Innovation Briefs Vol. 20, No 15 "A Tendentious Report Has the Transportation Community Up in Arms"

Article details the reasoning behind AASHTO's, one of the original sponsors of the Moving Cooler Report, withdrawal of support.
Author: C. Kenneth Orski

While the nation at large and the political community are consumed by the current debate about health care, another controversy is being played out on a smaller stage but with no less intensity. The object of the controversy is a recently released report entitled "Moving Cooler". The report, unveiled with great fanfare on July 28 before a large gathering of the Washington environmental community, purports to estimate the potential reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can be achieved from surface transportation. The report's authors conclude that a combination of strategies and policy actions involving changes in vehicle and transportation system operations, travel behavior, land use patterns and level of transit service could reduce annual GHG emissions by up to 24 percent from the expected baseline levels in 2050. The authors further maintain that with "strong economy-wide pricing measures" (read, VMT fees and PAYD insurance), annual GHG emissions could be reduced by up to 47 percent.

The report was commissioned by a group of sponsors and written by a well-known transportation consulting firm, Cambridge Systematics. Sponsors included two environmental advocacy groups (Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council), several foundations, the American Public Transportation Association, the Urban Land Institute, ITS America, Shell Oil Company and three government agencies--Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), one of the original sponsors, withdrew its support after concluding that the study "did not produce results upon which decision-makers can rely." Specifically, AASHTO expressed concern that decision-makers could be led to rely on the study's conclusions "without understanding the drastic steps that would have to be taken" to achieve the promised reductions.

At an August 13 meeting convened by AASHTO to discuss the report, many of the study assumptions were described as "extreme, unrealistic and in some cases downright impossible." A list of 37 specific issues challenging the report's methodology and requiring clarification was presented by a team of researchers that analyzed the study. Transportation professionals reached after the meeting were equally blunt. "This is an advocacy document pure and simple, couched in the form of a pseudo scientific analysis," one state DOT official told us. Other transportation professionals, speaking on background, criticized the study as "not meeting scientific standards," "using implausible assumptions," "failing to adequately disclose key analytical assumptions," "lacking in objectivity," " a deeply flawed analysis," and "following a questionable peer review process."

Precisely what kind of assumptions did the report use to warrant such a severe condemnation? Here is a partial list of measures assumed by the report's authors that would be needed to achieve the estimated reductions:

While the report's authors acknowledge in the body of the report that implementing the strategies at their "maximum deployment level" would require a major shift in national attitudes and political will, the presentation and press releases distributed at the July 28 report rollout ignored this caveat. They also ignored the report's conclusion that lower emission reductions would be achieved at less intensive -- and more realistic-- levels of deployment. Thus, an impression may have been created, says Allen Biehler, Director of PennDOT and AASHTO's President, that emission reduction targets in the range of 24 to 52 percent are reasonably achievable. This, in turn, could lead to their adoption in EPA rulemaking and legislation pending in Congress.

Environmental sources contacted for this story allege that the threat of climate change is no less urgent than the threat of air pollution was 30 years ago, and the means to combat it happen to be largely the same: reduce reliance on and volume of automobile travel, greatly expand public transit, support nonmotorized travel (biking and walking), and change development patterns to achieve more compact "walkable" communities. They had to be reminded that improvements in air quality over the last 30 years have been almost entirely achieved through changes in vehicle and fuel technology and not through changes in travel behavior and land use patterns. Indeed, urban air pollution has been substantially reduced from its 1970s levels despite rising vehicle-miles of travel (VMTs) and continued dispersal of homes and jobs.

Be that as it may, the present controversy is not about challenging the legitimacy of the emission reduction strategies advocated in the "Moving Cooler" report. It is, rather, about using allegedly flawed analysis and unrealistic assumptions that could mislead policymakers and the public and raise unreasonable expectations about how much progress can be achieved using these strategies. Evidence from the last 30 years shows that "travel demand management" and "smart growth" have been largely unsuccessful in reducing auto dependency and automobile trips. There is thus good reason to question whether these two strategies, applied in a reasonable manner, would be any more effective in reducing future vehicular-based GHG emissions.

Lance Neumann, President of Cambridge Systematics, the consulting firm that authored the report, responds:

Unfortunately, there has been considerable misinformation circulated regarding the Moving Cooler study. Contrary to some reports, Moving Cooler does not advocate for any particular approach to reducing GHGs, nor does it assess the political feasibility or the overall merit of the strategies examined. Rather, it presents estimates of how much GHGs might be reduced for a very large number of measures and under a very wide range of assumptions about how aggressively they are implemented. For Moving Cooler, organizations with varying perspectives were invited to join the steering committee, and members collaborated in selecting the specific measures and the range of implementation assumptions for each measure to estimate strategy effectiveness in reducing GHGs. It is intentional that the implementation aggressiveness of each measure reflected a wide range of assumptions.

Given the range of measures and implementation scenarios examined, it is not surprising that AASHTO disagrees with some of the assumptions used. Many members of the Steering Committee also disagreed with some of the implementation assumptions that were evaluated. However, there was consensus among Steering Committee members that exploration of the strategies under the range of assumptions defined was a worthwhile exercise to inform public debate. We believe that Moving Cooler provides additional objective information to inform the debate, whether you agree with all of the assumptions or not.

It should also be noted that, although the study did not explicitly analyze fuel efficiency, it did use for its baseline forecasts more aggressive estimates of future fuel efficiency improvements than were used by the Department of Energy in its forecasts of future fuel efficiency. So, Moving Cooler analyses clearly acknowledge the absolutely critical role of fuel efficiency improvements in reducing GHG emissions.

Editor's Note: The Steering Committee that Mr. Neumann refers to included representatives of the American Public Transportation Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, ITS America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Shell Oil Company, the Urban Land Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additional sponsors (but not members of the Steering Committee) included the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Surdna Foundation and The Kresge Foundation.

Reprinted with permission by C. Kenneth Orski. Read more commentaries at