US Agencies Release Blueprint for Decarbonizing Transportation and It’s Amazing

Four U.S. agencies joined forces to release an important document that will change the way we talk about transportation: the U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization. The agencies–Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency–call it a “landmark interagency framework of strategies and actions to remove all emissions from the transportation sector by 2050.”

In a famous tweet, transport planner Jarrett Walker noted that “land use and transportation are the same thing described in different languages.” But in this blueprint, they are all speaking the same language.

Futurist Alex Steffen wrote, “There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive.

The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.”

I have previously made the point that transportation and building emissions are not separate: they are built environment emissions, two sides of the same coin. “We have to stop putting everything into separate silos; it all connects.” And this blueprint recognizes that it does.

Mallory Baches, CNU President

As this groundbreaking roadmap recognizes, the design of our cities, towns, neighborhoods, and rural communities plays a crucial factor in our collective and individual transportation alternatives, and therefore our nation’s ability to meet its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a statement about the blueprint: “Transportation policy is inseparable from housing and energy policy, and transportation accounts for a major share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so we must work together in an integrated way to confront the climate crisis. Every decision about transportation is also an opportunity to build a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous future.

When our air is cleaner; when more people can get good-paying jobs; when everyone stays connected to the resources they need and the people they love, we are all better off.”

For years, advocates for walkable cities, bikes, and public transport have been sharing this meme about how electric cars get all the attention. It certainly seemed so with the Biden administration as well. Yet this blueprint lists its priorities in an interesting order:

Blueprint

Convenient

Increase convenience by supporting community design and land-use planning at the local and regional levels that ensure that job centers, shopping, schools, entertainment, and essential services are strategically located near where people live to reduce commute burdens, improve walkability and bike-ability, and improve quality of life …

Because every hour we don’t spend sitting in traffic is an hour we can spend focused on the things and the people we love, all while reducing GHG emissions.

This is careful phrasing around “convenience.” The word “density” is avoided as if it were toxic–which it is–and appears rarely. However, it calls for “more compact cities and towns with a mix of commercial, residential, and civic uses close to each other.”

“A compact urban form can also help reduce distance traveled at various supply chain stages, thereby making light modes, such as cargo bikes and smaller EVs, more practical for freight delivery. Planning for all transportation system users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, motorists, and delivery drivers, can also improve roadway safety for all users, encouraging more people to choose active transportation.”

The blueprint also calls for “equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD)” where improved land-use planning and transportation systems design can also support transit-oriented development, making active travel modes (e.g., walking and biking) and public transportation even more viable.

Efficient

Blueprint

Improve efficiency by expanding affordable, accessible, efficient, and reliable options like public transportation and rail and improving the efficiency of all vehicles …

Because everyone deserves efficient transportation options that will allow them to move around affordably and safely, and because consuming less energy as we move saves money, strengthens our national security, and reduces GHG emissions.

There is a nod toward the energy efficiency of vehicles, but the real thrust here is getting people out of cars and freight out of transport trucks.

“Using more efficient modes and vehicles is essential to reduce overall transportation emissions and energy use. The use of more efficient modes could also reduce the number of vehicles on the road and reduce congestion, improving travel time and traffic flow, thereby further reducing GHG emissions and other harmful air pollutants.”

The blueprint never comes out and says it wants to get rid of cars, but it certainly does its best to promote alternatives like public transit and suggests dynamic parking pricing, changes to parking space requirements, and congestion pricing “to encourage people to consider alternative travel modes.” It never explicitly addresses walking, bikes, and e-bikes, but most stock photos are of happy people on bikes, and they drop in and out of the story.

“Equitable access to rail, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure can also help reduce emissions from freight. Well-maintained, wide sidewalks, for example, could support delivery robot movement in addition to pedestrian access, and bicycle infrastructure can support the use of cargo bikes for freight delivery.”

Clean

Blueprint

Transition to clean options by deploying zero-emission vehicles and fuels for cars, commercial trucks, transit, boats, airplanes, and more …

Because no one should be exposed to air pollution in their community or on their ride to school or work, and eliminating GHG emissions from transportation is imperative to tackle the climate crisis.

This section discusses the transition to zero emissions with electric cars but also nods to hydrogen and sustainable liquid fuels. It’s the shortest section because so much of this is covered in other government initiatives like the Inflation Reduction Act.

It worries about the rate of replacement, noting that “at current vehicle turnover rates, replacing the more than 300 million fossil fuel vehicles in operation today will take decades.” It also points out that “higher up-front costs continue to serve as a barrier to adoption for lower-income consumers” and suggests incentives may be needed.

The blueprint next looks at how to apply these strategies to different transportation modes. With light-duty vehicles–nobody uses the word “car” anymore–it calls for 50% of all new vehicle sales to be zero-emission by 2030 and trucks should be 30%.

For aviation, it calls for the production of 3 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 and 35 billion gallons by 2050, enough to supply the entire sector.

We have previously called this a fantasy, but that is another post.

The blueprint concludes with a call to action:

“Transforming our transportation systems over the next three decades will be a complex endeavor, but by taking a comprehensive and coordinated approach it is a challenge that we can, and must, solve. In addition to leadership at the federal level, reaching our ambitious climate goals will require collaboration with regional, state, local and Tribal governments; industry; community-based organizations; and non-profit and philanthropic organizations. Together, we must act decisively to provide better mobility options, reduce inequities, and offer affordable and clean mobility solutions to ensure the health of the planet for future generations. The time to act is now.

This will be the fundamental problem with this blueprint: It needs everyone to work together.

Many of the planning and transit initiatives are state and local rather than federal, in places where people love their suburban houses and light-duty vehicles.

The blueprint also plays into the image that many conservatives in the U.S. have of those who want to change the American way of life. Bloomberg commentator Joe Mysak nailed it in 2008: “They would apparently love nothing more than for the population to be confined to Soviet-style concrete-block high-rises and be forced to take state-run streetcars to their little jobs at the mill.”

The comments in the Washington Post, not exactly a right-wing rag, are full of “Democrats want to end suburban living and tell people where they can and cannot live.” The Agenda 21/UN/World Economic Forum conspiracy types will be out in force for this one; the comments on Treehugger should be fun too.

This blueprint touches so many third rails and sacred cows that it is surprising that it saw the light of day, let alone got support from four major agencies.

But it is the first time, that I know of, for agencies in charge of energy, transportation, the environment, and housing to essentially agree that this is all one big picture and the solution to climate change requires coordination. It’s also the first time I have seen a government document recognize and acknowledge the scale of the changes that are required.

This blueprint will be vilified and attacked.

Ultimately, it will be ignored.

But it got it right: Climate policy is transportation policy is energy policy is housing policy.

Everything connects.