Solving the Climate Crisis: Why Transit Can’t Wait
In the 1980s, the Minnesota State Legislature began deliberation about a train line that could connect downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul. In 2008, the state funded 10 percent of the line. Six years after that, the Green Line opened. All in all, the process took nearly four decades from conception to completion.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines have rolled out a little faster: A 2001 neighborhood-led study recommended a streetcar line on Snelling Avenue. The Snelling Avenue BRT was later proposed in a 2008 Metropolitan Council planning document. It was prioritized for implementation in 2012. It opened as the A Line in 2016. Fifteen years.
These lines were major victories for our communities. Everyone who fought for them for years and years should feel proud. We certainly do! But we can’t afford progress this slow. From planning to funding, it’s time to speed up transit improvements.
To understand how urgently we must invest in transit, we need to understand the timeline we humans face thanks to the amount of climate pollution we generate.
First the basics and some background: The climate crisis isn’t happening in some far-off future. It’s already here, impacting the people and places we love. Fossil fuels—and the corporations and politicians who won’t give them up—are to blame. We’ve known this definitively for a while: in 1988, scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of climate change, and in 1989 author Bill McKibben explained these dangers to the general public in his book The End of Nature. Since these warnings, humans have emitted fully half of all of our historic climate pollution.
As wildfires, flooding, droughts, and other consequences of inaction become more and more severe, it’s not enough to ride out the systems and infrastructure we currently have, with plans for incremental shifts at some later date. The Paris climate accords—and most scientists—agree that we should seek to keep global warming to 1.5°C. In fact, we are already locked in to 1.5°C of warming if we use all the cars, gas furnaces, and coal-powered power plants that are in use today to the end of their useful life. This is bad, but it is not inevitable. We can still stay at or around 1.5°C if we retire some of that polluting infrastructure and equipment early.
The world’s leading climate scientists now say we must halve how much we pollute in ten years. To be clear, we do not have ten years to figure out what to do; we have ten years to do it if we start right now. If we fail to start now, but instead start reducing emissions in 2024—continuing to pollute Minnesota and the rest of the Earth in the intervening years—we will have less than a year to halve our emissions. And if we fail that, then we must adjust our sights to another, higher, level of warming. With each incremental rise in temperature, our landscape becomes more unrecognizable, societies become less stable, and our current inequities—whether based in race, income, or geography—likely deepen.
The good news is that climate solutions are readily available. But we need to demand immediate action now—before it’s too late.
Which brings us to transportation and transit.
Transit Investments are Climate Investments
Transportation is the biggest source of climate pollution in Minnesota and the United States. There are two main ways we can clean up the sector: (1) get fossil fuels out of our vehicles through electrification and (2) reduce the amount we all drive.
Electrifying vehicles is crucial, but it can’t stand alone: Though electric vehicle (EV) sales in Minnesota are increasing rapidly, they still only account for just over 1 percent of total vehicle sales. Further, swapping out polluting cars for electric ones doesn’t make our streets less congested or our neighborhoods safer for people who walk, bike, and roll.
Finally, relying exclusively on EVs won’t achieve economic justice. It doubles down on a system that is inaccessible for people with lower incomes. Cars are a huge expense—the second highest expense in most households—and cost an average of $9000 a year to own and operate. We need climate solutions that don’t leave anyone behind. Anything less is wrong, and sacrifices the durability and stability of emissions reduction programs.
Transit solves for all of this. It allows people to move in our communities in an affordable and climate sensitive way. When it works well, it can connect people to their daily needs, to opportunities, and to each other more smoothly and efficiently than cars. And of course when transit works well—when it is prioritized in our investments and our infrastructure choices—people ride it more, reducing driving rates and associated climate pollution.
To get transit—and transit ridership–to where it needs to be, we need improvements now. Metro Transit is looking to the next round of Bus Rapid Transit lines (weigh in on those priorities here), which is great until we realize that the legislature hasn’t funded lines that are ready to build, that our BRT roll-out timeline doesn’t remotely match timelines required to address climate change, and that transit is likely facing a financial cliff thanks to the coronavirus and years of insufficient support from elected officials.
Minnesotans are facing multiple hardships right now. This climate crisis, public health emergency, systemic racism, and historic economic insecurity is quite a combo. But in Minnesota we’re problem solvers. Together, we can take care of each other. We can—and we must—rise up to meet these urgent challenges simultaneously. As Move Minnesota looks toward the 2021 legislative session, and as we develop campaigns in parallel to these efforts, we ask that you join us in calling for immediate transit and climate investments. It is critical we act now.