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Can Public Transit Help Save the Planet?

Something big is happening in the halls of the U.S. Congress this year. A new generation of Democratic lawmakers are proposing—and winning impressive support for—what they say would be the largest reorganization of our economy and biggest domestic mobilization of national resources in history. They’re calling it the Green New Deal, and they want to use it to tackle the two most acute crises facing the world today: economic inequality and climate change.

Representing 200,000 transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, ATU is uniquely positioned at the intersection of environmental and economic policy. ATU members fight to take home our fair share; to win more democracy on the job; and to persuade federal, state, provincial, and local governments to invest in public transit. Transit workers, better than anyone, understand that better transit is necessary to protect our environment and improve the lives of our neighbors.

The concept of a Green New Deal, one that includes major transit investments, actually isn’t new at all, but a resurgent movement of young Americans linking environmental and economic justice in ways never done before. 

Canadians and Americans who are a little older have cause to hesitate. After all, the last 40 years has been defined by governments that are unwilling to take bold action to address our failing economic system or deteriorating climate. Instead, they have focused on mining every dollar and resource they can from working families and the environment. The current generation of political leaders have been on this dangerous path since 1979.

Community: The Solution to Economic and Environmental Crisis

In 1979, the economies of the U.S. and Canada were entering a major economic slowdown. Interest rates, inflation, and international oil prices were drastically rising. A recession was on the horizon, and working class North Americans could already feel the pain it would bring. 

Like our economy, our environment – both in nature and at work – was suffering, too. By 1979, the U.S. had already passed legislation establishing health and safety standards at work, protecting drinking water, and banning CFCs that were creating a hole in the ozone layer. In Canada, labor advocates won paid maternity leave, while environmentalists founded Greenpeace and stopped the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. But environmental and labor advocates in both countries knew that harsh realities lied ahead. 

In the U.S., nothing made that clearer than the 1979 nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania, the massive Pemex oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill in New Mexico. In Canada, the James Bay Project, which would go on to provide clean hydroelectric power but at the cost of flooding 11,500 square kilometers (~7,100 square miles) of wilderness and indigenous land with mercury-contaminated water, moved ahead despite fierce environmental opposition.

Facing the combination of an impending economic recession, a resurgent conservation movement, and a global energy crisis that sent fuel prices skyrocketing, U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivered a lengthy, televised address to the American people in July 1979. “All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America,” he said. “What is lacking is confidence and a sense of community.”

In that speech, Carter proposed an “extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems.” He also asked Americans to “take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week.” He argued that by changing government priorities and personal behavior, Americans could free the country of its dependence on foreign oil and improve the economy. “Every act of energy conversation like this is more than just common sense,” he said. “I tell you it is an act of patriotism.”

Carter, of course, went on to lose in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, who ushered in an era of environmental and economic deregulation that haunts us to this day. Reagan used that speech to frame Carter as a weak leader, but the 39th President’s words seem eerily prophetic today.

How can people restore their sense of community, not just as citizens of a country or neighbors on a continent but as citizens of a world that faces near-certain climate catastrophe?  What can people learn from advocates of the Green New Deal, who are joining together to demand that the U.S. government invest in a sustainable economy?

Through internal and rider organizing, ATU members are already answering these questions. For every one ATU member, there are a hundred riders with whom transit workers can rebuild cities in ways that sustain our families and our environment. ATU members also know transportation better than anyone, and our industry will have to undergo unprecedented changes to reduce its impact in the earth’s climate. But what might those changes to transportation  look like?

Zero Emissions Public Transit

To meet goals set internationally by the Paris Climate Accord, Canada and the U.S. would need to reduce transportation-related emissions by a whopping 80% and 86%, respectively, by 2050. 

To accomplish this, one version of the Green New Deal calls for the introduction of 100% zero emission passenger vehicles by 2030. It also calls for “large investment…to increase access to safe pedestrian and bicycle travel, low-carbon bus rapid transit, and electrified light rail” and ending the use of fossil fuels in 100% of “aviation, heavy duty…and rail” vehicles by 2050. 

According to the Center for American Progress, “transportation, including passenger vehicles, [contributed] 37% of the total energy-related carbon dioxide emitted in 2016.” In fact, for the first time since 1979, U.S. transportation now emits more carbon dioxide than electricity production. 

A full 60% of the transportation industry’s carbon dioxide emissions come from cars and trucks alone, making private car travel the least environmentally sustainable way to get around. The wave of Uber and Lyft vehicles saturating urban markets is only making this problem worse. In New York City alone, for example, taxis and app-based drivers added 600 million more miles traveled to the city’s streets in 2016, “only one-third of which were with a passenger in the car,” reports Curbed.

