commuter rail access to residents of Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River — the only major cities within a 50-mile radius of Boston that lack train service.
  • The North-South Rail Link would connect the two halves of Massachusetts’ commuter rail system, allowing for improved service and new connections between suburban communities.
  • East-West Rail would link Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston with high-speed train service.

End subsidies that make driving artificially cheap: Gas taxes and registration fees don’t generate enough revenue to pay for maintaining highways, streets, and bridges, which means that all of us end up subsidizing the cost of driving through our general taxes. Additionally, the many negative externalities of driving — including carbon emissions and health-harming pollution — aren’t captured anywhere in the cost of operating a vehicle.

Ending the subsidies that make driving artificially cheap will help accelerate our transition to more sustainable modes of transportation. Congestion pricing, a market-based approach to managing traffic, is one policy that has yielded positive results in other cities. Congestion pricing could be implemented in different ways in Massachusetts. Tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike and other highways could vary depending on the time of day or level of traffic, or drivers could be assessed a fee for entering downtown Boston.

Free or low-cost street parking is another hidden subsidy for driving. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has proposed instituting a modest fee for street parking permits in Boston.


There is no shortage of ideas for how to move Massachusetts toward a zero-carbon transportation system. When we eliminate fossil fuels from our transportation system, our air will be cleaner, our communities will be healthier, and we’ll take a big bite out of Massachusetts’ global warming pollution.

It’s up to state and local officials to adopt the policies that will take us in the right direction — and it’s up to all of us to demand action.


Thank you to Veena Dharmaraj, Conservation and Development Program Manager for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, and Gideon Weissman, Policy Analyst for Frontier Group, for providing feedback on a draft of this blog post. The views expressed in this blog post are mine, and any errors are definitely mine.


Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts