While the US has been making progress in scaling up renewable energy and efficiency in the last 10 years, our transportation system hasn’t kept pace. Responsible for 27% of all US greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and 70% of oil use, transportation just surpassed electricity as a bigger source of GHGs.
EarthShare member group Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) is working to change this by informing Congress and the public on the benefits of clean transportation as part of their broad climate change policy work. Smart transportation policies would allow us to reduce GHGs by more than 80% by 2050, support our economy and living standards, and establish energy security.
EarthShare spoke with EESI Policy Fellow Paul Haven to find out what common-sense solutions would get us there, and how people can support this work.
How did you become interested in transportation?
Before college, I was a messenger in New York City and had to learn how to get around using different modes of transportation. Then, as a student at MIT, I got into a research project on the energy crisis of the early 1970s and asked questions like “What can we do better if this happens again?”
This pulled me into policy and information management for transit agencies like the Washington Metro Transit Authority (WMATA). Now, at EESI, I get to pull together all the things I’m interested in: climate change, energy, and transportation.
Transportation just surpassed electric power as a greater source of carbon emissions and continues to rise. Why is this happening?
As a country, we’re displacing a boatload of coal with natural gas. We’re adding wind and solar. Our electricity usage has been flat for years as we increase in efficiency through things like better appliances. Meanwhile, gas prices have dropped, spurring Americans to buy more SUVs.
How can the nation address its inefficient transportation system?
We need to do three things.
First, we need to plan our cities to be more compact, and make walking, biking, and transit viable ways to get around. Roads have been built to maximize the speed of cars – but this makes pedestrians and cyclists less safe. We need to enable the maximum number of peoples’ trips, whether they walk, bike, drive or take transit.
Cities increasingly understand this, and the federal government has been adjusting policies, but they need to further incentivize states to invest in clean transportation, as many state highway departments are oriented toward and skilled at building roads for vehicles.
Secondly, we need to make each mode of transportation more energy efficient. Take cars, for example. Electric vehicles (EVs) are more efficient than their gasoline counterparts, even when they’re plugged into the US’ dirtiest regional grid. [EarthShare Member] Union of Concerned Scientists did a great study on this in 2015. Why are countries like Norway able to sell 20% of new cars as EVs while in the US they make up only 1% of sales?
And thirdly, we need to choose the most efficient mode of transportation for each trip. Modern rail is very efficient, but if it doesn’t exist, we can’t use it.
What’s an example of a project that has a lot of potential?
We would love to see high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor (Washington, DC to Boston, MA).
The existing rail system here is 457 miles long and was built starting in 1830! It’s amazing it still works - the infrastructure is decaying. Commerce is completely dependent on this corridor functioning.
Laying track for high-speed rail would have so many benefits. It would decrease congested air space and highways, and get lots of cars off the road. There’s also a huge supply chain to build the train cars and other components – many jobs would be created, especially in the rural areas that need it most.
The rest of the world has been investing in high speed rail for decades – Japan was running trains at 130 mph back in 1964 while our fastest train, the Acela, only rarely gets to that speed today, averaging 80 mph (DC to NY).
Now Japan is building a 350 mph maglev train line between Tokyo and Nagoya, 80 mph faster than the Shanghai maglev operating since 2004. Japan, Taiwan, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, China – the list of countries operating 180 mph rail goes on – Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India and others are building high-speed rail systems too. The technology works, and the US hasn’t even started. It’s crazy.
What can the average person do to support sustainable transportation (besides hopping on a train or bike)?
Call and email your local, state and Congressional representatives, and vote. It does make a difference. They listen to their constituents. Stay updated by subscribing to EESI’s factsheets, newsletters and briefings (viewable live or recorded).
Engage in meaningful conversations with your colleagues, friends and family, even if you don’t agree on everything! At EESI, we engage with many different audiences, listening to their ideas and explaining how solutions can meet their needs. We talk about jobs and economic benefits, not just the environmental benefits.