ATU members already know that public transit is far more environmentally sustainable. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), heavy rail produces 76% less in greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than private cars. That’s followed by light rail systems, which produce 62% less and bus systems, which produce 33% less. 

Those measurements are based on two factors: how the vehicle is fueled and how many people are riding it.

The U.S. DOT says that a diesel-fueled transit bus that has 40 passengers on board produces a whopping 86% fewer emissions than if the same number of people rode in private cars. Even if a diesel bus carries as few as seven passengers, it’s still polluting less than cars. A heavy rail car, by comparison, needs to have at least 19% of its seats filled to produce fewer emissions than cars do.

The introduction of electric-powered buses in cities across the U.S. and Canada would improve these ratios drastically. Likewise, states and provinces could aggressively move to change the way they generate electricity used to power subway, trolley, and streetcar systems. Several states and provinces with rail systems—British Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, and California—are making plans to ditch fossil fuel power plants and use wind, solar, tidal, and other zero emission systems to fuel electrified transit instead.

Soaring Public Transit Ridership

While we can reduce emissions on transit vehicles, it won’t make a dent in the industry’s overall emissions if we don’t help get a lot more people out of their cars and onto buses and trains. The New York-based Transit Center argues that, “the urgency of reducing carbon emissions demands broader action, including shifting behavior from driving to sustainable modes like public transportation.” 

Unfortunately, transit ridership dropped 2.5% across the U.S. in 2017. But transit ridership across Canada, from Vancouver to Montreal, increased about 1.3% the same year. What’s going on here?  

Streetsblog writer Angie Schmitt took a closer look. “Falling gas prices, loose auto lending standards, and the rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft are all plausible factors,” for the decline in U.S. ridership, she said. “But that’s no excuse for transit service that can’t retain riders. For proof, look no further than Canada.”

Canadian cities just have more service per capita than the most comparable U.S. cities,” explains Human Transit writer Christopher Yuen. “Canadian transit isn’t cuter, sexier, or more ‘demand responsive’ than transit in the U.S. There is simply more of it, so more people ride, so transit is more deeply imbedded in the culture and politics.”

Analysts looking at Seattle, Houston, and Phoenix, the only U.S. cities to see ridership increase, reached the same conclusion. Riders will stick with a system that is well-funded, expands service, and takes on whole-system improvements, rather than just gimmicky one-off projects. Seattle stands out, with a full 70% of trips to its downtown core made by transit, walking, or cycling.  

In its 2014 report on developing sustainable transit for small communities, the Northern Alberta Development Council (NADC) recommends that political leaders rethink transit investment with a “triple bottom line” in mind. “Instead of the conventional focus on economic bottom lines,” they write, local leaders should “give equal weight to economic, social, and environmental outcomes.” The NADC says public officials should “weight the municipal savings and expense against the benefits and costs to individuals, families, neighbourhoods, businesses and the eco system.”

With a triple bottom line in mind, U.S. and Canadian officials can turn to their European counterparts to see what this looks like. Berlin, Germany, has a transit system considered “in crisis,” but the city-state’s transport department isn’t passing the buck. In a 350-page paper released in early 2018, policymakers laid out major service expansions and improvements. Within a matter of years, they promise:

    • A bus will arrive every ten minutes on every line

    • New local and express buses will be introduced in transit deserts

    • At least nine additional routes will operate 24-hours a day

    • By 2030, every single bus will run on electricity 

Europeans aren’t just investing in better, more sustainable service. They’re also expanding fare-free public transit. In addition to Tallinn, Estonia—the largest city in the world with free transit—a total of 21 cities in Poland, 20 in France, and more than a dozen others across the continent have shifted to paying for transit through taxes rather than rider fares. Five major German cities, the French capital of Paris, and the entire nation of Luxembourg are heading in that direction, too.

Will We or Won’t We?

Public transit, free for all, arriving on time, available around the clock, and completely powered by the wind, sun, and seas. This may seem like fantasy in 2019.  

But it’s no more of a fantasy than an eight-hour workday, a five-day workweek, or the right to speak your mind on the job was in 1892, when transit workers gathered in Indiana to form what would become the ATU. Yet, within three decades, Canadian and U.S. transit workers accomplished those goals.

It also seemed like a fantasy when President Carter called for Americans to unite and save their communities by ending their dependence on foreign fossil fuels. Yet, here we are, forty years later, watching a new generation of activists and elected officials champion a Green New Deal that goes further than Carter ever imagined.

It won’t be easy for transit workers to build a world in which politicians make massive investments in transit, in which all transit is zero emission, in which millions more of our neighbors take transit every day. But that challenge pales in comparison to the sacrifices and disaster that await if we dismiss these goals as fantasy.

Fortunately, ATU members aren’t in this fight alone. Nearly 19 million transit riders, and hundreds of millions of people across the continent, are increasingly ready to follow our lead.