To the United States Department of Transportation:
The deteriorating state of our global climate is a dire issue with which the United States government needs to be more concerned. Harmful results of increased industrialization and development here in the U.S and worldwide will continue to impose damage on our very way of life if considerable action is not taken. From intensified heat waves and elongated drought in the American Southwest, to steadily increasing sea-levels and fiercer oceanic storms on the shores of the eastern seaboard, the United States has been exposed to threatening pieces of evidence that point to climate change at their cause. To ensure the safety of Americans, there needs to be swift and efficient government intervention to combat the issue of climate change. The priorities of this intervention should be to directly attack the primary factors that contribute to an increasing global temperature and mitigate the harmful effects. In a United Nations Habitat Global Report of Human Settlement published in 2011, researchers stated that while they only cover roughly 2% of global land area, cities were responsible for over 70% of the harmful greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere [Hot11]. As the second-leading emitter of greenhouse gases in world, the United States has a unique responsibility to lead the charge in reversing this trend. The causes of these trends stem from a plethora of reasons. However, one of the single greatest contributing factors in American cities’ monumental output of greenhouse gas emissions is the sheer amount of private vehicles that are in use. To reduce the threats of climate change, the Department of Transportation needs to direct American cities to reduce civilian dependency on private cars by providing them with an alternative and more efficient mode of transportation.
As of 2014, 54% of the human population - just under four billion people - resided in urban areas [Wor14]. With a large percentage of that population hailing from developed or rapidly developing nations, and a United Nations projection claiming that urban dwellers will make up 66% of the global population within the next 35 years, it’s quite clear that there is a very real need for extensive transit infrastructures in cities worldwide [Wor14]. As the global population urbanizes, cities will become increasingly dependent upon mobile transportation to support the needs of increasing numbers of civilians commuting in and around urban areas. Specifically in the U.S., private mobile transportation has been the dominant means of civilian movement for decades, and this trend has been a massive contributor to the disproportionate effects that our cities have on the dramatically shifting climate. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the United States alone, transportation is the source of 32% of all carbon dioxide emissions. That output of CO2 is predicted to keep rising in the near future [Ove14].
Here in the United States, around 95% of households own cars, while 85% of them use that vehicle to travel to work every day [Rob10]. In addition, even though private cars account for only one third of the trips made in and around cities globally, they still claim responsibility for around 73% of urban pollutants and let loose three times as many harmful emissions as modes of public transportation [Tor15]. These harmful effects carry with them threats to not only air quality, but also public health and life expectancy. If considerable action is not taken to reserve these trends of emissions soon, global greenhouse gas outputs could increase by upwards of 300% [Tor15]. In Beijing, China, where air pollution levels are 20 times higher than the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization, life expectancy has been lowered by scientists by as much as 15 years [Bor14]. Although this sobering statistic is not as drastic here in the United States, action must be taken to prevent such dramatic extremes from becoming realities.
While privately owned cars still dominate American transportation, tallying in at a number high above 135 million as of 2006 [Dep12], a trend is taking place which tells us that public transportation is becoming a much more attractive means of movement to American citizens. Urbanization has a large hand in that trend. As cities grow and become more populated, traffic and congestion levels increase. More people bring more cars into cities, bringing with them longer commutes and increased emissions of greenhouse gases. Because of this costly and wasteful phenomena, populations are beginning to look more towards public transportation to make their commutes. For example, in New York City, where the rate of car ownership is at a measly 50% and is the lowest in the nation, an unprecedented number of commuters make their way to work by way of the city’s massive network of public transit systems. 31% of New Yorkers use the city’s Mass Transit Association on a daily basis, over two times the amount of any other metropolitan area in the country [Hes13]. Out of the five boroughs of New York, the four most populated overwhelmingly prefer to rely on public transportation as a means of commuting because of its practicality [NYC12]. Couple that with the fact that over 77% of the city’s population walks, bikes, carpools, or takes mass transportation to work and it is clear as to why New York is one of the “greenest” cities in the country [Bra14]. However, just because the sheer number of Americans using public transportation is increasing, that does not necessarily mean that the fight to combat climate change is nearing an end.
