Reducing Your Transportation Footprint

Transportation is now the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States. In many U.S. cities and towns, the personal automobile is the single greatest polluter because emissions from millions of vehicles on the road add up. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, individuals can use cleaner modes of transportation to get around, from public transit to biking and walking.


Modern transportation relies heavily on petroleum, and passenger cars and light-duty trucks (i.e. sport vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans) contribute half of the carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. transportation sector. Burning one gallon of gasoline creates about 20 pounds of CO2—which means the average vehicle creates roughly 6 to 9 tons of CO2 each year.

It turns out that we can do a lot to reduce the impacts of driving, starting with the type of car we drive. Over the average lifetime of an American car, a 30-mpg car will save roughly $3,000 in fuel costs compared with a 20-mpg car. When buying your next car, pick the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle that meets your needs. Just switching from a vehicle that gets 20-mpg to a vehicle that gets 25-mpg car reduces your greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 tons annually. Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Vehicle Guide and the Department of Energy’s Fuel Economy website and Model Year 2017 guide for information about the emissions and fuel economy performance of different vehicles.

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) offer a low-carbon alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. Both the private and the public sectors are working to reduce barriers and expand EV sales worldwide. Automakers are competing to reduce battery costs (which make up most of an EV’s additional cost), increase battery range, and offer a wider range of affordable EV styles, including SUVs and minivans.

EV adoption varies by country, region, and city, but innovative public policies are encouraging people to purchase the vehicles. For example, California allows EV drivers to use HOV lanes even if they are driving alone. In Portland, Oregon, an extensive public charging network may have helped spur all-electric vehicles sales to three times the average U.S. all-electric vehicle uptake rate.

An EV can reduce your carbon footprint and save you money over the lifetime of the vehicle. Some EV questions to consider:

  • What are your needs? Consider how currently available EV models will fit your specific purposes, such as towing cargo or taking road trips. More diverse models planned for production in the next few years may also fit those purposes.
  • What are your typical travel needs? Compare your daily commute mileage with EV battery ranges. Since most daily drives range between 26-32 miles daily, an EV will likely work well. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle may be appropriate if you regularly take longer trips, but you will still need a place to charge your vehicle.
  • Where can you charge your EV? Most charging takes place at home or the workplace. Consider what you might need to charge at either location, and include any potential costs. Public charging may also work if it is conveniently located.
  • Where can you find reliable information? PlugInCars maintains a section on consumer considerations for EVs. Consumer Reports includes popular EV models and performance reviews.

Curious to know which EV fits your lifestyle? Sierra Club’s Pick a Plug-in quiz can help you figure out which plug-in electric vehicles, if any, might work for you.


Optimal driving techniques can also help you cut emissions and save money in a gasoline-powered car. Hard acceleration and braking can waste fuel and lower your mileage by 33 percent on the highway and 5 percent around town, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). DOE studies show that for every 5 miles per hour you drive over 60 miles per hour, fuel economy is lowered by 7 percent, so go easy on the brakes and gas pedal. You can also lower impacts by reducing time spent idling, and using overdrive and cruise control. And because a properly-maintained vehicle can improve your gas mileage and fuel economy by 4 percent, remember to have your vehicle tuned up, tires inflated, and oil and air filter cleaned out regularly.

For more tips on driving efficiently visit the Fuel Economy website.

Public Transportation

Individuals can save more than $9,738 per year by taking public transportation instead of driving. Moreover, this mode can lead to substantial environmental benefits. If your commute is 20-miles round trip, the switch to public transportation could lower your carbon footprint by 4,800 pounds annually.

American households that produce the least amount of carbon emissions are located near a bus or rail line. The people in those households drive an average of 4,400 fewer miles annually compared to similar households with no access to public transit.

Communities with strong public transportation can reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons yearly. To achieve a similar reduction in carbon emissions, every household in New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles combined would have to completely stop using electricity. If your community doesn’t have enough public transportation options, ask for more! Engage your city officials and tell them that good public transportation options are important to you, and good for the community. To help you get to where you are going using public transportation use or download an app to your smartphone or tablet like Learn more about Public Transportation

Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States. Communities with strong public transportation can reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons yearly.

Air Travel

Did you know that you can reduce the impact of your air travel by choosing direct flights? Jet fuel is a high-carbon energy source, and take-off and landing are the most fuel-intensive parts of a flight, so the more connections you make, the higher your carbon footprint. You can reduce your impact by avoiding connecting flights when you book your flight.

The heavier an aircraft, the more fuel it consumes. Cargo and baggage constitute a large portion of an aircraft’s weight. Each individual traveler can make a big difference in fuel consumption by packing lightly and the weight reduction means fewer CO2 emissions from the aircraft. In fact, if all passengers packed one less pair of shoes, or roughly 2 lbs/1kg, the aircraft’s fuel savings would be the same as taking 10,500 cars off the road for an entire year. For packing tips check out the American Society of Travel Agents.

How you decide to travel to the airport can impact CO2 emissions and local air quality—try minimizing your carbon emissions by traveling by train or other public transportation modes. Learn more about aviation and climate solutions at Enviro Aero.

Biking and Walking

Bicycling and walking are not just recreational activities; these options help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion and our demand for oil. Additional benefits include reducing other environmental impacts of motorized transportation, such as noise and the destruction of open space, wetlands, and other habitats.

For local guidance on bicycle and pedestrian trails check out Trail Link, a non-profit dedicated to creating a healthier environment and developing trails across the U.S. Your local bike shop is also an excellent resource for information on bicycle commuting and the latest bike gadgets and safety tools.

For more information about increasing your community’s bicycle friendliness visit the League of American Bicyclists. If you are interested in growing your community bicycle and pedestrian networks, explore the Federal Highway Administration website to find out who is responsible for projects in your community.

C2ES thanks the Alcoa Foundation for its support, which allowed us to develop our Reduce Your Carbon Footprint content. This important work is helping people take action to tackle the climate challenge. As a fully independent organization, C2ES is solely responsible for its positions, programs, and publications.