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US Transportation Blueprint: Good Intentions, Weak Diagnosis, & Possibly Irrelevant

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There are many things to like in the new US transportation decarbonization blueprint, especially the stakeholders and intentions. It’s much better than the US hydrogen strategy from late last year, but that doesn’t set the bar very high. In this assessment I’ll look at the big ideas of densification and mode shifting of transportation, and in another piece I’ll look at refueling mode by mode. A key takeaway is that the authors didn’t delve deeply enough into the causes of current transportation mode choices and patterns and compare them sufficiently to leading practices globally, so the blueprint is misaligned with strategic reality in places.

2019 US GHG emissions with transportation broken out
2019 US GHG emissions with transportation broken out

As the blueprint points out, transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, with light vehicles — Americans and their love of very large personal automobiles are clearly evident in the data — representing almost half of total emissions. Let’s step through the positives and negatives.

This is a seriously cross-government affair and that’s a good thing. Four major departments are involved, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This makes sense, as each has a role to play in transportation. The DOT primarily focuses on managing and investing in the country’s transportation infrastructure, including highways, airports, and public transit systems. The EPA is responsible for regulating transportation emissions and implementing policies to reduce pollution and protect public health. The DOE focuses on research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies for transportation, including electric vehicles and alternative fuels. HUD plays a role in transportation planning and policy, particularly as it relates to access to transportation for low-income and marginalized communities.

To contrast to the US hydrogen strategy, it was positioned in the DOE, presupposing that green hydrogen’s primary value proposition was energy, instead of an industrial feedstock climate change problem on the scale of aviation globally. The strategy was quite poor as a result, and as I noted in my assessment it more likely should have been led by the DOC with input from multiple other departments including the DOE. The transportation blueprint is much better balanced as a result, and its first focuses are good.

The intention of the first set of solutions are about getting people out of cars and onto their feet or bikes or transit, which is the right goal. It isn’t just about replacing fuel, but making the country healthier and more livable. This is likely due to HUD being in the mix. The first concept is to make living, working, and playing nearby to one another. That’s possible with increased population density and improvements to zoning to avoid large single use zoning areas. It’s an anti-sprawl statement. As the document notes, with a lot of concerted effort, the US could achieve significant improvements for livability for all by 2050, with resultant reductions in travel-related CO2e emissions.

That’s easier said than done in the US, but there are some solid ideas, even if they are difficult to implement. The first is to leverage and maintain existing infrastructure instead of building new roads. About 23% of federally funded highway expenditures were used by states to expand the amount of road, not to fix the roads that already exist. This runs into three different problems. First, while induced demand due to building new roads or widening roads leads quickly to more usage and congestion, the average voter has no idea that that’s what happens. They just want less congestion and the obvious but wrong answer is to build more roads. The second is that politicians get much better press and more votes by building a new road or bridge than by keeping the existing roads and bridges in good shape, at least barring a complete collapse, and that’s usually a risk they are willing to take because they just don’t know any better. And the third is that in the US, so much authority has been devolved to sub-national bodies that federal money no longer comes with strings, it comes with suggestions or maybe just hints.

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Urban densification is also another idea that’s completely in line with empirical reality, but difficult to implement in the US. Once again the federal government can offer money, but it’s usually pretty easy for cities and states to justify getting it and then doing something counterproductive. Americans have this odd and unsustainable dream of detached homes and two-car garages in suburbs where everybody looks just like them, and for a lot of people that’s not only a dream but a reality that they refuse to give up. So more headwinds with this plan. The federal government can nudge, but can’t make this happen. Lots of cities actually want greater density because it’s cheaper to service, but states generally don’t care, they control cities much more than the federal government does, and there are more votes in suburbs. It’s non-trivial to reverse this, but at least they are asserting intent.

While these goals are great, long overdue, and possibly fated to fail, even if they succeeded wildly they wouldn’t actually move the needle on climate change much in the end. As I pointed out in a piece in late 2022 on US urban sprawl (with dishonorable mentions of Australian and Albertan cities), by 2050 cars and trucks are going to all be battery-electric, heating will be from heat pumps running on electricity, and electricity will be much lower carbon. And the percentage of people globally living in US sprawl patterns is tiny, about 1% of the global populace. As a result, it’s quite possible that the US will continue to have oversized homes spread in sprawling suburbs and oversized vehicles driving health-impacting distances on congested roads every day, but it will be fairly low carbon and a rounding error globally.