In the United States alone in 2012, public transportation vehicles drove nearly 5.4 billion miles, with buses making up nearly 43% of those miles traveled. In addition, 68% of the 1.1 billion gallons of fossil fuels that were consumed by these modes of transportation in the same year were done so by buses [Pub14]. While American public transportation tends to be more cost-effective and convenient for civilians, their infrastructures and schedules are outdated in terms of what more they can do to reduce America’s carbon footprint. They are relatively inefficient compared to other industrialized nations.
What needs to be encouraged by the Department of Transportation to be implemented in American cities nationwide are public transportation networks that innovatively and effectively combat the growing threat of climate change. This should be done by taking new approaches towards route planning, travel times, and scheduling. Doing so will help increase the attractiveness of using public transportation from economic, environmental, and practicality standpoints. If ridership of public buses increases, that will conversely lower the amount of cars on the road, decrease congestion, and ultimately alleviate greenhouse gas emissions by the tailpipes of American drivers. Given the younger generations that are gradually moving towards moderately sized cities such as Boston, Honolulu, and San Francisco and are bringing with them a revamped attitude towards the fight against a warming climate, the battle for more efficient methods will be an effort well-spent.
The first step that should be taken by the DOT in redesigning American public transportation should be to decrease the use of inefficient practices of transportation authorities that have become harmful norms. At the moment, most American public transportation departments rely on fixed schedules operating on fixed routes. Passengers wait for their desired bus at designated stops until they are picked up, and then are subsequently dropped off at other fixed stops later in the route. If either their destination or the point from which they are coming to catch a bus are not close to a stop, the passenger will be subjected to either walking that distance or paying another fare and transferring from one bus route to another. Although the frequency of buses traveling along each route usually vary based on the time of day and likely passenger demand, at non-peak hours buses can be taking valuable time and discharging harmful emissions to travel from stop to stop along specific routes, only to find that there are no passengers waiting at the next stop, or no passengers that need to get off. This wasteful method has an unnecessarily influential hand in dumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
To combat this, the DOT should mandate to cities and their respective transit authorities to implement platforms through which they and can directly and efficiently communicate with passengers about where public transit vehicles should travel. In other words, departments must introduce alternative methods to the common practice of fixed routes and schedules during times and in locations where they are wasteful. The best way to do this is by reshaping public transportation and bringing it and its accessibility up to speed with the technologically advanced population it’s beginning to serve. In addition to public transit in its current, fixed, form, departments should begin to personalize the experience of public transportation. They can do this by essentially putting the power to dictate routes and stops in the hands of their passengers.
The proposal for the Department of Transportation to reinvigorate public transportation is as follows: Instead of relying solely on current methods and just using standard buses with fixed routes, a much more efficient alternative mode of transportation should be introduced to passengers. In addition to using current public transit methods, local transportation departments should design and implement comprehensive, integrated networks that operate on a demand-based transportation system, specific to their own jurisdiction. This way, passengers would essentially be able to call for public transportation on-demand if standard buses do not offer a route that best suits them. This network would require departments to fund and implement a mobilized application of some kind, owned and operated by the municipality, which is accessible via internet-capable devices. This app would allow civilians looking for a ride to input their exact location and desired destination. From there, the app would use an algorithm that takes into account the desired journey, surrounding traffic patterns, and other important factors to relay information back to the user. This information would consist of a list of the nearest public bus stops from where the passenger could be picked up, a list of the optimal routes that passenger could be offered to reach their destination, and a confirmation option where the potential rider could pay for their trip. If the rider chooses to accept, the nearest vehicle (a minibus of some sorts with wireless connectivity) that operates off of this network would be hailed to pick up that passenger from the designated bus stop. There would be a number of these minibuses strategically placed throughout various areas in the city, on call and ready to be hailed at any time by riders in that same area. If a person orders a ride and is in the area of minibuses already in service, the algorithm will determine whether each of those vehicles and their routes can take on the additional rider. It then offers the potential passenger any of the plausible options. If they choose to accept a certain ride, that minibus’s route will be altered to accommodate the new rider. In other words, routes are constantly being updated by the predetermined algorithm as riders are continually ordering minibuses. What differentiates this service from the now-notorious Uber service is that these vehicles will serve upwards of a dozen different riders on one trip, and will hopefully take over as the dominate means of transportation within cities, as opposed to private vehicles.
