Electrifying cars will not be enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change; we also need to drive less. And yet Massachusetts’ goal for reducing driving is less ambitious than those of other states, according to a Globe analysis.
Massachusetts is aiming to reduce the number of miles driven per household by just 3 percent from 2015 to 2030 as part of its climate plan, according to figures provided by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Minnesota, by contrast, is aiming to reduce vehicle miles traveled per person by 7 percent in that time frame. In Colorado, the goal is 8 percent. In Washington, the goal is around 16 percent. And in California, the goal is 20 percent.
Driving less, experts say, is by far the fastest way to reduce transportation emissions, which make up around 37 percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions, and give us a chance to stave off increasingly deadly heat waves, drought, sea level rise, and storms. And without aggressively reducing driving, many of the pitfalls of our current transportation system, like traffic congestion, road deaths, and dangerous pollution from tires, will probably worsen, even with electric cars.
Still, Massachusetts’ Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2025 and 2030 relies almost exclusively on electric car adoption to meet emissions reductions goals for transportation. Transit and climate advocates have long been urging the state to rethink its approach as strategies to reduce driving, like improving public transit, have stalled.
Unlike switching from gas-powered cars to electric cars, reducing driving requires changing behavior. And in the United States, where decades of highway-focused transportation policy means Americans drive more than twice as much as residents of some other developed countries, that presents a unique challenge.
“We’re taking the easy, lazy path of least resistance,” said Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who serves on the board of the advocacy group TransitMatters. “That’s not what Massachusetts should be doing.”
The Healey administration declined to make someone available for an interview for this story. Spokespeople for the state environmental agency and Department of Transportation said that driving reduction targets were established under the previous administration.
“Under the new administration, EEA and MassDOT are working together to assess strategies to achieve emissions limits from the transportation sector, including potential adjustments to [vehicle miles traveled] commitments,” said EEA spokesperson Maria Hardiman.
Simply changing every gas-powered car to an electric vehicle will reduce emissions, but until the energy supply is entirely renewable and affordable, it won’t eliminate them. In the meantime, getting people to drive less will result in more immediate emissions reductions, said Tim Reardon, data services director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
Reardon said three changes are needed to reduce driving in Massachusetts: build housing near transit stations and in town centers, charge drivers more for using the roads, and make taking public transit, biking, and walking more convenient than driving, by reallocating street space and improving service.
Reardon and his team studied several road use pricing and housing scenarios to determine the impact they would have on driving by 2030 in the MAPC region that includes 101 municipalities in Eastern Massachusetts. A business-as-usual approach is estimated to result in an increase of 9.5 million miles driven per day in personal vehicles, or 21 percent over 2010 levels, his study found.
Even if most housing development happens in the inner-core municipalities, with less growth in suburban areas, driving will still increase, unless drivers are charged more for using the road, the MAPC study shows. A 75 cent per gallon gas tax — triple today’s rate — with either a 25 cent tax per mile traveled, a tiered freeway congestion pricing fee, or the combination of both, resulted in less driving under all housing scenarios, according to the study.
“It is well past time for us to have an adult conversation about roadway pricing in Massachusetts,” Reardon said. As electric car adoption increases, gas tax revenue will decrease, Reardon said.
“We cannot survive any longer,” he said. “We can’t fund the transit we need, the roadway maintenance we need, unless we find some other way to charge users.”
Massachusetts’ efforts to build housing near transit stations, charge drivers, and improve public transit, biking, and walking have been full of starts and stops.
The MBTA Communities Law, meant to designate areas near transit in 175 municipalities in Eastern Massachusetts for multifamily housing, was scaled back last year after outcry from cities and towns. Some municipalities are still fighting the law even after the state loosened the guidelines to allow for fewer housing units.
The state Legislature has for years toyed with the idea of creating a commission to study road use pricing, but so far the idea hasn’t made its way into law. Healey previously said she supports looking at the issue, but the measure was not in the budget she signed this week.
The MBTA’s plans to increase bus, train, and commuter rail service, and the state’s plan to create an e-bike incentive program, have also stalled. The T does not have any timeline for when subway and bus service will be restored even to pre-pandemic levels, or when long-promised improvements like electrifying and increasing service on the commuter rail or connecting the Red Line to the Blue Line will be finished. MBTA ridership has largely plateaued at around 60 percent of what it was before the pandemic amid widespread problems with slow and unreliable service.
Meanwhile, car traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels. And traffic deaths are on the rise.
Few states have committed to reducing driving. And for states that have long had more ambitious driving reduction goals, meeting those goals has proved difficult.
Washington created its driving reduction goals in 2008 and has only been able to meet them during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. In California, which set its goals in 2009, vehicle miles traveled per person were trending upward before the pandemic. And depending on how population increases in a state, an ambitious per-capita driving reduction goal could still result in a net increase of miles driven.
Still, elsewhere there are signs of tangible progress on strategies to reduce driving.
The Washington State Transportation Commission recently recommended a 2.5 cent-per-mile road use fee to replace the state gas tax after more than a decade of study and conducting a pilot project. The Washington Department of Transportation said a road usage charge “has significant potential to change transportation behavior . . . and it represents a flexible tool that can be leveraged to support [driving] reduction.”
In December, Colorado began implementing a first-of-its-kind climate change rule that requires roadway projects to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals, or mitigate increased emissions from driving with added public transit, walking, and biking options, after finalizing its driving reduction goals in 2020. Minnesota quickly followed suit with its own driving reduction goals and the passage of a similar law to encourage funding for projects that cut vehicle pollution.
Already, Colorado is seeing a shift in which projects are being proposed, said Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Long before beginning construction on a $700 million project to expand a key part of the jam-packed highway that connects Denver to popular mountain towns, the state launched a new transit shuttle bus service with Wi-Fi, chargers, and ski and bike stowage. The shuttles have seen a steady increase in ridership, so the state has expanded the fleet and increased service.
“We’re providing the customers with choices that will motivate them to make that shift,” Lew said.
The law is piquing interest from transportation departments in other states, she said. Lew hasn’t yet received a call from Massachusetts, though.
“If you tell people to do something because it’s the right thing to do, they will be less inclined to do it than if it’s appealing,” she said. “You have to think about what’s going to shift the demand.”