By Kate Reid
Sustainability is a broad term heard most today in association with social issues (for example “sustainable energy”). While we are never immune from the effects of social sustainability issues, many seem removed from us enough that they are easy to overlook (for example, the impact of food waste discussed in my last blog). Transportation is a key sustainability issue, and definitely not one of those easily overlooked problems.
Transportation directly affects almost all of our everyday lives. Do you sit in traffic daily? Get your car smog checked? Ride your bike or take public transit? Have you opted to purchase an electric vehicle? All of these are components of sustainable transportation (or the issues relating to sustainable transportation). As populations in metropolitan areas only continue to grow, developing widespread sustainable transportation is becoming an increasingly critical issue.
The driving issue (pun intended) compounding transportation problems is our auto-focused system. Our auto-focused approach was built for the previous century, when less people, cheaper oil, and more open roads meant that the system ran well and transported us without major hiccups. Trying to fix the issue now, using this outdated system, isn’t working. Imagine trying to do the work you do on your computer today – on a system from 15 years ago. Sound slow and painful? It would be. Our transportation system is slow and pained too, due to our attempts to fix the problem using an outdated system, which has only caused:
- Increased pollution
- Extreme dependence on oil (a depleting resource)
- Sprawling and congested road networks
- Huge fiscal burden of maintaining roadways
Our dependence on oil poses a major risk to the economy, exposing us to global markets where oil prices are high (meaning often volatile prices for consumers) and where the cash from that oil goes to rich but unstable and often unfriendly foreign nations.
Our current transportation system poses major safety risks too. The cost of repairing ageing bridges and roadways is high, and the magnitude of these roadways means that repair work is often neglected (I’m sure you can think of at least one road in your town that is dangerous and could be fixed with simple roadwork – like a metering light or better lines). As the National Resource Defense Council states, we must adopt a “fix-it-first” approach. State and federal funds should go to repairing current roadways or towards developing alternatives to driving, instead of towards new roads that won’t solve gridlock issues.
It’s clear we need a smarter, greener, transportation system. Investing in greater public transportation (trains, subways, buses, etc.) is the obvious solution. People need reliable and efficient transportation options besides cars. Besides large scale public transportation, other solutions exist too, such as:
- Electric vehicles and charging stations
- Smarter traffic technology
- Communities where major centers (schools, workplaces, shops) are easily accessible by biking and walking.
- Between 1989 and 2003, 500 bridges failed in America (NDRC)
- For every $1 billion invested in public transportation 50,731 jobs are created (publictransportation.org)
- In 2014, congestion caused urban Americans to travel an extra 6.9 billion hours and purchase an extra 3.1 billion gallons of fuel for a congestion cost of $160 billion (Texas A&M Transportation Institute)
- The APTA’s (American Public Transit Association) plans for investment in public transportation contributes an additional $81 billion GDP every year (publictransportation.org)
- From 2013 to 2014 employment increased by more than 500,000 jobs and 95 of America’s 100 largest metro areas saw increased traffic congestion (compared to only 61 cities experiencing increases between 2013-2013) (Texas A&M Transportation Institute)
- Transportation accounts for 71% of the nation’s oil consumption, use which results in 92% of the total energy used (U.S. Energy Information Association)
- In 2013, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for about 27% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions after the electricity sector (EPA)
Transportation in Santa Cruz County
Santa Cruz isn’t a major metropolitan area (think big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles) but this doesn’t mean it’s immune from transportation issues. The County’s population density is one of the highest in California, with about 600 people per square mile overall (sccrtc.org). Limited main roads for connecting the Westside to the Eastside results in difficult traffic during peak commute hours and peak seasons (summer). As with all communities grappling with transportation issues, there are sustainable solutions but most pose risks that make them controversial, or at the very least demand a large investment. With those barriers, it can be difficult to implement effective solutions. Educating communities on their options though, and levying support behind projects, is a solid first step.
The Rail Trail proposes to provide a 32-mile car-free, direct, flat and scenic route for biking, walking, and wheelchairs, which would be built parallel to freight and future passenger train service. The Rail Trail would travel within 1-mile of 44 schools, 92 parks, and 50% of Santa Cruz County’s population, increasing the communities access to major centers without the need for cars and making it an example of one of the “alternatives” to public transportation discussed earlier. The Rail Trail would pass through the Cities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville, and Capitola, as well as the communities of Davenport, Live Oak, Aptos, Seascape, and Rio Del Mar. When completed the entire network would reach from Pacific Grove in Monterey to the Santa Cruz/San Mateo County line.
What will it take to get there though? FORT’s (Friends of The Rail and Trail) goal is to see the majority of the Rail Trail built within 10 years. To date, some significant amounts of funding have been procured to start the project (the first three Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Networks were selected for funding by the RTC in 2013 from $5.3 million in federal Transportation Enhancement programs as well as from federal earmarks and appropriations secured through Congressman Sam Farr) but funding continues to be sought through all applicable sources.
The Santa Cruz County Passenger Rail service would be a passenger rail service that runs across the Santa Cruz Branch Line (a continuous transportation corridor between Davenport and Watsonville offering a variety of mobility options for residents, businesses, and visitors). While it is highly feasible that if completed the service would significantly reduce car use and traffic (the County’s population density is much higher along the railway) this project is much more controversial than the Rail Trail. This is predominantly due to its costs, which range from a low of $23 million to a high of $48 million, and the risk that actual ridership would be lower than projected.
At the end of the day, in the discussion on our current transportation system, we can go back to the analogy of using an outdated computer system. When asked the question, “would you use a computer from 15 years ago to do the work you do on your computer today?” the answer would, without a doubt, be “no” (at least, not if you had to). While there are many complicated factors in play when it comes to the nation’s transportation system, the basic premise is the same: we don’t want to, and shouldn’t, rely on an outdated system.