Reducing Carbon Emissions Through U.S. Public Transit

Posted by Billie Gross
December 9, 2009
Light Rail Train in Salt Lake City

Watch events live from the U.S. Center in Copenhagen. Follow the U.S. Center on YouTube and Flickr.About the Author: Billie Gross serves as Public Affairs Specialist for the Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. She is currently on assignment at the U.S. Center in Copenhagen.

Today, despite the frenzy of activity throughout the U.S. Center at COP-15, I had the opportunity to observe a presentation by Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator Therese McMillian, City of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, UC-Berkeley professor Robert Cervero, Utah Transit CEO John Inglish and Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) General Managor Fred Hanson. The presentation provided an overview of how U.S. public transportation is reducing carbon emissions by providing a low emission alternative to driving. In the presentation, John Inglish described how, through a participatory process called “Envision Utah,” residents of Salt Lake City foresaw growth and economic development around new light rail transit lines. Their goals are now becoming realities. Professor Robert Cervero of UC-Berkeley explained that combining investment in public transportation with compact, mixed-use development around transit stations has a synergistic effect that amplifies the greenhouse gas reductions of each strategy. Through the panel, I learned that communities throughout the United States are undertaking exciting efforts to build livable and sustainable communities with high quality public transportation. The U.S. federal government’s economic recovery act, in addition to the annual federal transit program, is supporting these efforts. This presentation truly highlighted the strong actions the United States is taking at home to combat global climate change.



California, USA
December 9, 2009

Bronwyn in California writes:

I suppose this is the effect of living in Los Angeles, but it still feels like not *enough* is being done to truly impact American's car culture and make the switch to greener transportation options such as public transportation and cycling -- at least, not enough to make the meaningful impact that will be required of the entire world in the next 20 years.

I think a good portion of this is also because of the economy and "jobs that would be lost" if the automotive industry were to truly become unsustainable to the public, as well as any loss in corporate profits. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in many areas that are preventing truly meaningful change from happening (factory farming is another example).

It is terrific to hear that any sort of progress is being made, though. I just wish it was ramped up more than it is.

Virginia, USA
December 10, 2009

Flavius in Virginia writes:

This presentation must be getting the biggest laughs out of all the hundreds of exhibits in Copenhagen. The United States: A Role Model for Public Transportation. Bwa ha ha!

December 11, 2009

Subramian in India writes:


Such terms as carbon credit find a place in newspapers almost daily. I donãt know what is all this about. To me CO2 sustains life on earth. Has the level of CO2 in the atmosphere gone up? Has it been proved experimentally?

Before Industrialization

The whole of America and most of the old world were inhabited by a comparatively small population, a majority of whom depended upon meat and fish. Farming depended entirely on rain water as big dams were unknown. The grasslands of America and Australia didn't produce food grains. Coal and other fossil fuels were not commercially exploited. In those days we may presume that a proper balance existed between CO2 and other ingredients of the air like N2 and O2 in spite of forest fires, the like of which we witnessed in California recently.

After Industrialization

Commercial exploitation of coal began first followed by oil and natural gas, resulting in increase in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Simultaneously two other developments followed: increase in population (both human and animal) and corresponding growth in food grains production. Big dams were constructed and more and more areas of land were brought under cultivation. Mechanization and the use of artificial fertilizers made leaps and bounds in production of food grains, fruits and other commercial crops. The Prairies of North America became the granary of the world. Compared to grass, food grains and sugar fix a large quantity of CO2. The major items responsible for such CO2 fixation are:

food grains like wheat, corn, rice, oats, soybean etc

underground vegetables like potato, tapioca, beetroot etc

fruits like apple, grapes, banana, dates, cherry, pineapple etc

sugarcane etc

Experts can calculate the total quantity of CO2 produced by industry and that absorbed by vegetation as mentioned above and the marine vegetation in order to find out whether the net balance is favoring CO2 concentration in the air. An easier way would be to experimentally ascertain the percentage of CO2 in the atmospheric air (being heavier than air CO2 is available near the surface of the earth). If CO2 level increases O2 level should decrease. In my childhood (I am 70+) O2 level was 20% as mentioned in my text book. Has it changed? An atom of carbon combines with two atoms of oxygen to form CO2 which is absorbed by the leaves of the plant to form starch. In the process two atoms of oxygen are released into the atmosphere. We may say that each carbon atom burnt ultimately results in the release of two atoms of oxygen, thus resulting in increase in the level of O2. Level of CO2 dissolved in the ocean water should also be checked. If this level increases, fishes would die en mass. Has this happened? If the level of CO2 dissolved in ocean waters decreases, plant life in the ocean cannot produce enough starch by photosynthesis. This will be a hazard for fishes and other marine life.

