We’re Never Going to Meet Our GHG Transportation Goals Unless We Radically Rethink Our Cities

Introducing an ongoing series focused on reducing vehicle miles traveled as a crucial climate mitigation strategy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about vehicle miles traveled, or VMT. Specifically, why is it so hard to get people to think seriously about reducing VMT as a climate mitigation strategy? Building on my earlier ode to electric scooters, this post begins a semi-regular series on different aspects of VMT reduction strategies, beginning with an introduction today to VMT and its relationship to climate change goals.

We know that the transportation sector is now the biggest contributor to GHGs across the country, and especially here in California. But conversations on reducing transportation emissions have been dominated in recent decades by electrification and fuel economy. Just last month, Jerry Brown said better battery technology was “the only way” to meet our transportation goals.

And sure, when we’re all driving zero-emission vehicles that plug into a zero-carbon grid, our transportation emissions will indeed be extremely low carbon. But here’s the thing: that future is a long way off. California’s ZEV mandate calls for only about 8% of new vehicle purchases to be ZEVs by 2025–and that’s just new vehicles. The average car sold today will be on the road for at least 11 years, locking in a decade plus of GHG emissions for every non-ZEV sold. In addition to our long-term electrification plans, we have to focus on strategies to reduce emissions from those non-ZEVs in the near term by getting them off the road.

As Ethan noted this morning, VMT reduction has to be top priority on Governor-elect Newsom’s agenda. This is both because getting people out of their cars is crucial to meeting our climate goals, but also because we’ve been exceptionally bad at it so far. CARB recently released a ground-breaking report on California’s progress in implementing the sustainable community strategies from SB 375, the 2008 law designed to integrate transportation, housing, and land use decisions with the state’s climate goals. Turns out, people have been driving more over the last five years, rather than less:

As you can see from the above chart, California is nowhere close to meeting the 2020 per capita greenhouse gas reduction goals, and even worse, is headed in the wrong direction with per capita VMT on a dramatic upward trend. The key takeaway from CARB’s report:

“With emissions from the transportation sector continuing to rise despite increases in fuel efficiency and decreases in the carbon content of fuel, California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030 and beyond without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded, and built.”

So how do we get better at encouraging people to drive less? The kinds of changes that result in people leaving their cars at home are a lot more complicated than simply adding new bike lanes (and of course, here in LA, even adding bike lanes isn’t exactly a painless process).

Emmett Institute staff Meredith Hankins, Daniel Melling, and Garrett Lenahan during 2018’s Bike to Work week.

How do we ensure the owner of that non-ZEV that’s going to be on the road for the next decade can afford to live close enough to their workplace to make commuting by car an option, rather than a requirement? How do we provide safe, convenient, and affordable low or zero-carbon modes of transport like public transit, walking, biking, and scooting to get that non-ZEV owner to and from their child’s school? To the grocery store, the library, the movies? How do we retrofit our cities to create dense, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods where residents don’t need to own cars at all? Can we do any of this in an equitable way that avoids displacement? Can public transit systems be designed to get middle class drivers out of SUVs while still fulfilling their social service need to help a city’s most vulnerable populations? Should they be? 

There are no easy, cookie-cutter answers to these questions. Decisions about land use, housing, and transportation require difficult choices and a lot of political will by a lot of different levels of government. For example, it took a 2017 bill (AB 179) to force CARB and the California Transportation Commission to coordinate on these issues. Yesterday, the agencies in charge of our state’s climate planning and transportation planning met for just the second time. Ever.

This is part of why VMT reduction doesn’t tend to be discussed in any particularly coherent way–the kind of coordination that’s required necessitates truly transformative change, at every level of government and at the level of individual behavior.

But here’s the thing: we can’t afford to ignore significant climate mitigation measures just because they are politically difficult.

The IPCC’s recent bombshell report notes that “demand-side mitigation and behavioural changes” are going to be needed to avoid the worst climate change impacts. Transportation mitigation pathways for limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees require not just “[t]echnology-focused measures,” but also strategies based on “[s]tructural changes that avoid or shift transport activity” that have “received lesser attention in most global transport decarbonisation pathways up to now.”  

