Cars remain a necessity for hundreds of millions of people, but public transportation is rapidly growing in popularity. In the United States, for instance, more people took public transit each year from 2006-2009 than they had any year over the previous five decades, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Bus and heavy rail account for the majority of public transit, but the popularity of other modes of transit like light rail, trolley, ferry and vanpool are growing. Cities including Paris, Boston and Mexico City also have invested in bike sharing programs, giving inhabitants even more options for getting from A to B. So, how does this renewed interest in public transportation help the environment?
The simplest answer is that it gets cars off the roads. The Environmental Literacy Council estimates that public transportation keeps 1.5 million tons (1.4 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide emissions out of the air every year simply by giving people an option besides driving their cars. The council also credits public transportation with saving 1.4 billion gallons (5.3 billion liters) of gasoline annually. While impressive, statistics like these also make a lot of sense. By cutting down on the number of people using cars, public transit also decreases traffic congestion, allowing drivers and their passengers to get to their destinations faster (and burn less fuel in the process).
Of course, public transportation produces pollution, too, but many transportation authorities are working tirelessly to reduce those emissions as much as possible. As of 2009, for instance, 29 percent of America’s public buses ran on alternative fuels, marking a nearly 200 percent increase since the year 2000, say U.S. Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials. A car that runs on biodiesel or hydrogen certainly helps the environment, but a fleet of buses doing the same makes an exponentially larger impact.
The environmental benefits stretch even further when communities are designed with an eye on mass transportation. Greenwich Millennium Village (GMV) -- population 2,300 -- is just such a place. Located in London, England, GMV was built from the ground up with the environment in mind. Residents have easy access to public transportation, and they are quick to take advantage of it, relying on it for nearly half of all trips they take. For comparison, most of London’s inhabitants use public transit around 25 percent of the time, despite having access to the city’s world-class subway system, says a 2011 report released by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Communities like GMV serve to remind us that public transit can simultaneously move us toward our destinations and toward a cleaner planet. So the next time you’re wondering how you can reduce your carbon footprint, ditch the car keys, grab a book and fare money, and take public transit where you need to go.