World Resources Institute WRI

The role of driving in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption


Transportation represented 71 percent of oil consumption and 31 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States in 2008. Therefore, federal transportation policy presents an opportunity to reduce both oil consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This report explores whether technology improvements alone can achieve oil consumption and GHG emissions reduction targets consistent with recent draft legislation and international climate negotiations. The report finds that the United States must achieve significant improvements in vehicle technology and reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita (compared to business as usual projections for 2050, which anticipate a 40 percent increase in VMT per capita over 2010 levels) to meet these targets. With improvements to vehicle technology and reductions in per capita VMT, the United States would not need to import any oil by 2030.

The report also reviews evaluations of existing federal transportation programs for their impact on GHG emissions, oil use, or VMT and finds a general lack of evaluation for these metrics. For a wide variety of transportation strategies (e.g., public transit, pricing, parking management), the report finds evidence that they reduce GHG emissions, oil use, and VMT.

To achieve GHG emissions and oil use targets, the United States should modify federal transportation policy to prioritize investments that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil consumption. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) should—

  • Encourage states and regions to boost usage of existing funding flexibility to increase investments in transportation strategies that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil use;
  • Provide technical support for standardized evaluation of programs and projects; and
  • Simplify public access to DOT’s project spending databases to promote evaluation of spending patterns and encourage transparency and accountability.

Congressional reauthorization of surface transportation funding should—

  • Establish national goals for transportation, including reducing GHG emissions and oil use, and track progress toward these goals.
    • Implement performance-based funding (tied to progress toward national goals).
    • Require or incentivize performance-based planning. Reserve or competitively distribute funding for states and regions that plan for GHG emissions reductions and/or oil savings.
  • Increase direct funding for programs and strategies that reduce GHG emissions, VMT, and oil consumption, in two ways:
    • Direct a larger portion of federal transportation funds toward programs that dedicate funding to, or achieve, reductions in GHG emissions, VMT, and oil use (e.g. CMAQ, SRTS, etc.); and
    • Directly fund transportation strategies that reduce VMT, GHG emissions, and oil use through set-asides or new programs.

Although the rate of technological progress, such as fuel efficiency improvements, is uncertain, these improvements are encouraged by federal incentives and standards. Similarly, the United States can ensure reductions in VMT, GHG emissions, and oil consumption by planning for and funding transportation and land use strategies that provide alternatives to driving. Transportation planning at the local, regional, and state level should incorporate strategies to reduce VMT in order to reduce GHG emissions and oil consumption.

Planners and policymakers committed to reducing oil use and GHG emissions should encourage Congress to pass a reauthorization bill that incorporates the recommendations above.

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