Thursday, August 17, 2006

Environmental Benefits of Mass Transit

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

When the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District moved to annex newer housing developments in southwest Champaign last year, it ignited a controversy that has yet to be fully resolved. I don’t mean to take on the legal or political ins and outs of annexation, and I don’t mean to speak for how the MTD operates. But I would like to recall to your attention the environmental benefits of mass transit, benefits that are enjoyed by everyone in the community served, riders and non-riders alike.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from cleaner air. You may hear people complain about the exhaust that buses produce. But from the perspective of the community as a whole, the real issue is the per-mile difference in emissions between bus travel and car travel. A bus does produce more exhaust than a car, but it also transports more people. In net terms, bus travel reduces air pollution.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from a reduced demand for parking. Of course there’s money to be saved for every parking space that employers don’t have to build or maintain, but there are also important environmental benefits to not building parking, too. By not building parking, we reduce the rate at which land surrounding the urban area is gobbled up, and we refrain from putting additional stress on local waterways with more storm runoff.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from reduced congestion on city and campus streets. According to Census figures from the year 2000, the average travel time to work for residents of Champaign-Urbana was 14.6 minutes. That relatively short commute is one of the factors that makes our community such a pleasant place to live, and mass transit helps to make it possible.

Local planners project that over the next two decades traffic congestion will increase to twelve times present levels, given current patterns of new development, which heavily favor travel by car. In other words, unless mass transit plays a larger role in the way our community grows, drivers in Champaign-Urbana will spend more and more time sitting in their cars in the years to come, using more gas, creating more exhaust . . . you know this picture.

Beyond the inconvenience increased traffic congestion means for drivers, it also creates an environment that is hostile to other means of transportation. As streets become more crowded with cars, they become more dangerous for people who walk or bike, in effect creating pressure for them to drive, too.

Clearly, not everyone in our community is going to use bus service to get from place to place. But that does not make the benefits of bus service to the community any less real.