ACEEE finds U.S. ranks last in energy efficiency in transportation

By Mary Ebeling

A new report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy finds that, among 12 major world economies analyzed for the report, the U.S. ranks dead last in the energy efficiency of its transportation sector. Improving transportation’s energy efficiency hinges on supporting multiple modes of transportation and can be accomplished by dramatically improving the accessibility of other transportation modes such as rail, carpooling, bus, biking, and walking. Without adoption of new policies and standards, the U.S. transportation system will continue drag on the economy, wasting energy and limiting opportunities for economic development.  The ACEE graph below shows how the U.S. transportation sector energy consumption far outstrips that of the other countries evaluated as part of the study.

It is no surprise that U.S. transportation emissions produce more than a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gases. Our reliance on the private automobile, dispersed land uses, historic underinvestment in transit and nonmotorized modes, and an older fleet of gas-guzzling private vehicles present significant hurdles to overcome.  Disconnected land uses and a dispersed population in the U.S. drive long distance travel and spike VMT. The inefficiencies represented by these trends also drive up the cost of our transportation system as a whole. Roadway construction and maintenance presents an ever increasing challenge. As costs rise and revenues fall, the very system that should be supporting economic development and quality of life is faltering.

There are several policy initiatives that can assist in improving the transportation sector’s energy efficiency. Promising initiatives include: providing adequate funding for non-single occupancy vehicle transportation options, including rail, bike, and bus; proactively managing VMT with road pricing; improving intermodal freight operations; and encouraging transit oriented compact development. Given that the U.S. transportation system scored zero points for investments in rail and transit infrastructure, there is significant opportunity for improvement. As an important additional benefit, these initiatives aid in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

In other areas of energy efficiency, such as industry and buildings, the U.S. did better, ranking fourth in building efficiency and sixth in industry, earning it an overall ranking of nine of the 12 countries ranked. However, the organization called out the need to change our transportation inefficiencies, pointing out that only Canada consumes more oil per capita. With continued oil price instability, the inefficiency of a transportation system built almost entirely on petroleum should be cause for alarm. Said ACEE Executive Director Steven Nadel, “The U.K. and the leading economies of Europe are now well ahead of the United States when it comes to energy efficiency. This is significant because countries that use energy more efficiently require fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable natural resources, and creating jobs.”

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst with SSTI.