skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Rob Perks’s Blog

America needs clean transportation, not just clean cars

Rob Perks

Posted April 19, 2013

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

The Obama administration has taken historic strides to reduce America's dependence on oil, most notably by raising automobile fuel standards to 54.5 miles-per-gallon last year. Considering that the transportation sector consumes a whopping 71% of petroleum in the U.S., clean cars are a must. More recently, President Obama proposed another way to wean the country off fossil fuels by creating an Energy Security Trust Fund,  pumping $2 billion ($200 million a year over a decade) into research into technologies that would power Americans’ cars without oil -- funded with oil and gas drilling revenues.

But Americans for Transit raised a good point about all this:

"Focusing the trust’s investment solely on clean fuels ignores the fact that riding public transportation – buses, subways, light trains and ridesharing – is the most effective way to promote a cleaner and safer environment.”

Earlier this week I was on a panel discussion at the "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" conference focusing on transit. I noted that public opinion polling consistently shows strong support for public transportation. Transit is one of the most effective tools to reduce carbon emissions -- for example, each bus takes 35 cars off the road. For every mile traveled on public transit, riders produce 95 percent less carbon dioxide than driving.

And to the point above about oil dependence, at current levels of usage, transit already reduces U.S. gasoline consumption by 1.4 billion gallons each year. That means:

  • 108 million fewer cars filling up – almost 300,000 every day
  • 34 fewer supertankers leaving the Middle East
  • 140,000+ fewer tanker truck deliveries to service stations per year
  • a savings of 3.9 million gallons of gasoline per day

All the more reason why clean transportation -- not just clean cars and clean fuels -- should be a major component of federal efforts to reduce America's oil addiction. Here's a handy chart bringing the point home.


Yet another benefit of public transportation is congestion relief, or as we say at NRDC: more choices, less traffic. Simply put, providing people with more transportation options will reduce the need for so many people to drive or for people to drive so much.

There is a fallacy to overcome here, namely the "fundamental law of road congestion," which suggests that transit fails to relieve traffic because latent demand for road space is so great. Not so, according to new research which finds that "the net benefits of transit" on traffic is "much larger than previously believed." The author of the study, Berkley scholar Michael Anderson, put it this way:

"The intuition is straightforward: Transit is most attractive to commuters who face the worst congestion, so a disproportionate number of transit riders are commuters who would otherwise have to drive on the most congested roads at the most congested times. Since drivers on heavily congested roads have a much higher marginal impact on congestion than drivers on the average road, transit has a large impact on reducing traffic congestion."

Anderson's work also shows the economic benefit of public transit, estimating that the congestion relief provided by public transportation in Los Angeles, for example, ranges between $1.2 billion and $4.1 billion per year. Therefore, the considerable economic gains justify the significant cost of constructing transit systems. As Anderson concludes:

Contrary to the conclusions in the existing transportation and urban economics literature, the congestion relief benefits alone may justify transit infrastructure investments.

Anderson's analysis comports with public sentiment, as evidenced by NRDC's poll last year which asked:  "In order to reduce traffic congestion and provide more transportation choices, would you support or oppose local governments in your area investing more to expand and improve public transportation, including buses, trains, and light rail?"

A total of 68% of respondents expressed support (39% strongly so), while only 25% opposed it.

Publc transportation: a worthwhile investment to reduce climate pollution, oil dependence and traffic congestion!


Share | | |


Ken ByrdApr 19 2013 06:05 PM

An expansion of public infrastructure would be fantastic, economically and environmentally. However, the survey question that is cited is a bit disingenuous. Change "investing more" to "raising taxes," and the results would look considerably different. Words matter. I do not doubt that the vast majority of Americans would like to see improved public transportation, but their willingness to pay for it is another story.

Rick RybeckApr 20 2013 01:18 AM

Good article.

Unfortunately, investing more in transit can sometimes be a double-edged sword. If transit is well-designed and well-executed, land prices around stations rise. This can chase development away to cheaper, but more remote sites. The resulting sprawl destroys not only farmland but municipal budgets as well because expensive infrastructure must be duplicated over great distances resulting in high per-capita tax burdens.

Fortunately, some jurisdictions have used value capture to transform their property tax into a public services access fee. This is accomplished by reducing the tax rate on building values and increasing the tax rate on land values.

Lower taxes on building values make buildings cheaper to build, improve and maintain. Surprisingly, higher taxes on land values help keep land prices low.

Also, taxing land values creates an economic imperative to develop high-value land. High-value land is typically urban land near infrastructure amenities like transit. And these are the very locations where development makes the most sense.

The resulting compact development is much more convenient and efficient for walking cycling and transit than sprawl. For a more thorough explanation, see "Using Value Capture to Finance Infrastructure and Encourage Compact Development" at

TylerApr 21 2013 03:57 PM

I'd recommend that you separate BRT systems from regular bus routes. I think you'll see a large difference between the two, not only in terms of CO2 emissions per person but also for many other metrics. It therefore makes sense to divide regular and BRT systems into different categories.

I want to driveApr 22 2013 03:55 PM

Unfortunately, for the past two decades, America has invested money on public car orient public transportation.
People drive to train stations. If destinations are not near train stations, people drive.
Talking about surface bus service, that is 3 letter dirty word
Therefore, America rail-revolution has failed to accomplish
108 million fewer cars filling up
In fact, the rail-revolution has made more car drivers.
The people who don't drive pray they can drive one day. That number is increasing even though rails are kept building (bus service are kept reducing).
Oh, I am one of them

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Rob Perks’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In