Green Transport Means Public Transport

Though it is wise of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to invest in both electric vehicles and public transit, we must shift away from America’s car culture in the coming decades.

On March 31st, the White House published a fact sheet on President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, or the AJP. According to the Penn Wharton Budget Model, the AJP would spend $2.7 trillion from 2022-2031 to revolutionize our transportation infrastructure, investing in electric vehicles (EVs), roads, and public transit. 

The most practical and long-term solution to America’s transport sustainability crisis is funding public transport. But, of the $621 billion dollars supplied over ten years, only $165 billion goes towards modernizing public transit and rail services.

EVs are certainly part of climate mitigation—according to CarbonBrief, their lifetime carbon emissions are roughly a third of traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines. The money saved on fuel costs and increased miles per gallon equivalent also make EVs an attractive option.

However, we may be over-incentivizing them. Of the $174 billion dollars dedicated to EVs in the AJP, $100 billion dollars will be going towards consumer rebates. Elon Musk stated that taxpayers should not be paying for EV incentives because EVs are largely marketed to wealthy Americans anyway.

Pasquale Romano, who runs one of the world’s largest EV charging networks, agrees, saying that it will take roughly 20 to 30 years for the United States to go all-electric without a “massive, unaffordable federal program.”

Scaling up EV production is also going to be extremely challenging. The Hill reports that cutting U.S. gasoline use by a third requires roughly 100 million new EVs (there are about 276 million registered motor vehicles in the U.S.) and there may be difficulties in securing enough lithium or cobalt to produce the necessary batteries. Additionally, China dominates the lithium and cobalt supply chains, which may complicate American access to these resources.

We should thus focus on decreasing private transport, EV or not. A paper published in Nature Climate Change estimates that if we continue our trend of driving more miles as a nation every year, we will need more than 350 million EVs to prevent more than 2℃ of climate change. If we instead keep our current total miles, that number shrinks to 205 million.

America’s cultural preference for private over public transport leads to trains and buses struggling with fuel efficiency, since they net lower miles per gallon than cars. But when these services near maximum capacity, they do wonders for energy conservation. If fifty people fill a bus, that’s fifty people that aren’t driving, and buses become the energy-efficient alternative.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, it is difficult to imagine public transport at even a fraction of full capacity. The New York Times published several pieces on how New York City’s subway ridership has tanked and may not recover fully. The Pew Research Center stated that most Americans who can telework want to continue doing so all or most of the time, which diminishes the need for any transport. Nonetheless, we can be hopeful for subways, and public transport overall.

As Andy Byford, former president of the New York City Transit Authority remarks, public transit leaders can spark innovation and make public transit “the irresistible option.” In response to COVID-19, many cities closed off streets and implemented bike lanes to encourage outdoor interactions, which many residents preferred in lieu of car accessibility. In a study in Copenhagen, it was found that their biking and walking culture was environmentally beneficial and had health benefits.

With congestion pricing, public transit can also become the cheaper alternative for commuters while making money for the government. Also, Reuters reports that investing in green public transit would create 5 million jobs worldwide.

Shifting America to a public-transit oriented culture will be a challenge, but we are in an optimal position to implement it, and it would be a shame if we wasted this opportunity. Our climate and energy needs cannot afford a car-led COVID-19 recovery, and there is immense social, environmental, and economic profit to reap from a recovery led by public transport.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Read work from other students and learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Caroline Magdolen

Student Advisory Council Member
Caroline Magdolen is a Kleinman Center Student Advisory Council Member and an undergraduate student studying in the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) program. Magdolen was also a 2021 Undergraduate Seminar Fellow.