Continued sprawl and increasing driving in Connecticut have been working against important goals to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Despite evidence that wider interstates and highways increase driving, legislators and the state Department of Transportation have continued to pursue those projects. But now, Gov. Ned Lamont has shifted the paradigm with a Dec. 16 Climate Action Executive Order, directing the state Department of Transportation to reduce miles traveled by 2030.
Along with other climate topics, the order reads: “2030 vehicle miles traveled reduction target. DOT shall set a 2030 vehicle-miles-traveled reduction target and develop a plan of investments to contribute to and encourage the achievement of such targeted reductions.”
In 2018, the Connecticut legislature passed a law targeting a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The most recent statewide greenhouse gas inventory by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection shows the transportation sector as the largest emitter at 37%, and unfortunately increasing. The increase is blamed on increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT), counteracting improvements in gas mileage and a small but growing number of battery-electric vehicles.
In the United States, VMT growth has long been a built-in assumption for state and regional transportation plans. Between 2000 and 2018, driving increased by 3.5% in Connecticut. Widening highways and expensive interstate congestion reduction projects have been proven to “induce demand,” with behavior shifting to more single-occupant driving trips, less transit use, and increased rural sprawl development – eventually re-congesting the widened corridors.
The state is far behind on commitments to electrify personal vehicles. “Through 2019, ZEVs [zero emissions vehicles] constituted only 0.5% of Connecticut’s light-duty fleet.” (link, scroll to page 134) Efforts are just beginning to electrify transit and school buses. Connecticut and the United States will not be able to hit emissions reductions targets with electrification alone. Reduction in VMT and increases to walking, biking, and transit ridership – along with telecommuting – need to be part of the solution.
Capping and reducing vehicle miles traveled doesn’t stifle growth. Both Minneapolis and Seattle are examples of how US cities and metro areas can reduce driving while economically thriving. In 2016, “Seattle added about 20,000 new residents … a population increase of about 3%. But traffic volumes didn’t increase at all. Driving mileage stayed flat…” according to the Chicago Streetsblog.
Connecticut’s residential emissions are in some ways linked to the emissions from the transportation sector. New housing built as standalone single family units on rural farmland or woodland are much more energy intensive than an average new condo, rowhome, or apartment. Those rural homes are also built far from job centers and transit hubs, requiring the family members to drive to almost all destinations and own multiple cars per household. A Connecticut strategy to increase walking, biking, transit, and rail ridership must in parallel encourage town center, urban infill, and transit-oriented development near rail and high-frequency bus transit hubs.
This topic is particularly important and has a decades-long impact due to the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, bringing a lot of federal funding to state DOTs, transit systems, and municipalities. Connecticut’s portion of infrastructure investment from that bill is significant. To give the state transportation departments direction, the US DOT issued a memo (12/16/2021) that will “…actively pressure states to spend their federal infrastructure funds on projects that will help end the climate and roadway death crises – and discourage them from pursuing highway expansions.” (Source: Streetsblog USA)
One concern with the US DOT memo is that it does not force or require state DOTs to increase sustainable transportation modes or to stop widening interstates. That is why Gov. Lamont’s executive order for a 2030 VMT reduction target is critical as CT DOT prioritizes, plans, and designs this decade’s transportation projects.
The remaining questions are, “What is the target, and how will the VMT reduction target be quickly implemented into the state and regional transportation planning processes?” The 2020 Governor’s Climate Council transportation working group recommends a 5% vehicle miles traveled reduction target from a 2019 baseline (2020 GC3 Mitigation Report, page 143). A 5% reduction in VMT by 2030 would complement the state’s transportation electrification efforts, getting us back on track for statewide pollution and greenhouse gas emission targets.
There are existing plans in place that do not aim to reduce vehicle miles traveled. For example, the Long Range Transportation Plan for the Metro-Hartford Capitol Region (page 64) assumes a 13.9% increase in vehicle miles between 2020 and 2045, baking a long-term VMT increase into planning and design. Will the Governor’s executive order pre-empt or supersede transportation plans that won’t be updated until 2025? To reach a 2030 VMT reduction target, Connecticut can’t wait four more years to start taking action. We are already seeing the front end of the climate emergency in the form of extreme weather and year-after-year warmer temperatures. Predictions are dire if Connecticut and the United States don’t meet and exceed our emissions reduction goals.