Now that the basic proposal has been laid out, the next aspect to consider is how it will be implemented. Although the cost of purchasing and maintaining an additional fleet of vehicles will be substantial, it is feasible. It could be done through an effort to downsize cities’ current public transportation systems, to a degree. If, during non-peak hours, the amount and frequencies of buses on less traveled routes offered were lowered, then transit authorities could use the money saved on gas and wages to fund the introduction of a number of minibuses. Instead of having buses travel along these fixed and largely untraveled routes, dumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and potentially carrying no passengers, cities could have several minibuses on call placed throughout the same areas, ready to respond to however many passengers might need them, but only when they need them.
Any potential opposing arguments to this proposal will come as no surprise. It is understandable if the great majority of people who rely upon public transportation to travel are weary of a proposal to downsize it. However, it must be reiterated that what is being proposed is not an eradication of public transportation along less-populated routes. It is simply a recommendation to the DOT encouraging moderate allocation of funds to transition from relying on relatively wasteful and harmful methods to a more environmentally friendly and efficient alternative. The ability for civilians to access public transportation will not be stymied at all. Simply put, the modes by which they are offered that transportation will change. In fact, those civilians would see a benefit in the fact that they will have more control over the time of their ride and location of their pickup with this demand-based public transportation network. As for the bus drivers who would be seeing cuts to their normal shifts and may be distraught over that fact, the answer is simple: instead of driving the buses that will be cut, they will be placed in the minibuses that will take their spot. In addition, to those who may be skeptical over the idea that this will actually contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change, there are plans being implemented just like this one in other cities worldwide that are drastically reducing the number of private vehicles on their streets. In Helsinki, Finland, a program that is very similar to this one is currently in place that is aiming to eliminate the need to even use a private car on a daily basis within the city. The municipal government is making a strong and distinct effort to minimize the city’s dependency on cars and essentially make private car ownership relatively useless in the coming decade [Ada14]. Helsinki’s Regional Transport Authority implemented a program called Kutsuplus in 2012 with the intention of greatly reducing the number of cars on the road in the downtown area. While their goal is not to completely eradicate the use of private mobility, the municipal government is making its best effort to alleviate the necessity to use private transportation within the city, as urbanization and resulting congestion negatively contributes to the trend of greenhouse gas emissions.
What this program and the aforementioned proposal both intend to do is encourage the use of public transportation in American cities while also decreasing urban dependency on private transportation, as it has a giant hand in creating regular congestion and harming the environment. If municipal governments can provide riders with a personalized, economic, innovative, and welcoming atmosphere in which they can still obtain their needs to constantly get from place to place, then that alternative will end up being a much more attractive option for those who might consider using their own vehicle. This proposal eliminates the cost of parking, operates on passengers’ own schedules, and essentially reduces the need of using a private car for regular commuting. And for those who choose not to use this alternative, they would still be more than welcome to continue to go about using traditional public transportation.
If the Department of Transportation chooses to accept this proposal, it can lay claim that it is committed to making substantial efforts to ensure that American cities are committed to providing their populations with innovative, efficient, and environmentally friendly modes of public transportation. Integrating the methods of transportation that are in place with the personalized transit options that can concurrently cut down on greenhouse gases emissions at a drastic rate by transitioning away from the detrimental dependency on private vehicles. All the while, municipal governments nationwide can make motivated and genuine efforts to protect the well-being of their civilians and their societies by reducing their adverse effects on the increasingly daunting threat of climate change. If it is the concern of the federal department charged with regulating the sector that makes some of the largest contributions to a warming climate to lead the way in this potentially historic effort, this proposal should be strongly considered.
I truly appreciate your concern and consideration. Thank you for your time,
Hot11: , (Hot Cities: Battle Ground for Climate Change),