Take the Climate Fight to the Streets -- by Improving Transit

Photo of Laura Tolkoff

The administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has put forth an ambitious plan to curb the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, primarily by transforming publicly and privately owned buildings. The plan includes a number of important targets, including:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings 35% by 2025;
  • Installing 250 megawatts of solar power in 10 years;
  • Conducting energy-efficiency upgrades in 150-200 city-owned buildings annually.

To make these goals stick, the city has proposed a number of financing and technical assistance programs and announced intentions to expand the Greener Greater Buildings Plan to cover midsize buildings over 25,000 square feet. The combination of available financing and incentives, clear guidelines and assistance, and construction mandates are a great set of tools for cutting emissions from buildings, the single-biggest source of greenhouse gases that are behind global warming.

Still, a quarter of all of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and other non-building sources. Cars account for 70% of New York City’s transportation emissions. While more than 80% of trips in Manhattan are made via transit or on foot, cars dominate in the other boroughs. As congestion increases, so too do fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, there are many things that the city and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority can do to reduce emissions. For starters, many people who drive now would take mass transit if service were better. Outside Manhattan, bus service on weekends and at night can be infrequent, discouraging transit use. In parts of the city, bus service is subpar even during peak periods.

Car owners also are deterred by buses that move at a snail's pace. Things will improve once a new fare-payment system is adopted, something that is still a few years away. In the meantime, even seemingly small measures would help. For example, the MTA could expand its campaign encouraging bus passengers to use rear-door exits, cutting down on the time buses are idling at stops.

New York City also could focus on policies that lead to the development of unneeded parking spaces, and use incentives to shift more commercial deliveries to off-peak periods. Finally, rationalizing the city's toll system would alleviate traffic in the most congested areas.

These measures would help reduce automobile use in the city, cutting pollution and improving air quality. Investing more in the transit network would expand economic opportunity for residents by putting more jobs within reach of more people. And these steps would support two other big priorities in New York City right now, expanding the availability of affordable housing near transit and improving safety on our streets.