EPA Air Chief: We Need to Do More to Reduce VMT

Obama administration officials "need to align together" to work on reducing the nation’s total vehicle miles traveled — work that should go beyond a pending congressional climate bill — the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air-quality chief said today.

GinaMcCarthy.jpgGina McCarthy, EPA’s top air pollution regulator. (Photo: CECE)

Gina McCarthy, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, acknowledged in a speech at EMBARQ‘s transportation conference that her agency as "less effective" working alone on crafting strategies to cut VMT.

McCarthy called for federal agencies to work together on a coordinated approach to transportation policy that makes economic and environmental factors an essential part of the mix.

"When we say transportation, everybody thinks ‘car’,"
McCarthy said. "That’s a challenge for us as individuals, as a society
— and clearly it’s a challenge for me, as someone who’s supposed to
deliver clean air to breathe."

McCarthy described lowering VMT as the third leg of the EPA’s transport stool. The other two, she explained, are encouraging vehicle technology to reduce emissions and promoting cleaner-burning fuels.

But that third leg drew the bulk of McCarthy’s attention, as she echoed the mission statement of the White House’s inter-agency "livable communities" effort.

"Transportation, above all else, needs to be looked at through a series of complementary
measures, beyond cap-and-trade, in order to drive the types of reductions we need in order
to live in a sustainable world," said McCarthy, a veteran environmental regulator in Connecticut.

And McCarthy appeared to recognize the existing federal
system’s built-in bias toward transportation projects that make life
difficult for air-quality regulators. "The easiest way to spend large
hunks of money is to widen a road," she said. "The worst way to spend
large hunks of money is to widen a road."

As for the cap-and-trade bill, which faces an uncertain future thanks to resistance from red-state Senate Democrats, McCarthy warned Congress that her agency is acting under a Supreme Court mandate to curb greenhouse gases: "Though we support cap-and-trade … EPA is going to do what the law says and what the science says."

  • Bill

    What a moron. Yeah, lets stop increasing road capacity so traffic can SIT in a congested mess and create EVEN MORE deadly emissions. Joke, pure joke. Transit and high-speed rail are novel approaches, but bottom line is you are not going to get the average American to let go of the freedom of getting in his or her vehicle and driving wherever they want to go. Those who try to step on this liberty are not going to get re-elected.

  • MU

    Bill, Not sure where you live, but where I am they ARE increasing road capacity and yet congestion just gets worse and worse. Maybe it’s time to rethink that we can build our way out of the problem. And I’m not sure I’d describe transit as “novel”. That is actually how a lot of people got around before cars came to dominate and still do in many places in the world.
    The false “liberty” of living in an environment where you really have no choice but to own and drive an expensive vehicle for nearly every trip may seem like freedom to some, but I think people are beginning to see that it can be a false freedom. No one serious is talking about doing away with cars, they are talking about making more options. And a reminder that every person that switches to transit or bicycling or walking is one less person in a car which means that traffic will GET BETTER because of investments in non-auto transit.

  • Bill

    I think you are facing a long, uphill battle in converting people from cars to alternate forms of transportation.

  • MU

    You’re right. But rule 1 when you’re in a hole – stop digging.

  • Peter Smith

    No one serious is talking about doing away with cars

    cars are the best thing since sliced bread. it’s too bad the world is filled with deeply unserious people. first, they’re screaming ‘no cars’. then, it’s ‘no wars’. as if the world could get by without cars or wars. duh. what will these hippies think of next?

    wait…

  • A reduction in VMT = a reduction in economic output. When the fact is that 95% (or more) of the nation’s work and leisure trips are still taken by car, a reduction in VMT is not what is warranted. Some – me included – would argue that transportation’s contribution to our economy is well – it probably CREATED our economy. So, hamstringing it now isn’t smart. We cannot all live in urban villages and Seqway, bike, or metro to work – at least conveniently, and with the ability to stop by teh supermarket, the soccer field, or Home Depot on the way home. Further, rail lines don’t go to every place of manufacture or business. An increase in VMT is tied to increase economic activity which is tied to increased taxes which fund the things society wants. And one of those things will probably be vehicles that burn less and pollute less – and EPA goal, correct?

  • MU

    @Tim – Respectfully, I think you are confusing cause and effect. You are correct, increased economic activity results in an increase in VMT. But increasing VMT does not necessarily mean an increase in the economy. Of course, it does mean more usage of gasoline, road maintanance, etc. But these are not generally the kinds of spending that tend to benefit the economy as a whole. (Gasoline is of course the prime example, it does not employ many per dollar and much of the profits export to foreign nations.)

    You are also correct that transport in integral to the economy. But I would argue it is mainly a necessary precondition to other economic activity, not the economy in and of itself. It is hard to open a factory, hire workers, ship products, and sell to consumers if you don’t have a robust transport system. But building a new road doesn’t automatically create more factories. Furthermore, road congestion actually surpresses economic activity because it raises the costs to workers, businesses, etc. to make and ship goods. The paradox of more fuel efficient cars is that they tend to encourage more VMT, further increasing congestion and other societal costs.

    The goal of rducing VMT is not to “hamstring” transportation or force people out of cars. The idea is to shift people to more efficient (fuel-wise, economics-wise, etc.) modes where it is appropriate. Reducing VMT by shifting to better transport modes will increase the economy by giving people more time and money to spend on things that employ local people and businesses. If that happens at the expense of oil multinationals’ profits, I think we’re better off for it.

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