Transportation represented 28% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Reducing transportation emissions is critical to tackling climate change. Yet inspiring more people to adopt walking, biking, and public transit, as well as electrifying cars and trucks, is a major hurdle. How can we reduce transportation emissions quickly, and what have we learned from the successes of other energy-saving initiatives?

Transportation is a complex problem with no singular solution

Even states that are climate leaders acknowledge that transportation is a particularly wicked problem. In December the California Air Resources Board issued a report outlining the challenges associated with reducing transportation-related emissions. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also issued a report last week acknowledging a lack of progress on transportation emissions.

It seems like some folks thought this transformation would be easy. After all, electric vehicles (EVs) have a cool factor, thanks largely to Tesla. Surely everything will be fine if we all convert to EVs?

Hoping people buy electric vehicles isn’t enough

It’s time for some reality.

First, mass adoption of electric vehicles won’t just “happen.” Building charging stations will not magically increase the number of EVs on the road, just as a bus stop sign won’t lead to a surge in transit ridership. While the charging stations (and signs) are necessary, they are not sufficient to change practices. In order to transform the car and truck market, we need to motivate change.

Second, even an expansion in electric vehicles won’t fully solve our transportation challenges. CARB‘s report highlights the need to reduce vehicle-miles traveled even with rapid expansion of zero-emission electric vehicles.

Finally, reducing vehicle-miles traveled means getting people out of single-occupancy cars and into shared rides and public transit, as well as biking and walking. To do so, we need better transit, smarter land-use planning, and an unprecedented level of behavior change.

It’s no wonder states are struggling. Reducing transportation emissions is a tall order!

What can sustainable transportation advocates learn from other initiatives?

The dearth of systemic efforts to influence transportation became apparent early on in our engagement programs.

Compare transportation to energy efficiency and conservation, for example. Whereas energy utilities have encouraged energy conservation habits in Wisconsin for decades, there is no equivalent for transportation. No formal entity, for example, provides tips about fuel economy at the gas pump.

Similarly, the ENERGY STAR program is extremely popular and well-known among average consumers. However, there’s no similar program for automobiles. Because of the lack of these programs, transportation experts have less experience influencing change and receiving evaluation reports assessing their efforts. In energy efficiency, by contrast, third-party evaluations are the norm.

Change takes time

States aiming to reduce transportation emissions would do well to heed the lessons from successful energy efficiency efforts.

First, change never happens overnight. Sometimes it seems like something has happened quickly; for example, the way LEDs have overtaken CFLs and incandescent bulbs. However, if the change seems fast to you, it’s because you were blissfully unaware of everything going on behind the scenes. For decades, energy efficiency advocates worked with lighting manufacturers and retailers to bring efficient lighting to market. The push for LED adoption built on the effort to promote CFLs in previous decades. Ultimately, advocates’ work helped to make it profitable for lighting companies to pursue LED technology and for retailers to see an advantage in giving these products shelf space.

Look beyond the consumer to the middleman

Second, sales don’t just happen. With any new technology, there will be some early adopters. The challenge, however, is to convince regular folks to consider and then purchase electric vehicles. This means we need to understand consumer priorities and how vehicles are bought and sold because your aim is to transform that market.

Again, the efficiency industry offers some interesting insights. Consider home furnaces. In the 1990s, 80% of all furnaces sold in Wisconsin were high efficiency, whereas only 20% of furnace sold in neighboring (and equally cold) states were high efficiency. The difference? Wisconsin had strong initiatives that motivated heating contractors to recommend high efficiency units. It turns out that people mostly follow contractor recommendations.

Similarly, there’s the push for high-efficiency clothes washers. Utility programs offered incentives to salespeople for selling the high efficiency units, and therefore market share grew substantially. The lesson here is clear: for EV sales to expand substantially, programs need to engage car dealerships more effectively.

Make it simple to buy

Just as transportation initiatives can learn from energy efficiency, there are also great lessons to learn from rooftop solar programs. Utility interconnection standards did not prompt an avalanche of rooftop installations (much as charging stations won’t spur EV sales) but it turns out solar is contagious: people are more likely to install if they see an installation in their neighborhood. Efforts to simplify the purchase—group buys, third-party ownership—have also been effective in growing the market. Ask yourself how you can make purchasing an EV easier.

Beyond EV: Broader visions of transit

In addition to accelerating the transition to EVs, entities need to inspire people to ride share, take public transit, or opt for active forms of transportation.

On this front, the California Air Resources Board lays out a solid plan forward. CARB urges more pilot programs to experiment with incentives and messaging for the public. However, the report also focuses on land use issues. After all, people have to get from home to work and back again, and sometimes a car is the only option. Changing land use practices can be slow, but new land use policies are enormously important and have lasting effects.

We need innovative partnerships and new ways of motivating

To reduce transportation emissions, there’s a great need for innovative partnerships. For example, one common source of transportation miles is the commute to and from work. Employers thus have a stake in our transportation choices.

However, a recent transit study in Wisconsin showed that local bus systems in some communities don’t even serve the largest employers in those communities. That’s missing a great opportunity for collaboration! Often bigger businesses already have sustainability objectives, and employee commuting is a big piece of their carbon footprint (especially for white collar businesses like law firms, banks, or insurance companies). That means there’s opportunity for cities and businesses to collaborate on solutions that increase transit use as well as biking and walking.

Additionally, we urge entities to pilot initiatives that encourage people to try new modes of transit. Offer two-for-one bus fares or free transit days. Create incentives for those who already bike to work to engage a colleague in biking, too. The aim of these programs should be to nudge people into trying a new behavior that was previously outside their comfort zone. We want folks to see themselves as people who take the bus or who bike to work. Yes, there are often cost and health benefits to driving less, but identifying as someone who bikes, buses, or walks is a powerful way to keep up with the habit.

None of this will happen overnight, and none of it is easy. But it is doable and necessary. Contact us if you want to talk more about how you can accelerate a transformation of transportation practices in your community.

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