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public transit vs. highways in this report
Sprawl Harms Our Health
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Public Transit vs. Highways
A Vision for the Future
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clearing the air with transit spending

Sprawl Report 2001
Public Transit vs. Highways:
What Cities are Spending to Improve Our Health

As discussed in the last chapter, our reliance on cars and trucks has led to severe air pollution problems and a significant public health threat, but the good news is that we can do something about it. By investing in public transit choices, we can enhance the quality of life in our communities and ensure that we all breathe cleaner air.

Opportunities to Invest in Transit and Clean Up the Air

In 1991, with the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act (ISTEA), lawmakers finally made the connection between transportation and air pollution. The Act recognized the strong connection between air pollution and transportation by designating billions of dollars for projects designed to help areas meet the standards for smog and carbon monoxide (the so-called CMAQ or Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program).

In 1998, Congress reauthorized and strengthened this transportation law by passing TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. TEA-21 built upon the successes of ISTEA and represented a step forward for more-friendly treatment of public transportation choices. In addition to CMAQ, some of the more important features of TEA-21 include the following:

The Transportation Enhancements program funds transportation projects that strengthen the cultural, aesthetic or environmental benefits of a given transit program.

  • The Transportation and Community System Preservation program provides grants to communities seeking to develop strategies that improve the efficiency of their transportation system, minimize environmental impacts of transportation and reduce the need for costly public investments in roads and utilities.

  • The Transit Capital Investment (New Starts) grants program funds new rail and bus projects as well as necessary improvements to existing programs.

  • The Access to Jobs program provides discretionary grants to transit service providers to help low income residents get to jobs.

  • The Commuter Choice program made changes to federal tax laws allowing employers to offer a range of commute fringe benefits without fear of tax consequences.

  • Continues and expands upon ISTEA's requirements that bicycling and walking needs be considered as transportation plans are assembled.

Federal transportation spending under TEA-21 is out of balance. Public transit and Amtrak get just a fraction of what highways and airports get.

Source: 2002 Congressional Budget

The good news is that under TEA-21, funding levels for these programs aimed at less-polluting public transit choices, including the enhancement program, CMAQ and transit, all increased slightly, while spending on new roads declined.(34)

While TEA-21 has made great strides in improving the availability and quality of less-polluting transportation choices, we still have a long way to go to balance the historic discrepancy of expenditures on roads vs. public transit (see chart at right). We must continue to increase investments in clean public transit, and offer transportation choices as a way to enhance both quality of life and the quality of the air we breathe.

Investing in Transportation Choices

Giving people more transportation choices can dramatically lower automobile use, reducing air pollution and the accompanying effects on public health. In fact, according to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, providing more transportation choices during the 1996 Olympics reduced traffic by 22 percent, air pollution by 28 percent and asthma attacks by up to 42 percent.(35)

Buses reduced traffic, air pollution and asthma attacks during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Reductions in air pollution and asthma as a result of reduced traffic in Atlanta during the Olympics.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (35)

Conversely, limiting transportation choices while disproportionately funding new highway construction leads to more sprawling development, continued environmental degradation and air pollution that threatens public health. By examining the transportation funding in the areas with the most smog from cars and trucks, we can see what these places are doing about the problem.

This grading examines the transportation funding priorities of the states containing all or part of our 50 largest cities, again standardized by applying a per-person calculation. Unfortunately, data on transportation spending by all levels of government is not available at the city level. Because transportation spending is determined by the states, data is kept at that level.

Using state-level data is sufficient to show general trends, and that is what we do in this report. In a few cases, however, the use of state level data produces anomalies that need explanation. For example, in Texas we know that Dallas is investing more in public transit choices, such as Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), than Houston. However, because there is not reliable data at the city level, we cannot quantify the difference in transit investments between these two major cities.

Policy changes that would keep transportation spending data at the city level would help planners make better decisions.

This grading analyzes states that contain all or part of one of the 50 largest cities (those used in the first ranking). The information on transit funding comes from the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database(36) and the information on highway spending comes from the Federal Highway Administration.(37) The per-person calculations (transit spending per city resident[38] and highway expenditures per person[39]) are based on population numbers from the Census Bureau.(40) All numbers are for 1998. Based on the amount spent per city resident on transit for every $100 dollars spent on highways per person statewide, we used the following grading scale:

$101 and up A
$81-100 B
$61-80 C
$41-60 D
$0-40 F

Connection Between Spending on Transportation and Least-Polluted Cities

By comparing pollution from cars and trucks per person to transit spending per person, you'll notice a striking connection. New York state, for example, receives an "A" for its spending on public transit, and is the only state in this grading that spends more money on alternatives than on new roads. At the same time, as shown by the first grading, the New York City metropolitan area received the best grade of all the cities for the lowest amount of smog per person from cars and trucks. Oklahoma, where Oklahoma City had the most smog from cars and trucks per person, spends a paltry $5.80 per person on public transit to every $100 it spends on highway and road construction. This makes Oklahoma one of the lowest graded states in terms of spending on transportation choices vs. roads.

