Cutting transportation emissions – Seriously? Action speaks louder than words

Diesel-smoke[1]California has the nation’s worst air. That fact should be an eye-opener.

Moreover, knowing this, serious effort should be prompted to clean it up. More on this in a moment.

My position is: since the majority of pollutants come from transportation, that sector should be getting anything but short shrift when it comes to finding and implementing corrective and effective measures to significantly cut emissions in this regard – be they engineering or otherwise.

Many feel polluted air is the nation’s number one concern.

According to the American Lung Association, more than 127 million Americans are affected: a full 40 percent of the U.S. population – a number that, ideally, should be zero.

Putting a finger – and getting a handle – on the problem

Part of the problem, as I see it, is, in the U.S. when it comes to furthering transportation there are myriad people who aren’t thinking past the present.

Coupled to this, in many parts of the country highway and road expansion continues to be the main focus with emphasis on far more sustainable and eco-friendly transit and/or advanced transit infrastructure advancement quite often taking a back seat. In my opinion, building our way out of the congestion crisis using the traditional “roadwork” model alone is not the answer.

Of 439 urban areas analyzed, the Texas A & M Transportation Institute (TTI) in its 2011 Urban Mobility Report found that in 2010, Americans drove 4.8 billion hours more due to traffic delay, purchased an extra 1.9 billion gallons of fuel and therefore forfeited $101 billion in congestion-related costs. This is time out the window, money down the drain and fuel up in smoke; smoke that carries in it harmful pollutants people breathe.

The TTI emphasized, “There are many ways to address congestion problems; the data show that these are not being pursued aggressively enough. The most effective strategy is one where agency actions are complemented by efforts of businesses, manufacturers, commuters and travelers. There is no rigid prescription for the ‘best way’—each region must identify the projects, programs and policies that achieve goals, solve problems and capitalize on opportunities.”

Proven solutions

The problem is serious as should be the effort to find and implement the correct fixes.

TTI, in the report was quick to note, in 2010:

  • Operational treatments and public transportation use cut delay by 327 million hours and 796 million hours, respectively
  • Operational treatments and public transportation use saved 131 million and 303 million gallons of fuel, respectively, and
  • Operational treatments and public transportation use reduced yearly congestion costs in 2010 dollars by $6.9 billion and $16.8 billion, respectively

According to TTI, “Operational Treatments” can include:

  • Get as much service as possible from what we have
  • Add capacity in critical corridors
  • Change the usage patterns
  • Provide choices
  • Diversify the development patterns

Meanwhile, projections are that by 2050, California’s population will increase to between 50 million and 60 million based on past and current trends. Golden State population is roughly 38 million now.

With this in mind, the last hurdle was just cleared regarding the state high-speed rail project being given the green light to move forward with construction. Ground is to be broken in July 2013. It is important to note that, at present, there are approximately six million people flying between the San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles areas yearly.

On Amtrak’s 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor linking Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., to demonstrate just how effective passenger train travel between Boston and the Big Apple has been, Amtrak has successfully captured 54 percent of the air versus rail commuter market. Between the latter city and D.C., Amtrak’s market share is an impressive 75 percent. In getting to this point, this didn’t happen by accident. Electric high-capacity, high-quality, high- and higher-speed train-based modes have proven quite effective in their delivering a viable, valuable and needed transportation product and service. In places where just this type of product and service is offered, public reaction has been positive.

Next, from Environment California’s Research & Policy Center in its Getting California on Track: Seven Strategies to Reduce Global Warming Pollution from Transportation report, listed are seven in-state emissions-reductions strategies. They are:

  • Limit Emissions from Vehicle Tailpipes
  • Limit Emissions from Vehicle Fuels
  • Reduce Emissions from Heavy-Duty Trucks
  • Promote Alternatives to Single-Passenger Work Trips
  • Build High-Speed Rail
  • Expand the State’s Transit Systems
  • Stop Sprawl and Expand Transit-Oriented Development

Further, as pointed out in the same study, “By aggressively implementing seven strategies to reduce growth in vehicle travel, improve energy efficiency, and promote the use of lower carbon fuels, California can reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from transportation by 14 percent below 2004 levels by 2020—a 31 percent reduction below business as usual—and by 25 percent below 2004 levels by 2030—a 46 percent reduction below business as usual.”

As for the transit-oriented development or transit village concept, “Federal transportation legislation in the 1990s has helped shift government investment priorities away from the automobile and toward alternatives, such as transit, walking, and biking,” wrote Hank Dittmar with Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler in “The New Transit Town: Best Practices In Transit-Oriented Development,” a book edited by Dittmar and Gloria Ohland. “Transit-oriented development can respond to these changes by offering an alternative that is viable in the marketplace while still yielding social benefits. Transit-oriented development in the twenty-first century can be a central part of the solution to a range of social and environmental problems.”1

So true.

At the same time I firmly believe that in order for the abovementioned approaches to have teeth and across-the-board appeal, policy and decision-makers, land and transportation planners and other key players, must see such approaches for what they really are: as investments. Then and only then will these resolutions really begin to take root and grow.

That’s key.


  1. Hank Dittmar with Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler, in “An Introduction to Transit-Oriented Development (Chapter 1), “The New Transit Town: Best Practices In Transit-Oriented Development,” Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland editors, 2004, p. 9.

– Alan Kandel