Environment California Research & Policy Center
Transportation is responsible for more than two-thirds of our nation’s oil consumption and nearly a third of our carbon dioxide emissions. To make us more energy independent and reduce pollution, we need to build a transportation system that uses less oil, takes advantage of alternative fuels, and shifts as much of our travel as possible from transportation modes that consume a lot of energy to those that consume less.
Public transportation meets this need by getting people to work and school using less oil and creating less pollution than driving. Last year, people drove fewer miles and replaced many of these trips by using more public transportation—record growth that has largely carried over to 2009. Many states saw dramatic, record-breaking growth in annual transit ridership last year, as detailed in Table 1 of the report.
Nationwide, in 2008 transit ridership rose by 4 percent and people drove nearly 4 percent less than they did the year before. Overall, Americans took approximately 10.7 billion trips via public transportation last year, saving more than 4 billion gallons of gasoline. This is equivalent to the gasoline used by more than 7.2 million cars a year—nearly as many cars as are registered in Florida, the fourth largest state. While this is a major step towards reducing our dependence on oil, our country needs to make long strides in advancing more efficient transportation in order to achieve energy independence. In 2008, the U.S. spent more than $700 billion on oil, of which nearly $400 billion was spent on petroleum from other countries.1 If we doubled the nation’s current ridership of public transportation, we could reduce oil usage in this country comparable to what we import each year from Saudi Arabia.
In terms of global warming, public transportation reduced carbon dioxide emissions, the leading cause of climate change, by 37 million tons in 2008. The latest science indicates that we need to reduce global warming pollution 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to stave off the most severe impacts of climate change. Meeting this goal will require emissions reductions from all sectors of the economy, especially the transportation sector, which is the second largest and fastest growing source of carbon dioxide pollution.
This report details the dramatic growth of public transportation in 2008, and the corresponding energy and environmental benefits. These details are viewed in light of fewer miles driven in most states last year. It also documents transit growth across the country continuing into this year, highlights future potential benefits and outlines ways to improve the state of public transportation.