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Index ranks climate impact on transportation amid the pandemic

Analysis from StreetLight Data reveals that New York City, Sarasota and Portland lead when it comes to the reduced impact of transportation on the environment.

Metro area of New York-Newark-Jersey City leads in low vehicle miles travelled ranking
Metro area of New York-Newark-Jersey City leads in low vehicle miles travelled ranking

New York, Sarasota and Portland have emerged as the leading US metro areas for reduced impact of transportation as a consequence of travel shutdowns amid the Covid-19 pandemic.


According to StreetLight Data’s second annual US Transportation Climate Impact Index, Covid-19 has had an “unprecedented impact” on greenhouse gas emissions, including those from transportation.


Ranking criteria


The index ranks the country’s 100 most populous metro areas based on several carbon-related transportation factors including vehicle miles travelled (VMT), bicycle and pedestrian metrics, transit, population density, and circuity.


In 2020, unemployment increased, as did working-from-home, along with ecommerce and restaurant delivery. Transit and airplane travel plummeted, while more people rode bikes and walked outdoors. Some city dwellers fled to more spacious locations and college students left campus and adopted remote learning.


However, travel shutdowns in the US provided insight into what might be possible, StreetLight reports: a healthy economy and population, but with less driving and more bicycle and pedestrian travel.

“Given the potential for decoupling economic growth from VMT, now is the time to create more financial and other incentives for reducing climate impact”

The top metro areas generally have low VMT, significant bike and pedestrian activity, high per-capita transit use (mainly in the pre-Covid-19 months of 2020), high population density, and low circuity (people drive directly to their destination, instead of burning extra miles using ring roads and other indirect routes).


The best performing top 10 US metro areas:

1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, Newark-New Jersey

2 North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida

3 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Oregon-Washington

4 Cape Coral-Ft Myers, Florida

5 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California

6 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Florida

7 Colorado Springs, Colorado

8 San Diego-Carlsbad, California

9 Minneapolis-St Paul-Bloomington, Minnesota-Wisconsin

10 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington


Many metro areas across the US saw bicycle riders and pedestrians become more active in 2020. Although bicycling activity increased in many areas, it dropped in many major cities, according to the index, most notably in cities with a history of “very active” bike commuting.


This isn’t surprising for a year with widespread work-from-home mandates. The analysis found that even in those cities, bicycling did not drop as much as driving. This indicates that bike riding took up a larger share of total miles travelled in 2020.


Impact on VMT


StreetLight saw 2020 VMT drop to unprecedented lows but gross domestic product (GDP) didn’t follow suit. This suggests that decoupling VMT and GDP is possible. Encouragingly, the United Nations also noted that emissions have already peaked in GDP growth countries, indicating that VMT can drop while economic growth continues.


Although widespread work-from-home policies were still in place at the end of 2020, the fall in commuting did not translate to permanent or drastically lower amounts of driving. In fact, by August, VMT had begun to climb back to pre-pandemic levels, albeit with peak traffic spread over more hours during the day.


“Given the potential for decoupling economic growth from VMT, now is the time to create more financial and other incentives for reducing climate impact,” said Laura Schewel, CEO and co-founder of StreetLight Data.


“If we don’t build that into our economic recovery, we risk obliterating any short-term gains made during Covid-19 travel shutdowns.”


One of the most encouraging 2020 takeaways, StreetLight notes, is that many cities this year moved quickly to adjust transportation infrastructure to help citizens and businesses. This included closing streets to vehicles, opening sidewalks for restaurant seating, and adjusting parking options for delivery services. Cities should incorporate this “rapid planning” stance long-term, as transportation technology, behaviours, and economics will continue to evolve rapidly.


StreetLight Data analysed the 100 most populous metro areas from the US Census list of core-based statistical areas (CBSAs). The company scored the cities individually, per capita, by six core transportation factors: VMT, bike commuting, pedestrian commuting, circuity, population density, and transit ridership.


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