Fight Climate Change, One Bus Ride at a Time

Next stop: lower emissions.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Success in the fight against climate change doesn’t demand dramatic innovations. Houses that heat themselves and jet planes fueled by sunshine and pond goo are good ideas, but there’s no need to wait for them. Power plants that emit only a steady drip of macchiato would be great, too, but they aren’t strictly essential.

Adequate if mundane solutions are already at hand. Many of them even make sense regardless of global warming. It’s just a matter of exploiting them. High on the list: public transit.    

President Barack Obama’s strategy for fighting climate change centers on limiting carbon emission from power plants. Yet in the U.S., transportation accounts for almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as electricity generation -- and despite the federal government’s efforts to make cars more fuel-efficient, those emissions are increasing.

Electric cars may take care of that one day, but not soon: They make up less than 3 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S., and their share of the market has been falling. Buses, subways and streetcars emit far less carbon. On a passenger-mile basis, driving a car with one occupant emits between two and four times as much as traveling by subway. A bus that’s three-quarters empty produces about 30 percent less emissions than the equivalent number of single-occupant cars, and half the emissions of the corresponding fleet of SUVs.

That matters because three in four U.S. commuters get to work by driving alone -- compared with 64 percent in 1980, when climate change wasn’t yet a concern. The share of commuters using transit hovers around 5 percent, less than half the share in 1960. Leaving cars at home is one of the simplest ways to reduce emissions, yet few of us do it.

The remedy isn’t just a matter of spending more on public transportation. The idea that transit has been starved of cash is wrong: Money for operations and maintenance has increased almost without interruption for decades. Capital spending spiked and then fell in the early 2000s, but its upward trend has since resumed. In real terms, total funding for public transportation has never been higher.

What’s needed isn’t more spending, but smarter spending. In some cities, once-great public transportation systems have been allowed to deteriorate; in others, new subway or bus lines are opened to fanfare, then remain largely unused. The trick is to choose new investments on economic merit, and to design new investments intelligently.

There’s no lack of examples to follow. In Salt Lake City, a light-rail transit line opened in 2001 reduced traffic on nearby roads by as much as one-third. In Denver, the opening of a light-rail line along a heavily trafficked corridor in 2000 allowed the city to avoid adding as many as six new highway lanes. Washington’s much-maligned metro system cuts the average transit user’s carbon emissions in half compared with driving, preventing almost 400,000 tons of emissions each year. (If the system were adequately maintained, it would be popular as well.)

QuickTake Climate Change

Fairer pricing can also play a part. On average, transit users pay about 40 percent of the cost of their ride; taxpayers cover the rest. Drivers typically get an even larger subsidy, once you take into account all the direct and indirect costs.

The case for better public transit goes beyond fighting climate change. It helps the unemployed find jobs; it saves commuters valuable time; it makes cities cleaner, quieter and less congested. But its value as an effective and available way to fight climate change gets too little attention. Pending zero-emission cars and espresso-vending power plants, getting more Americans on to public transportation makes sense.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.