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Federal transportation policy is undermining any progress on climate

The conversation on climate change tends to focus on a few big things—electric vehicles, renewable energy, putting a price on carbon. But no matter how much progress we make on those fronts, Democrats and Republicans remain deeply committed to antiquated policy that undermines any action we take on climate change: spending billions to build new highways, encouraging more and more driving.

Transportation accounts for the largest share of carbon emissions in the U.S., and those emissions are rising—even as other sectors have improved. As federal policy and funding encourages more and wider highways, people live further away from the things they need and the places they go. We’re driving further and further every year just to get where we need to go. Emissions have risen despite increases in fuel efficiency standards and the adoption of electric vehicles. Despite an admirable 35 percent increase in the overall fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet from 1990-2016, emissions still rose by 21 percent. Why was that? Because the total amount of miles traveled increased by 50 percent in that same period.

Simply put, we’ll never achieve ambitious climate targets if we don’t reduce driving.

We don’t have a money problem, we have a policy problem

Politicians (and the media) love to bemoan our “crumbling roads and bridges.” That must mean we need more money to fix them, right? Here’s a secret: most of the billions we spend every year on our infrastructure never go to repair. Despite the rhetoric, there is nothing in federal law that requires states to repair the roads we already have, so most federal money goes to building more highways. That’s a problem that more money won’t solve.

Even the National Academy of Sciences, through the Transportation Research Board, has called for massively increasing highway spending to as much as $70 billion annually to accommodate (or encourage, as it were) an additional 1.25 trillion miles of driving each year—blatantly ignoring what this would do to our emissions.

California, Hawaii, and Minnesota have all found that even with a fleet of electric vehicles, they will still fail to reach their aggressive climate targets without an accompanying effort to reduce driving.

A better federal policy would be to invest more in climate-friendly transportation options like transit, walking, and biking, and to stop stacking the deck so that local communities have to choose between easy money for a highway or an uphill slog for transit cash. While we guarantee states over $40 billion annually for highways, only $2.6 billion is available for new or expanded public transit, and this funding is not guaranteed. Further, while the federal government will cover 80 percent of the cost of a highway project, it will only pay for up to 50 percent of the cost of a transit project.

With limited funding for transit and the national rail network and federal dollars for walking and biking overwhelmed by the billions spent on highways, federal policy is designed to keep us in our cars. Further, highway funding is distributed by Congress to states based on how much fuel is burned. The more gas is burned in a state, the more money states get to spend on highways. It should hardly be surprising that this has forced people to drive more over the past decade while making the climate impacts of transportation worse.

When you consider U.S. transportation policy in light of the existential crisis that climate change poses, it starts to look pretty asinine.

Access to a better future

Getting where you need to go shouldn’t always require a car, but we’ve designed our communities to prioritize car travel over everything else. With nearly half of all car trips three miles or less, many trips could be easily traversed by foot, bicycle, or transit. But the way we build roads to prioritize high-speed driving makes shorter walking, bicycling, or transit trips unsafe, unpleasant, or impossible.

It’s time that we stop prioritizing expansion over maintenance. It’s time for a paradigm shift. Cars certainly have a place in our transportation system, but our climate simply cannot sustain a system that rewards more and more driving. Our communities would be happier, healthier, safer, and more equitable if we built them for people instead of cars.

If we can retire this system that has doubled the country’s amount of driving in just a little over 30 years, we could build a transportation system that would improve access to the places that people need to go and reduce our emissions at the same time. We drove ourselves into this mess; now we’ll have to drive a little less to find our way out of it.

Join us for a Twitter chat about transportation & climate change on Wednesday, September 18 at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT. @T4America and our cohosts will lead the conversation with a series of questions over the course of an hour. Use #BeyondEVs to tweet you answers.


  1. Pingback: Federal transportation policy is undermining any progress on climate – Headlines

  2. Steve T. Sobel

    5 years ago

    Being a National Weather Service “Observer” here in Farmington, Michigan for over 30 years now, one mention that I have shared with others when it comes to discussing our weather & climate change is the amount of miles driven these days and for many many years now and more than ever before. Fossil fuels that have come under scrutiny the past several years IS a contributor to our warming planet. But any change MUST come from other countries…ALL other countries to be specific. I’ve said to many the past few years “one of these days I feel the amount of driving we all do may just come to an end or at least we won’t be able to just get into our cars to “drive off into the sunset” any longer. Just when, I couldn’t say, but after reading this today, Sept. 16, 2016, perhaps those days may be coming to an end sooner than anyone thought.
    I feel wetere it’s fair to ALL, not just the fortunate “few”. Man WILL have to find ways to make changes, not just in driving, but to figure out other ways for us to live without further damaging the planet.

