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Transitioning to electric vehicles isn’t enough: Public transit use needs to double

At the COP26 climate meeting, a network of mayors and transit workers urged world leaders to invest in public transit, not just EVs.

Transitioning to electric vehicles isn’t enough: Public transit use needs to double
[Source Image: Nerthuz/iStock]

Public transit use in cities must double by 2030 if the world is going to meet its target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), say C40 Cities, a global network of mayors taking action to confront climate crisis, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF), a global union of transport workers, in a joint statement from the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

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World leaders have often focused on electric vehicles, but, the statement says, decreasing diesel and gas cars can’t be the only goal: Governments also need to increase public transit use. Transportation is responsible for about a quarter of all global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. “The improvement, expansion, and decarbonization of public transport is one of the most immediate and powerful levers we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” the statement says. Without an investment to double public transport journeys or transition to zero-emissions public transport by 2030, they add, “it simply won’t be possible for countries to deliver on the urgent goal to halve emissions this decade and limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C.”

The groups are calling on world leaders to make sure that everyone living in urban areas has safe, frequent, affordable, and accessible public transport within a 10-minute walk from their home, and to make public transport investment a priority of both their pandemic recovery and climate plans.

The statement comes alongside a report from both groups looking at how investing in public transport this decade would not only bolster efforts to curb climate change, but also boost jobs. Doubling public transit use by 2030 would create 4.6 million new jobs in the 97 C40 member cities alone, and tens of millions of jobs around the world, according to that research. It would also cut urban transport emissions by more than half and reduce transportation pollution up to 45%.

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As countries invest in EVs and EV infrastructure, they must also invest in transit more broadly; the transition to zero-emissions vehicles must include not only cars, according to the COP26 website, but also “vans, buses, trucks, and lorries.” And in many cases, countries are focusing on both: In the U.S., for example, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal includes $39 billion to expand public transit systems and allow local governments to buy zero- and low-emission buses, while the Build Back Better act includes tax incentives for personal EV ownership.

“The nexus of that is really how we’re going to achieve our climate goals and also improve air quality,” says Katherine Garcia, acting director of Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign, which aims to ensure that everyone in the U.S. has access to affordable, accessible, safe modes of transportation. Though not involved in the report or statement from C40 Cities and ITWF, Garcia has been focusing on similar efforts to bolster public transit. “We can’t slash climate emissions at the pace required without reducing the number of solo trips,” she adds. “We absolutely need to increase investment in public transit. Public transit systems offer a sustainable and efficient way of moving through populated areas.”

Reliable public transit is also an equity issue, she notes. Improving personal EV ownership doesn’t help those who can’t or don’t want to drive to get around. “The fundamental thing with transit is making sure that countries are investing in transit so that it’s a right and not a privilege,” she says. The groups behind the joint report agree: “Citizens in every major world city have the basic right to clean air, green jobs, and accessible, frequent and affordable mass transportation within a 10-minute walk from their home,” Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan said in a statement.

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Investing in better, cheaper, faster, zero-emissions public transport over the next decade will require a monetary investment—$205 billion each year across C40 cities, according to the report. But it’s a necessary investment after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated transit ridership, and one that would pay dividends in jobs created and worsening climate impacts averted, the groups say. “The time to invest in public transport is right now,” Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities said in a statement. “Governments that do so will reap the rewards of millions of good jobs, improved fairness in access to mobility, and will lock-in reductions in transport emissions at the pace and scale we need.”

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