U.S. Launches Blueprint to Decarbonize Transportation, Mobility First

When the U.S. passed its most important climate legislation ever, the Investment Reduction Act (IRA), it didn’t tackle transportation very squarely. Not in the sense of what climate science authorities, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), say is the path to deep decarbonization, a sequence known as “Avoid-Shift-Improve.”

What passing the IRA did do was show a recipe for making climate policy in the U.S. Which is to create things people care about, and use the chance to generate popular support and hopefully win constituents for even more reform.

US federal agencies have launched a new framework, The US National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization: A Joint Strategy to Transform Transportation, which aims to do that for transportation.

The blueprint composes, for the first time, a national policy on transportation decarbonization that is holistic according to climate science and speaks to modern politics.

The framework brings key agencies together to chart a path to do the following:

  1. Increase convenience by implementing system-level and design solutions. This means, in part, making communities more walkable and building more housing near the places where people need to go.
  2. Improve efficiency through mode shift and more efficient vehicles. This includes making public transportation work better and become more relevant.
  3. Transition to clean options by deploying zero-emission vehicles. Electrification of everything.

The blueprint suggests, correctly, that status-quo transportation policy costs people money, time, and freedom that they could potentially have back. And it shows a way forward that is about making people’s lives better through more mobility options, especially those who transportation to date has left out.

It also agrees with the findings of IPCC and others in asserting that decarbonization through transportation requires a set of solutions—in particular, mobility and electrification—that need to work together. And hence, a commitment to transportation decarbonization means advocacy for any one solution requires being thoughtful about the wider strategy.

The framework needs funding, which theoretically could come in part from current subsidies that prop up car dependence and work against the many opportunities to create abundance through transportation highlighted in the blueprint. It also needs reciprocity from states, municipalities, and elsewhere.

With the new Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, leaders who want a modern way to structure investments for transportation climate action have a good framework translated for the U.S. to support and build with.

Transportation Questions for Climate Action

To bring climate pollution under control, we need to reshape transportation, especially the way we get around on the ground.

Namely, we have to evolve from a mono-modal system that is extraordinarily energy-intensive because it requires one tool for almost every job–the private car, typically carrying one person–towards a system that is resource-efficient.

No question a big part of resource efficiency is more efficient motors with cleaner energy sources. That means electrifying more or less every motor vehicle, and then some.

But just as important, and what we need to wake up about, is making the system architecture into one that is multimodal. An architecture that provides a diversity of travel choices giving people multiple good options. That ferrets out subsidies working against the most economic travel tool for the job in order to give the most climate-compatible modes a level playing field. That multiplies the possibilities through “geometric efficiency”–by designing and redesigning communities to give people more amenities near where they live.

This system we need is one that is designed to first avoid the need for physical travel and next to let people frictionlessly shift to the most efficient and convenient mode for the trip. See figure for a summary of these strategies, together “avoid/shift,” in context.

Avoid-Shift-Improve Framework from SLOCAT (reference at bottom)

Four questions will shape how and when we get to the multimodal, resource-efficient system that we need–and hence whether transportation leaders will do their part in delivering a safe climate:

  1. How do we give the movements for bicycle/pedestrian and transit development the high status climate science and literature on equity say they deserve?
  2. How can transportation electrification and “avoid/shift” climate strategies work harmoniously towards a holistic transportation decarbonization agenda?
  3. What’s it going to take to get public agencies take serious climate action, which requires–according to the most authoritative science–a revolution in mobility options on top of electrification?
  4. How can resource-limited local governments rapidly take it the next level for combined transportation decarbonization, equity, and resilience?
  5. How do we overcome carbon lock-in in the transportation system making change difficult and spark new action?

There’s a lot packed in here. How we pay for things (and quietly subsidize the status quo). The role of emerging technology. Paths to diffusion of technology and solutions that already exist but at small scale. How to be more appropriately imaginative. And a lot more.

In the coming months, watch this space for materials and some perspectives to explore them. The goal is to better understand the profound untapped value mobility offers the climate movement and what we can do about it. As well as the potentially untapped popular support for initiatives that give people time, money, and freedom back once we get the flywheel really moving.

