Transit and the Environment

An Amtrak train

A couple years ago, I traveled to see one of my best friends get married. That was a special day for me, seeing one of my best friends marry the love of his life.

The day before and the day after the wedding, the train ride I took was very pretty. However, I experienced and learned more about how second-rate of a train “system” Amtrak, the intercity/interstate passenger rail system we have in the United States, really is.

My experience was interesting, to say the least. I was obsessed about making my train in good time because this was the only train going between New York City and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (my destination). My Pittsburgh-bound train was delayed, by as much as forty minutes at one point, because we were stuck behind two freight trains—something that wouldn’t happen if Amtrak owned its own tracks and therefore had control over which trains travelled through and when. The café car on the way back to New York had food about twice as expensive as fast food at a highway exit (and less edible than McDonald’s).

Then, there was what I learned before, during, and after my train ride. Before the train ride, I already knew that some major cities in the United States, such as Las Vegas, Nevada and Nashville, Tennessee, do not have any train service. During my visit, I learned that Pittsburgh, a city of about 300,000 people, had only three train departures a day at the time: one that left for Chicago at 11:59 PM, one that left for Washington, D.C. at 5:20 AM, and one that left for New York at 7:30 AM (the train I took back to New York).  And since my train ride, I’ve learned that it’s actually quite common for trains to be delayed because Amtrak does not own many of the tracks it provides service on, therefore creating a situation where they are often stuck behind freight trains and delayed by many minutes.

It’s as if Americans are being actively discouraged to take commuter rail. And that is horrendous for the environment.

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is transit.[1] These greenhouse gases, which trap heat and help make the planet warmer, make our air toxic and contribute to global warming.[2] Considering the fact that transit is the number one cause of these emissions, it is appalling that transit’s role in damaging the environment, as well as the role it needs to play in helping the environment, seems to get discussed relatively little.

But how should discussions on transportation and the environment start? I have a few ideas:

  1. It must be recognized that transportation is a major reason why our air is dirty and the environment is not in the shape that it should be. As I said before, transit is the biggest emitter in greenhouse gases, and until we recognize that, transit won’t be a factor that is considered seriously when reviewing environmental policies.
  2. If the United States is serious about cutting transit emissions, the country must prioritize mass transit over cars and airplanes. Study after study shows that buses and trains are way better for the environment than cars and airplanes. Yes, ultimately there need to be disincentives for driving and flying within the lower 48 states,[3] but if you’re in Las Vegas and have zero Amtrak service, then your only options for intercity travel are either a car or an airplane. There need to be greater disincentives for driving within cities, but if public transportation does not take you to where you want to go, then you have to drive.
  3. Municipalities should make their areas easier to walk or ride a bike. The city kid in me always used to give a bemused chuckle when I heard people talk about needing to drive everywhere, even if it’s three minutes away, because they couldn’t walk anywhere. That needs to change. By making spaces easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate, we can cut down on the countless three-minute drives to schools, grocery stores, doctors, etc., that wouldn’t be necessary with good pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
  4. We need cars and planes to burn less in the way of greenhouse gases. While cars and planes are so damaging to the environment, some people will still need to use cars and/or planes to function personally and/or professionally. Policy looking to reduce greenhouse gases coming from transit should look to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that come from a car or a plane.[4]

After reading all of this, readers can see why I’m so mad about the state of Amtrak and public transportation in the United States in general. Sound environmental policy would work on building Amtrak into a world-class system, work on building other public transport infrastructure, and improve infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Sadly, the United States currently does the opposite—it makes environmentally friendly modes of transport as slow, unreliable, expensive, miserable, and in the case of walking and riding a bicycle, as unsafe as possible. Hopefully, with Earth Day having recently happened, and with a concrete proposal on the table to invest in public transit at the national level,[5] we can push our politicians to advocate for more extensive mass transit in the United States, and push ourselves away from cars and airplanes whenever it is possible to do so.  


[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#targetText=The%20largest%20source%20of%20greenhouse,Greenhouse%20Gas%20Emissions%20and%20Sinks.

[2] Yes, I believe in global warming/climate change.

[3] While climate activist Greta Thunberg recently traveled between Europe and the U.S. by a zero-emissions yacht, those travels took a week (I think) and many of us do not have a week to spend in the ocean because of family and/or job commitments. Therefore, airplane still seems to be the most convenient mode of cross-ocean travel, as environmentally unfriendly as that is.

[4] Note that this does not necessarily mean going over to electric cars. Electric cars have their own set of environmental risks, including from the cars’ batteries—something this article talks about: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/10/17/fact-check-electric-cars-emit-less-better-environment/3671468001/

[5] President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for spending $80 billion to improve passenger rail service: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-infrastructure-mass-transit/analysis-biden-infrastructure-plan-bets-big-on-u-s-return-to-mass-transit-after-covid-19-idUSKBN2BN3O2. I am not enough “in the weeds” of transit policy to know whether this will be enough money to make Amtrak a respectable national rail system, but considering that the amount of fiscal support Biden wants to dedicate to passenger rail dwarves the approximately $2 billion a year Amtrak currently receives in government support (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/09/amtrak-passenger-railroad-needs-up-to-4point9-billion-in-government-funding-ceo-says.html), it’s a proposal worth discussing.