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Driving less, to drive down Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions

Date Published: 01/10/2011

Author: Matt Kane & Charlie Quimby


During his first term in office, GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty pushed an initiative to reduce gasoline consumption and fossil fuel use, but unfortunately national political ambitions sidetracked this effort during his second term.

Now that DFLer Mark Dayton is in office, we’re hoping he will put concerns about climate change and a cleaner economy back on the front burner.
While the political climate around this issue is unpredictable going into the session that just started in St. Paul, the facts have not changed: The cars we drive - to work, school, home, shopping and everywhere else - make travel fast and convenient but inflict serious damage to our environment and potentially dangerous changes to our climate.

As our vehicles burn fossil fuels, they emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Greater atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are raising temperatures, increasing the intensity and occurrence of severe weather and otherwise changing our climate worldwide.

And the transportation sector in Minnesota accounts for about one-fourth of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, comprising the second largest source after electrical power generation.

Although one way to reduce the damage is to put fewer miles on our cars, excessive driving is built into the way Minnesotans live - and changing driving habits is not a simple matter.

Without changes at the macro level in land use and transit service, it will be tough for people to make choices that produce less pollution.

But we need to make such changes for many reasons. When Growth & Justice examined potential approaches for reducing miles driven in Minnesota, we found some striking, inter-related realities.

We drive at lot. We drive about 13 percent more miles than the national average. We Minnesotans log more miles per capita than Californians or Texans or even drivers in our neighboring states of Iowa and Wisconsin. Minnesota’s annual total for vehicle miles per capita is 11,100, and that’s about on par with sparsely populated South Dakota - even though Minnesota’s population density is 6.5 times greater.

To drive fewer miles, Minnesotans will need to change how we use land and how we structure our communities. Shorter and fewer car trips will require denser development and a greater mix of uses within those developed areas.

We need to pursue transit and land-use strategies together. Changes in land use - driven in part by expanded transit service for the Twin Cities area in particular - hold promise. Fostering transit-oriented development could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector by more than 10 percent in 2025 compared with the 2005 level.

Public transit can cut transportation-related pollution in three important ways, by: 1) decreasing the number of vehicle miles traveled in personal vehicles; 2) reducing traffic congestion, which cuts the amount of fuel burned by idling cars and trucks; and 3) prompting compact, transit-oriented development that diminishes the need for trips in personal vehicles.

Minnesota can modestly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through increased transit service and through changes in land-use patterns. But for significant impacts, we must link the two and encourage transit-oriented development.

Potential gains will depend on increased density. New York state has the nation’s lowest vehicle miles per capita. It also has the density and transit infrastructure in New York City that reduce car trips and their resulting pollution. For Minnesota, however, existing residential and commercial structures will shape travel patterns for years to come.

Because transit and land-use changes take time and investment, it’s smart to start implementing policies now that encourage compact development. For the most immediate gains, we can focus on areas with existing concentrations of employment and housing - areas that already boast significant development.

A mix of office, residential and retail uses within these areas of concentration will increase the ability of travelers to reach these destinations using short drives, or by walking or biking or taking the train.

Increased density may carry a price. Concentrations of employment may make congestion worse on the streets and highways connecting to those areas. Roadway pricing initiatives, such as the MnPASS lanes on I-394 and I-35W, can mitigate this traffic congestion.

So, too, can transit service and roadway advantages for transit vehicles and carpoolers - another element of the MnPASS program. However, to substantially reduce miles driven, transit must attract passengers who’d otherwise drive cars.

Pricing policies can yield corresponding reductions in vehicle miles traveled and in greenhouse gas emissions, but they face significant opposition for the very reason they work - because they increase the costs directly tied to operating a car.

The incoming leadership of the Met Council and top officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation-all appointed by Dayton - need to pursue policies and strategies for decreasing our need to drive.

Reducing the number of miles we drive will help us reach the state’s goals that Pawlenty helped set - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2005 to 2025 and by 80 percent from 2005 to 2050.

But without a statewide focus on land use and transit-oriented development, transit service and roadway pricing options, the best intentions won’t get us there.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Monday, January 10, 2011.

Matt Kane is the director of policy and research and Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice, which recently released a report on “Driving Down Minnesota’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Issues and Ideas for Reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled.”  The policy brief version of the full report is available here.

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