CARB’s 2017 AB 32 Scoping Plan Update called for a suite of options to reduce VMT, noting that reducing VMT is a “necessary” part of meeting the state’s 2030 and 2050 GHG goals. The following selection from the Scoping Plan Update’s lists of VMT strategies and goals illustrates just how ambitious and transformative our thinking has to be:

  • Quadruple the proportion of trips taken by foot by 2030 (from a baseline of the 2010–2012 California Household Travel Survey).
  • Strive for a nine-fold increase in the proportion of trips taken by bicycle by 2030 (from a baseline of the 2010–2012 California Household Travel Survey).
  • Strive, in passenger rail hubs, for a transit mode share of between 10 percent and 50
    percent, and for a walk and bike mode share of between 10 percent and 15 percent.
  • 15 percent reduction in total light-duty VMT from the BAU in 2050
  • Continue to develop and explore pathways to implement State-level VMT reduction strategies. . . through transparent and inclusive interagency policy development process to evaluate and identify implementation pathways for additional policies to reduce VMT and promote sustainable communities, with a focus on:
    • Accelerating equitable and affordable transit-oriented and infill development through new and enhanced financing and policy incentives and mechanisms,
    • Promoting stronger boundaries to suburban growth through enhanced support for sprawl containment mechanisms such as urban growth boundaries and transfer of development rights programs,
    • Identifying performance criteria for transportation and other infrastructure investments to ensure alignment with GHG reduction goals and other State policy priorities and expand access to transit, shared mobility, and active transportation choices,
    • Promoting efficient development patterns that maximize protection of natural and working lands,
    • Developing pricing mechanisms such as road user/VMT-based pricing, congestion pricing, and parking pricing strategies,
    • Reducing congestion and related GHG emissions through commute trip reduction strategies, and
    • Programs to maximize the use of alternatives to single-occupant vehicles, including bicycling, walking, transit use, and shared mobility options.

So, super easy to-do list for the state right?

As I noted, this post is intended to be an introduction to VMT and climate mitigation. Given the coordination problems described above, I hope to use this series to highlight the ways in which wonky transit and urbanism issues should be considered climate mitigation and to think deeper about reducing our transportation emissions from a holistic perspective, all while centering the equity issues that must be key to our approach going forward.

Coming soon: tales from a car-less Angeleno; local opposition to road diets; declining transit ridership and neglected bus lines; and digging into this year’s crop of YIMBY densification proposals in the new legislative session (some of which Ethan has already previewed here). My goal with this series is to encourage conversations, so tweet at me with inspiration and questions!

For further reading, here are some recent stories that have caught my eye:

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Reader Comments

6 Replies to “We’re Never Going to Meet Our GHG Transportation Goals Unless We Radically Rethink Our Cities”

  1. I applaud many of the strategies discussed here to rethink our cities. We are already seeing infill projects accelerating is places such as my hometown of Oakland. But many ideas are a very, very long way off and will never account for the challenges that many Californians face regarding mobility. I’ll speak anecdotally at first. While I live in an urban area, my neighborhood is actually more hilly and suburban. Public transit is sparse, biking is difficult because of the terrain, and shops and services are dispersed. When I had younger children, I could not conceive of a way that would get them to their two different schools, and then myself to work, without using a car. I couldn’t conceive of getting them and their friends to baseball practice without a car (let alone all my gear as a coach). And I couldn’t conceive of coming home with three heavy bags and a week’s worth of groceries without a car-like vehicle.

    This reality will never change for a lot of people. Their neighborhoods are built out. Their transportation requirements will not change anytime soon. So while we talk about new utopian car-less cities, we ignore that vast swaths of our societies are somewhat fixed in place.

    On the other hand…EV car sales in California are up to more than 6 percent, double what they were just two years ago. Still very small, but that would seem to put us well ahead of where we need to be hit our 2025 goals. This, despite the fact that automakers are still in love with trucks and SUVs, and can easily influence the marketplace with their aggressive marketing tactics that favor the higher-margin gas-guzzlers. It would seem that encouraging or forcing carmakers to increase the fleet of EV (or even hybrid) vehicles could happen far more quickly that some of these other infrastructure changes. Car-buyers won’t always seek out low-emission vehicles, but if that’s what is available, they will buy them.

