A Solution to Climate Change
BY DANIEL JIANG '25
Congestion and climate change are some of the biggest issues circulating American politics today, yet the average American still believes that the solutions stem from alternative energy to power their automobiles. Instead of promoting varied sources of energy, a shift towards mass transit solutions seems to be the key to solving a multitude of both health, environmental, and even economical issues. This ideological shift is not limited to just urbanized developments because suburban areas in America can benefit from an intricate mass transportation network.
The excessive release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere is one of the most harmful implications of climate change. In the United States, transportation pollution accounts for 28% of all CO2 emissions in the United States, the highest contributor compared to industry, power, and agriculture. Within that 28%, 58% of emissions comes from personal cars, trucks, SUV’s, and vans; public transportation only accounts for 25%. Should we shift our dependency on cars to mass transportation, we can significantly ease the amount of emissions we release. A study released by the American Public Transportation Association found that not only does not driving save over 6 billion gallons of gasoline annually, but that communities who invest in public transportation reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by up to 63 million metric tons annually.
It has also been found that mass transit tends to reduce the phenomena brought on by cars known as “urban sprawl,” meaning that locations are super far apart, and cars are the only form of transportation. Public transportation has been proven to help reduce urban sprawl. Ultimately, this allows for more ecosystem restoration and public green spaces, plus a natural decrease of carbon emissions.
Because of America’s dependency on private automobiles, we have one of the world’s largest and most congested road networks, outpacing even China thrice: 3 million kilometers of asphalt. Health studies have shown that congestion tends to lead to increased anxiety and lack of productivity, amongst other effects. The government drains billions upon billions of dollars from the taxpayer every year to maintain highway and road infrastructure that has a lifespan of around 25 years at best. Ultimately, the spending on road maintenance and congestion alleviation grows ever more problematic the further away it is from cities.
Mass transit, on the other hand, is much more cost-efficient than roads and highways. As aforementioned, highways have an average lifespan of 25 years (along with repavings every 7-10 years) before it must be completely renovated. Railroad tracks, on the other hand, have an average lifespan of 43 years. Ballastless tracks have a minimum lifetime of 60 years. Railroad tracks are much less maintenance than asphalt or concrete roads. Virtually every method of mass transit takes up much less space than a four-lane highway. With an intricate network, existing highways can be reduced in size, leaving more space for more development or green space.
Transit will also promote good health benefits: there would be a reduction in air pollution and noise pollution, and transit goes hand-in-hand with mandatory exercise. Public transit would also make one’s life more convenient, as you no longer need to spend thousands of dollars on car insurance, maintenance fees, and gasoline. Because of the constant pursuit of convenience, transit-oriented developments (TOD) would skyrocket, meaning more vibrant, walkable communities instead of isolated single-family homes and urban sprawl. Land use would be improved: Parking minimums for lots can be reduced drastically, removing the eyesore that is the “concrete jungle” of sprawling parking lots. There would be increased demand for mixed-use zoning (combining residential with commercial or workplace developments).
Great examples of these benefits being played into action can be seen in the southwest, such as Dallas’s DART system, where a massive public transportation network has been created, serving downtown Dallas and up to 13 surrounding cities/towns. A good portion of outer-city bus lines run at 15-minute frequencies, and there are connections to TexRail and Trinity Railway Express. Independent studies have shown that with the expansion of the DART system, residents in the suburbs have saved approximately 8.8 million barrels of gasoline — the equivalent of 15,000 cars driving — per year. Another example can be seen with Salt Lake City and the Utah Transportation Authority (UTA). The UTA covers the denser parts of Salt Lake City with an intricate tram network, and the regional suburbs (throughout 7 counties) with their commuter rail service, nicknamed ‘FrontRunner’. These methods not only reduces traffic gridlock but also encourages the development of suburban communities, as evidenced by the case study published in the "Journal of Public Transportation”.
The need for Americans to change their ideologies on automobiles and embrace mass transit options is important to mitigate climate change and environmental degradation, and also stands as a solution to the pressing public issues related to congestion and inequality, regardless of where people reside. While the misconception is that mass transportation only works most efficiently in an urban city setting, transit can perform just as well.
Embracing mass transit is a proven strategy for addressing these issues regardless of the location. It isn't just a shift in how we move from point A to B; it's a pathway to a more sustainable, equitable, and healthier future for the United States, spanning urban centers and suburban landscapes alike.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Mass transit won’t be built in a day. But it's high time we embark on this journey to mass transit.