January 3, 2014

Moving America Beyond Oil: A Brief Year-End Progress Report

By Deron Lovaas

Five years ago I was defending a new report sponsored by NRDC, EDF, various government agencies and foundations, as well as the American Public Transportation Association, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, Shell Oil and the Urban Land Institute. This report – Moving Cooler: An Analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions – filled a huge analytical gap in transportation. While ample study has been made of the technical potential to reduce emissions by improving vehicle technology, there have been fewer comprehensive assessments of the potential to cut pollution by reducing traffic levels and improving the efficiency of the transportation system.

The report warranted defense from some advocates and analysts who were skeptical about its findings, namely that there is ample opportunity to save oil and reduce pollution by changing travel activity. The team of analysts and a steering committee chaired by yours truly examined about 50 policy tools that could reduce emissions in 9 different categories:

  1. Pricing (e.g., tolls, pay-as-you-drive-insurance, VMT fees, carbon/fuel taxes);
  2. Land use and smart growth;
  3. Nonmotorized transportation (i.e., walking and biking);
  4. Public transportation improvements;
  5. Regional ride-sharing and commute measures;
  6. Regulatory measures (e.g., reduced speed limits);
  7. Operational/ITS strategies;
  8. Capacity/bottleneck relief; and
  9. Freight sector strategies.

Many of the results of the study make intuitive sense. For example, pricing measures can be quite effective especially if they provide a hefty disincentive for driving. And equity concerns about them (such consumption taxes are regressive) can be alleviated by funneling investment into viable alternative mobility options such as public transportation routes. And while pricing can be effective in the near-term, land use changes are very effective given a longer time frame. Some measures were surprisingly effective, such as programs to change driver behavior referred to as “eco-driving.”

We also performed some basic analysis of interactions between these measures by “bundling” them into 6 different combinations characterized by themes including “System and Driver Efficiency” as well as “Facility Pricing.” However, this is an area that still warrants more analysis especially at the metro regional level where the rubber hits the road.

This is also great time to take stock of progress, with a tremendous number of action in transportation and energy since Moving Cooler’s publication. First, the Obama Administration has made exceedingly effective use of the tools available to EPA and DOT to reduce carbon emissions and increase average fuel economy of America’s light-duty vehicle fleet. We assumed baseline progress in Moving Cooler, and the rules will drive fuel efficiency even faster and higher as we take the single biggest step possible to reduce pollution and save fuel.

Meanwhile, a variety of drivers (some policy, some economic, some demographic) are changing the vehicle-miles-of-travel (VMT) picture just as dramatically. VMT has grown reliably for decades, albeit at a decelerating rate. However, since 2006 it has plateaued both in per-capita and absolute terms as you can see from the graph below courtesy of Phineas Baxandall at U.S. PIRG who has done yeoman’s work studying this emerging trendline.

Lovaas Fig 1

The change has lasted long enough – predating and outlasting the economic recession – that even stodgy government agencies are altering their projections for the future. And what a difference it makes! I’ve graphed out VMT for light-­‐duty vehicles in the Department of Energy’s widely used Annual Energy Outlooks since the one Moving Cooler used as a reference below (figures are in the billions of miles).


By 2030, the difference is eye-­‐popping with nearly one trillion miles vanishing! As Phineas points out, this has big implications for transportation policy. For example, in a recent presentation at Harvard he cites a National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) report from 2007 that claimed the Interstate Highway System would have to be nearly doubled in capacity to cope with growth in traffic of 1.5-­‐1.8 percent per year. The price tag? A whopping average of $103 billion annually for 30 years!

We argued heatedly about the 1.4 percent growth rate in Moving Cooler’s baseline, with some claiming it was too low. DOE just revised its projection down to less than one percent per year! The landscape is dancing under our feet.

Looking ahead, many including myself project more efficiency, less traffic, and less costly highway construction (and maintenance!). So the future looks pretty bright. It underscores what then-­‐Curitiba-­‐ Mayor Jaime Lerner has reminded others repeatedly, “Trends are not destiny.”

It is also an invitation to radically change transportation policies, starting with a fresh look at those in Moving Cooler. Conveniently the lead analyst for that landmark report – Joanne Potter – and I were invited to co-­author chapter 5 of the new book from Island Press, Transport Beyond Oil, titled “Bending the Curve:  How Reshaping U.S. Transportation Can Influence Carbon Demand.” This is a new reference point for the transportation industry and in fact the book as a whole is chock-­full of worthy ideas and strategies for moving the U.S. transportation sector to a cleaner energy future.

