A global mandate to combat climate change means changing the entire transportation system of the U.S. And to do that, the government is going to have to change the way it thinks about transportation in some fundamental ways.
Environment America, a green advocacy group, published a report May 24 outlining a path for the U.S. to achieve a zero-carbon transportation system. That’s a necessary goal, the group wrote, because the country’s transportation alone accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire economy of many countries.
“It’s clear we need to change. We need to do this. We have to do this for our health, our kids’ health and the health of our planet,” said Anna Aurilio, global warming solutions project director for Environment America, at a panel discussion May 24 in Washington, D.C.
According to the report, government has to change in order for that to happen. Instead of transportation agencies thinking of themselves as being responsible for maintenance, they need to start seeing themselves as managers of systems. Transportation officials today have many more tools at their disposal than they did when the highway system was built, and that means they can work to build and control complex systems that cooperate to get people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.
On a basic level, that simply means adopting greenhouse gas reduction targets that can drive policy. Measuring that effectively — along with measuring the effectiveness of government transportation projects — means collecting data. And data might, in turn, be used to make transportation more efficient. For example, in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, several finalists have proposed collecting better data on public transit vehicles in order to coordinate their arrival times and give passengers better insight into their options.
Many of these systems are in experimental stages, but Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst for the Frontier Group, said during the panel discussion that government can help them mature more quickly.
“The question of how you continue to scale them up faster, farther, first, is you continue to support innovation,” Dutzik said.
What’s more, the group found, zero-carbon transportation is achievable with today’s technology. There are battery-electric vehicles available now — ranging from pocket-sized passenger cars to full-sized buses — and renewable energy to power them. There is public transportation to help people avoid clogging the roads with personal vehicles, bicycle-sharing programs and new concepts like shared mobility that could make getting around more efficient.
And yet, the technology is all changing rapidly. Dutzik pointed out that problems that may seem gargantuan today may become much more solvable in a shorter timespan than people today could believe.
“It’s difficult to imagine now that a decade ago, the smart phone as we know it today did not exist,” he said.
For example, battery-electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids combined currently make up less than 3 percent of the American automotive market. But Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said he thinks the market has hit a point where mass adoption can begin happening. Those watching the electric vehicle market have posited that mass adoption would happen when there are battery-powered cars available that can drive more than 200 miles on a single charge and cost less than $50,000. In the next couple of years, two such models will be hitting the pavement: the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevrolet Bolt.
The former already has a back log of around 400,000 pre-orders, which would likely represent more than $14 billion in sales for Tesla Motors.
“We’re at that point, and it came a lot faster than people thought,” Romm said. “Just two or three years ago people thought it wouldn’t happen until 2020.”
Then there’s the emerging hydrogen market, with the Toyota Mirai already on the road and the Honda Clarity coming later this year. While those vehicles face some problems — namely, a lack of hydrogen fueling stations — some transportation leaders see them covering the needs of people who need to drive longer distances than battery-electric cars are able to go on a single charge.
Romm is betting on mostly electric cars, since their range is improving and charging times might be able to drop in the future. And to go along with it, he pointed out, solar power is also getting cheaper. The two technologies support each other — solar power can power electric cars, and the high-capacity car batteries can help store power. So if people are able to own an electric vehicle and power it with electricity they got from their roof instead of buying from a power company, it could mean a rapid drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
Ultimately, he added, how fast it happens is up to how effective the government is at creating an environment where such things can happen.
“We’re going to see this decarbonization of the electric transportation system," Romm said, "and the speed is going to be driven by policy."
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.