We Can’t Stop Global Warming Without Reducing Driving

Photo: Stefanie Seskin/Flickr
Photo: Stefanie Seskin/Flickr

Electric vehicles aren’t going to cut it, emissions-wise. That’s one alarming finding in a new report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The estimates vary. But one important finding estimates [PDF, page 65] that about 20 percent of emission reductions needed to limit temperature rise need to come from trips avoided or trips shifted — from cars to trains, buses and bikes.

Photo: Meredith Hankins via Legal Planet
Photo: Meredith Hankins via Legal Planet

Meredith Hankins, an environmental law fellow at UCLA notes in an article for Legal Planet that this has been soft-pedaled in discussions about decarbonizing the transportation sector.

But as transport emissions make up a greater and greater portion of overall emissions, it’s time we started discussing our strategy for reducing driving miles more seriously and openly, she says.

How do we ensure the owner of that non-zero emission vehicle 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.

There still aren’t very many public agencies that have made reducing vehicle miles traveled a policy priority. Minneapolis deserves especial credit for its newest comprehensive plan, which proposes an 80 percent reduction in transport emissions by 2050. In order to meet that goal, the city estimates it needs to reduce driving miles by 40 percent. The city has proposed reducing the number of parking spaces required, increasing the walkability of neighborhoods by allowing more dense housing and even banning new gas stations within city limits in service of that goal.

At the state level, California has been perhaps the boldest with policies aimed at limiting driving miles — however so far they have not had much success. Driving miles have escalated in recent years. Here’s what the California Air Resources Board has proposed:

  • Quadrupling the number of trips made by walking
  • Limiting urban growth boundaries
  • Instituting congestion pricing, parking pricing
  • Prioritizing transit, walking and biking projects for state infrastructure funding

Patrick Sisson at Curbed pointed out recently that some studies have estimated that large global cities could cut their emissions by a third based on improvements in housing density alone.

We have to start talking about these solutions and making them part of mainstream environmental policy, Hankins says. Time is running out.

“We can’t afford to ignore significant climate mitigation measures just because they are politically difficult,” she writes.

37 thoughts on We Can’t Stop Global Warming Without Reducing Driving

  1. Nice checklist but easier said than done I’ll presume. I think autonomous EV’s will help a lot.

    Over a decade ago Colorado mandated that Xcel Energy produce 40% of its electricity with renewables by 2030. With easy access to coal, over 65% of Colorado’s electricity came from coal. Fast forward and Xcel now asserts it will produce 60% of its electricity from renewables by 2025 and 80% by 2030.

  2. I think Meridith Hawkins misses an important point. In saying “There are no easy, cookie-cutter answers to these questions.” Actually, there is. There is three-to-four times the roadway capacity available that is currently not being used: the other seats in cars. Cities need to incentivize carpooling and start making it very expensive to drive alone. Cities need a universal carpooling plan, a phone app, pick-up/drop-off locations, and some sort of built-in safety feature. This could drastically reduce congestion and VMTs and is something that could happen soon, without decades of environmental documents. We’re in a life-threatening crisis and we need to address it as such.

  3. Increase the gas tax by tying it to miles driven and charge a higher tax rate to those who drive SUVs and I’m sure we’ll see VMT going down in no time. Use the revenue from the increased gas tax to fund protected bike lanes and improved public transit.

  4. I think her point is that your answer is merely easy on paper – not in the real world. Coming up with an idea is easy – implementing it is where it gets challenging.

  5. A massiv conversion to electric re the complete transport sector plus agriculture -, earth moving like wheel loaders, mining sector etc and a powerful implementation of Maglev train plus enough electric energy produced by nuclear plants, SMR (Small Modular Reactors). Even flying overgoing to electric. And even country overriding Maglev trains. From China to US bv Russia, Berings Strait Alaska Canada and finally north America.

  6. It’s quite likely that autonomous vehicles will result in much higher VMT and a serious strain on the electrical network. They’ll probably also fuel increased urban sprawl, which has its own significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions. I don’t think we should expect autonomous vehicles to save the day.

  7. They clearly will result in higher VMT. Instead of driving to work and parking near work, people will have autonomous vehicles drive them to work and go back home to park – cutting their demand for parking in half but doubling their VMT.

    But from what I have heard, they are not expected to cause strain on the electrical network, since there will be economic incentives to charge them during hours of lowest demand and software that lets them charge automatically when the cost is lowest.

  8. The study says that even if we electrified the entire U.S. auto fleet we would still need to reduce driving. Electric cars are not the end all be all. At the end of the day they’re still cars and contribute to the the poor urban planning in many U.S. cities. Density and making cities more bike and pedestrian friendly are key.

  9. Another anti-auto/anti-driver screed. The goal is to take away our freedom, to control us. These people subscribe to the belief that humans are a toxic virus on the planet and need to be eliminated. Getting rid of cars is a good start. De-centralized gas stations are a no-no because it is almost impossible to control people. Power available only from a government-run electric grid is the way they will control what you drive, when you drive, where you drive: eventually, you won’t be able to drive at all. The elites will have all the power and freedom of mobility they want, but not you. Welcome to the New World Order where you are a slave. Check out the War On Cars Watch at motorists(dot)org

  10. Pretty much the only way they won’t increase VMT is if they’re extremely heavily regulated (road pricing, fees for passengerless miles, etc.). VMT is induced by cheap travel, and autonomous vehicles could make the time cost of long commutes essentially nothing. The money cost is already way lower than it should be.