READING

IPCC (April 2022). Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel.

Litman, Todd (2022). Evaluating Transportation Equity Guidance for Incorporating Distributional Impacts in Transport Planning. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

SLOCAT: Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (2021). Transport and Climate Change Global Status Report — 2nd Edition.

Unruh, Greg (2002). Escaping Carbon Lock-in. Energy Policy.

Why “More” Mobility?

More Mobility is about the possibility of more from mobility. 

More freedom and joy in how we get around. 

A higher standard of care and dignity for the large number of people our transportation system is leaving behind. Both travelers and those living where travelers are moving through.

Better shared results between public transportation departments and other crucial public domains that transportation affects and is affected by. 

Greater accessibility to what we need.

Transportation that costs less money, less time, and less harm.

This is what we need more of. Not because of the climate crisis, but despite it. Yet, what we need to do to get more serious about climate action is exactly what we need to do to make more happen.

These are big statements–and they are what More Mobility is about. More, with footnotes, soon. 🙂

Climate Action Requires Mobility-First Transportation Action Says IPCC

Earlier this year, the world’s top authority on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), gave an update on our best chances to minimize further climate damage and keep humankind as safe as possible.1

Here are some of the conclusions about transportation from the 3000-page report, which deals with every main aspect of decarbonization:

#1. The path to decarbonizing transportation is mobility first, with support from technology. Most of what needs to happen to decarbonize transportation is about reducing demand with a focus on transportation on the ground. More specifically, to pursue an Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework, a sequence of advancing policies and investments that first help to avoid travel, next shift travel to more efficient modes, and finally, improve to vehicle equipment, which a category that includes electrification.

#2. Mobility-led transportation climate action is crucial for decarbonization and we’re not going to get the job done without it. There are no modeled solutions to a safe climate that do not involve a mobility-centered transformation of transportation. And unfortunately, we are not only off track, but without assertive action, unfolding technologies and status quo public management could lead climate pollution from transportation to significantly increase. The good news is there’s strong evidence from leadership around the world showing the way that gives local communities a lot of flexibility and chances to create co-benefits.

#3. Transportation is full of no-regrets investment opportunities that governments should be pursuing no matter what. Transportation is a treasure trove of low- and negative- cost decarbonization that shouldn’t require a lot of hemming and hawwing. And the agenda for serious transportation action–which is centered in designing public environments for more human-centered mobility that gives people more choices–can be a powerful agenda for well-being and equity.

#4. The upside of what transportation can do for climate action is enormous and transcends the models. In addition to analysis showing the minimum work needed around transportation, there is also evidence that transportation climate investments have the potential to create accelerated, outside-the-box change that exceed modeled expectations. Transportation, because it is so integral to our daily lives, is part of  economic and cultural processes that can create extraordinary change quickly while making our lives better.  We can cultivate the conditions to make this happen.

#5. Our best chances of success are in integrated solutions. We need mobility and electrification, and electrification could both hinder or help mobility. Advocates for particular solutions can be the most helpful by keeping the whole ASI framework in mind.

To wrap it up, any serious general climate action strategy needs to have a major focus on transportation that puts weight behind creating high-performing, technology-enabled multimodal system that gives people meaningful choices for safely and conveniently getting around.

And those responsible for transportation or decisions that affect transportation—including zoning, parking, other land use planning, economic development, schools, destination marking and management, and enforcement—need to play a coordinated role in making it happen.


1 IPCC (April 2022). Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel. Also, watch for original briefings and analysis on IPCC 2022 to come.

Welcome to the More Mobility Blog

Welcome to the blog of More Mobility!

This space is for policymakers, practitioners, investors, and grant-makers contemplating how to unlock more at the nexus of transportation and climate action.

The aim is short, slightly wonky discussion on ideas that inspire More Mobility (see the about page), original More Mobility resources focused on decisions and action, and world developments (e.g. studies, events, etc.)

The geographical is North America, mostly the U.S., with possible material specifically on Colorado and California.

Through the end of 2022, posts will come at least every two weeks, with the possibility of bonus material.

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