New Report: The Role of Driving in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Oil Consumption

Technology alone won't solve our energy problems; we also need to moderate our driving habits. Photo by Holly Clark.

A new report, “The Role of Driving in Reducing GHG Emissions and Oil Consumption: Recommendations for Federal Transportation Policy,” explores future U.S. transportation scenarios to evaluate how the U.S. can reduce oil consumption and cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through improvements in transportation technology and reductions in the amount Americans drive.

The report, released by EMBARQ (the producer of this blog), analyzes driving reductions necessary to meet target levels for GHG emissions and oil consumption suggested in recent legislation.

“Our analysis illustrates that with decisive action, it is possible for the U.S. to significantly reduce GHG emissions and oil consumption from transportation,” said lead author Allison Bishins. “The analysis suggests that achieving these goals will likely require both significantly improved vehicle and fuel technologies, as well as a reduction in the number of miles Americans drive. It is clear that neither technology improvements nor driving reductions are likely to be sufficient on their own, which should inform the upcoming discussion of U.S. federal transportation priorities.”

The report also reviews literature on GHG emissions and oil use impacts in existing federal transportation programs and strategies, including public transit, transportation demand management, telecommuting, carpooling, passenger rail, intercity bus travel, and many others.

The report is available here

We spoke with Allison Bishins, the lead author of the report, to learn more about the key findings and takeaways.

Do we really need to reduce the number of miles we drive? Can’t we just drive more fuel-efficient cars?

Of course we’ll need to make fuel economy improvements, but we can’t rely on that alone. Some people believe that technological improvements can solve all of our energy problems, but the scenarios in this report – and a growing number of other sources – show that  we need a strategy that includes reducing the number of miles people drive (as measured in vehicle miles traveled, or VMT), even with optimistic assumptions about the rate of technological change. The good news is that the types of projects that will reduce GHG emissions and oil use, such as providing housing near transit, improving bicycle infrastructure and reducing commuting distances, can improve quality of life for Americans, even as they allow us to drive less.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that per capita driving rates will increase approximately 40 percent above 2010 levels in 2050 – this is called the “business as usual” prediction. What the scenarios suggest is that if we want to reduce U.S. oil consumption (e.g. reducing oil use to the level of current domestic production or significantly reducing the need for imports) or GHG emissions (e.g. reducing GHG emissions enough to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 450 parts per million by volume), the U.S. will likely need to reduce VMT from the current level and will almost certainly need to reduce the rate from business as usual. This will require strategic investments at the local, state and federal levels to create a transportation system that provides Americans with better commuting and travel choices.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities in pursuing a sustainable transportation strategy that targets a reduction of GHGs and oil consumption?

Transportation strategies that reduce our environmental impact can also deliver broader benefits to society, including economic revitalization, safer roads and improved public health, not to mention reducing travel time and saving money. And, as noted in the report recently released by Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s Livable Communities Task Force, “Freedom from Oil,” improving transportation options will help reduce the impact of fuel price spikes on American households. With all the economic constraints currently facing the country, this presents a huge opportunity for America to innovate and move beyond the status quo.

What should the U.S. Congress consider in its new surface transportation authorization bill?

The reauthorization presents a significant opportunity for Congress to carefully redesign federal transportation policy and funding to reduce oil consumption and slow the impacts of climate change. Thankfully, we know that there are existing programs and strategies to help achieve these goals: public transit, biking, walking, rail, parking management and telecommuting, to name a few. Sustainable transportation can save a significant amount of money (by reducing funding for oil-related activities, like maintaining military readiness, for example), as we protect the environment and strengthen public health.

What are some specific policy changes that need to be made?

  • Establishing clear national goals for the U.S. transportation system, including reducing GHG emissions and oil consumption, and requiring evaluation of progress towards these goals and providing performance-based funding to encourage achievement;
  • Providing additional direct funding for programs and strategies that reduce GHG emissions and oil use by directing a larger portion of federal funds towards programs that aim for and achieve reductions in GHG emissions or oil consumption; and,
  • Providing direct funding to individual transportation strategies shown to be effective, or funding a new program to promote the full suite of strategies that reduce GHG emissions or oil consumption.

What role should the U.S. Department of Transportation play?

Technical assistance by U.S. DOT will be a critical element in encouraging states to reorient their transportation spending, especially the flexible funding they receive from the federal government, to achieve better environmental and economic outcomes. The U.S. DOT can take steps to encourage standardized data collection and program evaluation and expand access to its project spending databases, which are not easily accessible to the public at this time.

City, regional and state transportation planners and officials can use the results of this report to bolster or create a focus on VMT reduction and reorient funding to transportation strategies that effectively reduce GHG emissions, oil consumption or VMT.

What existing federal programs help reduce GHG emissions, oil consumption or VMT?

This report includes an extensive literature review of different transportation strategies, such as those outlined in Sen. Jeff Merkley’s oil reduction bill (S. 3601), including walking, biking, rail, transit, mixed use development, transportation demand management, among others. We found strong evidence that these strategies can and do reduce GHG emissions and oil use. However, when we reviewed existing research on the effects of federal transportation programs (authorized by SAFTEA-LU) on GHG emissions and oil consumption, we found a general lack of evaluation.

We identified six existing programs that were found to reduce GHG emissions, oil consumption or VMT:

  1. Safe Routes to School Program
  2. Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program
  3. Value Pricing Pilot Program
  4. Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program
  5. Job Access and Reverse Commute Program
  6. Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Program

This review indicates that programs with clear environmental goals, such as emissions reductions, or economic goals, such as reducing fuel consumption, are more likely to be evaluated than other programs. It also shows, in the few examples we were able to find, that these programs are successful at achieving the stated goals. These conclusions point to a clear opportunity to fund these programs at higher levels, restructure existing programs to maximize environmental and economic outcomes, and create new programs that are similarly designed and successful. In addition, we need more – and direct – funding to the types of transportation strategies that make up these successful programs. This analysis shows that despite the country’s current economic constraints, there are strategic opportunities to shift existing funds to more sustainable transport activities like walking, biking and mass transit, which can significantly cut oil consumption and reduce GHG emissions.

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