Anthony Cherolis

Enjoying Summer days in the early Spring reminds us that climate change is real and upon us. Farmers are trying to keep up with the climactic swings, droughts, drowning rains, and new pest challenges. Urban areas are racing to plant trees and make sure that residents can survive ever-hotter Summers. Yet, US automakers are still peddling their biggest gas-guzzling, polluting personal vehicles. The 1978 Gas Guzzler Law left out SUVs and pickup trucks. The auto industry drove full speed through that loophole, setting us up for today’s huge slice of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the transportation sector. Fortunately, the US Environmental Protection Agency just proposed regulations that would accelerate the electrification of cars and trucks sold in the United States.

Beyond regulating tailpipe emissions, increasing walking, biking, transit ridership, and telecommuting have a critical role in reducing emissions while improving our communities and quality of life. Several states are already changing lanes and reconsidering the entire structure of how they spend infrastructure funds.

GMC’s Sierra AWD with a 420 horsepower 6.2 liter V8 gets 17 miles per gallon. The tall front end on this and other oversized SUVs and trucks increase the likelihood of youth and pedestrian fatalities by reducing the driver’s ability to see pedestrians when turning at intersections. Credit: Screengrab / Fair Use / GMC

Back in 2013, California legislators passed Senate Bill 743 to reduce greenhouse gas and polluting tailpipe emissions, encourage in-fill and transit-oriented development, and increase transit ridership and active transportation. The law removed the “Level of Service” congestion mitigation metric (a common precursor to highway widening) and replaced that with a metric that instead evaluates vehicle miles traveled for large projects, housing developments, and infrastructure investments. Vehicle Miles Traveled, called VMT by industry professionals, is a measure of how many miles are driven by vehicles in the state or region, often reported as daily VMT.

For example, adding a lane to an interstate temporarily relieves traffic congestion, but at the same time spurs more rural housing sprawl. That is called induced demand. Those living in spread-out, newly developed rural areas are unable to walk to the grocery store and must drive to all of their daily destinations. Alternatively, a development of apartments, multifamily housing, or townhomes within one mile of a train station, bus hub, or town center shortens car trips and opens up the option for local walking and biking trips. Housing built near transit increases the likelihood that bus or rail trips could conveniently replace driving trips to get to work or other important destinations. Transit-oriented or infill development reduces overall vehicle miles traveled, lessening emissions and auto congestion while better serving the diverse mobility needs of residents. Policies that aim to reduce VMT use that metric to evaluate proposed housing, economic development, and infrastructure projects.

The policies and implementation of the California law took several years to design and put in place, but now California infrastructure dollars and environmental impact studies are much less likely to fund interstate expansion projects. The new metric instead prioritizes transit system improvements, active transportation investments, jobs and manufacturing near transit stops, and building in-fill transit-oriented housing. Streetsblog California has a helpful index of articles and analysis on VMT issues and topics.

Now states like Colorado and Connecticut are taking a fresh look at how they can get more folks to use low emission options like transit, walking, biking, and telecommuting. Leaders in those states understand that electric cars and trucks are only a partial solution to meeting emissions reduction goals. Both Colorado and Connecticut recently set goals to reduce vehicle miles traveled. Connecticut’s Department of Transportation set a near term goal of reducing per capita VMT 5% by 2030. Colorado’s approach is estimated to reduce VMT by 6 to 9%. The climate expert group, RMI, recommends a much more aggressive goal to reduce vehicle miles traveled 20% by 2030, in addition to rapid adoption of car and truck electrification.

Decades of state and federal transportation logic expanded and built new interstates in pursuit of economic development and congestion reduction, hollowing out cities and supercharging rural sprawl. When a state instead chooses a goal to reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled, the investments will shift dramatically away from expanding car-centric throughput. Instead, investments will prioritize transit improvements, safe walkable streets, connected bike routes, and universal high speed internet access. These state-level actions mesh well with a shift in infrastructure funding priorities at the national level, where climate action and VMT reduction has finally made it into US DOT policy and funding structures.

Housing and infill development policies are connected puzzle pieces. The infrastructure design must prioritize user safety and traffic calming while cities and town centers allow for more infill development, multi-family housing, in-law apartments, and higher density housing near transit hubs. Cities and towns across the US have been adopting parking reforms, eliminating required parking minimums, and setting car parking maximums for new developments.

Transit-oriented development changes to zoning regulations are being implemented to permit and allow for multi-story apartments and multi-family homes within easy walking and biking distance of bus and rail nodes. Gentle density zoning changes can be applied universally to legalize in-law apartments and accessory dwelling units that weave affordable housing options for young workers and retirees into the fabric of an existing neighborhood. Town centers are redesigning their Main Streets with fewer lanes, wider sidewalks, and traffic calming measures that increase safety for all while making living, shopping, and walking in town much more enjoyable.

On the flip side, rural and suburban farms and woodlands must be aggressively conserved. States and towns need to get laws on the books to make it difficult and prohibitively expensive to split up farms and open space into single family car-centric sprawl or big-box warehouses. Anti-sprawl sentiment is common across diverse groups whether they live in cities, town centers, suburbs, or rural areas. Everyone seems to understand that more sprawl equals more driving traffic, road congestion, and pollution. Farms are key to local food production and resiliency. Woodlands and wetlands are our nearby air and water filters, critically important to public health. Passing state laws to preserve those open spaces complements the efforts to encourage infill housing and walkable, transit-oriented development.

Orange Street in New Haven
Orange Street in New Haven. The nearby neighborhood is booming with new apartments near the Hartford Line State Street Station. Credit: With permission from Doug Hausladen / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED / NO RE-PUBLICATION

Setting a state level goal to reduce vehicle miles traveled is not about limiting personal mobility. It is about growth in transit ridership and safer streets for all road users. Those safety improvements are most needed in cities, town centers, and near transit stations where folks walking and biking are mixed in with those driving. With infill housing and transit-oriented development we can reduce our driving miles while supporting local economic development and fun-filled streets where it is safe to mix and meet our neighbors. Not everyone will take a bus, ride the train, pedal a bike, or walk to their daily destinations, but with supportive policy, a focus on safety, and more housing in walkable neighborhoods, many will make that shift. Every individual who is able to make that shift, even if only for one or two trips a day, is one less car causing congestion and polluting our planet.

Background and on How Connecticut set a VMT Reduction Goal:

Survey results from the late 2019 Transportation Future Survey.
Survey results from the late 2019 Transportation Future Survey. Credit: Screengrab
Excerpt from the 2020 Governor’s Council on Climate Change Mitigation Report. Credit: Screengrab
Anthony Cherolis

Anthony Cherolis

Anthony Cherolis is a former aerospace engineer, BiCi Co. founder, a former Hartford resident, and the former Transport Hartford Coordinator at the Center for Latino Progress. He also writes at All Famous Together.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.