New Report: 10% Transit Growth Would Help Meet House Climate Target

eia_carbon_dioxide_emissions.gif(Image: U.S. EIA via Climate Progress)

A
10 percent annual increase in U.S. transit ridership would reduce CO2
emissions by 180 million tons each year, taking the nation halfway to
the target set by the House climate change bill within three years,
according to a report [PDF] released today by Environment America and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The report, timed to coincide with the growing debate
over transit’s role in the final version of the congressional climate
bill, includes a wealth of useful and surprising data about how last
year’s much-discussed rise in transit use translates into reduced
driving and environmental benefits.

For example, that 10
percent increase in transit ridership is already happening in five
states, all of which also saw a notable drop in vehicle miles traveled
last year. And guess which five saw double-digit rises in ridership?
Not New York or Massachusetts — but Louisiana, Idaho, Utah, Delaware,
and Maryland.

"A lot of [transit] growth that we’re seeing
isn’t in typical big cities," Environment America transportation
advocate Rob McCulloch, a co-author of today’s report, said in an
interview. "It’s in suburbs and smaller communities where people are
opting in. We think that’s really where the opportunity is."

The
report describes a 10 percent increase in transit ridership as a "high
but realistic target," but it goes on to make a clear case for setting
such a goal:

[I]n 15 years such an approach
could reduce transportation oil consumption by 20 billion gallons per
year — equivalent to what we currently import from the Persian Gulf.
This would also result in an annual reduction of 180 million tons of
carbon dioxide pollution — more than four times the current benefit
conferred by public transportation.

That annual cut
of 180 million tons of CO2 would amount to 3 percent reduction below
2005 emissions levels every year. The climate bill passed by the House
in June aims to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels over
the next 11 years, making a national transit-ridership target a key
weapon in the arsenal of climate policy-makers.

McCulloch
and his co-authors make several policy recommendations to lawmakers now
working on transport and energy proposals, but their most powerful
message comes in the framing department.

At this month’s University of Virginia infrastructure conference,
one popular lament was that transportation lacks a national "story," a
coherent and catchy appeal to Americans from all walks of life. Bicycle
and transit advocates may well disagree, as may state DOT officials who
think of more roads as the be-all, end-all of infrastructure policy.

Yet
it’s easy to see a "story" emerging from today’s transit report, one
that’s focused on flexibility — for transit agencies to use federal
money to keep operating
and for officials to use funds on different modes of transport — as
well as a common goal of reducing the nation’s expensive, crippling oil
dependence. The more that lawmakers and environmental groups use those
themes to make transportation a bigger part of the climate debate, the
better.