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The MTA is joining the Paris climate agreement. It should focus on improving service

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The transportation agency plans to cut its carbon emissions—but increasing ridership would have more of an impact

On a gloomy day, a New York City subway train travels on elevated, snaking tracks adjacent to old buildings with graffiti Scott Lynch

The MTA’s latest ambition? To become a climate leader.

The transportation agency announced it will join the United Nations Climate Agreement, also known as the Paris Climate Accord, and will develop a plan to reduce its carbon emissions in an effort to keep global warming this century under 2 degrees Celsius and ideally limit it to 1.5 degrees.

“As the nation’s largest public transportation provider, the MTA offsets effects of global warming and climate change by keeping New Yorkers’ carbon emissions to the lowest per-capita in the country,” a news release stated. “The MTA will continue these efforts by setting defined targets to reduce greenhouse emissions across transportation and non-transportation activities throughout the organization.”

Global warming is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, which leads to high levels of carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas—accumulating in the atmosphere. After the United States announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017, state and local governments decided, defiantly, to create and implement their own greenhouse-gas reduction goals. Transportation agencies followed. In 2018, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey joined the UN Climate Agreement. The addition of the MTA could represent the broad systems-level thinking that’s needed to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions—if it rises to its full potential.

The MTA says it will work with scientists to first develop emissions reduction targets, then implement policies that will help it meet those goals. The statement outlined what this could look like: electrification of diesel-powered trains (the New York City subway is already electric, but some work trains and commuter trains use diesel); bus electrification (which the MTA is already doing); improving the energy efficiency of its facilities; and increasing the use of renewable electricity sources.

While that all sounds well and good, the real way the MTA can make impact is by taking a mandate it already has—to increase ridership—seriously. “Emissions per-passenger-mile can be reduced by looking into increasing capacity across its public transportation modes,” the MTA’s statement reads.

New York already has the lowest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions of any state. Meanwhile, residents of New York City have an annual carbon footprint of 6.1 metric tons compared to a national average of 19 tons. This is due in large part to using public transportation, and not private cars, for travel.

But the MTA—which serves over 7.2 million passengers a day through New York City Transit’s subways and buses and the Long Island Railroad and Metro North commuter trains—has been dealing with a ridership problem. Over the last few years, ridership declined due to worsening subway service and an increase in for-hire car services like Uber and Lyft, according to the Regional Plan Association. Recent initiatives have helped the subway see an increase in riders, but bus ridership decreased by 13 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to the city.

This is where the MTA ought to focus its energy: more riders means fewer emissions-per-passenger mile, and fewer emissions from the region as a whole. That’s how you cut carbon.

Every year, the MTA emits two million metric tons of carbon, but “avoids” 19 million because transit is less carbon consumptive than cars. The MTA could take its self-imposed carbon-reduction mandate to the next level and think not just about its own supply chain and operations, but how it fits into the larger ecosystem of transportation-related carbon consumption. That’s all about making its services easier to use and faster than cars.

Leaning more heavily into “transit avoided carbon” could look like lobbying the city for more bus right-of-way, like the wildly successful 14th Street busway. This could look like congestion pricing. This could look like improving outer-borough transit. This could look like decriminalizing fare evasion—or even making public transit free.

The MTA’s potential for decarbonization is so much bigger than focusing on electricity, and to make the impact on emissions the world needs, it has to be.