There’s more stuff in the blueprint, but it’s in a similar vein. Trying to get people and businesses closer together, trying to get transportation to move more efficiently and the like. But the federal government’s hands are mostly tied. They don’t own the land in cities for the most part. They can establish federal building codes, but those can be overridden locally. They can offer education. And they can give away money, with the hope that it will be used well.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think more people won’t be in buses and riding electric bikes more of the time. But it won’t be because of the blueprint or its actions for the most part. What is happening is that unless the current administration’s efforts to reduce income inequality works and persists for decades through a dozen election cycles, the trend toward more people not being able to afford cars will increase. As CleanTechnica reported recently, new car purchases have dropped dramatically over the past few years, 19% since 2019. Other statistics show that US cars are being driven longer, with the average age of cars on the road increasing. While some suggest it’s the early onset of the Osborne Effect, which suggests that people hold off on purchases until a new product is out, it’s more likely the stagnant and declining real incomes of 60% to 80% of Americans since 1990. Tax cuts for the rich and rapidly increasing military spending don’t put disposable income in the pockets of most Americans.

I was unsurprised by the new car purchasing drop, as I’ve been tracking the stagnation of wealth for 80% of Americans for a while and am concerned about its implications. The US has among the worst income inequality in the developed world, with a Gini index poorer than Canada, Australia, and most of Europe. It’s even worse than the incredibly rapidly transforming China where southeast coastal dwellers in the megacities have seen incredible wealth increases, while rural dwellers have seen much less movement in incomes. Another data point on this front is that new cars are purchased in the US mostly by people who already own homes. In other words, people who can afford to be in the housing market and have assets can buy new cars, and renters are mostly excluded from both.

This isn’t something a transportation blueprint can address successfully, but it would have been useful if the blueprint had acknowledged it. Like the rail problem and the challenges actually facing mode switching, an honest appraisal of reality is necessary for a useful set of policies and actions. That’s something Richard Rumelt’s excellent book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy makes clear, and I see a significant portion of US policy that doesn’t start at the right diagnosis. The blueprint shares this problem in places.

I really do hope that the US can get densification working, as it’s much healthier physically and mentally for people to live in 15-minute cities and do a lot more walking and biking. And I do hope the US gets its inequity under control, But if the US doesn’t get its cities and economy in order, I won’t lose much sleep over it, and neither will the rest of the world.

The next big idea is mode-shifting transportation. The premise of this is that they want more freight to move by water or rail, and they want more people to choose buses and intercity rail over cars and planes. This is well aligned with leading practices globally, but it’s going to be a hard sell in the US.

The country built its massive interstate highway system as a strategic military asset in the case of invasion by the Soviets, kept diesel cheap, and as a result ships more freight by road as a percentage than any other developed country in the world. The highways remain mostly federally owned, with tolls along the way, but rail has been private since the robber barons and is deeply inefficient compared to other countries as a result.

Table of statistics pertinent to rail assembled from multiple sources by author
Table of statistics pertinent to rail assembled from multiple sources by author

As I pointed out recently in pieces about US rail electrification, North America uniquely isn’t accepting the obvious answer for rail decarbonization, which is a combination of grid-tied and battery-electric. As the table shows, India is speeding toward 100%, China is doing the same, and Europe is moving more slowly but has a majority of grid-tied rail already and is rejecting hydrogen and alternative burnable fuel. Because the US has something like 700 owners of different chunks of rail, they have half the usage per mile on average, and hence half the revenue to invest in maintenance and improvements like electrification. Rail owners refuse to pay, and their association makes many inaccurate statements in support of the status quo. The US federal government appears to believe them, which is a pity undoubtedly fed by lobbyists’ wallets.

That means that as rail diesel fuel gets more expensive with carbon pricing of some sort, mandated shifts to more expensive biofuels or much more expensive synthetic fuels, rail will be less cost competitive with road freight, which is going to get massive benefits from battery-electric and semi-autonomous platooning, cutting fuel and labor costs while allowing faster overall delivery.

