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The Built Environment’s Role in Zero-Carbon Mobility

by Kurt Steiner and Paul WesselApril 16, 2023
Decarbonization of Transportation in the U.S. Requires an Investment in Our Infrastructure

People and goods traveling to and from homes, office buildings, stores, stadiums, factories, airports, and the rest of the built environment contribute to the largest single source (27%) of GHG emissions in the U.S. and the fastest growing source of global emissions. Published in January 2023, the U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization outlines important parts of the administration’s long-term strategy for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The blueprint was developed jointly by the U.S. departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency – a notable level of coordination reflecting the urgency and the complexity of transitioning to a clean, carbon-free transportation sector. Three comprehensive strategies will guide policy decisions going forward and also help illustrate some of the ways the built environment can support transportation decarbonization: mobility that is convenient; efficient; and clean.

Even the greenest buildings imaginable induce travel demand, so owners, property managers, and developers of the built environment have both a strong interest in, and an opportunity for, accelerating the transition to zero-carbon mobility.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) suite of sustainability certification tools offers a playbook for those owners, managers, and developers to leverage their buildings to support the adoption of smarter mobility solutions.

Developing Smart Transportation

Zero-carbon electric cars at Greenbuild Conference and Expo.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most widely used green building rating system across the globe, recognizes that green buildings are located, designed, and operated to maximize people’s access to active, public, shared, and electric transportation. Alongside tools for microgrids (PEER), parking structures (Parksmart), and existing building assets (Arc performance platform), USGBC and Green Building Certification Inc. (GBCI) programs offer a variety of ways to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions.

Local and regional land use planning is inextricably linked with travel demand and emissions. Communities that coordinate land use and transportation planning by prioritizing walkable and transit-oriented development can enable a more healthy and equitable transportation system that improves convenience and reduces vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Micromobility and EV Infrastructure

Zero-carbon electric bike in an urban area.

It’s not just about bikes anymore. Micromobility, especially e-bikes, are increasing the appeal of active travel to new users. Green buildings are designed for multimodal access, encouraging occupants who choose to walk, bike, or use micromobility.

EV sales in the U.S. is expected to grow tenfold by 2030, and all of those cars and trucks will need spaces to plug in. As adoption accelerates, equitable distribution of EV charging infrastructure is an important consideration. Meanwhile, a looming charging infrastructure gap could pose a significant obstacle for the EV transition.

Promoting an EV Infrastructure

Siting charging stations in workplace, retail, and multi-unit residential buildings is a critical part of meeting future charging demand. EV ready building codes are helping to “future proof” new commercial and residential buildings – installing EV charging infrastructure during new construction is up to 75% less expensive than retrofitting an existing building. Networked charging stations enable intelligent load sharing and energy management, further reducing infrastructure costs for developers, owners, and local jurisdictions.

The global transition to clean transportation and EVs will be complex and highly dependent on decarbonization of electricity generation. Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published a policy guide for Grid Integration of Electric Vehicles that provides a framework for maximizing managed charging. As noted above, commercial buildings and parking structures are ideal for siting smart, networked charging stations. Additional passive (time-of-use signals) and active measures (demand response, load shifting, bidirectional charging) are key strategies for grid integration.

Reducing Commuting Carbon Emissions

Travel induced by the built environment are a challenging source of Scope 3 GHG emissions to manage. Programs and tools, like Arc, assess the building performance, helping owners and managers of existing building assets measure, inventory, and reduce emissions through investments in sustainable transportation infrastructure and TDM.

The road to net-zero emissions is a long one that requires more than installing EV charging stations. It will require investments in our infrastructure and reimagining the way we build our communities to ensure convenient, healthy, and carbon-free mobility.

U.S. Green Building Council’s Kurt Steiner is a Transportation Planner/LEED Specialist and Paul Wessel is Director of Market Development,