We need fewer gas-guzzling cars on the road. They pollute our skies and needlessly endanger the lives of pedestrians. The nation’s fixation with constructing car-centric communities has resulted in immense ecological devastation in the form of habitat loss, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. As such, the fossil fuel economy poses a danger to public health and is an existential threat to life on this planet. How can the U.S. respond to this climate crisis caused by dependence on carbon-based energy and respond to the social inequities it exacerbates? Sustainable improvements to public transit would be a good start.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. According to the EPA, 27% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions came from the transportation sector in 2020; light-duty vehicles–average passenger cars–were responsible for 57% of GHG emissions within the sector. Efforts to mitigate climate change need to target the transportation sector; a massive reduction in the number of petroleum-powered passenger cars idling in traffic would significantly cut carbon emissions. Electrification of vehicles is certainly a move in the right direction, but transitioning away from car-centric city planning is more equitable and sustainable in the long-run, especially since many poor and low-income Americans are less likely to be able to afford regular vehicles in the first place.
Safety is also an important factor to consider. Transportation is necessary for many Americans to obtain the means to live; yet it ironically cuts the lives of many Americans short. Where I live, the observant driver or passenger can spot photos stapled to telephone posts on the sides of busy streets in honor of people fatally struck by cars. 6,516 pedestrians were killed in U.S. traffic crashes in 2020; 89% of these fatalities occurred in single-vehicle crashes. Every year, air pollution costs the U.S. 5% of its GDP in damages, and vehicle emissions resulted in 7,100 deaths in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states in 2016. Fewer cars on the road will result in fewer potential collisions, fewer instances of severe respiratory illness and other health complications, and save countless lives.
Improvements to our transportation systems are improvements to our quality of life. No shade, but some bus stops are literally signs on the sidewalk located next to busy roads. As someone who doesn’t drive but lives in a car-centric area, Montgomery County, MD, having access to good public transportation is important to me. What I’ve noticed during my time taking transit in my area is that most people who use and operate buses are people of color, and low-income people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities tend to rely on public transportation services. These are the same populations that are hardest hit by climate change. Caring for our neighbors entails that resources necessary for improvement in material conditions be made accessible to society’s most vulnerable; transportation is key to this accessibility, yet 45% of Americans don’t have access to transit. The Biden Administration’s $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (IIJA) makes me cautiously optimistic about the future of mass transit in the U.S. Certain members of Congress and SCOTUS sabotaging climate action? Not so much. This is why electing climate-conscious officials at the state and local level is imperative for effective implementation of equitable transportation policy; getting our faith communities involved in grassroots organizations focused on providing clean transit options and creating walkable cities would greatly aid advocacy efforts.
Why should we be strong proponents of mass transit? If we are to be stewards of God’s creation and care for our neighbors as ourselves, decarbonization of the transportation sector ought to be a priority. We are chained to our cars, and our built environment reflects this–to the detriment of the planet. Nature is pretty. Roads? Pretty ugly if you ask me; they strip away natural land cover which exacerbates rising temperature effects. Everyday life is made increasingly difficult without access to reliable transportation. Improvements to and expansion of mass transit would significantly reduce the number of traffic accidents, reduce respiratory illness-causing air pollution, and expand access to medical care, healthy foods, education, employment opportunities, and green spaces. Strong public transportation systems can reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually. Socioeconomic mobility depends on spatial mobility; consistent investment in and maintenance of clean transit is our fast line to safer, healthier, more sustainable communities.