Lessons on reducing driving and lowering emissions from the 'Land of Freeways'

freewayPhoto: Shutterstock Many states, including California and Minnesota, have identified reducing driving as an essential strategy to meet their targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. How to achieve this strategy, however, remains a question. The rise of ride-hailing services, automated vehicles, and other innovations could add to this challenge.

In the opening session of the 2018 CTS Research Conference, Professor Susan Handy discussed how she and her colleagues with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis are addressing these issues with a series of groundbreaking projects.

“California is known as the Land of Freeways, and while we may celebrate them in the movies the reality is much grimmer—you can run into congestion at any time of the day on any day of the week, and the greenhouse gases this produces exacerbate climate change with forest fires, droughts, and flooding,” Handy says.

electric car chargingPhoto: Shutterstock To address this serious threat, California has set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets; reducing vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) is one key aspect of that legislation, and the research community is playing an important part in helping the state achieve its emission-reduction goals. Research efforts by Handy and her colleagues include synthesizing existing research to help policymakers and planners identify the most effective strategies for VMT reduction and developing planning tools to assess the VMT impacts of transportation, land use, and development projects.

“In addition, we are conducting before-and-after studies when communities adopt a strategy intending to reduce VMT,” Handy says. “These are hard studies to do, but the results are extremely important. For example, we were able to document a VMT reduction following the opening of a light-rail line in Los Angeles and another after a Target store was opened in a community that had previously banned big-box stores.”

Though researchers are helping to answer many questions, new technology has created an uncertain future. “Automated vehicles in particular mean our current forecasting tools may not work as well in the future, because this technology is so different from anything we have seen,” Handy says.

Handy believes there are two possible outcomes with automated vehicles: an ideal vision in which the adoption of the “three revolutions”—electrification, automation, and shared mobility—leads to reduced emissions, and a much darker scenario in which automated vehicles lead to additional vehicle-miles traveled and increased urban sprawl. Through the “3Revolutions” project (3rev.ucdavis.edu), the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies is working to avoid a potential “doomsday” future.

scenario chart“Automated vehicles and other technological innovations are both a threat and an opportunity for our communities,” Handy says. “Our goal is to think about what policies we need to put into place to push things away from the nightmare version and toward the dream version of the three revolutions. It is just technology until we decide how to use it, and we can choose to put the right policies in place for the future.”


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