When it comes to transportation, the United States suffers from bipolar disorder. Every good public transit project proposed seems to be matched by an environmentally destructive road project. That’s the message of a new Sierra Club report released today, Smart Choices, Less Traffic: The 50 Best and Worst Transportation Projects in the United States. By taking cars off the road and enabling smarter growth, the best projects lower climate-change emissions, enhance air quality, reduce harmful runoff, prevent habitat fragmentation, and fight America’s obesity epidemic. New road projects do exactly the opposite. Traditionally, the United States has heavily favored road building over transit, spawning today’s sprawling, car-oriented society. As the report points out, we are the “world’s largest consumer of oil, burning more than 18 million barrels of petroleum products a day.” Fortunately, in today’s America, the best transportation projects seem to have a bit of an upper hand. We may be able to change, but resistance is fierce.
As Transit Chair of the Montgomery County, Maryland Sierra Club Group, I have helped to get the Purple Line, a planned light-rail route, into the Sierra Club report. Serving Washington, DC’s inner suburbs, the Purple Line—should it be funded—will connect the arms of existing lines in the metropolitan system. Its trains will almost certainly be packed from day one of operation, and it will spur development in all the right places, near the urban core and in the underdeveloped eastern part of the Washington, DC region.
A well-conceived transit project helps the environment in multiple ways. It replaces numerous automobiles, moving far more people on the same amount of energy. Government studies show motor vehicles as the largest contributor to climate change, responsible for some 28% of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States (NASA, 2010; USDOT, 2012). Beyond directly reducing emissions, transit draws development around its stations, encouraging dense, walkable areas, rather than the sprawling development that new roads promote. Buildings in dense development use heat and cooling far more efficiently than do the individual houses and strip malls promoted by sprawl.
Taking cars off the road also improves local air quality. As the Sierra Club report points out, “Cars, trucks, and buses are the largest source of cancer-causing air pollution in the US, emitting more than 12 billion pounds of toxic chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter each year.” Car exhaust can trigger or cause asthma and other respiratory problems, and has been linked to pneumonia and cancer. Car crashes are another public health impact of excessive reliance on automobiles; the report observes that “Between 2000 and 2009, more than 47,000 pedestrians were killed in the US.” And excessive reliance on automobiles increases obesity, another aspect of the car-centric public health hydra. By contrast, with compact develop around transit stations, trips become far shorter and occur via a variety of modes, including walking and biking.
Excessive automobile use also contaminates our waterways the report explains, creating “Runoff of motor oil, dirt, deposited vehicle exhaust, road particles, tire particles, and automotive fluids.” The Purple Line will therefore help the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay, as well as the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. And the sprawl that automobiles encourage leads to the building of impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, increasing runoff and its harmful effects. Sprawl also fragments habitat, exacerbating the biodiversity crisis that, along with climate change, threatens our world.
While the kinds of transit projects that help the environment have been gaining ground in the United States, entrenched lobbies, together with the road-oriented mindset of many state and local departments of transportation, make for a constant struggle for precious dollars. Fortunately, this mentality has been changing, largely due to public preference. Following up on a 2002 Sierra Club report of the best and worst projects, the current report explains that far more of the good ones have been built; “Of the 26 projects included in the 2002 report as examples of the worst transportation investments, a mere five projects have been completed over the course of the last decade, with an additional seven currently under construction. This means that less than half of these projects are at or nearing completion, compared with the 80 percent completion rate for the best examples.” While this is an encouraging trend, the nature of infrastructure built in the United States in the decades following World War II makes change a long, hard struggle.
A glance at the DC region’s projects dramatizes the situation. Besides the Purple Line, there is Capital Bikeshare, a pioneering effort whose bright red bikes have become ubiquitous and which, in a mere four years, has inspired similar programs across the country. And there is the Silver Line, an extension of the Metro system to Virginia’s Tyson’s Corner, an important, currently car-jammed job center, then out to Dulles Airport and beyond. Unfortunately, there’s also the outer beltway in Virginia’s Loudon County, which will pull automobile traffic and development further from the core city. The cost, $3.5 to 5 billion, will dwarf that of most transit projects. And its proponents are pushing for an extension across the Potomac River into Maryland, where it could eventually link up with the Intercounty Connector, a just-completed, $3 billion project that’s currently draining Maryland’s transportation budget, making funding for the Purple Line difficult. The region’s emerging transit-, bicycle-, and pedestrian-friendly trend must contend with an opposing vision of building our way ever-outward in an all-consuming highway network. We cannot afford this vision either financially or environmentally—it will never be completed. However, we might end up with piecemeal version of it that makes transit funding impossible.
Smart Choices, Less Traffic explains how the car-centric vision remains in our new national transportation policy, MAP-21: “[T]he final bill dropped key provisions that would have made streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, maintained transit commuter benefits at a level equal to parking benefits, and set a national objective for addressing energy consumption in transportation. Though MAP-21 authorizes $105 billion in federal spending for transportation over two years, it spends four times as much on highways as on other modes of transportation.” Given our current politics, these concessions were necessary to get any kind of transportation bill through Congress. Despite the rising popularity of transit and smart growth, they are not moving forward with the speed needed. Our great national schizophrenia means a continuing struggle over two competing visions of the American transportation future, a sustainable one providing healthy biking, walking, and transit options, and an unsustainable one, utterly car-oriented.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.