For Earth Day, public transit means climate equity

This article appeared in The Register-Guard on April 20, 2021, and on Lane Transit District’s web site.

As we reach Earth Day 2021, we might be feeling as if climate change is about impending doom and contentious political battles.

Last year’s deadly wildfires sent shockwaves through communities all over the West, crushing communities and shaking our sense of security for coming fire seasons, and many observers rightly linked increasing wildfire risk to changing climate. At the same time, the Biden administration has made serious action on climate a top priority, rejoining the international accord known as the Paris Agreement and pledging large climate-savvy investments in infrastructure.

Yet at the local level, action on climate change doesn’t have to be about fear and politics. We have climate action opportunities here, in the Eugene-Springfield area, that also support economic efficiency and social equity.

Transit is at the top of that list.

While transit agencies around the country have experienced dramatic drops in ridership during the pandemic, now is the time for transit service and ridership to bounce back. As we bring greater commitment and momentum to climate action, it is essential to remind ourselves of the ways in which public transit holds so much promise.

First, transit is climate action. Before the pandemic, the Lane Transit District helped people make more than 10 million trips locally each year. In the last full year before the pandemic hit, even when running on fossil fuels, LTD estimated the net effect of its operations was a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 16,000 metric tons, the equivalent of taking nearly 3,500 passenger vehicles off the road. LTD is working to amplify this benefit by switching to cleaner ways of powering buses. The agency recently purchased 11 electric buses. Still, we must emphasize that just shifting rides from the car to the bus — regardless how the bus is powered — results in lower emissions.

Second, during the pandemic, LTD’s focus has been on public health and safety. LTD has been a leader in the industry by taking precautions early on to reduce the spread of the virus: requiring masks of all riders and drivers, installing driver enclosures, suspending fare collection to minimize contact and cleaning buses regularly. The results for LTD and other agencies have been clear: With these measures in place, there has been little or no evidence linking transit to spread of the virus. According to the American Public Transportation Association, the science shows that “what you do at the end of a trip affects the probability of contracting the virus far more than the mode of travel.”

Third, transit also delivers economic efficiency. While LTD’s budget looks large compared to a household, in fact, the public money for the agency saved households and governments many millions of dollars. Car ownership and car reliance are expensive. Bus service that keeps cars off the roads reduces expensive and time-consuming congestion for all transportation system users — including those of us in our private vehicles.

Finally, transit is perhaps the best example of climate action that advances social equity. A good transit system extends freedom and inclusion to people who have few or no other options, so it is an essential part of the social safety net. For a much wider population, transit reduces costs for individuals who would otherwise spend a large share of their income on transportation. And while LTD’s ridership has inevitably fallen during the pandemic, the remaining riders during the pandemic are disproportionately essential workers whose employment requires them to be physically present. These grocery store workers, construction workers and others make our society work, and they kept the economy going even at the most dangerous moments of the pandemic. To quote transit thinker Jarrett Walker: “In a pandemic, we are all transit dependent.”

The last year has brought disruption unlike anything in living memory. We now have an opportunity to think critically about what kind of “normal” we want to build moving forward. So as you celebrate Earth Day — and as we gradually bounce back from the pandemic — think about adding the bus to your transportation plans.

Joshua Skov is the vice president of the Lane Transit District’s Board of Directors and is a faculty member in the Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the University of Oregon.

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