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New York’s transit woes and the looming climate crisis are inextricably linked

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The city’s inability to adequately address climate change can be seen in how it approaches its transit problems

In New York, transit ridership has plummeted as the share of commuters using for-hire vehicles has risen.
Max Touhey

On Sunday, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change issued a dire report warning that without fundamental societal changes, Earth will feel climate change’s full brunt in the next 22 years. The report found that, at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the planet’s atmosphere will warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2040, a temperature rise the new report says will usher in the most severe effects of climate change such as intense coastal flooding, wildfires, and droughts.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the press release on the report notes, will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Such a transition would require “deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.” And as the New York Times notes, the report concludes greenhouse gases must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels in the next 12 years. Renewable energy would have to account for as much as 67 percent of the world’s energy supply, up from about 20 percent today.

In other words, everything and everyone needs to get much more energy efficient right away.

As a New York City transportation reporter—but also as a human being deeply concerned about what the planet will look like when I’m 50 years old—I immediately asked myself if New York is doing everything it can to reduce greenhouse emissions in the sector I know best, perhaps as an indicator of whether our city, much less our species, is up for the challenge. The answer: We’re not.

Of the so-called C40 cities that have committed to addressing climate change, New York has the second highest level of greenhouse emissions behind only Tokyo, and on a per-capita basis is only slightly behind Los Angeles. This might come as a surprise to those who think New York’s robust public transportation system, which accounts for a mere three percent of the city’s overall emissions but moves some 7.5 million riders on the subway and buses every day, make it a particularly clean energy city.

In fact, transportation emissions as a share of New York City’s total are not that different from the country’s as a whole. According to the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, “private vehicles and trucks” account for 23 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of that—16 percent of the city’s overall emissions—coming from private cars. Despite New York’s extensive public transportation system, this is roughly in line with the national average, where transportation accounts for 28.5 percent of greenhouse emissions (it’s worth noting it is much better than many American car-centric cities like Houston and New Orleans which are among the worst transportation polluters in the C40). A higher proportion of New York City’s transportation emissions (70 percent) come from private cars versus the national average (60 percent).

Incident On NYC’s Subway Snarls Morning Commute Into Manhattan
Subway ridership has consistently fallen as public transit in New York becomes less efficient.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Moreover, there are concerning signs that, rather than continuing to make progress towards greener transit modes, New York is getting worse. Both the MTA and independent consultant Bruce Schaller have found a general shift from efficient modes of transit like subways and buses towards ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Schaller estimates that from 2013 to 2016, TLC-licensed vehicles, including app-based drivers, added 600 million more miles traveled, only one-third of which were with a passenger in the car. He concluded that all of this mileage growth came “without offsetting reduction in private auto use.” A June report from the New York City Department of Transportation found household vehicle registrations increased for the fifth consecutive year, outpacing population growth.

As private vehicle registration and for-hire vehicle use is rising, public transportation use is falling. The two are very much linked; as the subways and buses continue to provide inconsistent and often frustrating service, people opt for alternatives. To that end, the MTA found nearly every “missing” subway or bus ride could be accounted for in for-hire vehicle trip growth.

Falling transit ridership is a national trend, one that city after city has used as an excuse not to be too concerned about their specific city’s declining numbers. But as New York’s population grows, this shift is almost certainly a direct result of poor service; the fact that weekend ridership is plummeting by 4.7 percent year over year—a dramatic drop by transit use standards—is a result of the mind-bogglingly complex and onerous weekend work that has plagued the subway for years on end.

There are some limited success stories, such as the city’s growing cycling ridership, but as far as the transportation sector is concerned, that’s very much offset by the increase in private vehicle miles traveled. Simply put, moving around New York is getting less efficient, not more.

Like every other failure to address climate change, this cannot be pinned on any single politician or company, or even to a particular period in time. It’s a byproduct of a federal government (to varying degrees) unwilling to shift the balance away from fossil fuels and automobiles in every urban area. It’s a result of the dictatorial whims of Robert Moses, which prioritized the automobile and starved the subways, buses, and railways of adequate funding for a generation, forcing subsequent eras into the Sisyphean task of accomplishing multiple generations’ worth of maintenance simultaneously and a nearly insurmountable obstacle to expanding the system into transit deserts which only furthered the dependence on cars. It’s a result of current New York politicians for decades and at all levels acknowledging the seriousness of climate change without taking proportionate action.

Here in New York City, it is also very much the result of a transportation landscape where individual agencies carve out their fiefdoms of influence, preventing a comprehensive vision.

Many of the powers-that-be are simply responding to their most vocal constituents, the ones who show up to community board meetings to protest the latest protected bike lane proposal because it will eliminate parking spots, the ones who phone their state senator saying they’ll lose their vote if they back congestion pricing, the local opposition to every bus lane, and of course, the people who park in them.

In this regard, one doesn’t need to examine spreadsheets or read lengthy reports to see New York’s inability to take climate change seriously. Examples can be found simply by walking down the street: cars constantly parked in bus lanes resulting in slower, unreliable trips; parking placards incentivizing tens of thousands of city employees to drive (and park) everywhere; a bus fleet that is still largely reliant on so-called “dirty” fuels instead of CNGs or hybrids; free parking. I mean, free parking.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” proclaimed Debra Roberts, the co-chair of the working group that produced the UN report. I suspect she intended it as a hopeful note, to remind us that there is still time to take the very drastic steps that will save hundreds of millions of lives.

But as I look around my little corner of the world, the so-called home of progressive America, I don’t see much hope in that. Because here, in the Greatest City In The World™, we’re not even discussing “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes.” We’re still fighting over parking spaces.