Can Reducing Driving be a Key Part of US Climate Action? - Decarbonizing Transportation

By Andrew Salzberg


Can Reducing Driving be a Key Part of US Climate Action?

In October, Transportation for America released a new report entitled Driving Down Emissions. The report focuses on everything the US can do to lower passenger transportation emissions that doesn’t involve electrifying vehicles. 


In a word, that means driving less. How might we do that? Broadly, by rethinking urban development patterns to allow more people the possibility of living near the things they need to access, and by changing transportation infrastructure to focus on alternatives to driving.


Even if you could successfully electrify every passenger vehicle in the United States, you’d leave every other problem associated with car dependency untouched: traffic fatalities, traffic congestion, and limited accessibility. Making a serious dent in driving, on the other hand, would attack those problems in addition to lowering emissions. That’s one obvious reason to be excited about decarbonization solutions that target changes in land use and infrastructure.


My questions about the changes advocated for in the report are not so much about whether they are beneficial, but whether there’s a realistic path for them to happen at the scale and speed necessary to make an impact on the climate challenge. I lived for several years in San Francisco, one of the American jurisdictions that exemplifies political opposition to denser urban development near transit infrastructure.


That said, the report rightly points out some reasons for optimism. Minneapolis recently abolished single family zoning citywide, and other cities seem to be following in its wake.

I sat down with Scott Goldstein and Jenna Fortunati from Transportation for America to learn more about the report. An edited version of our conversation is below.


Andrew Salzberg (AS):  One of the big arguments of the report is that there's a lot of demand that's being left unmet for denser, walkable communities that are capable of reducing vehicle miles travelled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions. But I've lived in a lot of places where there's a lot of political opposition to allowing that denser development. How does Transportation for America think about the political obstacles to what you're advocating for, like NIMBYism? Are there places we can look for progress on the scale that is going to help on the climate problem?


Scott Goldstein (SG): The research that we've seen, the polls that we've seen, specifically, show that this is what the public wants. They want choices. Not everybody wants to live in the same type of community. When the National Association of Realtors polls people, do they want to live near transit? Do they want to live in a place that's bikeable or walkable? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. And the price for those apartments and those homes are at a premium. And so we think the market is demanding it. And so, whatever label you want to ascribe to it - NIMBYism - you know, it's a market failure. We're not providing what the market demands. And in fact, as the report points out, through so many different kinds of policy, from housing and zoning to  transportation, we're actively deciding not to provide that. 


I think that the public understanding of this, and the policymaker understanding of this has really changed. We’re no longer talking about tax allocation districts or things that nibble at the edges of the problem. Now we're focusing on fundamentally changing rules around what we can build. So that's zoning, but it's also fundamentally realizing that the infrastructure we build is ‘creating policy’ for the life of that asset. And so, recognizing that, just because we've built infrastructure a certain way for 60-70 years, that doesn't mean that that's how we have to build it tomorrow. And I think that for a lot of people that's clicking. When we talk to policymakers on the hill, there's a real change in attitude. It's no longer how much money can we pump into the system? It's: is the system working? And then you see that at every level of government, you know, from local on up to federal. A lot has changed. And there's a new crop of policymakers. And many policymakers over there have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done. 


AS:  What's driving the changes in attitude you're talking about? Is that a climate driven reality? Or traffic congestion? Or that the problems have gotten worse? Or all the above?


SG: You know, it's probably all of the above, if you want to paint the country with a broad brush. In each community, it's going to be a little different. I remember reading a story about how Dallas decided to invest in transit after Boeing decided that they weren't going to move from Chicago to Dallas. And their rationale was, we need to be in a transit oriented place, and Chicago was that place. You've obviously had a very high profile Amazon search for its HQ2, but you've also had lots of other companies carrying on similar searches. We have a report that documents this phenomenon called Core Values. Whether it's big urban areas or even suburban town center developments, people want to be able to walk and be connected by transit. So that's the business case. 


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