New land use rules, renewed investment on mobility options (including innovative car-­‐ and bike-­‐sharing initiatives as well as bus rapid transit), and smarter technology to maximize efficient use of existing infrastructure are all likely to yield large dividends. This is especially the case given demographic changes with youngsters uninterested in driving everywhere and oldsters less able to do so.

Here’s to a new year in which we build on recent progress in transportation and move even faster towards increased freedom of mobility, and freedom from oil.

September 9, 2013

More Comprehensive Evaluation Supports More Efficient Transportation

By Todd Litman

Planning decisions often involve trade-offs between different modes and objectives. For example, expanding roadways tends to increase automobile traffic speeds, tends to degrade walking and cycling conditions (called the barrier effect), and since most public transit trips include walking links, reduces public transit accessibility. Similarly, generous minimum parking requirements improve the convenience of automobile access, but by discouraging compact, infill development, reduce access by other modes.

Conventional planning tends ignore these trade-offs. The old transportation planning paradigm assumes that transportation means automobile travel, and so evaluated evaluate transportation system performance based on automobile travel conditions, using indicators such as roadway level-of-service and congestion delay. A new planning paradigm is more comprehensive and multi-modal. It recognizes the important roles that walking, cycling and public transport play in an efficient and equitable transport system, and considers other impacts and objectives besides maximizing vehicle travel speed. Table 1 compares the old and new paradigms.

Table 1: Changing Transport Planning Paradigm

Old Paradigm

New Paradigm

Definition of Transportation Mobility (physical travel) Accessibility (people’s overall ability to reach services and activities)
Modes considered Mainly automobile Multi-modal: Walking, cycling, public transport, automobile, telework and delivery services
Objectives Congestion reduction; roadway cost savings; vehicle cost savings; and reduced crash and emission rates per vehicle-kilometer Congestion reduction; road and parking cost savings; consumer savings and affordability; improved access for disadvantaged people; safety and security, energy consumption and emission reductions; public fitness and health; support for strategic land use objectives (reduced sprawl)
Impacts considered Travel speeds and congestion delays, vehicle operating costs and fares, crash and emission rates. Various economic, social and environmental impacts, including indirect impacts
Favored transport improvement options Roadway capacity expansion. Improve transport options (walking, cycling, public transit, etc.). Transportation demand management. More accessible land development.
Performance indicators Vehicle traffic speeds, roadway Level-of-Service (LOS), distance-based crash and emission rates Quality of accessibility for various groups. Multi-modal LOS. Various economic, social and environmental impacts.

The old planning paradigm favored automobile-oriented transportation improvements. The new planning paradigm expands the range of objectives, impacts and options considered.

The old paradigm was reductionist, meaning that problems were evaluated by individual agencies with narrowly defined responsibilities. The new paradigm applies more integrated analysis, and so can identify win-win solutions that achieve multiple objectives. Table 2 illustrates this concept. Expanding roadways can reduce traffic congestion, and more efficient and alternative fueled vehicles reduce energy consumption and pollution emissions, but these strategies provide few other benefits. Transportation demand management (TDM) and smart growth strategies tend to provide a greater range of benefits and so can be considered win-win solutions.

Table 2: Comparing Transportation Improvement Strategies



Roadway Expansion

Efficient and Alt. Fuel Vehicles

TDM and       Smart Growth

Congestion reduction



Roadway cost savings


Parking cost savings


Consumer savings


Reduced traffic accidents




Improved mobility options



Energy conservation YES


Pollution reduction YES


Physical fitness and health




Land use objectives




Roadway expansion and more efficient or alternative fuel vehicles provide few benefits. Transportation demand management (TDM) and smart growth strategies provide a wider range of benefits and so can be considered win-win solutions.

Conventional transport planning tends to assume that traffic congestion is the most important transportation problem, which justifies major roadway expansions. More comprehensive evaluation recognizes that traffic congestion is just one of many costs, and not necessarily the most important. Figure 1 summarizes the results of various transportation cost studies. Traffic congestion cost estimates range from $110 up to $388 annual per capita, depending on assumptions, compared with approximately $2,600 in vehicle ownership costs, $1,500 in crash damages, $1,200 in parking costs, $500 in pollution damage costs, and $325 in roadway costs.

Figure 1: Automobile Transportation Costs

Litman Chart

U.S. traffic congestion cost estimates range between about $110 and $340 annual per capita, depending on assumptions. These are modest compared with other transportation costs.

