The New York Times is out with a fascinating new data-mapping tool that compiles estimates of the growth in CO2 emissions from passenger and freight traffic in metropolitan areas across the country, and the news isn’t good. While emissions from the electric grid have taken a sharp nosedive, thanks largely to the switch to natural gas from coal, pollution from transportation has shown no such drop and is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Passenger cars, trucks and SUVs are the biggest culprit, making up almost 60% of all transportation emissions — higher than freight trucks, trains, planes and ships. Freight trucks comprise another 23%. Emissions in transportation, electricity and industry all declined during the Great Recession a decade ago but have been creeping back upward ever since.
Obama-era fuel-economy rules helped mitigate auto emissions, but the rise of less fuel-efficient trucks and SUVs, plus the all-time high in average commuting times in 2018 (27.1 minutes each way, or more than nine days spent commuting to work over the year) have largely neutered that. So has an increase in freight-truck traffic. Another possible culprit: the rise of ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber, which are eating into public transit ridership in many cities.
The Times made its map using data from Boston University’s Database of Road Transportation Emissions, which was recently updated to include emissions data from 1990 through 2017, nearly three decades worth. Much of the increase in driving-related CO2, not surprisingly, has occurred in and around cities.
The mapping tool allows you to select and see data from 100 metropolitan areas across the nation with the highest total emissions. Metropolitan New York City tops out at the highest emissions — which is to be expected, since it’s the nation’s most densely and heavily populated region. But per-resident, its emissions are much lower than those in Dallas-Fort Worth, which ranks No. 3 overall, is far more car-dependent and offers less robust public transit than New York.
In the Detroit area, where Autoblog is headquartered, total emissions grew 18% since 1990, equating to an increase of 16% per resident, according to the tool. That growth comes even as the Detroit area’s overall population remained essentially flat during that time. Aside from the obvious shift to more pickup trucks and SUVs on the roads here in the car-crazy Motor City, it’s also likely due to the region’s pronounced urban sprawl over the past three decades: the region’s fastest-growing communities are still far-flung townships well outside the urban core. So people here are driving more, and farther, in other words.
Seattle offers a different story. Total emissions there rose an astonishing 71%, or 14% per person. Seattle is now this decade’s fastest-growing city. Passenger and cargo traffic at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have both been on the rise, and so has cargo shipping at the Northwest Seaport Alliance, now the nation's fourth-largest shipping port. Ride-hailing is also rising in popularity: The Seattle Times reported last year that Uber and Lyft had added some 94 million miles of driving on local roads in 2017 alone.