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Moving Forward with Sustainable Transit

Dec 23, 2009

by Krystal Meiners, VIA Architecture

Drafting environmental policy to promote better transportation networks

If the US were to reach an agreement on climate action, and specifically, an agreement on GHG reduction targets we may eventually get to see that boom in the transportation sector that we have all been waiting for. In the last year, industry professionals have been hard at work providing policy makers with the latest comprehensive research on the benefits of developing sustainable transit networks, but, without an ambitious target for GHG emissions reduction, will these projects gain priority?

Reaching the current baseline proposed by the Obama administration would mean glacial progress toward more integrated and sustainable transportation systems in the US. Legislation should be aiming higher, not lower, if we want to see real progress in the sustainability of our infrastructure and the growth of our cities.

Setting a more aggressive target for carbon emissions could mean an increased number of transportation projects like light rail and BRT in a lot more cities. If emissions reduction becomes a priority on a federal and state level, sustainable mobility becomes an important strategy in helping cities reach those targets. While the US still struggles to define or commit to an ambitious federal target, it is important for local leaders to step up and decide how their cities will address the issues of climate change; and it may be as simple (or as hard) as getting people out of their cars and planning our cities for density and efficiency.

Industry reports, such as the APTA Sustainable Transportation Practice Compendium (discussed in a previous post here), have made substantial progress in outlining best practices for sustainability in the design, construction and operation of transportation networks.

The recommendations made in the Compendium exhibit the highest levels of qualitative strategies for building better and more integrated systems. It is important to measure these benefits when considering the lifecycle and impact of transit infrastructure and how this work translates to a reduction in GHG emissions on top of reduced vehicle miles traveled.

If the US were to set higher targets for emissions reduction, these recommendations would easily become best practices and would propel our transportation technologies forward. On the other hand, without prioritizing emissions reduction, many of the strategies discussed here would be overlooked in favor of “business as usual.”

Other industry works like Moving Cooler from the Urban Land Institute, have different and more quantitative strategies for reducing emissions. This report examines several ways of bundling implementation strategies and regulatory programs based on desired outcomes and levels of achievable GHG reductions.

These bundles represent examples of how to group transportation strategies together in innovative ways to effectively reduce emissions while creating a flexible framework so that decisions can be based on time frame, intensity of reduction, phasing, and finally cost.

The report builds on what is local and available for reformation like parking and speed limits but provides a measurable component for environmental safety and priority as well as direction for next steps and how to implement more aggressive strategies.

Many states have developed their own climate agendas and are hard at work trying to integrate local policy to reflect their climate change goals. Some states have developed policy around smart growth, environmental safety, and sustainable mobility but these initiatives are not supported by federal funding, which generally favors “shovel-ready” projects that boost jobs and the economy in the short term.

If the US were to aim higher and prioritize long term sustainability, we would be well positioned in the long term green economy, as well.