Transit is key to both climate change and transportation

Rep. Doris Matsui, center, is greeted by confetti and a marching band at Regional Transit’s new Blue Line extension at Cosumnes River College on Aug. 24.
Rep. Doris Matsui, center, is greeted by confetti and a marching band at Regional Transit’s new Blue Line extension at Cosumnes River College on Aug. 24.

We are in the midst of a record drought and wildfire season that scientists tell us is one of the effects of climate change. We clearly cannot continue business as usual, yet two deeply intertwined debates are underway in their usual separate silos in the Legislature.

Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing even more ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions by increasing renewable energy production, improving energy efficiency of buildings and cutting petroleum use in half by 2030. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León aims to write those goals into law with Senate Bill 350.

Brown also convened a special session on our decrepit transportation infrastructure. Legislators have introduced a range of proposals, including raising the gas tax. But the focus of discussion on how to spend the money has been on filling potholes and adding new highway lanes to move more trucks.

We’re part of a coalition that called Tuesday for the Legislature to pass two bills that would provide $600 million a year in critical funding for public transit. We are pushing for investment to make it safer and easier to walk and bicycle to transit. The hard truth is we can’t tackle climate change without dealing with transportation.

Transportation accounts for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions in California when you include cars and trucks as well as oil refineries. How we invest in our transportation system will largely determine how much we reduce greenhouse gases and slow the impacts of climate change. Despite the critical link between these two issues, they are being debated with little consideration of how decisions on one could drastically impact the other.

Filling potholes doesn’t “fix” our transportation system, but simply paves over a system of highways designed for a 20th century California. Building more highways doesn’t fix our congestion problem. Studies show that the new lanes will just fill up with more cars and trucks as our population and economy continue to grow, and then be marked with potholes in another ten years.

How can we significantly cut petroleum use if we only invest in solutions that add more cars and trucks on our roads? Encouraging consumers to buy electric vehicles will help but will only get us part way.

We need the governor and the Legislature to invest in solutions that modernize our transportation infrastructure and further our climate goals. These solutions include improving and expanding transit service so buses and trains are convenient, reliable and affordable, especially for commuters who can’t afford a car. We need to build networks of protected bike lanes and sidewalks to connect neighborhoods to transit, schools, parks, shopping and work so families don’t need a car for every trip.

These solutions are also climate solutions. They create healthier, more vibrant communities and reduce the cost of transportation for families. Plus, fewer cars on the road means fewer potholes to repair 10 years from now.

We are feeling the effects of climate change today. We cannot put off dealing with our transportation problems and their climate effects in a comprehensive way for the next decade.

Jeanie Ward-Waller is policy director of the California Bicycle Coalition. Chanell Fletcher is senior California policy manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.