Because congestion is just one of many costs, it is inappropriate to evaluate congestion reduction strategies in isolation. A congestion reduction strategy can be worth far less overall if it increases other costs, and worth far more if it reduces other costs. For example, a roadway expansion may seem cost effective considering congestion impacts alone, but not if it induces additional vehicle travel which increases parking congestion, accidents and pollution emissions. Conversely, alternative mode improvements may not seem cost effective considering congestion reductions alone, but are cost effective overall when co-benefits (parking cost savings, traffic safety, and improved mobility for non-drivers, etc.) are also considered.

July 21, 2013

The Need for Active Transportation to Reduce Oil Dependence in America

By Kevin Mills

There are many reasons that I choose to commute to work by bicycle. I feel better and I save money. I even save time by avoiding the inevitable delays that auto and transit commuters face in congested Washington, D.C.  Living in a place where I can walk and bicycle to meet my daily needs also frees me from worry over gas prices. They don’t affect me much because I buy so little gas.

Equally important to these personal reasons is the satisfaction of knowing that every time I walk or bicycle to work, shops, recreation or transit, I am making a tiny contribution to easing America’s oil dependence. But lots of individual choices like that can add up to a surprisingly large overall contribution.

In my chapter—”Healthy, Oil Free Transportation: The Role of Walking and Bicycling in Reducing Oil Dependence”— I conclude that 6.5 percent of projected oil consumption by all cars and light trucks could be avoided in the year 2050 by cost-effective investment in safe and convenient active transportation systems. At today’s gas prices, Americans could save more than $900 billion at the pump between now and then, not adjusting for inflation. The potential cost savings multiply when one considers the health care expenditure avoided by having a more active populace and reducing tailpipe pollution from automobiles, where the first mile travelled is the dirtiest. For more on these benefits, see Active Transportation for America.

These conservative projected cost savings only consider short trips of three miles or less.  Longer bicycle trips are common, but the calculation spotlights the fact that a substantial chunk of our oil use stems from billions of routine individual decisions to drive distances that could be walked or bicycled in five, ten or twenty minutes.

The good news is there are tens of millions of Americans who very much want to make the choice to walk or bicycle more often for daily routines. All they need to make that practical is common sense public investment in creating networks of safe, convenient and connected active transportation infrastructure such as sidewalks, multi-use trails, and dedicated bike lanes.

Over a century of public investment in road networks has made driving the easy choice. Meeting the call for walking and bicycling networks in communities across America is a very inexpensive way to reduce oil demand while promoting healthier people and places. Restoring balance in our transportation options is about as close as we get to a no-brainer in American politics.

walking 2

May 29, 2013

The Politics of Moving Towards a Multimodal Future: A Challenge for USDOT Secretary Nominee Anthony Foxx

By John L. Renne

When Ray LaHood was nominated by President Obama in December 2008, few transportation professionals knew much about the Republican Congressman from Illinois.  However, in just four and a half years, Secretary LaHood’s efforts in redirecting USDOT’s mission towards a multimodal transportation system should have an important role in moving America’s transportation system “Beyond Oil.”

As discussed in our book, transportation in America has become ultra-politicized, with rail and transit becoming associated with a liberal agenda and highways connected with conservatives. Perhaps this is due to the anachronistic belief that highways are fully funded by the gas tax paid into the Transportation Trust Fund. However, LaHood set a pathway towards a multimodal transportation system that emphasizes livable communities as part of the DOT Strategic Plan 2012-2016.  This multimodal strategy is necessary for America to remain globally competitive.

While many in the transportation field know that China is investing billions in rail systems, fewer Americans realize that the conservative-led government in the United Kingdom (UK) is strongly pushing for high-speed rail. In both China and the UK, such investments are unlocking massive economic investments for transit-oriented development (TOD).   Pent-up demand for TOD-living in the United States is covered in my chapter of this book, which compliments Gil Carmichael’s call for America to build as much as 30,000 miles of new high-speed rail infrastructure.  Carmichael is a Republican from Mississippi and former Federal Railroad Administrator under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 – 1993.

Society in the 21st century is quickly changing, blurring transportation politics.  Lifelong suburbanites want more affordable and multimodal travel options as Baby Boomers retire and their children (Generation Y) are choosing to drive less frequently.  The National Association of Realtors is paying attention to these new trends.  The winter 2013 edition of On Common Ground focuses on the peak travel phenomenon.  A complimentary article in the New York Times discusses how such a trend of young people driving less frequently is complimented by Charlotte, North Carolina’s policies “to channel growth … by filling in the urban core with new development and encouraging new construction along major transportation corridors, including an expanding rail line.”  In fact, Charlotte’s longest serving mayor who initiated rail and TOD was a Republican. While Charlotte now serves as a model for other cities, Pat McCrory was promoted to serve as the Governor of North Carolina.  His mayoral successor, Anthony Foxx, also shares a vision for how rail and TOD can transform the future for Charlotte.

