Will our reliance on cars counteract climate change mitigation efforts?

Americans love cars- there is no doubt about it. Even in California, which is often considered the most environmentally friendly state, cars are the main form of transportation. Outside a handful of large urban hubs, and between different cities, the public transportation system in the United States is rather poor. People drive everywhere and this stems from poor urban planning: in most cities, just fulfilling basic tasks such as picking up basic goods or going out to dinner requires driving. Unfortunately, the dependence on cars not only creates annoying traffic but also contributes to climate change through the burning of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gas emissions. 28% of 2012 emissions in the U.S. came from transportation; the second largest source which has also been increasing since 1990. Although we are making improvements in areas such as fuel efficiency and car sharing, statistics such as total number of cars on the road and purchases of new/used vehicles have not decreased significantly in the past few years on a national level and may increase as population rises. Cars cannot be the only way.

Public transportation , which could includes buses, metros, ferries, and trains, reduces cars on the road and their associated greenhouse gas emissions.

A comparison of Atlanta, Georgia and Barcelona, Spain, two cities with similar populations, illustrates the potential of public transportation in greenhouse gas mitigation. More specifically, the very dense and connected city of Barcelona is an urban area of 162 km2 with transportation emitting 0.7 tons of CO2 per person compared to Atlanta which does not have adequate public transportation system and covers 4,280 km2, emitting 7.5 tons of CO2 per person. Investing in public transportation can also support other efforts to reduce emissions. For example, a recent World Bank study found that a fuel or carbon tax is twice as effective when accompanied with investment in public transportation. Intuitively it makes sense– if it was convenient to take public transportation people wouldn’t need to drive, especially when fuel prices are higher. As efforts to reduce emissions in the name of climate change are already taking shape, a fresh look and accompanying funding to improve public transportation within cities, connecting to surrounding suburban areas, and even between cities, is desperately needed.

Connecting suburban areas into the city is often a left-out link in the public transportation discussion but possibly the most important.

The issue of density is key to the lack of effective public transportation in the U.S. Vast territory, along with the creation of the automobile, allowed for suburban growth outside major cities but also resulting in (sub)urban sprawl. As one of our previous posts illustrated, suburban life has a large environmental footprint. Especially in regard to transportation, suburban sprawl takes a big toll on the environment: commuters drive from their suburban homes to their jobs in the city (and then back home) on a daily basis, usually with only a single passenger in the car. And the average car emits 4.75 metric tons of of CO2e each year. Efficient and fast public transportation that connects suburban communities to cities, and also within the suburbs themselves, is vital.

Public transportation is the future and cities outside of the U.S. show us what is possible.

Looking at the world’s best cities for public transport provides some inspiration. For example, the longest metro in the world calls Seoul, South Korea home. In Seoul, more than a dozen lines run across the city’s 25 districts. The immaculate, hi-tech stations have digital touchscreen kiosks that provide real time information, maps and tourist information. During rush hour, trains arrive every two minutes and off-peak, they arrive every five. There is even free wi-fi in stations and in metro cars. In Munich, Germany daily, weekly and monthly multi-transport tickets are sold and only need to be validated once, not at every transfer, reducing congestion and increasing ease. Paris’ Transilien provides suburban riders with a fast and comfortable way of traveling into the city, a system that is more-or-less completely missing in the United States. Rail travel is taking the lead and in innovative ways. Current projects already include technologies such as driverless trains; underground pipelines and shuttles for freight; stations as centers for leisure, business, and shopping; hydrogen powered; energy from human foot traffic; and ticketless travel.

Reliability, affordability, and incentives are key aspects of successful public transportation.

Of course, not everyone in the U.S. will be willing to jump on a bus or train and leave behind the independence that is associated with cars. Investments to make public transportation more appealing and efficient, as well as incentives and affordability, can encourage the change of mentality that is needed to get more individuals to use alternative forms of transportation. Delays such as technical problems or overcrowding that would entail waiting for the next train (or bus) reduce incentives to use public transportation. However, if riders don’t need to worry about being late to work and the price of taking public transportation is relatively cheap, incentives are increased. Additionally, the stigma of public transportation being for the low-income population must also be transformed, but technology and design can help with that.

Yes, these are big investments but they are worthwhile in the long run, if planned correctly, as our examples in Asia and Europe demonstrate. And although even in California, the state with the strongest green credentials, public transportation could be greatly improved (the highspeed rail to connect Northern and Southern California, which has been discussed since the mid 90s and supposed to be up and running by 2029, has been plagued by obstacles and problems), efficient and effective public transportation in the United States is possible. NYC’s subway system, San Francisco’s BART, Boston’s Green Line (home to the oldest subway tunnel in the country) and Washington DC’s Metrorail, are great projects that show the benefits of and need for smart planning, money, public support, and political will in developing mass transit systems; but these systems could be better, and investments in alternative transportation in other U.S. cities are also strongly needed.

Public transportation is a key aspect of all levels of climate change mitigation strategies, from local to national level governments. We are optimistic that the current level of awareness and motivation to act on climate will provide long-discussed systems with the extra push needed to overcome the obstacles they have faces and new projects make their way into proposed legislation.

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