To Tackle Climate Change, We Must Reform Land Use - Center for American Progress

By Kevin DeGood


“We have to begin to look at alternatives. You can’t pave over the whole country.” – U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR)1

Global climate change is an existential threat to human civilization. Greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere are higher now than at any other time in the past 4 million years.2 Beginning in 2016, the transportation sector surpassed electricity generation to become the largest source of GHGs in the United States3—and within transportation, surface transportation is the biggest emitter, releasing 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents each year.4 If the U.S. surface transportation sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on Earth, ranking just ahead of Japan.5 Simply stated, this is unsustainable. The United States must adopt policies and make investments to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by midcentury.


There are two key strategies for decarbonizing the transportation sector: electrifying vehicles and reducing the automobile dependence of communities. Both are essential. President Joe Biden’s excellent American Jobs Plan includes billions of dollars to modernize American manufacturing to speed the transition to electric vehicle (EV) production.6 The plan also calls for big investments in EV charging infrastructure, renewable energy generation and transmission, and incentives for consumers to purchase zero-emission vehicles. Rapid electrification of transportation powered by renewable energy is urgently needed.


In addition to electrification, the federal government needs to substantially reform its transportation policies to reduce auto dependence by directing funds to projects that expand transportation choice—including transit, biking, and walking—and encourage infill development. For example, Congress should pass the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (INVEST) in America Act, which tackles issues both within the current transportation system and stemming from climate change. Taken together, more mobility choice and denser land use would reduce both the frequency and distance of trips made by driving alone. Moreover, these changes would significantly reduce the pace of new development on greenfield land, which provides essential environmental services, including absorbing CO2, providing wildlife habitat, and mitigating flood risks, among other critical services. Climate change cannot be addressed without reforming land use, and land use cannot be changed without reforming transportation.

In addition to electrification, the federal government needs to substantially reform its transportation policies to reduce auto dependence by directing funds to projects that expand transportation choice—including transit, biking, and walking—and encourage infill development.


Transportation systems, land use, and travel choice

Policymakers often overlook the extent to which the transportation system influences individual transportation choices—and, by extension, total driving and land use. According to the Federal Highway Administration, Americans drove a stunning 3.2 trillion miles in the 12-month period ending in January 2020.7 This number is often treated as a natural state of affairs, but in reality, it is the result of decades of policy choices that have locked most Americans into driving to meet their daily mobility needs.

How states and regions design their transportation systems has important implications for not only driving and mobile emissions but also the economic productivity of those facilities and the long-term cost burden associated with maintenance. A comparison between Ohio and Washington, D.C., highlights how systems shape these measures. Given the vast difference in geographic size and population, the comparison will focus on per capita measures.

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