We all know that ditching a combustion-engine vehicle is a climate-friendly choice, but just how much impact does our transportation sector have on climate change?
In a climate crisis where individual life choices can feel inconsequential in the face of the need for much larger-scale systemic change, it can be hard to get a grip on the true impact of our transportation choices. And it can be even more difficult to grasp what bigger-picture shifts are most needed, and how we can help bring them about.
That said, transportation’s role in climate change is huge – as is our individual potential to impact it.
Here’s your guide to some of the most common questions about transportation and climate change:
Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S., accounting for 27% of America's GHG emissions. (Electricity and industry are close runners-up, at 25% and 24%.)
And the vast majority of transportation emissions – 57% – come from light-duty vehicles, with medium- and heavy-duty trucks contributing only 26%. America's GHG emission sources skew very differently from the rest of the world. Transportation is only the fourth largest source of GHG emissions globally, representing 14% of emissions and coming in behind electricity and heat production, industry, and agriculture/forestry.
While commuting and other everyday vehicle uses contribute hugely to climate change, it's also worth considering the connections between transportation and climate change in other aspects of our lives. In the internet age, and especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're more reliant on shipping for everyday goods, including groceries, than ever. While shipping currently accounts for about 3% of GHG emissions globally, analysis from the United Nations Environment Programme and World Bank expects demand for shipping to explode dramatically over the next 30 years.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are frequently presented as the solution to this problem. EVs have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline-powered vehicles, which stands to shrink even more if more renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity. However, additional major GHG emissions are associated with the process of manufacturing the EVs needed to transition away from combustion engines. David Gifford, creator of Transit Guide Detroit, works in the auto industry and notes that the transportation network associated with vehicle production – from ships that transport finished cars to semi-trucks that transport auto parts – is significant.
"Even if we switch to electric vehicles, the network for getting the parts around is still very much tied to the fossil fuel industry," he says.
In many cases, given the close link between transportation and climate change, surprisingly little. Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit nonprofit Transportation Riders United (TRU), says there are "silo issues" in the way many metro Detroit local governments approach transportation and climate planning. In many cases, she said, governments' sustainability and climate plans ignore transportation or don't do enough to address the topic. And on the flip side, many municipal road commissions or transportation departments see climate work as something that's not their job. "There's talk of climate mitigation, but very little recognition that transportation is the leading source of climate change," Owens says.
That's not the case for all municipalities, however. Owens says Ann Arbor is one leading example of a community that's been "deeply delving into the climate issue." The city's A²Zero plan lays out a detailed road map for the city to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2030 – and one of its four key strategies is to reduce the miles traveled in vehicles by at least 50%. Dr. Missy Stults, Ann Arbor's sustainability and innovations director, says the city's successes on transportation-related climate goals so far have included installing protected bike lanes and sidewalks. The city has also installed 80 EV chargers and begun work on an incentive program for EV purchases.
Other Metro Detroit communities have embraced climate-friendly transportation policy to varying degrees. Detroit's climate strategy lists "improving access to reliable transportation" as one of its six main goals. The city has also worked to establish several 20-minute neighborhoods, which reduce reliance on cars by locating all of residents' basic needs within a 20-minute walk or bike ride from their homes. The city's Streets for People transportation plan also emphasizes the importance of supporting transit as well as walking and biking infrastructure.
Elsewhere in Metro Detroit, road diets have proliferated in recent years, repurposing car traffic lanes for bike lanes and other uses. Ferndale has been particularly ambitious in this regard, implementing road diets on the major thoroughfares of Nine Mile Road and Livernois Avenue. In cooperation with neighboring Pleasant Ridge, the city is also in the process of significantly reshaping its biggest road: Woodward Avenue. Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge's Woodward Moves plan will see car traffic lanes on Woodward reduced by one on each side, with bike lanes added and pedestrian crossings shortened.
However, while these road diet projects stand to help encourage non-motorized transportation, mitigating climate change is not an express goal for most of them. Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana says climate change is "an influencer" to Woodward Moves, but the project's primary objective is a safer, more inclusive, and more prosperous Woodward.
Ferndale is in the process of developing a climate action plan, and Piana says the city wants to be "ambitious" in combating climate change. She says collaboration between municipalities is key in achieving such goals, noting that Ferndale's cooperation with Pleasant Ridge made both cities a stronger candidate for the Transportation Alternatives Program grant that has helped fund Woodward Moves.
Similarly, Stults admits that many of the A²Zero plan's transportation goals, such as expanding and improving local and regional transit, are "not directly in the city [of Ann Arbor's] control." A proposed millage to fund regional transit failed to pass in 2016, with Oakland and Macomb county voters nixing the proposal while Wayne and Washtenaw counties approved it. In lieu of a localized fix for such bigger-picture issues, Stults says "there's lots of contingency planning" to ensure Ann Arbor still hits its carbon neutrality goal in 2030. "[Carbon] offsets are in sight for us, because I can't control everything," she says.
The state of Michigan's MI Healthy Climate Plan also includes transportation-related goals in its roadmap for the state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Those include creating incentives for the purchase of EVs, expanding EV charging infrastructure to support two million EVs on state roads by 2030, fully electrifying the state's vehicle fleet by 2045, increasing access to clean transportation options (including public transit) by 15% each year, implementing a policy to gradually reduce the use of higher-carbon fuel and increase that of lower-carbon fuel, and overhauling transportation planning to focus on safer roads and electrification strategies. The state has already invested over $45 million in EV charging infrastructure through its Charge Up Michigan program.
