Transforming Transportation

Gita Subramony, ERS, for Zondits. April 21, 2016. Image credit: Unsplash

According to the ACEEE, the transportation sector is responsible for 28% of all end-use energy in the USA, and according to the EPA it is also responsible for 26% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (the second-largest contributor to GHG emissions behind electricity generation). Automobile traffic is a big factor here, and it shows no signs of letting up. According to the EPA, GHG emissions from the transportation sector have continued to increase since 1990 due to greater travel demand and minimal improvements in fuel efficiency.

Source: EPA

If GHG emissions reductions are a priority for the USA, strategies targeting the transportation sector will be essential. What are some strategies that the federal government, states and municipalities, and individuals can use to alleviate the problem?

  1. Fuel efficiency: Fuel efficiency standards, though previously lagging, have made up ground in recent years. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have been in place since the 1970s, but in 2010 the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made some revisions to fuel economy and GHG emissions standards for cars and light trucks. They now must achieve an average of 34.1 miles per gallon with increases in efficiency for model year vehicles through 2025. The new standards also included fuel economic standards for heavy-duty vehicles.
  2. Electric vehicles: These super-efficient cars account for just over 1% of the automobile market share. There are now a greater number of car models available for consumers, and Tesla is gaining attention for creating energy efficient and stylish luxury. Additionally, direct sales, bulk buys, pay-as-you-go schemes, and other incentive structures are helping increase electric vehicle market share.
  3. Transit-oriented development and alternative transportation: Ultimately, not driving cars is the most drastic way to reduce GHG emissions in the transportation sector. This, however, proves to be very challenging for the United States since most urban development happened during the age of the automobile. Promoting alternative transportation and public transportation is challenging since it requires changes in our built environment. To have an effective public transportation system or bicycle network, urban density needs to increase and land uses have to be adjusted to create walkable and livable neighborhoods. Zoning, incentivizing greater density, creative real-time pricing strategies for parking, and providing safe infrastructure for walking or  cycling could have the dual benefit of reducing vehicle miles traveled (thereby reducing GHG emissions) and promoting public health goals. This approach is not without stumbling blocks, as it requires comprehensive planning by municipalities and a host of other organizations and authorities, public investment in transit infrastructure, and a shift away from long-held negative attitudes about public transportation.