When fate hands us lemons, lets try to make lemonade
The concurrent housing, financial and energy crises not only create a vital imperative to divorce ourselves from attitudes and lifestyles that are largely responsible for the hardships so many now face but present an extraordinary opportunity to ensure a sustainable future for all Americans while revitalizing the economy. The way to achieve this is by train, bus and ferry.
A substantial investment in our mass-transit systems particularly in projects to increase their availability and make them "greener" would create jobs, give us a competitive edge in the global marketplace and, perhaps most important, offer a bold new front in the battle against climate change. Studies show that shifting ridership from cars to mass transit dramatically lowers carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change. This reduces road congestion, making autos still on the highway more fuel efficient. The U.S. produces 45 percent of the worlds automotive carbon emissions, so the impact this could have is profound.
Over the last two years, I've gotten an in-depth look at mass transit's potential. As a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority North America's largest mass-transit network I've been involved in developing a blueprint for the most ambitious greening of a regional transit system ever undertaken. (The MTA services a 5,000-aquare-mile area that includes New York City, Long Island, the Hudson Valley and parts of Connecticut.) Our report, released earlier this month, calls for the MTA to draw 80 percent of its operating energy from clean, renewable sources by 2050 and capture two-thirds of the four million new residents expected to move into the region by 2030.
The key to absorbing this growth is through transit-oriented development (TOD), which clusters a neighborhood-style mix of residential space, shops, businesses and services around mass-transit hubs, vastly reducing residents' needs to hop in a car. The commission's Smart Growth/TOD Subcommittee, which I chair, is charging public and private planners to concentrate two-thirds of new development within a walkable quarter- to half-mile of MTA train, bus and subway stops. To accomplish this, were urging passage of state laws similar to California's visionary SB 375, which provides economic incentives for developments that reduce driving and greenhouse gases. In New York, we're fortunate that combating climate change is a priority of Gov. David Paterson. His Smart Growth Cabinet is working with the MTA to develop its own incentive package to promote TOD. One of the key benefits of this approach is that concentrating development around mass-transit hubs prevents sprawl, protecting open space available for farmland, recreation and climate-change mitigation and adaptation.
The Sustainability Commission's TOD recommendations should serve as a model for metropolitan areas nationwide, helping them reduce their carbon footprints, conserve irreplaceable natural resources threatened by sprawling development, position them to compete in a changing economy that rewards energy efficiency and increased density of intellectual capital, and contribute to a $450-billion U.S. savings in building and infrastructure. In terms of productivity, the return on such investments would be enormous. Forecasters predict that funding the MTA projects outlined in our report would create 105,500 new jobs and $17 billion in economic output annually from 2010 to 2019. The report also is unequivocal about what will happen if we do nothing: "Should we fail to act now, there is little doubt that much of the projected economic growth will be diverted to those global cities capable of sustaining it." Think Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Some might argue that groundbreaking initiatives like this are impossible during dire economic times. The MTA's history dictates otherwise. Initial construction of its train and subway lines occurred from 1904 to 1940, through the Panic of 1908 and the Great Depression. The MTA system underwent a huge modernization and expansion of service beginning in the 1980s, withstanding a decade-long recession and the economic downturn after the 2001 terrorist attacks. At this moment of crisis and opportunity, the Obama Administration must seize the moment, recognizing that a major factor in ensuring an environmentally and economically healthy future for all Americans rests on transportation that keeps us out of our cars. There could be no bigger and long-lasting bang for our stimulus bucks.
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