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The Roads More Traveled: Sustainable Transportation in America--Or Not?

June 2002

Citation: ELR 10633

Author: F. Kaid Benfield & Michael Replogle

The Challenge Before Us

There can be no sustainable development without sustainable transportation. It is an essential component not only because transportation is a prerequisite to development in general but also because transportation, especially our use of motorized vehicles, contributes substantially to a wide range of environmental problems, including energy waste, global warming, degradation of air and water, noise, ecosystem loss and fragmentation, and desecration of the landscape. Our nation's environmental quality will be sustainable only if we pursue transportation in a sustainable way.

It will be a challenge to bring this about. Over the next 25 years, the population in the United States is predicted to grow by some 60 million people; the gross domestic product is projected to approach $ 30 trillion (a 50% increase in real terms over today's levels); and annual passenger miles traveled in motor vehicles are expected to increase from 5 trillion miles in 2000 to 8.4 trillion miles in 2025. As the population and economy grow, Americans are likely to become increasingly more mobile, with increasingly larger impacts on the environment.1

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, comprises chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

F. Kaid Benfield is senior attorney and director of smart growth and transportation policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, D.C. He is coauthor of the books Solving Sprawl: Models of Smart Growth in Communities Across America (NRDC 2001) and Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining America's Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric (NRDC 1999). Michael Replogle is transportation director for Environmental Defense and author of many publications on sustainable transportation. The authors thank Hannah Stutzman of the NRDC for valuable research assistance.