To meet clean energy goals, everyone will need better transportation options

By Chris McCahill
The proposed Green New Deal, like many local green energy and climate action plans across the country, aspires to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. As SSTI’s Beth Osborne and other writers have pointed out, transportation presents some of the biggest challenges. Meeting those challenges, however, will take more than replacing older vehicles with new ones or building transit lines and bike lanes. A sober look at the math shows a large part of these plans’ success will hinge on ambitious efforts to coordinate transportation, land use, and pricing structures.
Addressing this issue for the state of Hawaii in Elemental Excelerator’s 2018 Transcending Oil report, SSTI crunched the numbers and found that ignoring the amount that people drive means even the most ambitious energy plans could fall well below their targets. That finding implies focusing on those who drive the most—typically in far-flung suburbs with limited transportation options—and finding creative ways to let them reduce their need to drive as much.
Hawaii’s unique state mandate calls for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045. Under that plan, transitioning to electric vehicles will be critical for reducing transportation emissions. That transition, however, will likely take longer than hoped, while also putting additional demand on the energy grid. That means that even if the current grid is clean, many cars won’t be.
To make up the difference, total vehicle miles traveled will need to drop, or hold steady at the very least. Historically, that might have seemed impossible. But national trends over the last decade show a fairly consistent leveling off in VMT growth, and cities like Minneapolis and Seattle have experienced overall decreases.
In Hawaii, as in other regions, that puts a lot of focus on major city centers like Honolulu, which are building transit, supporting bike travel, and revisiting land use codes to allow for more infill development. Unfortunately, those steps are just the lowest-hanging fruit. Even in SSTI’s most aggressive forecasts, only around 18 percent of Hawaiian households will live in the most dense, transit-rich areas. That leaves more than 80 percent of households in medium- to low-density suburbs or rural areas, accounting for the remaining 90 percent of VMT.

Through an ambitious range of policies, however, Transcending Oil outlines a path to seven percent lower VMT over 30 years, which includes major changes in how neighborhoods are arranged, how people pay for transportation, and how they get around each day. Imagine walkable and bike-friendly street networks, mixed-use town centers surrounded by context-appropriate infill development and commuter transit lines connecting every community. Buildings will replace many parking stalls. While congestion fees or mileage-based road pricing would make driving more expensive on a per-mile bases, the average household would drive less, and revenues collected could be used to further offset driving costs and invest in underserved communities.
In the spirit of ambitious clean energy goals, this is an ambitious vision that requires ambitious policies being put into effect rapidly. Fully realized, it means transportation agencies, in concert with land-use regulators, can spend less money trying to chase sprawl and combat congestion, and focus more on providing multimodal accessibility. In addition to helping stave off environmental disaster, this new focus should also lead to safer, healthier, more productive and more equitable communities.
Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.