Public Transportation for Fewer Emissions, Energy Independence

Families that use public transportation can save more than they spend on food

A man bike commuting.
Jordan Siemens/Digital Vision/Getty Images

If you want to help reduce global warming, let alone air pollution, one of the best things you can do is to get out of your car.

Walk or ride a bicycle for short trips, or take public transportation for longer ones. Either way, you will significantly reduce the amount of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions you generate each day.

The Rising Environmental Cost of Driving Alone

Transportation accounts for more than 30 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), public transportation in the United States saves approximately 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline and about 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Yet only 14 million Americans use public transportation daily while 88 percent of all trips in the United States are made by car—and many of those cars carry only one person.

Added Benefits of Public Transportation

Consider these other benefits of public transportation:

  • Energy independence—Although an increasing proportion of our oil is now produced in North America, much of it still comes from overseas.
  • Safety—Riding a bus is 79 times safer than riding in an automobile, and riding a train or subway is even safer.
  • Health—Studies have shown that people who use public transportation regularly tend to be healthier than people who do not, because of the exercise they get walking to and from bus stops, subway stations and their homes and offices.
  • Cost savings—According to an APTA study, families that use public transportation can reduce their household expenses by $6,200 annually, more than the average U.S. household spends on food every year.

The Heart of the Debate Over Public Transportation

So why don’t more Americans use public transportation?

Transportation experts and social scientists may argue about which came first, America’s attachment to the automobile or the urban and suburban sprawl that makes long daily commutes in at least one and often two cars a requirement for many American families.

Either way, the problem at the heart of the debate is that good public transportation systems are not available to enough people. While public transportation is readily available in many major cities, the majority of Americans in smaller cities, towns and rural areas simply do not have access to good public transportation options.

So the problem is twofold:

  1. Persuading people with ready access to public transportation to use it more often.
  2. Creating affordable public transportation options in smaller communities.

Trains, Buses, and Automobiles

Train systems are the most efficient in many ways, typically emitting less carbon and using less fuel per passenger than buses, but they are often more expensive to implement. Also, the traditional advantages of trains can be mitigated to a large extent by using hybrids or buses that run on natural gas.

Another promising alternative is bus rapid transit (BRT), which runs extra-long buses in dedicated lanes. A 2006 study by the Breakthrough Technologies Institute found that a BRT system in a medium-sized U.S. city could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 650,000 tons during a 20-year period.

If you live in an area with good public transportation, do something good for the planet today. Park your car, and take the subway or the bus. If you don’t, then talk to your local and federal elected officials about the benefits of public transportation and how it may help solve some of the problems they’re wrestling with right now.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry