Minnesota and California move toward reducing VMT to address climate change

By Rayla Bellis

Minnesota and California both made progress this month in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need to drive.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) recently made a highly anticipated decision to adopt a number of recommendations from the state’s Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council (STAC) made in December 2020, including setting a preliminary statewide goal for a 20% VMT reduction statewide and per capita by 2050. For the average Minnesota driver, that will mean traveling about 45 fewer miles per week in 2050 than today. MnDOT’s response to the STAC recommendations notes that the state will finalize the goal (including potentially setting interim targets and different targets for the Twin Cities region and Greater Minnesota) after engaging the public and stakeholders through the Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan process that will occur throughout 2021.

MnDOT also plans to develop an approach for estimating program and project VMT outcomes by assessing both induced demand from adding lanes and reduced demand from increasing walking access, as well as evaluating the accuracy of travel demand forecasting methods.

In California, the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) released a public discussion draft of its plan to use infrastructure development to reduce VMT. The Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI), created in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order, will be finalized later this year.

The draft CAPTI comprises 28 action items, intended to “help advance a slate of projects that meet climate goals, ensure that these projects are prioritized for state funding, and promote project construction and operations that minimize emission and impacts from climate change.”

Here are some of the action items that are of particular interest to the state DOT community:

  • CalSTA and Caltrans will develop new ways to mitigate increases in VMT from highway projects. One such approach would be mitigation banks, permitting project sponsors to purchase allowances that would go to fund VMT-reduction projects.
  • CalSTA and Caltrans will convene a working group to explore regional pricing strategies, such as cordon pricing and congestion pricing.
  • State agencies will leverage transportation funding to incentivize low-VMT land use policies, including streamlined approval for multifamily and mixed-use developments, reduced off-street parking requirements, or density bonuses.
  • CalSTA and Caltrans will convert underutilized highways into multimodal boulevards.

Though motivated primarily by climate policy, CAPTI also seeks to address the transportation system’s entrenched inequities, such as pollutants that disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities. For example, one action item calls for Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission to reform the way they prioritize projects by using a newly created equity assessment tool.

Photo credit: Michael Hicks via Flickr, unmodified. License