News Brief

Land Use Is Step One for Decarbonizing Transportation

Four federal agencies have released a first-of-its-kind, holistic strategy for the decarbonization of the U.S. transportation sector.

Person at a protest, holding a sign that says, “make streets safe for all,” with drawings of people biking, walking with a cane, walking a dog, and in a wheelchair.

We can design our communities to reduce our dependence on cars, and make it easier and safer for everyone to walk, bike, and take public transit.

Photo: Ted Eytan. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.
Four federal agencies recently committed to work together to decarbonize the U.S. transportation sector, the country’s largest source of emissions, by 2050. The departments of Transportation, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in September 2022, based on the premise that transportation, housing, energy, and climate policy are interdependent.

Along with the MOU, they released The U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, which provides an overview of our transportation system and guidance for the research, policy, and deployment necessary to achieve equitable, sector-wide decarbonization over the next thirty years. It illuminates the immensity of the undertaking, which will require unprecedented coordination among all levels and areas of government, nonprofits, and the private sector. The blueprint describes how eliminating transportation emissions is contingent upon community design and land-use planning that will shift our transportation needs. Efficiency improvements and widespread adoption of clean energy will also be needed.

Our current transportation system, the blueprint explains, is inadequate, costly, dirty, vulnerable, and inequitable:

  • Many people don’t have access to a car or reliable and convenient public transportation.
  • Transportation costs are second only to housing for U.S. households.
  • Emissions from the transportation sector cause bad air quality and poor health outcomes.
  • The system is vulnerable to global markets and infrastructure damage from climate change.

These burdens fall most heavily upon underserved, disadvantaged, low-income, and rural communities for whom transportation is often less accessible and a more significant proportion of household income. These communities are also more likely to be situated close to highways and industrial areas, increasing their exposure to pollution. 

The blueprint identifies three strategies to begin addressing these problems immediately. The first is to increase convenience. Transportation systems connect our built environment. How can we design our communities to reduce the need to commute by car and make it easier to walk, bike, and use public transit?

The second is to improve the energy and operational efficiency, accessibility, and affordability of passenger and freight transportation across the country.

And the third is to transition to zero-emission vehicles and fuels in every transportation category. The blueprint notes that this last strategy will likely result in the most substantial reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but only if the first two are in place. It concludes by setting three longer-term milestones for which the four agencies will release detailed action plans:

  • Before 2030—Maximize the impact of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act investments, and catalyze collaboration and private investments.
  • 2030–2040—Adapt strategies and implementation plans in response to global events, consumer response, and technology progress.
  • 2040–2050—Ensure that no one is left behind and do our part to achieve a net-zero-emissions economy.

The blueprint makes it clear: our transportation system is inextricable from our built and natural environments, energy systems, and social structure—and if siloed, we cannot effectively solve its problems. The agencies challenge us to reimagine, advocate for, and build communities that enable a safe, secure, clean, and equitable transportation system, a linchpin of a sustainable and resilient society.

For more information:

Department of Energy

Published March 6, 2023

Waters, E. (2023, February 21). Land Use Is Step One for Decarbonizing Transportation. Retrieved from

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April 12, 2023 - 12:56 am

"Transportation systems connect our built environment."

"our transportation system is inextricable from our built and natural environments, energy systems, and social structure--and if siloed, we cannot effectively solve its problems."

Amen to that! I keep shouting this. And too often I see single-sided approaches from policymakers, like a BPS--as if all buildings were equal in utility and location. 

April 12, 2023 - 11:04 am

Hi Jamy— Thanks for your comment. That's a great point.

April 12, 2023 - 6:11 pm

President Eisenhower “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” 

We seek to zero out carbon from buildings but ignore the transportation. We try and assess the materials but ignore the embedded carbon in the water and wastewater. Then at a later date develop policies for fugitive Scope 1 refrigerant emissions from HFCs. It seems only after we've realized that we didn't start with the whole pie, that we still have something left to eat because we didn't define zero to inlcude all Scope 1, 2 and 3 inputs. 

That's why David Goldstein and I wrote about this in 2012 at ACEEE. It's why I presented on it at Greenbuild in 2015, 2020 and to a lesser extent in 2022.

We apparently love silos. Death to silos.