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Public Transportation Is Key to Dealing with Climate Change


Cities, states, organizations of all sizes and everyday Americans are stepping up to fight climate change.

We know that making the switch to public transportation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by providing a low-emission alternative to driving. The average passenger vehicle produces about 1 lb. of carbon dioxide per mile traveled whereas bus transit only produces .18 lbs. of carbon dioxide at full capacity. By 2020, it’s estimated that more than 50 percent of carbon emissions could be abated by “the combined impact of second-generation biofuel, traffic flow, shifts to public transportation, and eco-driving measures.”

Yet, each day, millions of Americans reverse out of their driveways in concert and begin their commute to work. The majority of them—77 percent—do it alone, despite their neighbors often traveling to a similar location.

A report from Deloitte estimates that a simple switch to “car sharing” could reduce nationwide car ownership by nearly 2.1 million. It could save $185 million in wasted fuel and result in almost 1 million metric tons of reduced carbon dioxide emissions. If simply increasing the passenger load ­factor in a four-person vehicle can reduce such a significant amount of emissions and wasted fuel, imagine the impact of switching to public transportation.

An added bonus to taking public transit is, of course, the reduction of teeth-grinding gridlock—especially if you’re an urbanite. City dwellers assume that buses and trains take longer, but the truth is that driving is most often the transportation mode that causes delays.

While public transit represents an immediate action that individuals and organizations can take toward combating climate change, it also represents the beginning of a more sustainable future. In the last century, cities were designed with personal automobiles in mind. Now, these same cities, with the support of their mayors and other elected officials, can become key actors in the transition to sustainable practices—in particular by enacting policies that favor alternative transit modes built around public transportation.

According to APTA, public transportation could play a larger role in saving the environment but “only 54 percent of households in the U.S. have access to public transportation.” As such, the critical first step is for the U.S. to expand coverage so more Americans can “take full advantage of transit’s environmental and economic benefits.”

As CityLab points out, cities and transit authorities must provide residents with transportation options they like and will use. This doesn’t mean relying on ridesharing or introducing autonomous vehicles; it’s uncertain that AVs will have an immediate impact on congestion or emissions problems. What it does mean is providing the public with mobility options that fit their needs.

First Step: On-Demand Transit
Public transit agencies’ essential first step to providing residents with desirable transportation options is incorporating on-demand transit. Ridesharing companies have reshaped the public’s expectations of transportation.

It’s possible for municipal public transit agencies to supplement their current services with a demand-driven microtransit option that addresses the needs (and newfound expectations) of riders while leveraging the existing infrastructure of fixed-route services. As an added benefit, microtransit is flexible enough to address today’s coverage issues while adjusting along with demand in the future.

The combination of mobile phones, sensors and GPS tracking, traffic data feeds, data analytics and mapping software can put all the options at commuter’s fingertips—including the multimodal combinations that are quickest and cheapest.

It’s estimated that if demand-driven transit could facilitate 30 percent of New York City’s trips, vehicle miles traveled would be reduced by 52 million trips per year, or 431.2 million vehicle miles eliminated. That reduction signifies congestion savings to commuters of $495 million per year and 14 million hours in delay saved.

For the city of New York, the same reduction in vehicle miles traveled would save the city $959 million on road construction over 25 years and result in a 139,000-metric-ton annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Imagine these same results applied in cities all over the United States. Imagine the time, money, and frustration that public transportation could save you and your community. Now, imagine how significant the impact could be across the globe. Throughout the world, public transit is the key to building tomorrow’s sustainable future.

Dave Kirkpatrick is managing director and co-founder of SJF Ventures, a positive impact venture fund with offices in ­Durham, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. He is also the board chair of TransLoc, an APTA member, a technology provider of flexible agency-owned micro­transit solutions.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared Aug. 15, 2017, in The Hill. Reprinted with permission.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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