The transportation blueprint is setting the stage for moving freight in exactly the wrong direction, from rail to roads.

Second, the same highway network and emphasis on road freight has meant inland and coastal shipping has been plummeting in the US for decades. While my projection is that inland and two-thirds of coastal shipping will directly electrify with built-in or container batteries, and as a result that mode will see lower costs for fuel and maintenance, and it will still be competing with road freight which gets the same advantages.

Shifting freight from roads to rails and ships, in other words, is the right idea, but the blueprint doesn’t have a good strategic kernel. It doesn’t accurately diagnose the reality of the situation, and as a result can’t define a good policy about it except to assert that they want this to happen.

Will this matter? Somewhat. Like suburban sprawl, if all road freight is electric and all electricity is significantly decarbonized, the country will spend a lot more energy and money on freight transportation than it should and hence the country will be less competitive globally. But from a climate change perspective, the world won’t really care. The metric the globe cares about is carbon emissions, and when US rail diminishes, waterborne freight electrifies, and road freight is electric, carbon emissions will still go down.

It does mean that the US will end up burning a lot more biodiesel than it needs to, which is a problem as that form of energy is best reserved for longer haul aviation and shipping. And it will burn a lot more of that biodiesel near to people where the air pollution will have close to the same negative effects as burning fossil fuels.

As for getting Americans out of their cars and airplanes and into buses and trains, neither of those is likely to be influenced by the government, at least not in the way that the blueprint authors think. The blueprint has a field of dreams strategy, i.e. build it and they will come. Make trains and buses more convenient and Americans will flock to them. Yes, it would be great if more people used buses and trains, and yes that’s a good idea.

But US passenger rail is hamstrung by private ownership of rail, and the big freight rail firms, blinded as they are to their impending decline, still don’t want to share their rails with passenger trains and have the power to make it difficult and slow for passenger trains. Remember, the big rail companies own most of the rails their trains travel along, hence a lot of the massive redundancy and comparatively inefficient use of their routes. The Association Of American Railroads complains that they pay for the rails while trucks and boats don’t (not entirely true, as is par for the course for the Association), but what that means is that the rails don’t get used effectively for the most positive societal outcomes.

America has deep trouble building big linear assets that aren’t roads or pipelines in this century, as the great book Superpower, about Michael Skelley’s inability to get HVDC built across state lines while gas pipelines are trivial to get approved, makes clear. The country has managed to get 49 miles of passenger rail to middling high speeds, which is to say about a quarter of what the small country of Morocco has running at higher speeds, and about one-500th of China’s also higher-speed network. But that was just upgrading existing rail, not building new rail.

If the US’ mode-shifting blueprint were stronger, it would address the private ownership of rail head on and come up with a mechanism to cut the miles of rail in half, electrify the 50% to 80% that are necessary, and lean into battery containers shared with shipping and charged in container transshipment terminals. But crickets on that. This wouldn’t necessarily mean nationalization of the rail linear assets, although that’s an obvious lever to pull and one aligned with leading practices for rail globally. It might mean buying out the owners of the least productive 50% of rail and ripping the tracks up to feed into electric steel minimills, with the routes turned into biking or hiking paths. And it might mean paying for electrification grid ties for the remainder, combined with an HVDC grid along the right of ways.

But there’s likely no path to rational rail in the US, so it will end up stuck on more expensive fuels and be less competitive as a result. No mode-shifting there. One aspect of this is that basic rail maintenance for safety will be declining further in coming years as average revenue per mile drops, so the derailments like Ohio are likely to increase as a ratio of freight miles. And with continued ownership of most rails by freight concerns and no ability to build new intercity rails, no mode-shifting of passengers to speak of.

Without high-speed intercity rail, getting people out of their cars and airplane seats and into comfy, ground level trains won’t happen. The Chinese example of building 25,000 miles of high-speed, grid-tied rail linking all of its cities in a dense network for low-carbon, inexpensive, convenient transportation won’t be occurring in the US. Thankfully aviation and cars will decarbonize, although the US strategy is iffy again.

The intentions of the blueprint to get people out of cars and airplanes are good, as is the hope to shift freight off the road. But it’s not likely to succeed, in part because they don’t confront the realities directly, and in part because the federal government has few levers to pull.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 693 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard