States Play a Crucial Role in Creating Sustainable Transportation Systems

March 4, 2022



NCEL Point of Contact


Addressing transportation emissions is critical to solving the climate crisis. In 2019, the transportation sector was the largest contributor (29%)  of human-caused emissions in the United States. By reimagining our current transportation system to move away from a focus on single-occupancy vehicles, we can not only reduce emissions but also increase quality of life, decrease the public health impacts from pollution, decrease motor vehicle injuries and fatalities, increase active lifestyles, increase mobility equity, and advance environmental justice.

Many states are working to make electric vehicles more affordable, charging stations more accessible, and public fleets less emissions-intensive. The move towards transportation electrification is critical for decarbonization, but it’s not the golden ticket. Single-occupancy vehicles are not the most efficient form of transport, and reliance on cars requires significant infrastructure costs and resource extraction for car parts and batteries. 

State Action

States can play a crucial role in redesigning our transportation by focusing on modes that center people, particularly people of color,  in spaces rather than single-occupancy vehicles. Prioritizing active transportation, public transit, transit-oriented development, and reducing vehicle miles traveled are instrumental to creating thriving communities that work for everyone.

Active Transportation

Active transportation is any self-propelled, human-powered mode of transportation, such as walking or bicycling. Increasing access and prioritizing the development of active transportation reduces a household’s reliance on single-occupancy vehicles and fossil-fuel dependent vehicles. Communities of color are less likely to have access to safe biking and walking infrastructure, despite being dependent on forms of active transportation for essential travel at higher rates than their white counterparts. Creating new bike lanes, walking paths, and other active transportation infrastructure in communities of color is critical to advancing environmental justice. 

Example legislation:

  • IL S.B.3868 (introduced 2022): provides that the Department of Transportation shall fund bicycle and pedestrian ways in conjunction with the construction, reconstruction, or other change of any State transportation facility in or within one mile of an urban area.
  • NY A.9036/S.7824 (enacted 2022): required the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to develop a strategic action plan to improve bicycle and pedestrian access at its bridges and passenger stations; required bicycle parking at all MTA passenger stations.

Public Transit

Public transportation, including buses, subways, light rail, commuter rail, trolleys, and ferries, has an essential role to play in the toolbox of transportation solutions available. Not only will increased ridership significantly reduce emissions, but increased public transportation usage results in better air quality, less traffic congestion, fewer accidents, and decreased noise pollution. 

Environmental justice communities have long suffered from increased air pollution due to disproportionate proximity to highways and traffic hot spots. Communities of color also tend to rely more on public transportation, so transit policies have significant impacts on these households. It is paramount that they are involved in the design and implementation process of all public transportation policies, as the most affected parties.

Example legislation:

  • NJ A.1484 (introduced 2022): establishes “New Jersey Transit Bus Riders’ Bill of Rights;” ensures riders will have the right to reliable, affordable, and on-time transportation; safe buses, bus stops, and bus terminals; and protects against discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.
  • RI H.B.7146/S.B.2015 (introduced 2022): prohibits the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority from imposing any fares and/or charges for service provided to the general public.

Transit-Oriented Development

Transit-oriented development is the creation of compact, walkable, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities centered around high-quality train systems. When individuals have easier access to their daily activities, not only is their quality of life improved by spending less time in traffic, it also reduces the carbon footprint of that individual’s daily transportation needs. Transit-oriented development can also increase the public health of a community by decreasing congestion, harmful air pollutants, and deaths and injuries from motor vehicle accidents. Transit-oriented development also facilitates more active forms of transportation like biking and walking, which reduces obesity and the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes or heart disease. 

Example legislation:

  • MD H.B.0710/S.B.0516 (introduced 2022): creates tax incentives for businesses located in a transit-oriented development area; establishes the Transit-Oriented Development Capital Grant and Revolving Loan Fund.
  • NY S.8006/A.9006 (introduced 2022): requires cities to permit dwelling units with a density of at least twenty-five dwelling units per acre on any land within one-half mile of any covered transportation facility.

Vehicle Miles Traveled

As the United States examines ways to reduce its emissions from the transportation sector, it is important to consider not only how to make existing transportation cleaner, but also how to decrease the miles driven overall. Personal vehicles in the U.S. account for three trillion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) each year, totaling over 14,000 miles for each licensed driver. Studies show that the U.S. must reduce VMT by 20% before 2030 to limit warming to 1.5°C regardless of an ambitious increase in electric vehicle usage.

There are many co-benefits to reducing VMT, including alleviating traffic congestion, improving access to jobs and services for residents without a personal vehicle, enabling communities to reclaim streets and parking lots currently used for travel or parking, and reducing injuries and fatalities from motor vehicle accidents. States have created programs to replace fuel taxes and other vehicle fees with a VMT fee or a road user fee. Other states have incorporated a reduction in VMT into the responsibility of its Department of Transportation or other state agencies. 

Example legislation:

  • HI S.B.3313 (introduced 2022): requires the Department of Transportation to establish a working group to reduce the overall miles traveled in the state.
  • VT H.552 (introduced 2022): requires all employers with 50 or more employees in the State to design, adopt, and implement a transportation demand management plan that includes measures to reduce vehicle miles traveled.

NCEL’s New Transportation Briefing Book

These are just a few of the options available to states as they look at ways to transition to a low-carbon transportation system. NCEL has created a Transportation Briefing Book that breaks down several different policies being considered in states across the country. Each section includes a description of the policy, key facts and figures, and several examples of legislation passed or introduced on the state level.

In addition to those above, sections include congestion pricing, electric vehicles, low carbon fuel standards, medium- and heavy-duty vehicle electrification, and the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

We encourage you to explore the briefing book and if you have any questions and are interested in pursuing transportation policy in your state, reach out to Ava Gallo, NCEL’s Climate and Energy Coordinator.