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Outside the Box: We can’t solve the climate crisis without getting out of our cars and onto buses and trains

As Americans receive vaccines and people feel safer leaving home, an unwelcome feature of pre-COVID life, headache-inducing traffic, is coming back in full force. More than an inconvenience, this rising tide of cars and trucks returning to U.S. roads is again contributing to the threat of climate change.

In the U.S., transportation is the largest source of global-warming pollution. But it gets worse: America’s transportation system is one of the biggest emission sources in the world. Its gas-guzzling cars, trucks and vehicles emit almost 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year — more than the entire output of any country other than China and India. Unless Americans change the way they get around, the climate crisis will only worsen.

The U.S. needs to do three things simultaneously: reduce how much Americans drive; electrify vehicles, and decarbonize the power grid. In the past few years, many policymakers have increasingly focused on the latter two efforts. And no doubt, President Joe Biden’s recent test drive of Ford Motor’s
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impressive new electric pickup truck demonstrates exciting progress. But as the U.S. retires fossil fuel-powered vehicles and embraces electric technology, remember that not driving at all is even cleaner than driving electric vehicles . 

The U.S. needs to encourage Americans to not drive. Providing good, clean and frequent public transit can do this. Expanding ridership can immediately reduce U.S. energy use and fossil fuel emissions

The problem is that in many parts of the U.S., you can’t get to most places without a car. Moreover, existing public transportation networks too often need significant repairs and their service is not as frequent or convenient as riders need. This adds up to Americans driving more miles per person than anywhere else in the world. More than four in five trips taken by Americans in 2017 were by car, pickup truck, SUV or van. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. America’s “car culture” has been fueled by a century of automobile-industry-friendly policies that have kept Americans belted into their vehicles. Since 1956, almost 80% of all federal transportation dollars have been spent on highways. In addition, states spend billions of dollars on new highways each year, while transit systems are a lower priority. 

Now, Americans have an opportunity to change that. After a number of false starts over the past several years, infrastructure is finally on the table in Washington. Between Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the reauthorization of the long-term transportation spending plan, which is due for renewal this fall, the U.S. has a chance to reshape federal policy to support cleaner, more efficient public transportation. 

Biden’s infrastructure package presents a once-in-a-generation chance to revamp public transportation to make it easier, more affordable and convenient to ride. The president’s plan provides new investments to shore up our transit systems and expand their reach.

Additionally, Congress needs to invest in public-transit operations in the long-term spending bill; what good are new railroad tracks and rapid bus lanes, or new electric buses and trains, if there’s no one to operate them? We need to pay for bus drivers and other service operators, but many transit agencies are critically underfunded. 

Today, most transit agencies’ operations are funded by local taxes, fares and fees. This model does not provide adequate funding; Congress should invest federal funds annually into public transit operations to expand bus and train services, and help ensure the majority of Americans are within walking distance of frequent transit by 2030. 

This is a critical point in the fight against climate change. But improvements will be difficult with America’s current car-centric, fossil fuel-driven transportation status quo. It’s time the U.S. goes all-in on clean public transportation. It’s a win for Americans, a win for the U.S. economy, and a win for the planet.

Michael E. Mann is director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center and author of “The New Climate War:  The Fight to Take Back Our Planet”  (PublicAffairs, 2021). Matt Casale is environment campaigns director for U.S. PIRG.

More: These energy and EV stocks can still benefit from Biden’s infrastructure plan, Citi says

Plus: Why buying a car will be harder and more expensive through the end of the year

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