The volume of animal and hence plant life in the oceans is much more than that on the continents. This is because the area of the oceans is seven times the area of the continents. Also, the oceans are deep. Hence the volume of water is very much more and can contain a large population of marine life. The necessary starch has to come from plant life. So, the total bio mass in the oceans is considerably higher than that in the continent. The carbon di oxideãPlant starchãAnimalsãCarbon di oxide cycle is there in the watery medium, just as in our atmosphere. All the gases, including nitrogen, will be present in dissolved state in the oceans too. Here industrialization has not affected the "atmosphere" of the ocean. This fact has to be recognized in any discussion on Global Warming.

[The percentage of various components of atmospheric air as obtained from the websites is given below:

Nitrogen 78.1
Oxygen 20.9
Argon 0.9
Neon 0.002
Helium 0.0005
Krypton 0.0001
Hydrogen 0.00005
Carbon di oxide 0.035!!!!!!!! (Poor, innocent CO2 has been maligned unnecessarily)
Methane 0.0002
Ozone 0.000004

This would suggest that the percentage of oxygen has slightly increased. If this is true it augers ill, as forest fires may become uncontrollable with increase in the level of oxygen in the coming years. Therefore, this line should be investigated separately by experts. My guess is that with unchecked use of nitrogenous fertilizers, the total bio mass in the earth could have increased. The requisite extra nitrogen must have been drawn from the atmosphere along with CO2 releasing extra oxygen into the atmosphere as pointed out above.]

The importance of proper scientific study cannot be over emphasized. Mother Nature maintains her balance, whatever her children may do!

Illinois, USA
December 11, 2009

Rob in Illinois writes:

Yes, impoprved transit accessibility and quality is essential. It must also be combined with congestion pricing strategies, but . . .

Highway departments are scrambling to find new ways to continue to support auto-centric solutions to urban transportation problems. Until broadly defined costs and benefits are factored into transportation planning decisions, and project funding mechanisms become dramatically less highway/roadway oriented, solutions will likely continue to favor increased road capacity over better alternatives. For example, a stretch of I-290 in Chicago is currently undergoing Phase I study, with a prior flawed study having recommended highway expansion for a new HOV facility. Ten years later, intervening efforts by the state DOT are best characterized by a continuing effort to reach the expansion goal.

To boost scoring support for added highway capacity and HOV, non-barrier separated BRT (i.e., not really BRT) will likely be incorporated. The corridor features over 185,000 passeneger vehilces per day and has existing heavy rail service (the first multi-modal highway/heavy rail corridor in the nation). Any highwway expansion will invariably undermine sustainability goals and will compete for ridership with existing heavy rail (BRT is proposed to overlap service area for existing heavy rail).

While BRT, in this case, would be appropriate to run between Naperville, Oak Brook, and Schaumburg, (exurban/suburban Chicago job centers), BRT is not appropriate for the section of I-290 between the Chicago CBD and Oak Brook. Rather, the heavy rail should be extended to an Oak Brook interface with the suburban *true* BRT and all I-290 lanes frome there into the Chicago CBD should receive congestion pricing. Get people out of their cars without creating more highway capacity.

Of course, a pound of concrete will always (for the foreseeable future)be cheaper than a pound of steel and our policies favor concrete and asphalt. In addition, contrary to highway engineer training, not every highway design "deficiency" needs to be remedied; there are other more prudent ways to solve problems engineers define in highway design terms, including those associated with the driving public's safety . . . more lanes mean more traffic which means more accidents, not less.

Transit should not be used to justify more urban highway lanes and their inevitbale adverse consequences.


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