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10 questions every presidential candidate should answer about transportation and climate change

The debate has passed, but the relevance of these questions have not. We’ll continue to urge candidates to answer these questions.

On September 4, 10 Democratic presidential candidates will participate in a town hall focused solely on climate change. We have a list of questions related to transportation that we want every candidate to answer. 

Climate change is undoubtedly a defining issue of our times, and the transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. But there’s little understanding about where transportation emissions come from or how to reduce them. Many think we just need to replace all gas powered vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs). But we cannot address this crisis without an understanding of the crucial role that the design of our communities and roadways play in producing our transportation emissions. 

While many other sectors have reduced emissions, transportation is headed in the wrong direction. Driving represents 83 percent of all transportation emissions and these emissions are rising—despite cleaner fuels, more efficient and electric vehicles—because people forced by our development patterns and transportation system to drive more and make longer trips. 

It’s time to have a more robust conversation about the connections between transportation and climate change. The future depends on it. Here are the questions every candidate should be asked: 

1) How does your plan to respond to climate change allow people to make fewer and shorter car trips? 

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and those emissions are rising. Studies show that we cannot reduce emissions by relying on expected growth in clean vehicles and fuel, that we must also reduce expected growth in driving. 

2) What are the ways in which we can change development patterns to place jobs and other essential services closer to the people who need them? 

Our reliance on cars and driving to our destinations often goes back to development decisions that place people’s needs—banks, groceries, schools, jobs—far away from where they live. 

3) As President, what will you do to ensure the United States measures greenhouse gas emissions in transportation?

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Soon after taking office, the Trump Administration scrapped a U.S. Department of Transportation plan to measure greenhouse gas emissions in transportation. If we aren’t taking the basic step of measuring these emissions, how can we take steps to reduce them? 

4) How should Congress rethink how federal highway dollars are spent?

Federal surface transportation policy prioritizes highways over all other forms of transportation. Federal highway formula dollars are guaranteed and allow states to spend over $40 billion per year on highways and highway expansion. Highways often result in a more spread out development pattern, which generates both more traffic and more emissions. There is no limit on federal funds used for highway expansion and no requirement that states use that money to maintain the system we already have. As a result, our emissions keep going up and our potholes get larger. 

5) How does your plan orient more investment toward transit? 

The federal government makes it easy for states to build and expand highways, providing up to 80 percent of funding for highway projects. In contrast, the federal government will only pay no more than half of the cost of public transit projects, which places a greater burden on communities to build transit compared to highways. The federal government spends five times the amount on highways than on transit. 

6) How would you shift the program to promote and reward efficiency and reduced emissions?

Under the current formula structure of the federal program, states are rewarded for inefficiency. The more gas is burned—the more people drive and the more they emit—the more funding the state gets. Is this the message you support? 

7) What should change in the federal transportation program to support walkable communities which are better for the economy and the environment? 

Core, walkable areas are responsible for the highest density of economic activity in most regions. Yet the federal program is much more focused on supporting high speed vehicle traffic, even in these walkable areas, which makes walking deadly

8) How does your infrastructure plan address this pedestrian safety epidemic and make it possible for people to take more trips by walking and biking?

Almost half of all car trips are under three miles. But our roadways are designed for vehicle speed over pedestrian safety, making it unsafe in many situations for people to walk instead of drive. In the past decade, the number of people struck and killed while walking increased by 35 percent, reaching overall level of fatalities not seen in nearly 30 years. 

9) How would you support communities that are shifting their transportation systems to integrate more transit? 

Small and mid-sized cities across the country are recognizing that providing transit options is essential to boosting their economic activity and reducing their emissions. 

10) As President, what would you do to strengthen and support Amtrak’s existing long distance and inter-city network?

Many presidential platforms, including the Green New Deal, proclaim the need to invest in and build a national high speed rail network as a way to connect communities and reduce emissions. 


  1. Pete Pointner

    5 years ago

    These are important questions. How do you see the responsibilities of the Federal government versus the role and responsibilities of local governmental units. My thoughts on what can be done at the local level are in my paper “The Transportation, Land Use, GHG Connection”, a paper in my free e-book Readings in Urban Planning and Design available via readingsinurbanplanninganddesign.blogspot.com/.