    Unfortunately from what our experts have been trying to tell us, the clock is ticking. Time is no longer on our side. A report aired on NBC on the TODAY Show this morning showed Al Roker doing a report on what’s taking place in Greenland; the North & South Poles in regards to future warming of the oceans and creating flooding conditions along with changes to the marine life system that will affect most of us. And more will be forthcoming tomorrow of this week.

    I as a supporter of train travel I’ve also suggested that “someday we just may need more trains to take us places from coast to coast, that is adding more rail service than we’ve had up to this point”. And I’ve used “Global Temperature Change” as one reason for additional train services coast to coast.

    The problem is we haven’t invested enough on passenger rail. The time may be just around the corner to begin these projects that will take people off the highways and or forced to do that whether they like it or not. Our time to enjoy our planet may be reaching a critical state where decisions may have to be made in regards to restricting unnecessary travel such as driving cross country from one coast to another.

    Of course, the Airlines contribute to the atmospheric pollution with the many airplanes today vs what we had back say around 1950, about a 70 year time span. They too may come under scrutiny where only X amount of planes will be allowed to fly around the globe in the not-to-distant future.

    Anything less may lead to the planet’s extinction, one piece at a time where the day may come when life may no longer be sustainable, for man or beast. There is no other option at this time to simply transfer people to another galaxy.

    If the oceans continue to rise from where they are now and the temperatures do the same, there will be lives taken where millions will die from the oppressive heat and possible lack of cold air if the icecaps and glaciers continue to melt as they’re doing at present. There will be no place to run or hide.

  3. Pingback: Want to Solve Climate Change? Gotta Fund Transit! - Transportation Riders United

  4. Olin Gideonson

    5 years ago

    Yes, yes, yes to funding for transportation options, but many people continue to drive single-occupant vehicles to work. “Carpooling” has never caught on perhaps because of the idea that the goal is to fill your car with 3-5 other people. That takes time to pick-up so many–a high barrier. While diamond lanes often require only one passenger, they are largely underutilized. Nevertheless, perhaps “carpooling” as a goal needs to be marketed less ambitiously as: “buddy-up your commute” with a co-worker. Lower the barrier. You wouldn’t scuba dive without a buddy because of the risks of an emergency. Well, we have a climate emergency and you shouldn’t commute alone either! It would be great if business managers/employee supervisors were less tolerant of employees who drove alone and expected them instead to “buddy-up” with a co-worker at least one day a week as part of the business’ greening initiative. Hopefully, one day per week will grow into several days a week. The results could be a 50% or more reduction in GHG emissions when combined with employees who alternatively bike, walk, or bus to work. We need employers to take more responsibility and leadership– and leniency for being a little late to work (flexible hours)–for transportation options to become more widely adopted by employees.

    • Lukas van der Kroft

      5 years ago

      Excellent points Olin

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  6. Douglas

    5 years ago

    The Climate is just fine. There is nothing going on now which hasn’t happened in the past. All recent Climate Events which are reported as Extreme and proof of Man Made Climate Change are within the realm of natural variability
    Oh, and I’m a climatologist NOT receiving government funds or grants so I can speak the truth with no negative repercussions.

    • Christopher Keller

      5 years ago

      I think you should take a deep dive into the rate of change. Yes, natural variability is a constant but not at this rate.

  7. Stuart Knappmiller

    5 years ago

    Go Olin! 3M used to have a fleet of 15 passenger vans in St Paul, MN. Two of us were back up drivers for the fellow who lived furthest from our sales center in Eagan. He and the other driver lived in N St Paul. We pretty much filled the van heading continually but weavingly to our work. Direct route from NSP would have been 25 miles. My drive would have been 15 miles. Whoever ran that program retired perhaps. As did the program. If it was just a PR thing, perhaps support for things like BikeMN have taken that place. It was less expensive than driving oneself, and I got to read and listen to my transistor radio for 1-1 1/2 hours five days a week.

  8. Pingback: Commentary: Federal Transportation Policy Is Undermining Progress on Climate – Streetsblog USA

  9. Pingback: Transportation For America – Driving less needs to be included in #CoveringClimateNow

  10. Pingback: Transportation For America – Behold! The entirety of our #BeyondEVs Tweet Chat

  11. Steve Winkelman

    5 years ago

    Green tech isn’t enough, we need to drive less. https://www.greenresilience.com/avoiding-clean-congestion

  12. Michael Henn

    5 years ago

    Probably nothing would reduce VMTS more quickly than a significant increase in the gas tax, and incentivize EVs. Unpopular? Yes, but if the increase were offset by a corresponding reduction in the sales tax, there will be no net increase in taxes paid.