Americans living in urban areas are driving less than they were ten years ago, according to a new report by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). At the same time, public transit and bicycle use is becoming more common.
American city populations grew by 14 percent between 2000 and 2010, much faster than the general population. This urban population boom is saddled with risks to the climate — already, urban areas consume more than 66 percent of the world’s energy and generate 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s largest cities are expected to increase greenhouse gas emissions by ten percent as the urban population continues to swell.
However, the PIRG report suggests that energy inefficient habits are declining, at least in American cities. The percentage of workers commuting by car dropped in 99 out of 100 of the largest urban areas in the U.S. from 2000 to 2011, while the proportion of households without cars rose in 84 of these areas. Over the same period, the number of miles traveled on public transit jumped 20 percent, even as cash-strapped transit agencies cut service and hiked fares. Bike commuting has also become more popular in 91 of the nation’s largest urban areas.
All over the country, public transit use is rising steadily while miles spent in a car are dropping. City dwellers may be driving this trend, as urban areas are more likely to offer energy efficient alternatives to cars. People in cities can more easily walk, bike, or take public transit to work or for daily errands.
Research shows taking public transportation is one of the most effective ways an individual can reduce their carbon footprint. According to the American Public Transportation Association, just one driver who switches to public transit can reduce their household’s carbon emissions by 10 percent, while a second commuter who starts taking public transit can bump that reduction up to 30 percent.
Still, Congress is attempting to starve already overburdened public transit budgets, rather than update and expand these more sustainable systems. Tea Party lawmakers Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) recently introduced a bill to eliminate all federal funding for transportation projects, leaving local and state authorities to their own devices to figure out if and how transit systems should get funded. Republican lawmakers have also pushed to get rid of funding for mass transit systems and passenger rail even as ridership grows.
As the PIRG report notes, the funding squeeze is the biggest factor keeping more commuters from getting on board with public transit. “In many places, the biggest barrier to non-driving transportation options is a lack of funding,” the report states. “Many cities that were forced to cut back on transit service during the recession experienced discouraging declines in ridership — even as transit ridership boomed nationwide.”