Environmental JusticeGHG Emissions

6 Ways to Drive Sustainability in Transportation

By June 4, 2024 June 7th, 2024 No Comments
bicyclist on trail through lush natural scenery

Sustainability may be a marketing buzzword, but the concept has never been more critical in transportation. As climate change continues to charge forward, shifting our behaviors, habits, and societal systems to preserve and pass on a healthy environment is one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Rethinking how we get around is a crucial aspect of this challenge. The transportation sector is responsible for more greenhouse gases (GHGs) — a leading driver of climate change — than any other sector in the United States.1  Small changes in this area, when multiplied by millions of people in major urban areas, could dramatically reduce emissions and create a more sustainable lifestyle for future generations.

For sustainability to be more than a mere buzzword, however, we must move past using it as a marketing term and find sustainable transportation solutions that can truly move the needle in the fight against climate change. In this article, we’ll cover six key ways to drive sustainability in transportation, including:

See where your city ranks on 8 factors that impact emissions

  • Promote electric and hybrid vehicles
  • Invest in public transportation infrastructure
  • Prioritize sustainable urban planning
  • Implement smart traffic management systems
  • Support active transportation modes
  • Develop sustainable freight transport systems

Promote Electric and Hybrid Vehicles

The data is clear: Over the full vehicle lifecycle, hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) produce far lower levels of GHG emissions than gas-powered cars. This is true even when accounting for the varying sustainability of fuel sources used to produce electricity. According to data from the Alternative Fuels Center, the average hybrid vehicle produces 55% as much emissions over its life as a similar gas-powered vehicle. The typical electric vehicle, meanwhile, produces 22% as much emissions as a gas car.2

Harnessing these benefits at scale requires significant investment into electric and hybrid vehicle technologies. Altogether, EVs and hybrids represented 16% of U.S. light-duty vehicle sales in 2023 — a significant amount, but far from unseating gasoline as the primary source of fuel.3

Federal and state programs provide tax credits or other incentives to encourage EV adoption and EV charger installation, but more programs are needed to overcome consumer concerns about battery range and costs of ownership. Local governments can explore additional incentives and work with utility companies to support rebate programs for EV chargers and bolster the electrical grid to handle growing charging demands. Additionally private and public organizations must step up to lead the charge in electrifying fleets and offering public charging options. More research and investment in other alternative fuels, such as biofuels, propane, and natural gas, could also help cut into the market share of gasoline.4

TRB EV Charger Gaps

A map of EV charging gaps in Massachusettes highlights where more charging infrastructure may still be needed to meet rising demand.

Invest in Public Transportation Infrastructure

Public transportation is a multi-faceted sustainable transportation solution. Not only does it reduce GHG emissions — by as much as two-thirds compared to private vehicles — but it also drives sustainability in more holistic ways. For instance, a stronger public transportation infrastructure provides more equitable access to jobs, education, and services, raising the standard of living for some of the most disadvantaged members of society. It also promotes a more active lifestyle and reduces communities’ exposure to pollutants, both of which can improve health outcomes across the board.5

Urban planners can use transportation data to find ideal opportunities for enhancing public transportation, whether by adding more light rail or expanding bus routes. For instance, planners with TransLink in Vancouver, B.C. used data comparing commuter reliance on various modes of transportation to demonstrate the strength of existing bus ridership across the metro area. With such detailed data on various urban corridors, planners were able to make the case for greater investment in bus transportation throughout the region.

Support Active Transportation Modes

Active methods of transportation, such as biking and walking, also tackle the sustainability problem from multiple angles. Communities with higher levels of active transportation are happier and healthier, and biking and walking can drastically reduce emissions. Even choosing to ride a bike instead of driving once a day can reduce one person’s emissions by as much as 67%.6

However, far too few U.S. cities are designed with cyclists and pedestrians in mind. To see more commuters make these choices, planners must make streets safer and routes more direct for active modes of transportation. That means expanding bike lanes, adding sidewalks and crosswalks, and reducing the width of certain streets. Similarly, cities would benefit from development approaches that increase population density and support shorter commutes by placing essential services within biking and walking distance.

Once again, deciding on the best options for such changes requires an in-depth analysis of available traffic data. Understanding current traffic patterns can help planners pinpoint, for instance, where a road diet may help to divert or slow traffic and make room for a new bike lane. Or, as planners did in Portland, Oregon, cities can examine the data on average trip distance to find opportunities for adding safer active transportation options such as pedestrian bridges or strategic walking paths.

