Greenhouse gas emissions from cars have long been linked to climate change, but only recently have funders started driving substantive change by making deeper investments in transportation—now the leading source of emissions—and by involving diverse coalitions in efforts to address the status quo.
The Midwest Transportation Landscape Assessment, a new study funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Barnaamijka Cilmi-baarista iyo Cimilada ee Midwest with additional support from TransitCenter iyo SRAM Cycling Fund, connects the dots and offers guidance on how to replicate what’s working.
“Transportation is vast, intricate, and multifaceted, so you can understand why, in the past, groups focused on smaller interventions they could get their arms around,” said Zoe Kircos, principal at nonprofit City Thread and co-author of the study. “What’s really moving the needle is the collective action of advocates, cities and philanthropic partners all rolling up their sleeves as part of a true movement working toward the same goals.”
Among the successes highlighted in the assessment is the Minnesota coalition that secured nation-leading transportation wins in 2023, advocating for increased funding for transit, bicycling and walking, and a commitment to a tangible goal for reduction to vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
“Minnesota’s legislature increased funding for transit and set a requirement that transportation projects meet greenhouse gas targets,” said Martha Roskowski, founder and principal of Further Strategies and a co-author of the assessment. “Minnesota is the leading Midwestern state on aligning its climate goals with transportation policy. This could be a terrific model for other states.”
At the core of the movement lies the strength of coalitions—diverse groups of people with varied expertise, perspectives, and backgrounds. What works in one setting doesn’t necessarily work in another, so solutions must come from people with a granular understanding of the real issues and potential impacts of each decision.
“Grassroots and frontline organizations understand the direct impact of climate change and the solutions to mitigate it, which is why it’s so important that these community groups be involved in the early stages of infrastructure planning,” said Tenzin Dolkar, McKnight Foundation’s Midwest Climate & Energy Program Officer, who led funding for the assessment. “When all voices are heard, we find new ways to create community and economic benefits as we prioritize racial and economic justice outcomes. As we democratize transportation decision-making, we’re improving the lives of all users and decarbonizing the transportation sector.”
The Midwest—the heartland of our nation—is rich with infrastructure, industry and ingenuity. We can show the country what it takes to build a climate-resilient and net-zero transportation system. With a comprehensive approach and collaboration across public, private, and philanthropic sectors, the Midwest can lead the resurgence of transit and rail networks that are reliable, fast and frequent.– TENZIN DOLKAR, MIDWEST CLIMATE & ENERGY PROGRAM
Landmark federal funding bills are injecting billions into transportation, and the assessment shows replicable strategies for seizing the opportunity to invest in clean, accessible, and sustainable mobility options to address greenhouse gas emissions and enhance people’s quality of life.
“As we navigate the complexities of transportation and climate, we must remember that we can’t do big things with small tools,” Kircos said. “Twenty years ago, activists and philanthropists in the power sector set greenhouse gas reduction goals that seemed almost unattainable. Today they’re reaching or surpassing them. Transforming how we move may seem equally daunting, but the payoffs will be even greater. We made this transportation system. We can remake it, too.”
“As the United States’ energy sector decarbonizes, transportation is now the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s on the rise. It’s clear that the Midwest and the transportation sector are a big part of the problem, but the region and sector are also at the center of the solutions,” Dolkar said. “The Midwest—the heartland of our nation—is rich with infrastructure, industry and ingenuity. We can show the country what it takes to build a climate-resilient and net-zero transportation system. To get there, we must accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, create a ubiquitous charging network, and build robust and sustainable transit, rail, and active transportation infrastructure. With a comprehensive approach and collaboration across public, private, and philanthropic sectors, the Midwest can lead the resurgence of transit and rail networks that are reliable, fast and frequent.”