Transit and climate change, part 2

I posted yesterday about some of the threats that climate change poses to our region and state. I also highly encourage you to watch the excellent “Before the Flood” documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio that was released Sunday.

Today I’ll take a different tack and post some charts that help explain something I’ve frequently written on the blog over the years: generally speaking, taking transit instead of driving alone is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint — i.e. the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) your actions help create.

Let’s start with this from the state of California:



Okay, so there you have it: transpo is the biggest contributor of GHGs in our state. Not exactly a shocker when you consider there are nearly 39.1 million people in California and about 34.3 million registered vehicles in the state.

Now check out this chart below by the Federal Transit Administration (it’s reprinted in this report by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies). It’s from 2009 so things have changed a bit — private vehicles have become slightly more fuel efficient and more electricity that powers trains is being created from renewable sources, but the gist of it holds up:


Yes, those numbers depend on how many passengers are in the above vehicles. Shocker 2: buses and trains that carry a lot of people are good!


Just to drive home this point, some fine print from the report:

Four recent studies have estimated the net amount of GHG emissions that U.S. transit services save each year. All have found that American public transit significantly reduces GHG emissions from the transportation sector. Each of the studies accounted for the travel mode shift effect of transit and for transit vehicles’ emissions. Some of the studies also accounted for the compact development and congestion mitigation effects of transit. 

And, yes, researchers have also considered the greenhouse gases produced by the construction of transit projects, which requires a lot of heavy construction equipment (Metro has a policy on green construction, btw). A UCLA study published in 2013 that looked at driving versus Metro’s Orange Line and Gold Line and found that with decent ridership, the transit projects still did better GHG-wise than the private car:


And now a chart from Metro’s annual Sustainability Report on the agency’s GHG production:



The report also factors in the fact that some riders stop driving in order to ride buses, trains and vanpools — and that suggests that the agency overall helps reduce GHGs in our region. This is a small chart but a big point!


But here’s the thing…transit certainly seems to have benefits when it comes to reducing the pace of climate change (at this point some warming is highly likely to continue occurring), but we haven’t exactly been pumping the Benjamins into transit. One way of looking at it in a study done a decade ago by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group:


At the same time, the federal portion of spending on highways and mass transit has dipped. A chart to back that up from the Congressional Budget Office:


The NYT’s editorial board cited the above in an editorial Sunday pointing to why so many regions are pursuing their own local transportation dollars through ballot initiatives.

Even as America becomes a more urbanized country, we’re still driving a lot. Check out this graphic from the U.S. Department of Transportation:


Holy cow! Americans sure drive a lot. That’s a 50 percent increase just since 1992 in the U.S. And there’s also this little inconvenient truth: per capita Americans emit more greenhouse gases than any other country in the world (here’s an interactive version of the map).

Look, people. I’m not saying transit is all rainbows when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Metro’s buses and trains, too, still rely on fossil fuels whether it’s compressed natural gas used by buses or electricity created by burning natural gas.

But when it comes to burping out GHGs, transit usually does so more efficiently than someone driving alone in a car. And that’s something to chew on next time you consider leaving the car at home or must decide whether expanding transit is worth it.

Like many other people, I struggle to understand climate change and my role in it. I don’t think about it every time I turn the ignition on my car or board a train. But as they say near the end of “Before the Flood,” there are a lot of little things everyone can do — and many of them don’t require turning our lives upside down to do them.

And one of them is this: take the bus or train, even if only occasionally. It may feel like a small or insignificant step, but those steps by many people do add up and it’s one more reason having good transit networks makes a lot of good sense.

Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

8 replies

  1. How fitting that I got an ad on the bottom of my page for solar energy. Has Metro done much looking into solar?

  2. It would seem that with the large area on the tops of buses, solar panels could be installed there to help with running the air conditioning. I had mentioned this once before, but never received a response.

  3. John Rupkalis, Although there is a large area on top of the buses that area is taken up by the CNG fuel tanks. They used to be under the high floor buses but low floor buses must have them on the roof.

    • Thank you for the explanation. So, what would be the problem with putting solar arrays on top of the CNG fuel tanks?

  4. IMO the documentary would have been more persuasive if someone other than a Hollywood actor was the presenter. Far more emphasis on independent sets of data that support the same conclusions might sway some science-deniers.

    The hoax supporters should visit the Pacific Islanders whose land has been shrinking for 50 years. Don’t forget your tin foil hat and Bigfoot repellent!

    • Hey Mike —

      I don’t mind that he’s a celebrity — and at least he admitted that his lifestyle is part of the problem. As for the deniers, I think at this point playing down to their level is a zero sum game; it’s giving them attention that they haven’t earned. I do think skepticism about big government announcements is a healthy thing for democracies, etc., at some point the deniers have to back up the skepticism with something and they, IMHO, haven’t really done that.

      As for tin foil hat and Bigfoot repellent, I would like to order two of each please if you can recommend a good source. I do some camping in Nor Cal!

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. […] 10:45 a.m. Sabemos que en las últimas 24 horas el cambio climático no fue parte de la conversación nacional, pero aquí les dejamos un breve recordatorio: en términos generales, el tomar el transporte público en lugar de manejar solo es una buna forma de disminuir nuestra huella de carbón y por lo tanto de disminuir el calentamiento global. Esperamos que la Medida M ayude a más personas a tener opciones de transporte distintas al auto. Vean esta nota para más información. […]