Policy Brief #2: Where the Environment and Transportation Intersect

We’re doing a series of policy briefs to highlight the overlap between multimodal transportation and other important issues for the metro. You can check out the other installments here.

Climate change is no longer an afterthought for future generations to contend with. It is here, and its effects are already having a tangible effect on nearly every aspect of our way of life. From more powerful storms, to longer and hotter droughts, to torrential rains, climate change is impacting our lives and our livelihoods. The steps we have taken so far are not enough, and if we don’t do more soon, it may be too late. BikeWalkKC understands the magnitude of the climate crisis, and we believe that the following principles should guide our efforts to face the most urgent issue of this generation with the gravity it deserves:

  1. Transportation policy should be developed in such a way to drastically and immediately lower our greenhouse gas emissions;
  2. The automobile, in gas form or otherwise, cannot play an outsized role in meeting the necessary reduction thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions; and
  3. Multimodal alternatives, including walking, biking, and transit should receive appropriate and increased support in priority, policy, and funding.

The mantra of "Go Green" can't be limited to turning off a few extra lights or putting more plastic in the recycling bin. Transportation, and the decisions we make around it, are integral to how we address the existential crisis of climate change.

How Transportation Intersects With It

We all have some idea of the harmful ramifications of driving gasoline powered cars. Yet, there are broader land use elements that we often overlook as well.

In explaining why cars have become the largest contributor to the largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the EPA gives a number of reasons, all underneath the umbrella of increased demand for travel. More specifically, they explain “The number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by light-duty motor vehicles (passenger cars and light-duty trucks) increased by 45.9 percent from 1990 to 2017, as a result of a confluence of factors including population growth, economic growth, urban sprawl, and periods of low fuel prices.”

Along those lines, highways are often seen as what connects us as a region, but they’re also one of the key avenues for driving up our carbon emissions. Vehicles on the highway release about 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. While the response has largely been to expand highway capacity to keep cars from idling, evidence suggests that such steps may actually have the opposite effect. In Houston, for example, the Katy Freeway was expanded to an astounding 23 lanes. And yet from 2011 to 2014, commute times in both the morning and afternoon increased.

Another critical element to consider when discussing the environmental impacts of the car is the impact of parking. Cruising for that perfect parking spot can greatly increase your overall carbon footprint. By one estimate, that can translate to 730 tons of CO2 emissions per car per year.

But electric cars shouldn’t be left off the hook either. While electric cars are quieter and emit less emissions while being operated, they are still resource intense in terms of recharging. That’s because recharging the vehicle still means relying on electricity that is largely generated from carbon-heavy sources. The U.S. Department of Energy puts it like this: electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles “running only on electricity have zero tailpipe emissions, but emissions may be produced by the source of electrical power, such as a power plant.”

What does that mean in terms of emissions output? The table below breaks down the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent generated by each type of vehicle:

Annual Emission Amounts by Car Type (1)

 

Gasoline

Hybrid

Plug-In Hybrid

All Electric

National

11,435 lbs.

6,258 lbs.

6,050 lbs.

4,362 lbs.

Kansas

11,435 lbs.

6,258 lbs.

5,927 lbs.

4,166 lbs.

Missouri

11,435 lbs.

6,258 lbs.

8,107 lbs.

7,622 lbs.

As long as coal remains one of the largest sources for electricity generation, switching to electric cars simply will not be enough.

To be clear: BikeWalkKC supports efforts to move towards cleaner alternatives to the petroleum-powered car. However, a predominant emphasis on electric cars cannot happen fast enough, and does not support the broader transportation and land use changes that need to take place, to stop humanity from passing the 1.5 °C threshold that scientists warn will lead to significant challenges for all humanity. (2)

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There are a number of reasons why we advocate for better walking, biking, and transit in Kansas City, and one of those reasons is because such forms of transportation are exponentially better for the environment.

Walking 

In finding ways to improve walkability, people across the metro will experience a multitude of benefits. Making it easier for people to walk by building a better network of sidewalks and safe intersections is not only an opportunity to get people out of their cars, but also an opportunity to shift infrastructure and land use in a way that supports cleaner environmental outcomes.

Walking more frequently instead of driving is a major, immediate change one can make to lower their carbon footprint. While we may think that walking can’t be as effective for most of our trips, it’s not as bad as we might think. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 40% of all trips are less than two miles, and nearly 30% of all trips are less than 1 mile (approximately a 20 minute walk for the average person).

