Transportation and Climate Change: Building out the Transit System for a Greener Future

By Whitney Lawrence, Member Engagement/Senior Organizer

“The most significant opportunity to reduce carbon emissions . . . is transportation—which in turn depends on community design.”  —Peter Calthorpe

Last week, TLC members and allies gathered in Minneapolis to take a closer look at the connection between transportation and climate change. Over 50 people attended the event, which also featured presentations from Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Joshua Houdek of the Sierra Club. Thanks to all who could join us!

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The US Environmental Protection Agency affirms that “the more greenhouse gases we emit, the larger future climate changes will be.” As discussed at our recent event, current Minnesota law specifies aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Using 2005 as a baseline, the goals call for decreases in GHG emissions by the following:

  • 15% by 2015,
  • 30% by 2025, and
  • 80% by 2050.

How do we get there? We will never meet the emissions standards outlined above if we do not seriously address our transportation system. Transportation accounts for 24% of Minnesota’s total CO2 output, making it the second largest contributor to our state’s GHG emissions.


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This is consistent with patterns for the U.S. at large. The EPA reports that, with a 27% share, transportation is also the second largest end-use contributor to GHG emissions nationally.  Of this pollution, 62% comes from cars & light trucks (SUVs, pickups, minivans).
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Understanding how and why transportation contributes to our GHG emissions is crucial to addressing the problem. First, it is important to understand that transportation is a derived demand. Put simply, people are not driving or riding the bus for fun—they are doing it because they need to get from point A to point B.

The options we have for getting from point A to point B have a significant impact on transportation patterns and GHG emissions. The average Twin Cities commuter puts approximately 2.6 tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere every year by driving alone to work. And, an estimated 78% of workers who drive to work drive alone. In the coming decades, cleaner fuels and more fuel efficient vehicles will help. However, reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled is the single most important thing we can do to lower GHG emissions from transportation in Minnesota.

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With this in mind, it is crucial that the state and region fund the build-out of public transit and well-connected networks for bicycling and walking so more people have the option to leave the car at home or live without one. Transit emits a fraction of the pollution of driving alone, and getting around by bike or on foot produces zero emissions. Unfortunately, only 25% of metro households and 10% of metro jobs are conveniently served by our current transit systems. It’s one of many reasons why TLC and the Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition are spearheading a movement to accelerate the build out of the regional transit system. (Learn more and get involved at www.transit4mn.org.)

Transportation and land use go hand in hand. Residents who live in more compact, mixed-use areas use transit at a rate that is 2-5 times greater than the rest of the region, which reduces the number of car trips they take by up to 50%. And less driving means less GHG pollution.

The Minneapolis/Saint Paul area is one of least compact metro regions in the nation. Our land use policies and transportation investments have traditionally encouraged people to live far from where they work: the average Twin Cities commuter travels 13 miles and crosses county lines at least once reach to their job. This means they often have to drive, which significantly increases CO2 output. As shown on the featured map, people living near the core of the Twin Cities metro region—where there is higher density and greater access to transit—have a smaller carbon footprint. Land use policies that encourage transit-oriented development and communities designed for bicycling and walking will be key to helping Minnesota achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals.

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What else will help Minnesota put the brakes on climate change? Try leaving the car at home for one extra trip each week and make that trip by walking, sharing a ride, bicycling, or taking the bus or train. We encourage you to drive differently and to drive less whenever possible. More tips and inspiration for doing exactly that:

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Sincere thanks to Jim Erkel at Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy for contributing graphics and information for this article.