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Investing in public transit is a climate imperative

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Many in Congress have rightly emphasized the need for climate action in the bipartisan infrastructure package currently dominating Washington’s attention. To adequately address the rapidly accelerating threat of climate change and its impacts on communities across the nation, one thing needs to be made abundantly clear: Investing in public transportation is critical, and Congress shouldn’t shortchange it.

President Biden has already committed to a climate agenda that aims to reduce our economy’s greenhouse emissions by over 50 percent from 2005 levels, specifically stating the need to reduce transportation pollution. Since the transportation sector continues to be the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, achieving this goal will require a dramatic reduction in reliance on passenger vehicles and a shift towards public transit nationwide. And to handle larger commuter loads, we must prioritize a steady stream of federal investment to help maintain mass transit systems and ensure our transit buses are electric in order to improve air quality and protect public health.

Public transit systems offer a sustainable and efficient transportation option in highly populated areas (where emissions levels are highest), and reliable transit is also important to rural residents. And there is broad support for public transit. A national poll shows that 66 percent of voters would be disappointed if upgrades and expansions to energy-efficient public transportation were omitted from the infrastructure bill.

Clean transportation investments are an urgent imperative. People across the planet are experiencing the disastrous impacts of the climate crisis, including unprecedented temperatures, rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and increased weather-related disasters. If reducing greenhouse emissions is at the center of our nation’s climate policy, then tackling the largest source of pollution must be at the forefront of the climate debate. 

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately suffering from transportation pollution and the impacts of climate change. Curbing transportation pollution and improving access to transit is a matter of protecting our most vulnerable communities. Infrastructure investments must be rooted in climate, justice and job creation. This is a once-in-a-generation chance for big investments in transit funding. Failing to go big enough is not an option.

Disproportionate energy consumption from cars and light trucks causes serious harm to air quality, particularly in our cities and surrounding areas. A recently published study from Harvard and the University of North Carolina found that in New York City alone, over 1,400 premature deaths and billions of dollars in health care costs are incurred every year strictly due to pollution emanated by the tens of thousands of vehicles congesting the metro area. The harmful air quality has led to chronic health problems like high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Our choices in transportation have real-life consequences in both the near and long-term, and we need to make decisions that reflect the magnitude of the environmental challenges we face. This must start with a legislative infrastructure package that prioritizes smart investment in our public transit infrastructure that reduces transportation emissions and energy consumption.

Public transit systems need to have the resources necessary to meet 21st-century needs to reduce dependency on environmentally harmful vehicles. We need to modernize and expand public transit infrastructure across the country to increase functionality, productivity and access to allow more individuals to choose more environmentally conscious commuting options. 

There is no one solution to this problem. Addressing climate change requires a multi-pronged approach that includes bold investments in electric vehicle technology and renewable energy sources. For those blocking progress — every day of inaction translates to further depreciation of already outdated infrastructure, devastating economic losses and unnecessary ripple effects in our air quality and public health. 

Katherine Garcia is the acting director of Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign. Established in 1892, Sierra Club is one of the oldest environmental advocacy organizations in the world.

Tags carbon emissions Climate change Fossil fuels Global warming Infrastructure Joe Biden Katherine Garcia Public Transit Transportation

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