Public transportation is genuinely magical. Only it’s the kind of magic that actually works in real life.
How? It reduces emissions, provides affordable and accessible transportation options, reduces traffic, and can even spark the development of more walkable, livable communities.
The Green New Deal resolution aims to harness these magic powers with a 10-year campaign to decarbonize transportation in part by investing in “clean, affordable, and accessible public transit.”
It couldn’t come at a better time either, because chronic underfunding of public transportation is leading to maintenance backlogs, service disruptions, and lower ridership. (So before we get to the magic, we must bring our current systems up to a state of good repair – New York City alone needs an estimated $60 billion to achieve this benchmark.)
If done right, the Green New Deal can vastly improve public transportation and make communities stronger, healthier, cleaner, and more affordable while providing better access for all.
Here are four tricks the Green New Deal should conjure to improve the nation’s transit systems:
Magically Make Car Trips More Green
You probably know that trips on public transportation are greener than those in cars. But did you know that public transit can actually make car trips and other travel greener too?
Public transportation reduces the time cars are stuck in traffic emitting pollution. That’s because the more people taking buses and trains, the fewer cars on the road. Which means the people who do have to drive can get to their destination faster and with less tailpipe time.
Public transit also allows communities to develop more compactly, making some car trips shorter and eliminating others. With sensible policies, rail or bus stations can become focal points for development and revitalize neighborhoods by attracting housing, grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses where communities come together. Done right, transit investments can create places where people can walk to work or the store and take a bus or train for longer trips.
This not only reduces emissions but also makes neighborhoods more accessible and safer, especially for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. And any doctor will tell you that when people walk or bike more, they get healthier.
To accomplish this, the Green New Deal should reform the Capital Investment Grant Program to reward communities seeking to make themselves more walkable and livable – and incentivize others to follow their lead.
In New Jersey, for example, the Transit Village program has revitalized downtowns, helped communities become stronger, and provided more people the opportunity to commute by mass transit. It has accomplished this by providing grants and technical assistance to 33 communities seeking to build housing and amenities near existing transit hubs. It’s created the kind of enormous success economically and environmentally that should inspire communities across the country.
Poof! More Housing Will Appear Before Your Eyes
Developers know that people want to take public transportation to work, and merchants and restaurateurs love the foot traffic that hubs create. This is important because many cities have true housing crises.
Ask pretty much anyone trying to find an affordable apartment in New York, DC, Denver, San Francisco – or almost any big US city – and they’ll tell you that rents are rising faster than their paycheck and supply is a million miles from demand. It’s not just big cities either, a clear sign that communities of all sizes need more housing, especially affordable housing.
The Green New Deal should provide new investment to accelerate affordable housing development around public transportation stations and also reward systems if land is set aside for nearby affordable housing development.
These efforts should include measures to require that housing actually be affordable to those living paycheck-to-paycheck and provide protection for longtime neighborhood residents. Because what we don’t want is stations to come in and lead to gentrification that displaces existing communities – we want development that makes what’s already there stronger.
The Next Best Thing to a Magic Carpet: An Electric Bus
Electric buses are here and ready to take over the market. The Green New Deal should speed the transition.
Diesel buses are the coal of the transportation system, spewing particulate matter and other dangerous emissions near homes and schools. These dirty buses are compounding health problems in our most vulnerable communities and should be a prime focus of the Green New Deal.
According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast, by 2030 only 28 percent of new cars worldwide will be electric, compared with an astonishing 84 percent of new buses. Why the difference? Three related reasons:
- Transit agencies spend an enormous amount on fuel and maintenance because unlike cars, the buses are constantly in use and typically accrue three times the mileage of passenger vehicles;
- Electricity is much cheaper than other fuels; and
- Maintenance costs are lower on electric buses than on internal-combustion vehicles.
The Green New Deal should aim for 100 percent electric buses in the US by 2030.
To reach that goal, we need more funding now and a mandate later. Currently, through the Federal Transit Administration’s Low and No Emission Vehicles Program, $84 million is being spent annually on zero-emission buses or the charging infrastructure to support them. If we want to rapidly decarbonize, that number should increase substantially. Then, starting in 2025, any transit agencies using federal money (they also use other funds to purchase buses) should spend it only on zero-emission buses or the infrastructure to support them.
There is also a massive opportunity with school buses because the US has about 480,000 of them, compared to only 70,000 transit buses. School buses also tend to be older and dirtier.
The Diesel Emissions Reductions Act and other federal programs provide some help for school districts looking to clean up school buses, but we need to act quickly. Funding for the emissions reduction act is now under $100 million but needs to be ramped up significantly in the short run if we want a zero emission future. By 2025, a mandate should require that federal money be used to purchase only zero-emissions buses.
When addressing the climate crisis, we should prioritize areas that also impact public health outcomes, and bus transportation is a crucial part of that strategy.
Mobility for All, Without Any Tricks
According to the Institute on Disability, 6.5 percent of Americans (some 21 million people) have disabilities that impede movement. Public transportation can go a long way toward overcoming the barriers they face – and with new technology, we can go even further, no enchantment required.
One of the less talked about but still important services public agencies provide for people with disabilities is paratransit service – door-to-door (or door-to-transit hub) rides to doctors’ offices, grocery stores, and other destinations.
Unfortunately, there are many well-documented stories of unsafe and unreliable paratransit services. One of the main problems is inefficiency – rides that are not on time, drivers who are not adequately trained, or onerous rules like having to book a trip 24 hours in advance.
But as Lyft and Uber have demonstrated, new technology can dramatically improve service for everyone, including people with mobility challenges. And while we are at it, we should make these rides healthier by supporting zero-emissions paratransit vehicles.
Some municipalities are starting to require that rideshare services provide access to those in wheelchairs and some transit agencies are starting to fold ride-hailing technologies into their operations. In Arlington, Texas, for example, the city is partnering with ridesharing start-up Via to replace traditional bus service with vans that pick people upon demand, not at fixed stops but anywhere within a given corridor. Passengers can be picked up where they live and wait for rides in the comfort of their own homes.
Innovations like these could help end the litany of horror stories about sitting in the rain waiting for a ride that never comes.
The Green New Deal should help fund the use of these technologies and partnerships while requiring some common-sense rules.
The authors of the Green New Deal should look to jurisdictions like the District of Columbia, which is requiring that ride-sharing services adopt aggressive greenhouse gas reduction plans. Municipalities should also require ride-sharing services to provide a sufficient number of wheelchair-accessible cars, and they should provide financial support for paratransit agencies to deliver on-demand services. And ride-sharing services must be asked to pay their workers a living wage. With such improvements, the transportation revolution could lower emissions while providing mobility to those who need it most.
Public transportation must be front and center in any decarbonization strategy, not only for its emissions-reduction benefits but also because of its magical ability to help so many people in need.
Best of all, it’s the kind of magic we can actually do. Affordably and with the technology we have today.
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