    The researchers studying this stuff pretty much all agree on that. There’s some question whether the benefits they provide will outweigh the negatives to make the roads less congested overall, but I don’t think anyone is denying they’ll result in more people traveling more often.

  11. Nah, people going to work won’t own a car for commuting. That will be done via Uber self-driving cars. Actually there will be much less need to own a car unless it’s for ferrying kids or running errands.

  12. That research is agenda biased. One autonomous vehicle ought to be able to replace several cars in today’s world. Lots of people won’t even bother to own cars; there won’t be the need.

  13. Yes I agree with you and a tool to reduce the private car traffic is to the infrastructure system with buses, trains, more walkways in increased priority on pedistrians and bikers. Almost a complete transformation of the cities.

  14. Do you have any reason to believe essentially all the research about autonomous vehicles is biased against them? Considering that a significant portion of it is funded by companies working on autonomous vehicles, that seems unlikely.

  15. I don’t see how they get that result. Obviously, we *could* stop global warming simply by replacing every fossil-fuel-burner with an electric replacement. It’s not the most *cost-effective* way to do it, but we could, pratically speaking.

  16. But that study result doesn’t make any sense.

    Obviously we’d still have awful urban planning, awful commutes, lots of wildly expensive roads (after all, we have to get rid of both asphalt and lime-based concrete to stop global warming)

    — but we *can* stop global warming simply by replacing every fossil-fuel-burner with a fossil-free replacement. It would be the most expensive and impractical way to do it, but we *could*.

  17. Don’t worry about autonomous vehicles. The people who really understand them, like the guys at comma.ai and even the head of GM’s Cruise division, are quite sure that we won’t have fully autonomous go-everywhere no-supervision vehicles for decades. If ever.

    For the next two decades, it’s going to be “driver assist” systems. Period. They’ll get better and better, but that’s all it’ll be.

  18. You’re a lunatic.

    Gas stations are controlled by a centralized cartel of oil companies which are in the end run by Saudi Arabia, Russia, and a few guys in Texas. It’s really easy to cut off the gasoline supply — look at what happens in any hurricane.

    You can produce your own electricity using your own solar panels and batteries. Do it.

    If you really want freedom, get an electric car. People with electric cars had no trouble leaving Florida during the last hurricane, even while people with gas cars drove up to stations with “NO GAS”

  19. Awful urban planning is not something we’re stuck with. Plenty of surface parking lots can be coverted into parking, plenty of freeways can be torn down to make way for housing, retail, or simply greenspace.
    Per the study, we actually *CAN’T* stop global warming with simply converting every fossil fuel car to an electric one.

  20. Maybe if you read the study you’d understand. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean their finding is wrong.

  21. Freedom by driving is an expensive delusion fueled by a century of subsidizing roads, parking lots and motor vehicle social, health and environmental costs. Our lack of options for walking or bicycling safely is the single greatest contributor to Americans poor health, especially as we age. Leg strength and walking speed are the most accurate predictors of future disability resulting in loss of mobility, including the ability to drive. There goes your freedom, because you couldn’t walk daily because of fear of traffic, dogs, lack of improved sidewalks and time because so many hours of your day went to commuting and working to pay for your private vehicle. It’s a trap not a throne, no matter how high up you sit.

  22. THe report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is so full of unfounded and outrageous assumptions that it is just a propaganda piece against cars and for more government programs. None of it is worth paying the slightest attention to.

  23. Uhh, those roads, parking lots etc are bought and paid for by those who depend on them. You seem to be unaware of the popularity of businesses that cater to one’s exercise needs not to forget YMCA’s. Why do you choose to speak for what others want for themselves?

  24. Good grief; name any retail sector and I’ll name the dominant players. Google dominates search, Apple and Samsung dominate phones, etc. When it comes to services it’s much the same. Welcome to the 21st Century.

  25. One who has an agenda often has a closed mind. I prefer critical thinking and disagree with your assertions. No biggie.

  26. Most of the expenses of building roads and parking lots are paid through property taxes, income taxes, general bonds. Gas taxes and vehicle fees and fines pay for some maintenance, but not all. Those funds have been running deficits for years, and never paid for paving them in the first place. More bike miles are ridden indoors than outdoors now, but if Americans walked daily we would have much lower medical costs, also not paid for by motor vehicles.

  27. Well there’s various levels of expenses: city, county, state and federal. I understand that at the federal level about half of the funding comes via general fund or specific revenue set-offs. The point is that regardless of which level or the specific funding source it’s all paid by those who depend on roads which is everybody. I do enjoy walking; others don’t.

  28. Well, maybe the study was misreported. The difference between “we can’t do it this way” and “it would be wildly more expensive if we did it this way” is a big difference.

    (Checks)

    Yep, Angie misreported the study.

    What the study says is that, given the urgency of the problem, and current trends, they think the *most effective* scenario would require more than just electric cars.

  29. Sure, but what does this non-sequiter have to do with what I said? I was responding to the lunatic who was ranting about “freedom”.

  30. I checked the study. That’s flat out not what it says.

    It says that the best plausible scenarios to stop global warming involves doing a lot more than replacing every fossil fuel car with an electric one.

    And that we need to try everything we can because the situation is so desperate. I agree, of course.

    Angie misreported the study.

  31. Currently there are 268 million motor vehicles in the United States. That’s a lot of demand and a lot of utility to supplant with something else. What it will eventually come down to is onerously high fuel taxes, which will reduce private operation of a motor vehicle to a privilege available only to the affluent.
    Incidentally, I don’t know of anyone with a job and a car who doesn’t drive to work. Who would willingly lose an hour a day, taking public transit to work, if he didn’t have to?

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