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06 Mar 2019

Sustainable Mass Transit

Thomas Abdallah, Deputy Vice President & Chief Environmental Engineer, New York City Transit

Mass Transit, the public train and bus transportation in the U.S has set a great example in how to include sustainability elements within an entire industry. Mass transit is one of the best solutions to help combat climate change, improve existing air quality, and reduce toxic emissions and greenhouse gases. Transportation professionals who are engineers, architects, planners, and many others, have been involved with creating large changes, by contributing in the sustainability of projects and programs.

An inherently sustainable entity, public mass transit is at the forefront of the modern sustainability movement. In the past two decades mass transit has been a best practice sustainability leader in many areas including engineering design, construction, and operations. Agencies have frequently added initiatives to save natural resources and energy, prevent pollution and reduce greenhouse gases, and has set abundant examples of ways to be more sustainable, including the addition of special elements in design and construction projects that limit environmental impairment.

Mass transit’s early years were horse drawn carriages on rails, trolley cars and coal burning steam locomotives. Urban public train and bus operations, from the beginning has operated within, above and below the natural and built environments. Trains progressed to an electrified system requiring on-demand electricity and movement through subway tunnels. Mass transit is a huge consumer of energy, specifically electricity, and this energy use produces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Mass transit and energy are linked, and have been since the inception of the first electric street car.

Electricity, which is still over sixty percent derived from the burning of fossil fuels in the U.S., and diesel fuel is the core energy that helps transport billions of people in public mass transportation systems around the world. Energy is a significant aspect of mass transit, and the use of energy is the aspect with the most capacity to adversely impact the environment. Mass transit, especially in cities dominated by the single automobile driver lifestyle, can contribute to less overall pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, when mass transit agencies save energy, while providing the same level of service or increases efficiency, it contributes to an even healthier planet.

U.S. mass transit agencies in the past two decades have demonstrated numerous projects of notable sustainable distinction. Capital projects and rolling stock purchases have led to more sustainable train and bus service. Many mass transit agencies across America and around the world have adopted sustainable programs and processes, while continuing to provide transportation to billions of people.

The story of how mass transit, as an entire sector, grew as an industry to quickly include sustainability into its everyday thinking is presented in my book, Sustainable Mass Transit: Challenges and Opportunities in Urban Public Transportation. The book includes twenty case studies of transit agencies sustainability and environmental management projects, practices and programs.

Mass transit agencies have set an excellent model of how to reduce energy consumption, conserve natural resources, save water, prevent pollution and reduce carbon footprint, all while maintaining robust operations and moving billions of people each day.

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