Reducing the Distance our Vehicles Travel

Reducing vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, is one of the primary ways to reduce transportation’s impact on the environment. The others are lower-emitting fuels and vehicles. 

How do we reduce VMT while simultaneously supporting our economic prosperity? When we drive less, we consume less fuel, which can save us money while conserving energy and lowering our individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, the benefits don’t stop there. The co-benefits of driving less (such as improved health from walking more) can often exceed the savings in our wallet and the benefit to our climate.

On the other hand, some people prefer more space, larger yards, or more affordable single-family housing – choices that compete with the desire to reduce VMT through compact development. This means that evaluating where and how we live is not a calculation with simple inputs. We have empirical evidence that suggests compact development is good for society and for many individuals, but we also have evidence that it’s not for everyone.

In our new report on reducing GHG emissions from U.S. transportation, we took an all-in approach to reducing transportation’s impact on our environment. We showed that the United States could cost-effectively reduce GHG emissions from transportation by between 17 and 65 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. The policies we considered are not the only combination that could achieve such reductions – there are many other ways to achieve significant reductions in oil consumption and GHG emissions.

Policies that reduce VMT play a key role in our overall strategy. We emphasize the importance of accurately pricing the cost of driving, the benefits of compact development, and the efficiencies gained from technology. We considered the wide swath of the expert research already out there in suggesting what was possible.

Our analytical method did not let us add up the impacts of individual policies because many of them include interaction effects (that is, their combined impact is different from the sum of their individual impacts). So, it’s not always clear how important an individual policy is to the overall reductions achieved. Below is the set of VMT policies that we analyzed in our most aggressive scenario and their individual impacts on VMT in the United States (all numbers are the percentage change in total VMT compared to what would happen if we did nothing different):

 

POLICY/MITIGATION OPTION

2035

2050

 LIGHT-DUTY VEHICLES

Road User Tax on Energy

-1%

-1%

Carbon Price

-1%

-2%

Pay at the Pump Insurance

-1%

-1%

Trip Planning & Route Efficiency

-4%

-10%

Ridesharing

-1%

-2%

Land Use & Infrastructure

-2%

-5%

 FREIGHT TRUCKS

Freight Logistics

-5%

-5%

Carbon Price

-1%

-2%

Pay at the Pump Insurance

-2%

-3%

Road User Tax on Energy

-1%

-1%


These reductions are based on prices we assumed in our report. Higher prices on things like carbon or road-use could yield even greater reductions in VMT.

What you can see in the table above is that some policies have greater individual impact than others (for example, land use and infrastructure changes have almost triple the impact of a moderate carbon price). However, the point of the report is that we must make progress on many fronts including educating the public about the importance of having a transportation sector that is much less dependent on oil.

Transitioning to a more secure transportation system with less impact on our environment depends on action starting now. For more information, you can download a copy of the report on our website here.  

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow