We need a zero-carbon transportation system to save our future. Here’s a plan to get us there.

Our transportation system produces more greenhouse gases than ever before. Our highways our clogged. We depend on polluting vehicles as much as ever. Sometimes you just need a good plan - and these days, there aren't many challenges more in need of a plan than that presented by transportation and climate change.

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

The last surprise party I threw was a lesson in why, sometimes, you really need a good plan. The food was bought, the guests were invited, and the candles were waiting to be lit. And then… the birthday gal arrived at the same time as the first invitee, and they met at the door. Surprise was off the table. As it turned out, I should have done some more planning – and I should have told all the guests to use the back door. The basic pieces were there for success. But the plan just wasn’t up to the task. (Fortunately, cake and BBQ went a long way in making up for my planning failures.)

These days, it’s hard to think of a challenge more in need of a good plan than the one presented by transportation and climate change. In 2017, transportation became “climate enemy number 1” – the source of more carbon dioxide emissions than any other sector of the economy, including power plants and industry. Science tells us we need to get to carbon neutrality by 2050. But each year our transportation system produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire economies of France and the UK combined. And just one look at a clogged highway outside of any one of our major cities makes it tough to imagine progress.

To make matters trickier, our transportation system is complicated – there’s no magic bullet to solve our problems. We depend on transportation to get to work, school, entertainment and more. We depend on transportation not just for our persons, but for transporting goods to every inch of our vast country. Everybody gets around in different ways: cars, trucks, buses, feet, bikes, scooters. The ways we get around are hugely dependent on the types of places we live in (city? suburb? farmland?) and a multitude of other life factors (kids? dog? mobility challenges?).

It’s obvious that any serious effort to reduce transportation emissions will need to be big, broad, and coordinated. But so far, most of the thinking around transportation has been focused on single elements of the larger system. There’s been plenty of critical, necessary research on the benefits of electric vehicles and walking and biking, on the effects of sprawling land use, on the impacts of transportation pricing, and more. And there has been exciting technological and policy development, from advanced batteries to new thinking about ways to make walking and biking safer and easier, like “complete streets” and “vision zero” strategies to eliminate road fatalities. But so far, there have not been many attempts to bring it all together. To stretch my analogy to the crumbling point: The food is here, the cake is ready, but the guests don’t know which door to use.

Our recently released report with Environment America Research & Policy Center, Destination: Zero Carbon, attempts to get us one step closer to a great party – by providing a broad, holistic plan for achieving deep reductions in global warming pollution from transportation. Rather than dive into just one part of the problem, we took a step back and tried to answer two basic questions: First, why are transportation emissions so high? And second, what can we do about it?

We looked most closely at the emissions from light-duty transportation, meaning the cars and light trucks that account for a majority of U.S. transportation emissions. To put it simply, the issue is this: Each year, Americans drive more than 3 trillion miles in inefficient, polluting vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The report finds that we both drive a lot – far more per capita than most other countries – and we do it in vehicles that are bigger, heavier, and more polluting than vehicles in most other places, too.

If the problem is in two parts – that we drive too much, and we do it in polluting vehicles – the solutions must address both, resulting in less driving and cleaner vehicles. Destination: Zero Carbon proposes three goals that encompass both needs:

The first goal is to ensure that all light-duty vehicles sold after 2035 are electric vehicles. Achieving this goal – particularly if we simultaneously create a clean, renewable electric grid – would mean dramatically lower emissions from driving. And “electric vehicles” doesn’t mean just cars. Small vehicles like e-bikes, scooters, and lightweight “neighborhood electric vehicles” are all part of the answer.

The second goal is to electrify public transportation – specifically, to ensure that all transit and school buses are electric by 2030. If people are to drive less, we’ll need more buses. And by quickly replacing our aging, polluting fleet of diesel buses with modern, quiet, and efficient electric buses, we can take on climate change while cleaning up the air in our cities and schoolyards.

And the third goal is to get more people moving without a car – specifically, doubling the number of people who travel by foot, bike and transit by 2030. The fact is, if we could actually get every current driver into an electric, renewable-powered vehicle, emissions from light-duty transportation would fall to near zero. But the task of taking on transportation emissions will be made dramatically easier if fewer people drive in the first place. Fewer people driving means less electricity to generate, fewer batteries to manufacture, and less road infrastructure to build (and, to be clear, we should stop building big new highways now). It also means a whole host of other benefits. Study after study has found that walking and biking make people and communities happier and healthier.

Our new report goes on to detail a host of policy solutions to help achieve these goals. And here’s some good news: We found that most of the technologies and policies we need to achieve our big goals are already here. Existing electric vehicle technology is already well beyond what we need for the vast majority of trips. There are already U.S. bus systems that are 100 percent electric. And hundreds of cities and towns across the country have already invested in making their streets work for everyone, including pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

Just like my surprise-less surprise party, when it comes to achieving a zero-carbon transportation future, the pieces are in place. We have the technology. We have the policies. We have the know-how. Unlike my party, we now have the workings of a plan. It’s time to put it all together.

Solutions for taking on transportation and climate change must result in both cleaner vehicles and less driving. Author photo.


Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group