Federal Coordinating Lead Author:
Michael Culp, U.S. Department of Transportation
Chapter Lead:
Jennifer M. Jacobs, University of New Hampshire
Chapter Authors:
Lia Cattaneo, Harvard University (formerly U.S. Department of Transportation)
Paul Chinowsky, University of Colorado Boulder
Anne Choate, ICF
Susanne DesRoches, New York City Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency and Office of Sustainability
Scott Douglass, South Coast Engineers
Rawlings Miller, WSP (formerly U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center)
Review Editor:
Jesse Keenan, Harvard University
USGCRP Coordinators:
Allyza Lustig, Program Coordinator
Kristin Lewis, Senior Scientist


Transportation is the backbone of economic activity, connecting manufacturers with supply chains, consumers with products and tourism, and people with their workplaces, homes, and communities across both urban and rural landscapes. In 2017, the transportation sector added over $400 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.9 Transportation is also an important lifeline during emergencies, which may become increasingly common under climate change scenarios (see Kossin et al.10). In the event of a disaster, roads, airports, and harbors may serve as key modes of evacuation and often become hubs for emergency personnel and relief supplies.

The transportation sector consists of a vast, interconnected system of assets and derived services, but a changing climate undermines the system’s ability to perform reliably, safely, and efficiently (Figure 12.1). Heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, heat, and changes in average precipitation and temperature impact individual assets across all modes. These impacts threaten the performance (defined by national goals listed in 23 U.S.C. § 1508) of the entire network,11 with critical ramifications for safety, environmental sustainability, economic vitality and mobility, congestion, and system reliability, particularly for vulnerable populations and urban infrastructure. Fortunately, transportation professionals have made progress understanding and managing risks, though barriers persist.


Figure 12.1: U.S. Transportation Assets and Goals at Risk

Figure 12.1: Heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, heat, and changes in average precipitation and temperature affect assets (such as roads and bridges) across all modes of transportation. The figure shows major climate-related hazards and the transportation assets impacted. Photos illustrate national performance goals (listed in 23 U.S.C. § 1508) that are at risk due to climate-related hazards. Source: USGCRP. Photo credits from left to right: JAXPORT, Meredith Fordham Hughes [CC BY-NC 2.0]; Oregon Department of Transportation [CC BY 2.0]; NPS – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area; Flickr user Tom Driggers [CC BY 2.0]; Flickr user Mike Mozart [CC BY 2.0]; Flickr user Jeff Turner [CC BY 2.0]; Flickr user William Garrett [CC BY 2.0].


Particularly as impacts compound, climate change threatens to increase the cost of maintaining infrastructure12 approaching or beyond its design life—infrastructure that is chronically underfunded.13 Without considering climate impacts, the American Society of Civil Engineers14 estimates that there is already a $1.2 trillion gap in transportation infrastructure needs. The transportation network is also interdependent on other sectors, such as energy and telecommunications, which have their own climate-related vulnerabilities and existing costs.

Transportation is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but it also contributes significantly to the causes of climate change. In 2016, the transportation sector became the top contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.7 Low fuel prices, which lead to more driving, coupled with increasing volumes of freight trucking, containerized shipments, and air cargo, underlie the rise in transportation emissions.15

The transportation system is rapidly growing and evolving in response to market demand and innovation. Passenger miles traveled on highways and on commuter rail have increased approximately 250% and 175%, respectively, since 1960,16 and similar trends are expected to continue.15 Projected population growth of 30% to 50% by mid-century and significant expansion of existing urban centers and surrounding communities17 will require the transportation system to grow and will place additional demands on the existing network. Long-haul freight is expected to increase 40% by 2040,18 while air and marine transportation will continue to grow in tandem with economic growth and international trade. This population growth and land-use change can make climate mitigation, environmental sustainability, and adaptation progressively more challenging to implement and more important to achieve.

The shifting future of transportation presents new, pressing complexities and challenges. Transportation innovations such as shared mobility (for example, car sharing, carpooling, and ride-sourcing), transit-oriented development (TOD, that is, efforts to create compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities centered around train systems), autonomous and electrified vehicles, Next Generation air transportation technologies, megaships, and hull-cleaning robots are emerging, but their impact on and vulnerability to climate change are still largely uncertain. For example, TOD, one of the older innovative transportation solutions, is very likely to reduce emissions and help build resilience.19,20,21,22,23 Fuel consumption impacts of autonomous vehicles could vary greatly, depending on how they are deployed.24 Similarly unclear is the impact that new transportation patterns, combined with deteriorating infrastructure, population growth, and land-use change, will have on the system’s ability to adapt to climate change.

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