Dump the Pump to Fight Climate Change and Boost Economic Equity

Riding rail transit is part of my daily routine, and I hope you'll join me in doing so tomorrow for the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) 10th annual Dump the Pump day. According to this handy fact sheet from APTA (of which NRDC is a proud member, and we're also a proud sponsor of Dump the Pump again this year), this means my commute is cleaner (~4,800 pounds a year lower carbon pollution than driving). I'm also helping reduce our dependence on oil, since my family saves more than 200 gallons of gasoline a year since we live within walking distance of a rail line. And best of all, my family's burdened with one less car. Home ownership can make good financial sense, long-term, since you get equity and an asset that's likely to appreciate over time. But car ownership? That's about a $9,000/year drain on a household budget, all for an asset that starts dropping in value the minute you drive it off the lot.

Now imagine if more of us could take public transportation on a daily basis. As APTA has estimated, current public transportation service makes a substantial difference in our oil consumption and carbon pollution, saving 4.2 million gallons of gasoline 37 million metric tons of carbon annually. And friends at the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) have pulled the lens waaaay back to determine potential effects of what they call a "high-shift" to cleaner transportation scenario globally. Their analysis relies heavily on continued urbanization, a trendline which shows no sign of stopping (including in the U.S., where more and more of us live in cities or their suburbs), and on the spreadh of bus rapid transit (BRT) which as ITDP has documented has grown explosively in the past decade. The upshot of their analysis is that a global shift to cleaner transportation options including bus and rail systems could cut carbon emissions by an enormous 1.7 gigatons, or 40 percent of projected surface transportation pollution (see pdf of ITDP's study here). Public transportation can help us tackle our climate challenge, in the U.S. and globally.

It also offers a host of other benefits that aren't often accounted for by state or local transportation agencies. That means that cost-effectiveness testing needs to be expanded to include the fuller range of benefits of these investments (the same applies, btw, to cost-effectiveness testing in the electricity sector where so-called "non-energy benefits" are increasinlgy getting overdue attention from utilities and policymakers). A new report for the National Highway Cooperative Research Program (NCHRP) finds a fuller array of benefits of public transportation investments, as summarized in this briefing paper:

  • Transportation is a critical factor for employment. The literature found a connection between transit and job access, where job participation increased for low-wage workers following the start of new transit services.
  • Transit can improve access to educational opportunities, indirectly supporting increased employment. Literature has found that more and better education leads to lower unemployment, better chances of reemployment, and higher wages.
  • Increased employment reduces demand for other government services such as unemployment transitional assistance. Limited available research found that individuals' lifetime earnings and wage growth trajectories were potentially affected by transit and other job access transportation programs.
  • Improved access to preventive health care can provide cost savings in health care services by avoiding the need for costlier emergency care visits as well as costs associated with home health care visits.

Unfortunately, as another paper finds thanks to analysis of EPA data about transit access in 8 large cities, equitable transit availability is not a reality for too many neighborhoods. Austin, Denver and Seattle stand out in this particular paper as cities with disparities in access between low-and-average-income citizens. Regions can and should do better given the disproportionately large benefits to low-income households as most recently documented by the NCHRP paper.

Oh, one other thing about riding public transportation. You get to use you iPhone or other device, or a tablet or laptop, without risking your life. Distracted driving isn't a problem for riders of bus or rail. So there's no need to wait for a wishful future of self-driving cars, which may or may not pan out.

Instead, it's time to go back to the future. Public transportation is here now. If you have access to it, show your support by riding it tomorrow for APTA's 10th annual Dump the Pump day. And post a selfie of yourself doing it here.

If you don't have access to good transit, the simple truth is that you should. We all deserve access to quality public transportation, so we can dump the pump tomorrow and every day.