  2. Clark Johnson

    5 years ago

    In 10 you refer specifically to Amtrak, thereby implying that Amtrak is only option. The PRIIA law encourages competition and so should you. Amtrak’s performance has been spotty at best and their totally opaque accounting system is a disaster.

  3. Stephen Simac

    5 years ago

    What is your plan, tactics, strategy to have candidates and elected/appointed officials asked these questions and others for more specific information about their plans, perhaps as an educational approach?

  4. Eric Helge

    5 years ago

    Walt Disney’s Monorail and Peoplemover systems would be excellent additions to any American city. The Peoplemover could be used for shorter inner-city transits while a high speed Monorail could be used for farther distances. Fifty million people use the Walt Disney World Monorail system every year. This is a mass transit success story. Let’s get these systems built in our cities.

    • Becky English

      5 years ago

      Automated people movers have come a long way since Disney’s monorails. Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Swift Automated People Movers, which can be built out into full automated transit networks which deploy a suspended coach design. YES, such systems — using space overhead, often in existing right-of-way — can provide a great alternative to at-grade vehicles such as buses, light rail, and commuter rail like Amtrak.

  5. Terry Witt

    5 years ago

    rail, bus, and bike share to everywhere.

  6. Nancy C Hirsch

    5 years ago

    Living in a state, Tennessee, with almost zero Amtrak service because of CXS freight dominance, how can any passenger rail be developed?

  7. Jim Gordon

    5 years ago

    11. What is your plan to reduce emissions for freight
    12. What is your plan to reduce emissions by replacing air travel with rail/maglev?

  8. Rick Rybeck

    5 years ago

    Excellent Questions. Most of them (1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9) are about how we integrate transportation facilities and services with land use. Achieving the right balance between infrastructure user fees and access fees can help reduce sprawl by creating more affordable and compact development around existing transportation facilities and services.
    Most of us are familiar with “user fees,” like the per-gallon fee we pay for water, roadway tolls, transit fares and parking fees. If properly structured, these fees can encourage conservation and off-peak use.
    But few are familiar with “access fees.” For example, the owner of a vacant lot is not drinking any water or flushing any toilets at this site. Should this owner pay anything to the water and sewer authority? If there are municipal water and sewer pipes at the property boundary, the vacant lot is much more valuable than if these pipes did not exist. The landowner did not create this value. The water and sewer authority did. Therefore, even though the landowner is not consuming water or flushing sewage, he should pay an “infrastructure access fee” for the value that infrastructure confers on his land, even when its vacant.
    Instead of allowing infrastructure to create windfall profits for owners of well-served land, return that publicly-created land value to the public sector that created it. In this way, infrastructure become financially self-sustaining. Those who benefit the most, pay the most. “Land value return and recycling” would also allow for the reduction in taxes on wages and production that stifle economic vitality.
    Some communities have implemented such a system by reducing the property tax rate on privately-created building values while increasing the tax rate on publicly-created land values. The lower rate on buildings makes them cheaper to construct, improve and maintain. Surprisingly, the higher rate on land values helps keep land more affordable as well. Thus, by shifting the property tax off of buildings and onto land, both buildings and land can be made more affordable without any increase in public spending or loss of public revenue. And, as a bonus, this system promotes infill development, reducing sprawl in favor of compact development that is more conducive to walking, biking, transit and other forms of shared transportation.

  9. Rick Rybeck

    5 years ago

    Sorry for the overly-long comment above. If you want a more coherent explanation, see “Funding Infrastructure to Rebuild Equitable, Green Prosperity” at https://www.justeconomicsllc.com/pdfs/Revitalization%20News%20-%20Funding%20Infra%20To%20Rebuild%20Equitable%20Green%20Prosperity%20July%2015%202015.pdf

  10. Michael Lewyn

    5 years ago

    “Pedestrian safety epidemic” implies we have too much safety- not what you meant.