New OMB and GSA guidance calls on federal employees to utilize public transit, electric vehicles or riding bikes while traveling on official business.

New OMB and GSA guidance calls on federal employees to utilize public transit, electric vehicles or riding bikes while traveling on official business. Anadolu / Getty Images

Biden to require feds to take public transit, other ‘green’ options when traveling

Federal employees should also consider bike sharing or not traveling at all under new guidance.

Federal employees must proactively take steps to make their work travel more sustainable under new guidance from the Biden administration, which the White House said would save taxpayer money and help take on the climate change crisis. 

Workers on official business will have to prioritize taking public transit, renting electric vehicles or even riding bikes under a new memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget and a General Services Administration bulletin that updated the Federal Travel Regulation. Agencies should also consider not sending employees on business trips at all, with GSA noting, “In every case, the trip not taken is the least expensive and most sustainable.” 

The federal government spends $2.8 billion on official travel annually, with employees taking 2.8 million flights and making 2.3 million car rentals. The new guidance stemmed from an executive order President Biden signed in 2021 and will supplement existing policies, with OMB instructing agencies to update their regulations as applicable. The White House said federal employees will be “leading by example on climate.” 

“These new commitments will save taxpayers money by increasing the use of EVs and taking other cost-effective actions on clean transportation associated with business travel for the federal workforce,” the White House said. 

When agencies determine employees must still travel—rather than taking advantage of virtual options, as preferred under the new guidance—they should consider rail options, particularly in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, internationally and between cities less than 250 miles apart. Federal employees take just 33,000 train trips on official business annually. Otherwise, they should drive using a government-owned EV if possible.

Once in their temporary duty location, employees should use public transportation as their first option. 

“Travelers should be familiar with subway/trains and bus routes that are available between meetings, lodging and other locations at which business is to be conducted,” GSA said. “When available, employees should use public buses that use alternative fuels, such as electricity or compressed natural gas, rather than gasoline or diesel to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

If a car rental is necessary, employees should opt for an EV if it is the same price or cheaper than other allowable options. OMB and GSA clarified that charging costs can be expensed as fuel. If no EV fits the existing parameters, employees should then prioritize renting a hybrid vehicle, followed by a compact car. Employees should use “green” options on rideshare apps such as Lyft and Uber and consider the feasibility of bike shares. Agencies should ensure their staff combine travel whenever possible, including by requiring multiple legs, and instruct employees to share rides with their coworkers. 

OMB also wants agencies to fly in a more sustainable manner, though it acknowledged that sector is still emerging. It directed GSA to develop and submit within 120 days a strategic plan for sustainable aviation, which should, for example, include examining whether to require airlines to submit information on their fuel usage and operational efficiency. 

The White House instructed agencies to change the default on their travel systems to display sustainable options first and which hotels have charging stations. They should train appropriate employees on sustainable travel policies, OMB said, and report back on progress within 120 days. Procurement officials should work with vendors to make sustainable travel options easier to select, update agency rental agreements and look into negotiating rates for charging vehicles. 

OMB and GSA updated their guidance as part of Biden’s Federal Sustainability Plan to make federal agency operations entirely carbon-neutral by 2050. In an executive order to meet that goal, Biden mandated that all agencies maintain net-zero emission buildings by 2045. By 2032, agencies will have to cut emissions in all federal buildings, campuses and installations by 50% compared to a 2008 baseline on the path to making them completely net-zero. Already, all new, large construction and modernization projects have to include building designs that are net-zero emissions and reduce waste and water usage. Agencies have until 2030 to ensure at least 30% of their current facilities are retrofitted to eliminate emissions, as well as to use 100% carbon-free electricity.

Some administration officials have questioned whether those goals are realistic. In light of the United Nations’ climate change conference, known as COP28, that just ended, the Biden administration announced some progress reports on its goals. It now has 7,000 EVs in use in the federal fleet, up from 2,000 when Biden took office but still just a small fraction of the 600,000 total, and has another 54,000 ordered. Federal buildings have cut emissions by 7% since 2020 and as of 2022 have seen a 39% overall reduction from 2008 levels. The administration is investing $1 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to boost those efforts. Emissions from all federal operations are down 37% from 2008.