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The Role of Driving in Reducing GHG Emissions and Oil Consumption

Posted by Content Coordinator on Friday, July 8th, 2011


Executive Summary

Transportation represented 71 percent of oil consumption and 31 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions2 in the United States in 2008. Therefore, federal transportation policy presents an opportunity to reduce both oil consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This report explores whether technology improvements alone can achieve oil consumption and GHG emissions reduction targets consistent with recent draft legislation and international climate negotiations. The report finds that the United States must achieve significant improvements in vehicle technology and reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita (compared to business as usual projections for 2050, which anticipate a 40 percent increase in VMT per capita over 2010 levels) to meet these targets. With improvements to vehicle technology and reductions in per capita VMT, the United States would not need to import any oil by 2030.

The report also reviews evaluations of existing federal transportation programs for their impact on GHG emissions, oil use, or VMT and finds a general lack of evaluation for these metrics. For a wide variety of transportation strategies (e.g., public transit, pricing, parking management), the report finds evidence that they reduce GHG emissions, oil use, and VMT.

To achieve GHG emissions and oil use targets, the United States should modify federal transportation policy to prioritize investments that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil consumption. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) should—

1. Encourage states and regions to boost usage of existing funding flexibility to increase investments in transportation strategies that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil use;

2. Provide technical support for standardized evaluation of programs and projects; and

3. Simplify public access to DOT’s project spending databases to promote evaluation of spending patterns and encourage transparency and accountability.

Congressional reauthorization of surface transportation funding should—

1. Establish national goals for transportation, including reducing GHG emissions and oil use, and track progress toward these goals.

  • Implement performance-based funding (tied to progress toward national goals).
  • Require or incentivize performance-based planning. Reserve or competitively distribute funding for states and regions that plan for GHG emissions reductions and/or oil savings.

2. Increase direct funding for programs and strategies that reduce GHG emissions, VMT, and oil consumption, in two ways:

  • Direct a larger portion of federal transportation funds toward programs that dedicate funding to, or achieve, reductions in GHG emissions, VMT, and oil use (e.g. CMAQ, SRTS, etc.); and
  • Directly fund transportation strategies that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil use through set-asides or new programs.

Although the rate of technological progress, such as fuel efficiency improvements, is uncertain, these improvements are encouraged by federal incentives and standards. Similarly, the United States can ensure reductions in VMT, GHG emissions, and oil consumption by planning for and funding transportation and land use strategies that provide alternatives to driving. Transportation planning at the local, regional, and state level should incorporate strategies to reduce VMT in order to reduce GHG emissions and oil consumption. Planners and policymakers committed to reducing oil use and GHG emissions should encourage Congress to pass a reauthorization bill that incorporates the recommendations above.


Transportation in the United States is at a critical juncture: Roads, bridges, transit, and rail are poorly maintained and underfunded, and the surface transportation reauthorization bill, with its expected performance management and financial reforms, has been delayed far beyond the original expiration date of September 2009. There is widespread recognition by citizens, politicians, and transportation advocates that the current transportation system is unsustainable, both from a fiscal perspective (due to declining gas tax revenues) and from an environmental perspective (due to greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions and other pollution).

Transportation can play a pivotal role in the national response to the related challenges of climate change and oil dependence, as the transportation sector contributed 31 percent of U.S. GHG emissions in 2008 and 72 percent of U.S. oil consumption in 2009. In addition to concerns about the effects of climate change, the increasing costs of U.S. dependence on foreign oil—which totaled more than $500 billion in 2008, approximately 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in that year—have refocused the efforts of some policymakers on reducing oil consumption. Given the benefits that will accrue to the U.S. economy from reducing oil consumption and GHG emissions, these are two key objectives that the transportation system should address.  Most transportation experts agree that the U.S. needs to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita in order to reduce GHG emissions and oil consumption.

This report is divided into two parts: Part I presents the concept of “sustainable VMT,” an indicator of the amount of light-duty vehicle (LDV) travel per capita that can occur without compromising the goals of reducing GHG emissions and oil consumption.  Eight transportation scenarios are presented, each one showing the sustainable VMT levels associated with different GHG emissions and oil use reduction targets through 2050, based on varying assumptions about advances in vehicle technology. Part II explores whether federal transportation programs reduce VMT, GHG emissions, or oil consumption and whether existing transportation funding streams can be used to fund transportation strategies that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil use. The report concludes with research questions and policy recommendations for how to improve the sustainability and efficiency of the U.S. transportation system.

Download full version (PDF): The Role of Driving in Reducing GHG Emissions and Oil Consumption

“EMBARQ’s goal is simple: make cities around the world better places to live. By focusing on transport, which affects everything from prosperity to pollution, EMBARQ’s work yields social environmental, and economic benefits.”

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