World leaders made a bold commitment at the 2015 Paris climate talks to limit global warming to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to limit temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius. Fulfilling that promise will require the United States to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases starting now, with reductions exceeding 80 percent by mid-century.
America’s transportation system produces more greenhouse gas pollution than any entire nation in the world other than China, India and Russia. Reducing pollution from transportation in the U.S. is essential to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.
America has made progress in cutting pollution from cars and trucks over the last decade as a result of improved vehicle fuel economy and slower growth in driving. But eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from our urban transportation systems is going to require more than incremental change – it will require transformation.
The good news is that transformation to a zero-carbon transportation system is possible. New technologies and emerging social trends make it easier to envision a transition to a zero-carbon transportation system than ever before.
By employing smart strategies to repower our vehicles with electricity, reduce growth in vehicle travel, and optimize the efficiency of our transportation network, America’s urban areas can reduce energy demand for light-duty vehicles by as much as 90 percent below anticipated levels by 2050.
Now is the time for federal, state and local officials in the U.S. – as well as citizens and the private sector – to adopt the policies and tools that can enable America to transition to a zero-carbon urban transportation system by the middle of the 21st century.
A zero-carbon transportation system is possible.
The past decade has seen dramatic advances in technology that are transforming transportation. New shared mobility services, improved electric vehicles, and advances in information technology and technologies for autonomous vehicles open up new avenues by which America can pursue decarbonization of our transportation system. At the same time, renewed interest in walkable communities and broad demographic shifts create new opportunities for building sustainable, low-carbon communities.
America has the tools it needs to transition to a zero-carbon transportation system – and to do it in time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Among those tools are:
- Repowering Vehicles: Efficient electric vehicles that can be powered by clean, renewable electricity are entering the marketplace faster than the hybrid cars of a decade ago and technology continues to improve, reducing costs and increasing travel range. Electric vehicles reduce carbon emissions using electricity from today’s grid, and will deliver greater benefits in the years to come as America transitions to electricity provided by clean, renewable sources of energy.
- Urbanization and Smart Growth: American cities – especially their downtowns – are experiencing a renaissance, driven by demographic changes and a desire for walkable living among young people and others. A future in which most new development takes place in urban and walkable neighborhoods could reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions by 9 to 15 percent by mid-century, according to research by the Urban Land Institute.
- Shared Mobility: Over the last decade, an explosion of technology-enabled services – from carsharing to bikesharing to Lyft and Uber – has revolutionized transportation in many cities. Some of these “shared mobility” services have been shown to reduce vehicle ownership and driving, while the effects of others are just beginning to be studied.
- Public Transportation: Transit ridership hit a modern high in 2014, the result of recent transit expansion projects and growing urban population and employment. Current public transportation services reduce vehicle travel (and GHG emissions) by about 10 percent in U.S. cities, according to research conducted for the Transportation Research Board.
- Reallocating Space: The vast majority of street space in American cities is devoted to moving or storing cars, pushing people who walk, bike or take transit to the margins. Cities in the United States and around the world are reallocating space formerly devoted to cars to other public purposes, encouraging the use of low-carbon modes of transportation. U.S. cities with good bicycling infrastructure have nearly twice as many bike commuters as the national average.
- Smart Pricing: Americans typically pay nothing to drive on most roads and enjoy the lowest gas taxes in the industrialized world. Government subsidies for driving and free access to roads create economic signals that encourage Americans to drive and put competing low-carbon transportation modes at an economic disadvantage. Cities around the world have shown that smart pricing policies can reduce congestion and encourage the use of low-carbon modes of travel.
- Walking and Biking: Americans prefer walking to any other mode of transportation, according to a recent survey, and the number of people traveling by bicycle in many cities has grown dramatically in the last decade. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy estimates that bicycling alone could curb global carbon dioxide emissions from transportation by 11 percent by 2050.
- Information Technology: Advances in technology are enabling Americans to plan, schedule and pay for trips via low-carbon modes as easily as traveling by car. Realtime transit information has already been shown to trigger modest increases in transit ridership.
Driverless cars can potentially be deployed in ways that can be supportive of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – especially if they facilitate the use of shared mobility services, vehicle electrification and smart pricing, and do not undermine other emission-reduction strategies.
Numerous academic, non-profit and government studies have shown that large-scale reductions in carbon pollution from transportation are technically possible in the next three decades. New transportation technologies and tools create the opportunity for even greater emission reductions, if they are implemented intelligently.
About Frontier Group
Frontier Group provides information and ideas to help citizens build a cleaner, healthier, fairer and more democratic America. Frontier Group addresses issues that will define our nation’s course in the 21st century – from fracking to solar energy, global warming to transportation, clean water to clean elections. Their experts and writers deliver timely research and analysis that is accessible to the public, applying insights gleaned from a variety of disciplines to arrive at new ideas for solving pressing problems.