A focus on car alternatives and better pedestrian infrastructure could save 6,000 lives and $259 billion each year.
State departments of transportation (DOTs) are uniquely positioned to accelerate the shift to clean transportation. While many have made heartening progress in areas like vehicle electrification, most have neglected other necessary solutions — namely, equitably expanding access to mobility choices and reducing the miles we have to drive (referred to as vehicle miles traveled or VMT).
These solutions go hand-in-hand. Expanding and enhancing mobility choices — that is, offering alternatives to personal automobiles — would vastly improve Americans’ access to low- and no-carbon transportation while improving their lives in nearly every dimension. RMI has already demonstrated these benefits in the state of Minnesota, and in forthcoming analysis finds that, by 2050, a 20 percent decrease in national VMT per capita could avoid up to 6,000 annual fatalities, $259 billion in annual vehicle fuel and maintenance costs, and 2.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent — the same as shutting off all US emissions for roughly four months.
But VMT is on the rise, and even the most ambitious states are misusing unprecedented federal funds on projects — mostly roadway expansions — which fail to relieve congestion and will make pollution worse.
To decrease VMT on the necessary scale, state DOTs must change course immediately, investing in cleaner, safer, more affordable, and more enjoyable mobility options.
Cars’ special status costs pollution, money, and lives
The US has long considered “car culture” an immutable fact of life rather than a predictable consequence of its laws, urban development patterns, and investment priorities. Decades of this thinking have made it difficult to provide alternatives; the United States has tried to solve its car problem with more and better cars — cars with more efficient engines and, increasingly, electric cars. For their part, state DOTs have tried to combat congestion with new and larger roads, such that today, cars enjoy more living space than people.
This has not worked. Over the past fifty years, transportation pollution has only meaningfully declined in response to recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, cars and trucks contributed 23 percent of US climate pollution — the largest single category — at per-capita volumes well beyond those of other developed countries. When we include fuel production and embodied carbon, cars and trucks pollute almost 40 percent of the US total.
While cars have become more efficient, these gains are partially offset by their increasing size and weight: research shows pollution could have been 30 percent less between 2010–2022 if cars had stayed the same size. Additionally, large trucks, SUVs, and crossovers remain markedly more lethal to pedestrians and cyclists, with US fatalities far exceeding those in similar countries. Given the risks, many people wouldn’t consider walking or cycling even for short routes, further reinforcing our auto-dependence.
This bloat is the direct result of policy. For example, a loophole in US auto efficiency standards gives more leniency to so-called “light” trucks, which have grown 32 percent heavier in just the last thirty years. Even in the Inflation Reduction Act — the signature US climate law — electric SUVs can receive tax credits if they cost under $80,000, while other vehicles must cost under $55,000 to qualify. This perversely incentivizes larger and more expensive electric vehicles.
The high price of car ownership is personal to many Americans. With stagnant real incomes and no choice but to drive, gas money can come at the expense of rent, healthcare, nutrition, education, and recreation. The US transportation system wasn’t built with these tradeoffs in mind. From relentless road expansions to zoning and land use policies that encourage sprawling, car-dependent communities, policymakers have long viewed car ownership as a benefit in-and-of itself, rather than the burden many Americans know it to be.
With historic federal funding, states have the chance to pivot
Most federal highway dollars go to states and local governments, which states can then supplement using their own revenues. State transportation spending has flatlined since 2000, however, and has historically underfunded car alternatives. And despite the orthodoxy that drivers should pay for their own infrastructure needs, Bloomberg notes that “gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have covered only about 60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of U.S. government.” The remainder comes as a federal subsidy which everyone pays, regardless of whether they drive.
The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Bipartisan Infrastructure Law” or “BIL”) commits even more federal highway funding, 90 percent of which will be disbursed as formula funds that states can spend with wide discretion. Their choices will make all the difference in meeting US climate targets: the Georgetown Climate Center and RMI have found that BIL can either help or harm pollution reduction efforts based on how state DOTs invest their funding.
