The best investment in reducing human impact on the climate

Whether you agree with the vast majority of scientists who say human activity is having a profound and possibly disastrous effect on global climate change or not, it is beyond reasonable dispute that our behaviors have some impact. Some hesitate to take action fearing it would harm our economy. There is one investment that would have a beneficial impact on both our climate and the economy – a massive investment in public transportation.

The greatest need for this kind of public investment is found in the newer cities of the South and West, but even cities in the East with built up public transportation systems need an infusion of investment money to update their transit networks to lure more people from their cars. Automobiles represent the largest single source of environmental pollutants that impact both our health and climate. While increases in mileage of automobiles would be welcomed, the impact will take years of huge investments to come about.

Estimates place the cost of increasing auto mileage averages by only five miles per gallon at over $20 billion; possibly reach in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Eventually, that investment will be paid for by the public either in subsidies or when a new car is purchased. This effort should continue and is essential to the overall effectiveness of any plan to reduce human impact on climate.

But another investment of a similar magnitude in dramatically increasing rail and bus systems in the new cities would have a greater impact on the climate and at the same time would greatly reduce the increasing tensions in cities with clogged highways and lengthy commutes.

What we need is an investment in infrastructure similar to that made by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s when the nation invested heavily in the interstate highway system. This massive investment actually was a subsidy for both commercial and individual vehicle drivers that beneficially impacted the economy. Since then our investment in highways has dwarfed the initial investment to become the largest public sector expenditure in our time.

The contribution of transportation to greenhouse gasses amounts to approximately one third of the total, followed by the process of generating electricity. The latter category of course presents a problem for any call to increase public transportation which would in turn increase electricity usage by the transportation systems themselves. The good news is that this category is seeing a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while the transportation sector continues to grow. Furthermore, alternate methods of production of electricity are already available and others in development.

Several cities, including my home town of Los Angeles, have begun the process of revitalizing once abandoned rail transportation systems. These efforts are limited because of the huge capitalization costs involved. It is estimated, for example, that it will cost $9 billion to extend the initial subway line an additional 12 miles to the coast. Other, less expensive above ground rail lines are under construction or planned at an additional $2 billion.

Some have questioned the wisdom of either light or heavy rail construction in a day when most people prefer to travel by car. Using Los Angeles as an example of the conditions already existing in many of the newer cities, rail and especially systems that are either above or below surface streets is the only viable solution. Freeways, for which this city is famous, are even more expensive to build and most have been expanded to their limits. Every time a new lane is added it simply attracts more cars and there is no net relief.

Our transportation crisis is really one more facet of the over developed American demand to be catered to as an individual and rejection of community interests. When the cities of the South and West were developed after WW II, the freeway came into vogue as a way to make possible living in a detached home in a suburban environment. As a result, development spread horizontally and people became dependent upon the automobile to get around. That dependency became a matter of faith and people now expect the convenience of private transportation even as they decry the increasing gridlock of highways.

We can afford public transportation systems that offer the best of both independent and public approaches. Public systems may never match the convenience of driving to market alone, but they excel at delivering large numbers of people to work and play. No amount of investment in highways can match the efficiency of public transportation. What is needed is the planning and commitment to invest in public systems that are convenient, safe and affordable.

Such systems cannot rely upon either private investment or self-financing. They are not only a matter that benefit the users of such systems but are as much a benefit to the entire community. Congress needs to step up to the plate and provide a major boost in funding of public transportation systems.

The public needs to step up to the plate and modify its desire to drive alone when alternate means are available. In large part this is a matter of public attitudes and a willingness to recognize that community interests are a valid concern when determining how one acts in our private life.