States must step up efforts to reduce harmful carbon emissions

As of last September, 16 states and Puerto Rico approved legislation requiring reductions in greenhouse emissions. The White House also set ambitious goals of cutting emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels in 2030. They aim to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050. Contributing to 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., the transportation sector is now the top producer and accounts for a growing portion each year. More than half of these emissions (57%) come from personal vehicles such as cars, SUVs, and light-duty trucks. Progress in cutting those emissions has been slow, let alone efforts to measure and track them. 

State DOTs are key players in cutting transportation emissions

Through a combination of carrots and sticks—but mostly carrots—the federal government has encouraged state DOTs to take ambitious steps to lower the environmental impacts of transportation and to invest in more sustainable travel options. Two years into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), notes Adie Tomer at Brookings, it is still hard to know the impacts. Many states are still operating under the status quo. Others, however, including many SSTI partners, are seizing the opportunity to bolster ongoing local sustainability initiatives. 

Success driving less

Driving less is one of the keys to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, and to reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Most states have seen an increase in per capita vehicle miles traveled over the last 25 years. There are exceptions, however, where political action, multimodal investment, or the development of compact neighborhoods acted to pull VMT numbers down, says a new report by the Frontier Group.

Not having to drive would reduce VMT

In one sense, departments of transportation are in the business of making it possible for people to travel less, or to at least spend less time traveling. But choosing to build capacity and reduce delay effectively speeds up drivers rather than shortening the length of their trips—in an era when driving less is acknowledged as a first-order climate change mitigation strategy. A recent article in Planetizen proposes a solution. If efforts were focused more on allowing people to conduct their daily affairs—shopping, banking, working, health care—over the internet or on the phone, the author writes, it might make a dent in vehicle miles traveled (VMT): a reduction that decades of tepid investment in multimodal options have not been able to achieve. 

Land use reform brings it all together for lower emissions

The Biden administration, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, targets a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change. Because it contributes almost 30% of GHG emissions the transportation sector is a ready focus for transformation. Reducing the amount people drive, increasing the use of transit, building better infrastructure for people to safely walk and bike, and electrification are common goals. But changes to land use policy are often missing from this equation. To this end, the researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute have begun to examine how changing land-use patterns might help curb GHG emissions. 

Resource scarcity may slow EV transition

Numerous factors may scuttle an anticipated fuel-price driven boost to electric vehicle adoption. Due to shortages, manufacturers may not be able to ramp up production to meet demand, and the cost and availability of materials may raise the sticker price, along with the environmental sacrifice. EV manufacturers are also not immune to the resistance faced by industrial development in general.

Surging demand for goods increases pollution risks to vulnerable communities

Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are burdened disproportionately with pollution from the transportation sector, say researchers and journalists. Often these neighborhoods, sometimes clustered in proximity to high traffic or industrial areas, show elevated disease levels when compared to majority white communities located in areas of lower emissions.