Transportation Policy and the Climate: We’re Doing it (Almost) All Wrong

The U.S. has 35 years to build a transportation system in which the average American drives as much as the average German or Brit does today. How do we get there?

If we’re going to successfully address global warming, three things about transportation need to change: we need to reduce growth in overall travel, shift more travel to low-emitting modes, and make each mile traveled by every mode more energy efficient.

There are two new reports out this month that speak to the role transportation planning and policy can – and must – play in addressing global warming. One, by an international coalition called Bridging the Gap, builds on work done in recent years by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to develop emission reduction pathways consistent with keeping global temperature increases under 2°C. The second report, by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), shows how shifting more travel to buses, trains and bikes can not only reduce global warming pollution but also deliver $100 trillion in savings worldwide.

Americans are already driving less and taking transit and biking more, which is good news for the climate. A report we will issue next week finds that Americans are driving about 330 billion fewer miles today than we would have if Driving Boom-era increases in vehicle travel had continued. That step alone is keeping 139 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.[1] Couple that with the Obama administration’s fuel economy and emission standards for cars (named by The Economist this week the sixth most-effective greenhouse gas emission reducing step in the world), and there is real progress being made.

But we need to do a lot more if we are going to hit our climate protection marks, especially when it comes to reducing growth in vehicle travel and shifting to sustainable modes. The IEA’s research has found that the U.S. would need to reduce per-capita travel in light-duty vehicles to roughly the level of the typical Western industrialized (OECD) country today – or by at least 30 percent – to remain consistent with a 2°C increase in global temperatures. (See chart below.)


IEA 2013 as included in Bridging the Gap and SLoCaT, Land Transport’s Contribution to a 2°C Target. “VKT”=vehicle-kilometers traveled; “2DS”=2 degree scenario; “4DS”=4 degree scenario

In other words, the U.S. has 35 years to build a transportation system in which the average American drives as much as the average German or Brit does today. How do we get there?

The Bridging the Gap report discusses a few steps that, while sort of obvious, are also completely counter-cultural in the context of U.S. transportation policy:

Actually have a plan – “Support from the national level is vital for the success of a sector wide decarbonization strategy for transport,” according to the report. “Devolution” is no solution; having a clearly articulated national strategy for encouraging the use of low-emitting forms of transportation is. Such a strategy has not been forthcoming from the U.S. Department of Transportation, whose draft 2014-18 strategic plan, while it discusses the need to reduce carbon emissions and promote livable communities, includes no specific goals or targets for increasing the use of low-emitting modes of travel (other than a placeholder for increasing intercity rail ridership) or reducing vehicle use.

Stop subsidizing fossil fuels and driving – “Not sufficiently taxing or even subsidizing fossil fuels makes any measure to reduce transport related greenhouse gas emissions very challenging.” No kidding. The United States continues to subsidize fossil fuels and continues to dump more and more general tax revenue each year – $52 billion since 2008 – into the Highway Trust Fund, keeping the highway expansion machine humming along. There are also countless other subsidies and incentives for driving that are so deeply ingrained as to be all but ignored – a good example being the federal income tax exclusion for commuter parking. (Look for a new report on this in a few weeks.) Every dollar spent encouraging Americans to drive is both a dollar wasted in terms of climate protection, and a dollar that is no longer available to expand the availability of sustainable transportation choices to more Americans.

Redirect funding to sustainable modes and support local initiatives – “In many countries,” the report states, “central governments claim motor fuel and registration fee revenues and apply these to construction of highways, while cities lack access to funding for transport infrastructure and services and lack the mandate or capability to develop effective financing structures.” The U.S. certainly fits this picture. As this new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts documents, local governments bear a disproportionate share of the financial burden for transit, while federal and state funds flow largely to highway projects. If the United States is going to be serious about reducing emissions from transportation as part of a broad strategy for addressing global warming, that is going to have to change.

These two new reports leave me optimistic that the U.S. can take meaningful action to reduce transportation emissions and hopeful that doing so would bring great benefits to the economy and society. But success will only start once we put an end to transportation policies that take us in the opposite direction.   



[1] Based on emissions of 0.00042 metric tons per mile for light-duty vehicles from EPA.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.