Transportation is the leading source of carbon emissions in the United States, with cars, trucks, planes, trains, and boats emitting 1.9 billion tons of CO2 each year. Cities are facing intense pressure to be more environmentally friendly, but what really makes a city “green” when it comes to transportation? According to a new ranking on the climate impact of transportation in the country’s 100 largest metro areas, it may not be entirely contingent on having a lot of bike lanes or good public transit.
Mobile analytics company Streetlight Data released this week its first annual U.S. Transportation Climate Impact Index, a ranking of how carbon friendly the country’s 100 largest metro areas are on several factors: total vehicle miles traveled (VMT), how much people are biking and walking, transit usage, population density, and circuity, which is basically the difference between how far two destinations may be as the crow flies and the route it actually takes to travel that distance by car. “If you have a messy urban road design, you might have people who, because they’d rather get on the highway than drive through town, drive way more miles then they need to to get from one place to another,” says Streetlight Data CEO Laura Schewel. “And that’s another place where you have a lot of potential for improvement.”
Though transit and bike infrastructure are included, they’re not the most important factors in this ranking. The most heavily weighted one was those vehicle miles traveled in a car. “We made it so that [an area] could have no transit and do well, because transit usage is not what drives carbon emissions, driving is what drives carbon emissions,” Schewel says. “So if you manage to have a city where people on average are driving a lot fewer miles per capita to get what they need done, that’s just as good as having a city where a small portion of the people are taking transit.”
The New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area earned the number one spot, thanks in part to its high biking, pedestrian, and transit commuting. Still, that metro area also had a high VMT score, most likely from those outside of the five boroughs who drive in and out of the city a lot. New York policy makers in particular have been criticized for seeming to still prioritize cars over other ways of getting around, but all the people who walk, bike, and take the subway helped balance out those miles driven on this ranking.
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