The fact that seven of the 12 cities with the best grades for lowest rates of smog per person from cars and trucks are located in five of the highest graded states for spending on clean transportation choices demonstrates the power of public transit as a tool in combating air pollution.

Equalizing Transit and Highway Spending Can Reduce Air Pollution

Sacramento Regional Transit District

Getting On Board: Annual ridership on the Sacramento Regional Transit District has grown from 14 million passengers in 1987 to more than 26 million passengers in fiscal year 2000.

The example set by New York demonstrates that in equalizing spending between public transit and highways, states have a potent tool in the effort to reduce air pollution. Unfortunately, most states still are not using this funding tool as vigorously as they can. With the exception of New York, no states in this report have even equalized funding, and only eight states spend at least 50 percent of the amount of money on public transit as they do on roads.

Even those states that spend at least half as much on transit as on highways are not doing enough. Consider the example of California, which spends $56 per person on public transit for every $100 on highways. While the higher level of spending on transit does help explain the fact that the three California cities (Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles) showed relatively lower levels of smog from cars and trucks per person than cities in other states, this does not alter the fact that these California cities are still quite polluted. For each resident of Los Angeles, approximately 65 pounds of smog comes from cars and trucks annually. These high levels of pollution per person actually helps make Los Angeles the number one overall most smog polluted city in the country. Clearly, California needs to take better advantage of transit investments-a proven tool for reducing smog.

Additionally, in 1998, 27 percent of the funds for transit agencies in Washington state came from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). In 2000, the MVET was repealed, and the state legislature has not come up with a permanent replacement. Consequently, just to keep up with 1998 levels, there's currently a $200 million-a-year hole in transit funding in Washington state.

Texas is another example of a state that needs to do more. While the investments in Dallas' DART system are important and should be continued, other areas of the state, like Houston, are suffering. Houston does compare somewhat favorably to other areas based on their smog per person from cars and trucks. At the same time, it is one of the most smog polluted cities in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Texas can do more to combat this pollution by investing in clean transportation choices.

Funding Choices: The Problem or The Solution

Funding choices can be either the problem or the solution. By investing in clean transportation choices we can enhance the quality of life in our communities and ensure that we all breathe cleaner air. Comparing the highway vs. transit spending of states not only shows us how we have compounded air pollution problems across the country, but also lets us see what needs to be done to fix the problem. States that want to reduce their air pollution and curb sprawl will have to increase funding for public transit, rather than continue to fund more highways. Debates over transportation spending in the coming years should focus on a realignment of transportation spending, at both the federal and state level, which would balance investments in highways and transit.

Trips Avoided, Car and Truck Mileage Reduced,
and Pollution Avoided

If all of the commuters in New Orleans, San Diego and New York City were to drive to work, there would be more than 2.8 million more cars on the road.

Without transportation choices such as walking, bicycling and transit, there would be:

small car62,413 more cars on the road in New Orleans.

small car 167,061 more cars on the road in San Diego.

small car 2,610,280 more cars on the road in New York City.

All of these commuters not driving to work greatly reduce the pollution from transportation. If all of the commuters in Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco-Oakland, Boston and New York City drove to work, it would spew 238,000 more pounds of smog-causing NOx into the air, in just one day. That means 1.19 million pounds of smog-causing NOx would be emitted each week.

Most Americans still drive to work; transit is the most common option used by those not driving.

Most people still drive to work in cities across the country. In Oklahoma City, Detroit, Memphis, Kansas City and Tampa, far fewer commuters have and use alternatives to driving, so these cities see a much smaller reduction in the amount of smog from car commuters. The meager amount of transit, carpooling, bicycling and walking that now occurs in these cities eliminates only 12,700 pounds of smog-causing NOx pollution each day.

More ways to reduce car and truck smog

In most cities, simply increasing average vehicle occupancy to two persons per car would reduce the number of miles driven and greenhouse gas pollution from cars and trucks by 45 percent.(42) One Oregon study showed that when more travel options are offered and development allows people to use those options, fewer people use their cars for transport. This results in less car pollution, cutting traffic by 6 percent and traffic delay by 66 percent while increasing transit share to 50 percent and walking and biking to 24 percent. The public transit agency in Portland, LUTRAQ, shows in that total time traveled decreased by two-thirds.(43)