    In the meantime, the percentage of new non-ZEV vehicles will decrease every year. Of course, the state population is growing. So the percentage of non-ZEV vehicles on the roads will need to grow even faster, as will in-fill housing and more intelligently designed communities.

    But instead of giving up on (or opposing) cars, why not rethink them and work more aggressively to make them part of the solution?

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Michael. I don’t disagree that there are encouraging signs on EV adoption, and I wouldn’t say that I’m totally giving up on cars. I’m just trying to counteract those who *have given up* on change at the individual level. I get so sick of strategies that start with the default assumption that people will *always* drive personal vehicles, whereas I think we can and should do both (ZEVs *in conjunction with* lower VMT).

      I’d also add that there are lots of changes that already built-out cities and neighborhoods can still consider. Relatively simple fixes like all-door boarding on buses and more accurate GPS tracking can make a big difference in the convenience of public transit — a big part of increasing transit ridership is just making it easier for people to use.

      Your point about groceries is also well-taken. Scooters and electric-assist bikes are great for hilly areas, but we really haven’t come up with smart last-mile solutions for transporting kids and groceries. Alissa Walker at Curbed is great at hammering home this point (see, e.g., https://www.curbed.com/word-on-the-street/2018/5/3/17312390/transportation-scooters-bird-spin-lime-san-francisco). As a non-car owner, I take major advantage of various delivery services to get around this problem – but clearly displacing my own vehicle trips with Amazon deliveries isn’t a real solution.

      1. Dear Meredithn,
        There is no proof and no empirical evidence that reducing VMT actually mitigates climate. That is just more empty rhetoric and pure falsehood which is emblematic of the corrupt climate movement. Like the Yellow Jackets in Paris, we reject such lies. We will defeat such public corruption in like manner going forward. We reject ignorant, irresponsible and deceptive junk science and those who propagate it. We stand on truth – that is why we are winning and we shall win again in 2020. Spit on climate mitigation lies.

    2. I agree that increased transit, pedestrian, bicycle, scooter, and densification are all useful contributions to decarbonizing transportation. But as Michael points out, most neighborhoods are sprawled out and vehicle access will be necessary.
      We must target a 1.5C pathway, and most of those simply imply no new gas or diesel vehicles sold after 2035. Can that be done? Actually, Norway is well ahead of that curve. How do they do it? They tax the heck out of new gas guzzlers–the affluent folks who buy new vehicles lock in emissions for the useful life of the vehicle (typically 150,000 miles for combustion vehicles), so they are the ones who should pay for the pollution of their decision. How much? Around $400 per MTCO2e for the lifetime emissions–that’s ~$30,000 for a full-sized gas guzzler.
      Is that a new idea? No, the federal Gas Guzzler Tax has been doing that since 1978. It only applies to cars, not light trucks or SUVs, and it applies only to fuel efficiencies worse than about 23 mpg. At little curve fitting shows that it effectively charges about $112/MTCO2e for lifetime emissions in excess of 25 mpg. Why don’t we charge affluent car buyers for their unnecessary emissions (such as worse than the best-in-EPA-class emissions), instead of punishing everyone for fueling the only vehicles they can afford?

  2. “why is it so hard to get people to think seriously about reducing VMT as a climate mitigation strategy?” because Global Warming is a hoax perpetrated to increase government power over the people. The latest GISS datasets show a decline in global temperatures, but you”d never hear it from alarmists because AGW is a religion.

  3. Why do people that have no interest learning about a particular topic, with the exception of a desire to have negative comments, read articles about topics that they have no real interest in. There are two comments from people that clearly have no understanding of the issue being written about. These naysayers should be concerned about losing status in society, because they cannot adapt to change.

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About Meredith

Meredith Hankins

Meredith Hankins is the Shapiro Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law for 2017-2019.…

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