Already, states have devoted most of their BIL funds to highway expansions and other projects that reliably induce more traffic than they relieve and are unpopular with even the driving public. They could instead use these funds to expand transit access and create benefit-rich “complete streets” tailored to cyclists and pedestrians. They could subsidize mini-cars, golf carts, and other forms of micro-mobility that go overlooked as serious electric alternatives. They could pilot congestion pricing and other strategies to alter transportation demand. Any of these solutions would do more to aggressively slash VMT.
There are examples across the country and the world. Parisians drive 45 percent less than they did in 1990 thanks to a kitchen sink of policy changes — many of which, like installing protective bollards, were hardly radical. Around this time, Seattle began to incentivize remote work and carpools while requiring larger employers to begin workdays before 9 a.m., reducing rush hour congestion. These relatively unobtrusive interventions helped lower per-capita VMT by about 17 percent from 2005-2018 (while total VMT increased as Seattle’s population grew).
States would be wise to follow these cities’ leads, implementing incremental reforms while capitalizing on exogenous events and market shifts that can arise suddenly. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive a 269 percent uptick in e-bike sales from 2019-2022. Despite being a relative frivolity just a decade before, e-bikes now outsell electric cars in the United States, due in large part to their lower price tags. E-bikes’ active transportation and air quality benefits offer even more reason to promote them on a wider scale.
These examples show that federal funding investments could do more if paired with policy reform. At the moment, twenty-three states are constitutionally banned from spending their gas tax revenues on transit while others prohibit local option taxes — additional sales taxes, fuel taxes, and registration fees that could support transit and other climate-sustaining infrastructure. By rethinking these policies and embracing a “fix-it-first” approach — prioritizing backlog repairs over expensive new projects that only add to future maintenance obligations — states can make the most of fleeting federal funding.
By reducing VMT, states help more than just the climate
Even with an impressive 70 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, RMI finds the United States would still need a 20 percent reduction in per-capita VMT in order to meet climate targets. Read in reverse: the more we reduce VMT, the fewer vehicles we need to electrify. This is especially important with automotive stock turnover at record lows and even the most EV-friendly states struggling to reduce transportation pollution. By abating more than the minimum necessary VMT, states create breathing room to achieve EV goals and reduce pressure on tenuous battery supply chains — a win-win for governments and consumers alike.
The wins don’t end at sustainability: RMI and many other organizations have found that communities see the most wide-ranging benefits when they welcome cycling, walking, and electric micro-mobility that reduce the need for driving. Our analysis finds that by 2050, a 20 percent reduction in per-capita VMT could avoid over 6,000 annual fatalities from car crashes. Meanwhile, shifting to walking, cycling, and other modes of active transportation could prevent an additional 45,000 deaths by improving public health and reducing physical inactivity.
If enough Americans could trade their car for a bicycle or comfortable pair of walking shoes, RMI estimates that the average US household would save up to $2,000 in automotive costs and 55 hours of driving every year. What’s more, the investments in greenways, sidewalks, and bicycle facilities create more jobs-per-dollar than status quo projects, and according to a report by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), for every dollar spent on pedestrian and biking infrastructure, another $5.20 in value is added to the regional economy.
A moment like this won’t come again
You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and most state DOTs have yet to begin measuring the impacts of driving. A new rule from the US Department of Transportation will change that by requiring state DOTs to set pollution reduction targets for their shares of the National Highway System — and with initial targets due in February 2024, there’s no time to lose.
These targets are flexible, and there will be no penalty for missing them. But perhaps if states understand the intensity of the problem, and if advocates and the general public can observe states’ lack of progress, then state DOTs will feel some pressure to act. This bright spotlight and the historic funding provided by BIL have opened the window for critical reforms. Will state DOTs respond with the same old projects that increase driving, lock-in emissions, drive up costs, and threaten lives? Or will they instead increase mobility choice and invest not in cars, but in people?
By choosing the latter, everyone — drivers included — will be better off.
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