Energy & Climate

Moving How We Move

Wed, 13 Nov 2013 12:45:00 CST  — by: David Evans, C'15, Sustainability Undergraduate Fellow of the issues we are tackling at Sewanee is transportation. Here is a short piece by Sustainability Undergraduate Fellow David Evans (C'15) about what's happening "off the mountain" in transportation.


In 2012, 28% of US energy consumption went towards transportation, and of that energy, 90% came from petroleum in the form of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels. Light trucks, cars, and motorcycles consumed 58% of energy the energy for transportation while other trucks, airplanes, and ships used another 33%. All told in 2011, surface vehicles in the US traveled about 3 trillion miles; that is over half of a light year. In other words, as a nation we drove people and freight far enough to go to the sun and back nearly 15,000 times in 2011 alone, and distances we travel in a year are only predicted to increase in the future. Merely from a scientific and engineering standpoint, that accomplishment is impressive.

All our moving around has paid big dividends; the US has seen tremendous economic growth because of the cheap and efficient modes of transportation we have available, namely the US Interstate System. People can easily travel hundreds or thousands of miles across the US in personal automobiles on the highway system, and that ability gives people the freedom to live just about anywhere they want. Not only do people move around freely, but goods move quickly and easily, too. A business in Miami can order goods from Seattle and reasonably expect delivery within a matter of days. All this mobility makes a massive contribution to our quality of life in the forms of freedom of travel, flexibility of service provision, and fast delivery of goods.


Our mobility, however, comes at a cost. We consumed 134 billion gallons of gasoline for transportation in 2011. That gas would fill over 200,000 Olympic swimming pools, and all the carbon dioxide, which is produced in the combustion of that fuel, goes into the atmosphere. As a result, our current transportation paradigm is a major contributor towards climate change. Not only is carbon dioxide emitted from internal combustion engines, but also the land required to accommodate highways and streets leads to significant habitat fragmentation and increased impervious surface area. Consequently, habitats can sustain less biodiversity as highways expand, and watersheds suffer decreased water quality from increases in storm water run off.

The challenge to solving problems associated with transportation comes from maintaining individuals’ freedom and mobility while increasing the energy efficiency and decreasing the resource demands of transportation. Currently, the automobile dominates how we move, and alternative modes of transportation, such as rail lines, buses, and bicycles, receive very little attention from the media or in political arenas. Despite their increased resource efficiency, alternative modes of transportation are largely unfeasible because of the sprawling pattern of land development that has driven the US economy for the past half century. Public transit is also faced with expensive up-front costs, which often mask the long-term benefits and can make supporting public transit politically unpopular. In order for changes in national transportation policy to occur, there will need to be a shift in land use practices as well as a new emphasis on resource efficient transport in addition to time efficient transport.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Association,

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