But it’s not just the steps we take that lower our carbon footprint; the infrastructure where we use such a transportation method is just as important. Transportation, as it relates to the environment, is also about reallocating public space to support cleaner modes. The Washington State Department of Transportation conducted research which suggests that an increase in sidewalk coverage led to decreases in both vehicle miles traveled and carbon dioxide emissions. 

Biking 

Biking presents another opportunity for the metro to improve its transportation network in a way that is more sustainable. But perhaps even more than walking, the way to encourage increased cycling in the metro is with the appropriate infrastructure.

Cycling, as an alternative to driving a car, has huge benefits for the environment. One study conducted in Wisconsin found that “if 20% of short car trips [under 5 miles] were replaced by bicycle trips in Milwaukee and Madison, there could be a combined estimated reduction of 57,405 tons of CO2 between both cities.”

As promising as the benefits of cycling as a larger share of transportation mode are, they cannot be fully realized on a network of disconnected bike paths and sharrows. Simply put, if we want to get more people out of their cars and onto a bike, we need to build the sort of infrastructure that encourages them to do so. As a November 2015 study noted, investing aggressively in cycling (specifically mode share and infrastructure improvements) could lead to an 11% annual decrease in urban transport carbon dioxide emissions.

Transit 

While long-term discussions abound regarding the introduction of expanded light rail to the metro, immediate and substantial impacts can be felt with an improved emphasis on bus transit in the area. This can be felt particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and adjusting land use to better accommodate more transit.

First, increasing our investment in transit can have a significant impact on our efforts to decrease our collective carbon footprint. A report from the U.S. Department of Transportation helps to make it clear: Per passenger mile, a single occupancy vehicle trip produces 0.96 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Bus transit, meanwhile, produces 0.64 pounds at average occupancy, and just 0.18 pounds at full capacity. In other words, bus transit produces fewer emissions, and that number goes down if more people are riding.

This brings us to the second point, which is that adjusting our land use practices to better accommodate transit-oriented development (i.e. compact, mixed-use development near transit stations) can support transit and other environmentally-friendly endeavors as well. Compact development, according to a report from the Transit Cooperative Research Program, could save more than 2.4 million acres of land, including nearly 200,000 acres in the Midwest alone. That would mean space could be preserved for green infrastructure development as well as the preservation of biodiversity.

These elements should not be strengthened in isolation, however. BikeWalkKC believes that in order to create a system that truly gets people out of their cars, we need a safe, reliable, and connected multimodal system of sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and transit routes.

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Quick Facts

  • The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the transportation sector produced the most carbon emissions in 2017, at 29%.
  • The EPA states further further that light duty vehicles (including passenger cars and light trucks) represented 59% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector.
  • According to the KCMO Climate Protection Plan and Steering Committee, transportation was the only sector that saw a significant increase in emissions between 2013 and 2017.
  • The committee also notes in its Greenhouse Gas Inventory Update that on-road transportation in KCMO represented 34% of total emissions in 2017, the largest of any sector. (3)

BikeWalkKC Mission and Position

The mission of BikeWalkKC is “to redefine our streets as places for people to build a culture of active living.” Streets that are made safe and reliable for cars alone are not only a detriment to efforts to build a culture of active living, but are also a carbon intensive activity that has and will continue to inflict significant harm on the planet. Therefore, we believe that the Kansas City metropolitan region should work to develop policies, plans, and projects that prioritize the development of a multimodal transportation network that will swiftly and significantly decrease the necessity of a car.

How BikeWalkKC supports the Environment

Conclusion

Our long term environmental prospects are in large part driven (no pun intended) by the transportation decisions we make today. As BikeWalkKC works to build a culture of active living, we want to show people that the safer solution for our streets can also be the sustainable solution for the blue planet we all call home.

Did you know? BikeWalkKC’s advocacy efforts are member-supported! You can lend your voice to our work by becoming a member today. And get the latest on bicycle- and pedestrian-related happenings when you subscribe to our newsletter!

Footnotes

(1) The main electricity source nationally is natural gas (35.33%), while coal remains the largest electricity source in both Kansas (39.59%) and Missouri (73.47%). All of this information comes from the US Department of Energy.

(2) Allen, et. al. "Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 [degrees] Celsius", The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; October 2018.

(3) City of Kansas City, Missouri - Office of Environmental Quality, "2017 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Update", last accessed November 26, 2019.

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