What policies do advocacy groups want to see implemented at the state and local levels to address transportation-related climate change issues?
Replacing our combustion-engine vehicles with electric vehicles is often presented as the solution to transportation-related pollution, but local advocacy groups envision a much more holistic, transformational approach to the problem.
"We can't solve the climate crisis if we don't electrify our vehicles; make sure that the energy is coming from clean, renewable sources; and give people clean alternatives to driving and densify our cities," Owens says. "That combination, all three, are essential to solving the climate crisis. There's been a lot of attention on the first two and less so on the third."
Other local advocates agree with Owens' emphasis on solutions that go beyond new, cleaner ways to continue driving cars. Advocates support improving pedestrian infrastructure and expanding public transit service on the issue of offering more alternatives to driving. They cite benefits that reach far beyond climate impacts, such as reducing pedestrian injuries and death. Smart Growth America's 2022 ”Dangerous By Design" report shows steadily rising pedestrian fatalities over the past decade-plus, reaching over 6,500 in 2020, and notes that Black and Indigenous Americans are most likely to be killed while walking. Local advocates echo the report's assertion that these alarming statistics are attributable to streets that are designed to prioritize speedy car traffic above all else. "It's completely hostile to be out there on foot or on bicycle," Gifford says.
Similarly, while expanded public transit would help take more GHG-producing vehicles off the road, it would also bring socioeconomic benefits. A 2015 Harvard study identified commute time as the single greatest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. And Metro Detroit certainly has some massive commute time issues, particularly if you're attempting to get where you're going by transit. A 2015 Detroit Free Press story told the tale of one Detroiter who had to walk 21 miles daily to get to and from the bus to his job in Rochester Hills. And even after the pandemic and the rise of remote work, we’re still commuting as much as ever.
Although many metro Detroiters still seem resistant to improving regional transit, Trevor Layton, communications manager for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), anticipates that may change as Michigan's population ages. The state has a rapidly growing population of older adults, set to expand even more as the baby boomer generation ages. As boomers reach an age when many of them have to turn in their car keys for good, Layton thinks more consensus may build around the usefulness of public transit.
"When you have this huge chunk of our population that are all going to be facing the same set of issues ... it could also be an opportunity when it comes to providing services," he says.
At a bigger-picture level, advocates say the most powerful way to reduce vehicle dependence is to make our communities denser. Communities where homes, workplaces, shops, education, entertainment, and other common needs are located close together require residents to make fewer or no car trips. They're also cheaper to maintain; a 2020 Transportation for America report found that America's most sprawling cities spend $750 per person on infrastructure, while the least sprawling spend $500 per person.
Metro Detroit has made at least one ranking of America's most sprawling cities, and the negative effects of sprawl have been widely discussed locally. "Instead of trying to find the magic bullet in a transit system or in electric vehicles or in getting everything delivered to your house, it's about how we make sure that each area where people are living has the base level of core services that people require on a daily basis," Layton said.
However, densifying communities can be an even more controversial issue locally than expanding transit service. Stults notes that while Ann Arbor's A²Zero plan passed with unanimous city council approval, it wouldn't have passed at all had city staff not nixed an initial recommendation that the city allow duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in residential neighborhoods. While expanding city housing in this way could drastically reduce housing costs and commute times for the many Ann Arbor workers who drive in from neighboring communities, Stults says "land use is so contentious." "I don't want to sugarcoat how hard this is," she says.
Owens says the simplest action anyone can take is to "see what you can do to drive less." That can take numerous forms, whether you're walking, carpooling, cycling, or using transit to get where you're going. Google Maps makes cycle trips easy with its bicycle directions feature, which highlights bike lanes and other bike-friendly travel options. The Detroit Greenways Coalition also has a map of all Detroit bike lanes, bike repair stations, bike stores, and bike rental stations on its homepage.
Google offers transit directions as well, but Gifford's website, Transit Guide Detroit, offers a particularly comprehensive, localized resource for navigating Metro Detroit transit options. SEMCOG also offers a list of ways to improve your commute, and ways to walk, bike, and drive safe.
Beyond the important individual choice of getting out from behind the wheel of a gas-powered vehicle more often, there are numerous other ways to contribute to resolving transportation-related climate change issues. Here are just a few:
Get informed on how transportation planning works: SEMCOG has compiled a handy guide to the transportation planning process and how you can get involved.
Speak up: Make your voice heard on issues like pedestrian infrastructure improvements, transit service expansions, or densification. You can call or email your elected representatives or attend city council, county commission, transportation/planning commission, or other government meetings to make a public comment.
Join the Detroit Greenways Coalition: The nonprofit's mission is "to promote and build a network of greenways, Complete Streets, and bike lanes that will connect people and places, improve the quality of life, beautify neighborhoods, and stimulate neighborhood-level economic development in Detroit." Click here for a year-by-year summary of the organization's accomplishments.
Join Transit Riders United: "There is no need to be a 'lone wolf' activist," Owens says. "We have an existing framework for people to coordinate action towards advocating for better transit." TRU is currently leading a campaign for Oakland County to go "all-in" on transit. Click here for a look at TRU's other recent actions, or here for info on how to get involved.
This Planet Detroit Climate Guide is supported by the Americana Foundation and the GM Foundation.