Now Foxx will likely get the chance to shape this vision into a national strategy, since President Obama nominated him as the next Secretary of the USDOT.  While Foxx has significant challenges in fixing the broken Transportation Trust Fund, he noted America needs to build a transportation system for the next generation that reduces dependence on foreign oil.  As discussed in this book, there is not a silver bullet solution to this goal.  As the next generation of Americans desire to drive less and inhabit livable and multimodal communities, I hope that Democrats and Republicans alike can realize that investments in a multimodal transportation system along with walkable TOD (also referred to as livable communities) can result in expanded business opportunities; thus what’s desired by the growing majority of young Americans is good for business and both political parties.

April 18, 2013

Welcome to the Book’s Blog 

By Billy Fields

Welcome to the Transport Beyond Oil book blog. Over the course of the next few months, we will have entries from several of our chapter authors including Alan Drake, Todd Litman, Deron Lovaas, Joanne Potter, and John Renne. Each of these authors will provide a detailed view of how we can transition the transportation sector away from oil dependence. For this entry, I wanted to take you back to the beginnings of the book and why we feel so passionately about this project.

This book started in response to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico three years ago. Image 1 (below) of Gulf Shores Alabama was taken in 2010. About 150 miles away, the Deepwater Horizon was pouring oil from approximately a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. I was living in New Orleans where the smell of the oil and dispersants was so strong that there were times I wouldn’t go outside. Those living closer to the coast had a much more intense experience with numerous medical conditions associated with the chemicals (see article in the Daily Beast).

figure 0-1

Image 1: Gulf Shores, Alabama, 2010,

While the disaster became a symbol for corporate greed and neglect, most people didn’t make the link between the oil pouring from the bottom of the Gulf and transportation. Approximately 70% of oil used in this country goes to the transportation sector.  Setting this in context of the disaster in the Gulf, 70% of the oil floating on the Gulf and washing up on the shores, bays, and wetlands – covering an area approximately the size of the state of Pennsylvania – was destined for the transportation sector.

While the Deepwater Horizon tragedy captured the attention of the country in 2010, the spill and its aftermath have faded from the headlines. The moment for catalytic policy change resulting from the tragedy has vanished. We have moved to the next oil pollution crisis (see: the recent spill of tar sands oil in Arkansas) and are confronting the climate crisis in form of droughts, wildfires and Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, the oil dependence problem remains.

We need to begin thinking beyond the crisis frame and towards the opportunity frame. The crisis frame can be a great motivator for a specific change or set of laws like the wave of environmental laws in the 1970s in response to the Cuyahoga River fire. The fundamental changes that we need to make to transition the transportation sector away from oil require a motivator that is much more powerful. Instead of the crisis frame based around fear (real fear to be sure), we need to move towards opportunity and the possibility for a better life in the future.

The core of this better life, for many people, is being built around walkable neighborhoods. Increasingly market demand is moving towards the kind of walkable, transit-rich locations that are also the type of places that help to manage oil dependence. The opportunity to foster these type of high demand, walkable neighborhoods offers an important policy platform for improved quality of life and decreased oil dependence. This is the opportunity framing that matches consumer demand and positive energy outcomes. This WalkUp model outlined by Christopher Leinberger has the potential to become a key lever in our energy and transportation policy toolkit.

Transport Beyond Oil provides a detailed evaluation of how we can begin to transition the transportation sector away from oil dependence moving from fear to opportunity. Specific chapters include focused examinations of transportation and climate change, transit, active transportation, electric vehicles, land use change, freight, and high speed rail. Each chapter utilizes a data-driven approach to critically examine the possibilities for transforming transportation away from oil dependence.

A single blog post can’t possibly build such a large case. That’s why we’ve set up a series of blogs by our chapter authors to help introduce you to these ideas. Check back in with us over the course of the next several months for more. In the meantime, please visit the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for coverage and a podcast of our national book release event co-hosted by the Carnegie Endowment, the Merritt C. Becker Jr. University of New Orleans Transportation Institute, and Texas State University Center for Research, Public Policy, and Training. Streetsblog provided good coverage of the event.

Carnegie 2013 spring events_Fields

Image 2: Billy Fields speaking at the book’s launch at the Carnegie Endowment, March 2013


March 16, 2013:

President Obama will urges Congress to approve a policy providing $2 billion for battery and transportation research meant to end the use of oil in the United States… click here to read more

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