See what emissions reduction tactics your city needs most


Implement Smart Traffic Management Systems

Not every transportation improvement requires a major overhaul. Some sustainable transportation solutions are simple, especially with the technology and data available today. Smart traffic management systems leverage tools like signal timing, traffic cameras, and automated speed enforcement to improve traffic flow and reduce pollution from congestion and extended travel times. By reducing both extreme speeds and heavy idling, transportation planners can help improve fuel efficiency and lessen overall pollution.7 These simple tools can also decrease speeding and related accidents, making transportation more sustainable in other important ways.8

Transportation planners and agencies can use detailed traffic data to find the best opportunities for these types of smart traffic solutions. For instance, higher traffic counts or average speeds at a specific intersection could warrant camera-enforced radar or improvements in signal timing methods.

smart city traffic light above a snowy intersection

Smart traffic signals like the one pictured above can offer a cost-effective way to reduce idling time at intersections, while improving safety and travel times.

Develop Sustainable Freight Transport Solutions

According to the EPA, large trucks are already the fastest-growing contributor to transportation emissions. On top of that, shipments of U.S. goods are expected to increase by 40% by 2040, pushing the growth of emissions from freight ahead of all other transportation categories over the next 15 years.9 In other words, you can’t address the sustainability of transportation without considering the role of freight transport.

Transitioning more fleets to electric or alternative fuels could substantially increase sustainability in this sector, especially for delivery vehicles that travel fewer than 200 miles per day.10 Additionally, a significant portion of freight emissions come from poor route planning and wasted miles — areas that can benefit from data analysis around metrics like trip length, travel time, and hours of delay. By making delivery routes more efficient, large companies can offset some of the impact of this growing portion of the transport sector.

Prioritize Sustainable Urban Planning

Cities account for between 60% and 80% of the world’s energy consumption and 75% of emissions, despite only occupying about 3% of its land.11 Transportation may be one of the biggest contributors to urban emissions and energy usage, but it’s by no means the only one.

That said, transportation is linked to numerous other aspects of urban planning, and connecting transport and sustainability ultimately requires a broader approach to all aspects of city planning. For instance, transportation planners can think beyond the mechanics of roadways to consider how adding green spaces to urban corridors can enhance quality of life and improve air quality by adding more trees.

Likewise, urban planners must dive into transportation data to understand how a new development would affect traffic patterns and potentially help or harm larger sustainable development goals. Clear data on the traffic volume in a given corridor, for example, may help planners decide whether a road diet will ease or exacerbate traffic and pollution.

What Is the Future of Sustainable Transportation?

Setting the stage for greener transport is a critical component of the environmental movement. Without sustainable transportation, it’s difficult to imagine a sustainable future.

The good news is that there are several ways to make the transport sector more sustainable. And with big data at the center, planners can ensure these efforts achieve their maximum impact by making informed decisions about which initiatives are most urgent for their region.

Big data platforms like StreetLight InSight® provide valuable, actionable data that planners can use to evaluate vehicle emissions and understand how infrastructure changes could transform their area. With access to detailed metrics on origin and destination, vehicle volume, speed, turning movements, and more, you can look at potential solutions from every angle, both in terms of safety and sustainability.

In the video below, you can see how transportation professionals in Maine used these kinds of metrics to measure regional transportation emissions and equip cities and counties with data to inform local emissions reduction efforts.

To learn more about StreetLight’s methodology for measuring GHG emissions, and how StreetLight InSight® can help you capture this key data, check out our recent white paper.

And to see where your city ranks on eight major factors that contribute to transportation emissions, download our free eBook, Transportation Climate Impact Index: How the top 100 U.S. metros rank on core emissions factors.

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions

2. Alternative Fuels Data Center. “Emissions from Electric Vehicles.” https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric-emissions

3. U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Electric vehicles and hybrids surpass 16% of total 2023 U.S. light-duty vehicle sales.” https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=61344

4. University of Minnesota Transportation Futures Project. “Alternative Fuels & Vehicle Electrification.” https://www.minnesotago.org/application/files/5614/6376/6119/AlternativeFuels.pdf

5. World Resources Institute. “3 Ways to Reimagine Public Transport for People and the Climate.” https://www.wri.org/insights/3-ways-reimagine-public-transport-people-and-climate

6. UCLA. “How Riding A Bike Benefits the Environment.” https://www.wri.org/insights/3-ways-reimagine-public-transport-people-and-climate

7. Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. “Impacts of Idling.” https://www.noaca.org/regional-planning/air-quality-planning/transportation-emissions/impacts-of-idling

8. U.S. Department of Transportation. “ITS Fast Facts.” https://www.its.dot.gov/resources/fastfacts.htm

9. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Why Freight Matters to Supply Chain Sustainability.” https://www.epa.gov/smartway/why-freight-matters-supply-chain-sustainability

10. Alternative Fuels Data Center. “Electric Vehicles for Fleets.” https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric-fleets

11. United Nations Foundation. “5 Statistics on Why Urban Development Matters.” https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/5-statistics-on-why-sustainable-urban-development-matters/

See which cities perform best (and worst) on 8 major emissions factors