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Tailpipe Dreams? Big Cities Plot the Death of Car Reliance

Even large car-dependent cities like Houston and Los Angeles are serious about reducing the auto traffic on highways as these cities reimagine transit and other transportation investments.

A streetcar in motion in Houston.
Public transit’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions lies in its ability to get people out their cars. And even car-loving — and car-dependent — cities like Houston and Los Angeles believe they can move the needle on reducing single-occupancy car trips.

“The solution for us is multimodal,” said Cris Liban, chief sustainability officer at L.A. Metro, offering a glimpse at some of the large concepts one of the nation’s largest transit systems is exploring to accommodate the many types of trips Angelenos need to take.

“The solution for mass transit is, we’re looking at active transportation. We’re looking at micromobility. We’re looking at vehicle chargers,” Liban added, speaking on a panel discussion July 21, organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, as part of its “Climate Conversations.”

The transportation sector accounts for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Southern California. In Houston, transportation contributes 49 percent of total GHG emissions, said Priya Zachariah, chief resilience and sustainability officer in Houston.

“We want to be thinking about multimodality. We want to be thinking about additional transit per capita to account for growth, but also thinking about connectivity,” Zachariah added. “Connectivity in terms of our first- and last-mile connections, connections to bike routes, so the whole gamut of transit investments, which then make sense for an individual to rely on the transit system as a viable alternative to being in a single-occupancy vehicle.”

Houston has been involved with developing its METRONext plan, which puts some $7.5 billion in transportation-related investments in motion. Much of this funding will help to build out traffic mitigation efforts like more HOV lanes, light rail lines, and bus rapid transit (BRT) routes. One of the projects to be implemented, described by Zachariah as “a crown jewel for the city of Houston,” is a 25-mile BRT corridor. It was previously planned as a light rail line, but has been redesigned as a BRT line.

“We leveraged every dollar to go further with bus rapid transit,” said Zachariah, noting the route connects riders to jobs, education centers and more. It is the kind of project that can both replace car trips and also meet equity goals by serving as a link for residents in underserved neighborhoods with access to jobs and other services.

If transportation planners are to actually reduce the sector’s contribution to climate-warming pollution, transit needs to be more agile and able to quickly serve the mobility needs of an evolving society, said Zachariah. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how quickly mobility habits can change. For decades, transit planned for the home-to-work commuter. Today, transit needs to be more flexible and multisided.

“The way in which we think about where to put our strategic investments has to take that into account, instead of only thinking about getting to work from home, and back again,” she added. “I think it’s a question of agility, really. How quickly can our policy frameworks respond to that?”

These are the kinds of conversations planners and thought leaders should be having, particularly as they consider the kind of future they want for their communities and how to best use the significant infrastructure investments flowing from the federal government over the next five years.

“In many ways, today, we are really, I think, at a crossroads,” said John Carnegie, executive director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, and moderator of the panel discussion. “Government agencies throughout the country are about to make an enormous investment in public infrastructure, on a scale on which we have not seen in generations."

“And for the first time in a long time, at least at the federal level, there’s really a confluence of policy related to social justice, climate policy, health and transportation that may provide an opportunity for transformational change, in terms of improving public health, reducing emissions and coming more easily into climate change and supporting equity,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.