Transportation is the largest energy-consuming and greenhouse-gas-emitting sector in California, making up slightly over 40 percent of the state’s GHG emissions. Emissions from on-road passenger vehicles have ticked up continuously since 2013 and only started dipping again in 2018. The state faces many challenges in reducing emissions from the transportation sector, from increasing car ownership rates, declining public transit usage—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—to shifting consumer preferences from more fuel-efficient sedans and compact cars to pickup trucks and SUVs.

In September 2020, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-79-20, which set the goal that 100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks to be zero-emission by 2035. President Biden supported a shift to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) at the federal level in August 2021 when he announced a goal of having half of the vehicles sales in the U.S. be ZEVs by 2030. While this alignment between Californian and federal goals to electrify the transportation sector is encouraging, at present, ZEV adoption in the U.S. and even California lags behind its peer countries in Europe. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will present permanent challenges to decarbonizing the transportation sector, as supply chain issues have led to vehicle shortages, and delays to bringing new vehicles to market. Either way, at the current trajectory of transportation trends, California is not on track to achieve the GHG emissions reduction targets for 2030 and beyond.

Transportation Emissions and Vehicle Ownership
  • After years of increases in the total number of vehicles registered and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), both figures dropped by 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent from 2018 to 2019, respectively.

  • From 2018 to 2019, VMT per registered vehicle declined 0.47 percent or 51 miles to 10,837 miles. Overall, VMT per registered vehicle has been on a sustained downward trend since 2000, due to the number of vehicles registered far outpacing both population growth and VMT.

  • In 2020, vehicle ownership rate was 74.7 per 100 persons, down from 79.4 in 2019. This is also the first time when vehicle ownership rate is below the previous peak in 2007 (76.6 vehicles per person).

  • In 2020, ZEVs and hybrids (HEVs) accounted for 1.7 and 3.0 vehicles per 100 persons respectively, up slightly compared to 2019. This translates to 2.3 ZEVs and 4.9 HEVs per 100 vehicles in California.

  • Compared to 2019, total new vehicle registrations were down 21.7 percent in 2020, and car sales were down more severely (-32.3%) than light trucks (-14.2%). Electric vehicle sales (all classes) were down 16.5% in 2020 compared to 2019, of which battery electric vehicle was only down 4.8 percent.

Zero-Emission Vehicles
  • In 2020, battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen vehicles accounted for 2.2 percent of all registered on-road vehicles in California, up from 1.9 percent in 2019 and 1.5 percent in 2018.

  • The number of ZEVs (both new and used) on-road in California reached 657,019 as of the end of 2020, increasing by 11.6 percent compared to 2019.

  • For the first time, the number of electric light-duty pickups, SUVs and vans registered exceeded one hundred thousand in 2020 (109,318), up 71.8 percent compared to 2019. With the arrival of some highly anticipated electric trucks in 2022, electrification of the segment should continue to accelerate.

  • The share of people living in disadvantaged communities (as defined by CalEnviroScreen 3.0) and low-income communities (as defined by Assembly Bill 1550)–who have taken advantage of the clean vehicle rebate has been steadily increasing the last few years. In 2020, 26.3 percent of rebates claimed came from either of these groups, up from 24.5 percent in 2019 and almost ten percentage points from 2015 (17.8%).

  • In spite of falling registrations of new ZEVs, the share of ZEVs on-road as percentage of total vehicles registered in large urban areas increased at a mostly similar pace in 2020 compared to 2019. Areas outside of Metropolitan regions, also called non-MSA areas, recorded the fastest pace of increase: from 0.6 percent in 2018 to 0.7 percent in 2019 to 1.0 percent in 2020.

Clean Transportation’s Future
  • As long-range ZEVs become more common, Level 1 charging stations are disappearing in favor of faster Level 2 and DC fast charging infrastructure. Non-MSA areas have the second-lowest number of EVs per non-DC public charging station (9.5) behind only Napa (7.8). Public charging infrastructure is expanding more rapidly in less urbanized MSAs such as El Centro MSA, Fresno MSA and Stockton-Lodi MSA.

  • As of June 22, 2021, there were 33,261 public Level 1, Level 2 and DC fast charging stations in California—or 6.5 percent of the 508,000 public and DC fast charging stations needed to achieve the goal under Executive Order N-79-20.

  • As of January , there were 70,000 all-specification chargers available across the state, leaving a gap of 50,000 for its 2030 goals.

  • Wholesale distribution of gasoline and gasohol (-19.0%) and diesel and alternative fuels (-3.9%) for motor vehicle fuels declined in 2020 compared to 2019. However, unlinked passenger trips (UPTs) fell by over half (-52%) during the same period. This is possibly explained by the decline in the use of public transportation experiencing during the COVID pandemic.