How public transit can (and must) help reduce carbon pollution

Posted by Rachel Karitis on 8/15/16 10:34 AM

For the first time since 1979, the transportation sector has produced more carbon pollution than any other sector of the economy over a 12-month period. What’s more? Approximately 85 percent of these emissions are related to the surface transportation system — federal highways, public roads, and the like.

“Overreliance on single-occupant vehicle travel and a failure to prioritize non-driving modes of transportation like transit, biking, and pedestrian alternatives is having a profound impact on the health of our planet and the health of our citizens,” said John Olivieri, National Campaign Director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group.


Estimated carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile Source: Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change, via the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration.


Olivieri is right: Single-occupant vehicle usage far surpasses any other mode of transportation for carbon dioxide emissions. It produces 50 percent more pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile than buses, and a staggering 336 percent more than heavy rail.

The responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint lies with both the government and with its citizens; for the government, this means creating infrastructure and public transportation services to accommodate a growing demand. For its citizens, it means committing to making a change at a personal level. So where do we start?

Investment in Infrastructure

The required investment in public transportation systems in order to successfully reduce carbon emissions is threefold:

  1. Maintain the structural quality of currently existing public transportation systems.

    For Washington, DC, this means a complete overhaul of the metrorail system over the span of at least the next year.
  2. Expand the reach of currently existing public transportation systems.

    In Salt Lake City, this meant to an increase in light rail coverage and additional commuter routes. Seattle, too, increased its light rail coverage, added streetcars, and created an express bus system.
  3. Build new public transportation systems in areas without any access.

    More than one-third of Americans do not have access to any public transportation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This leaves a huge section of the population unable to take action and reduce their impact on the environment.

This issue is not just an American one, but a global one. In Paris, for example, Mayor Anne Hidalgo plans to eliminate 55,000 parking spots annually, spend 150 million Euros on expanding cycling infrastructure, and transform the Right Bank into a pedestrian paradise.

“We are leading a more global fight against the monopoly held by cars in our city and in our lives,” Hidalgo told the Toronto Star. “We want to create a peaceful city, free from the hegemony of private cars, to give public transit, bicycles, and pedestrians their rightful places.”

Change on an Individual Level

Public transportation is the single greatest way to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint — and one of the most immediate. Other options, such as replacing light bulbs with energy-efficient versions, hardly compare.


Commuting by public transportation saves 4,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per person per year The pounds of CO2 saved per person per year via various actions. Sources: Public Transportation’s Contribution to U.S. Greenhouse Gas Reduction, via the American Public Transportation Association.


Not only does commuting by public transportation save 4,800 pounds of CO2 per person per year, but it also saves a two-worker household $6,251 annually, according to a report by ICF International. In context, this is just slightly above the amount an average two-person household spent on groceries in the same year.

It can seem daunting to change the way you commute, but for those of us who live in cities with a veritable cornucopia of transit at our fingertips, part of the battle can just be a lack of knowledge about nearby options or the belief that change is too difficult.

But the risk of continuing down the path of increased carbon pollution is too great — as Olivieri pointed out, we need “urgent action to combat global warming-causing pollution from transportation sources” from government and citizens alike.

Topics: Mobility