When I tell people I am an environmentalist, a common first response is to talk technology: blow-your-mind apps for electric cars, solar panel-paved highways, straddle buses and bullet trains. But the essential technological logic we need to save the planet has been with us since human beings learned how to cooperate: public transportation.  Unglamorous as it may be, the task at hand for environmentalist is not so much to celebrate the new, but to preserve and protect the old.

For environmentalists who have learned how to prioritize (ie. let’s skip the green washing and do what really matters) it is the transportation sector in the United States that is first in line for a major government-energized facelift.  Over one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from the transportation sector.

Since we know we can’t stop people and goods from moving around, we need to focus on finding ways to get people and goods to move around in low-carbon ways. But in many parts of the country, the high-carbon personal car or truck is the only option or at least the most efficient (time-wise) option. Although some transit systems are able to sustain their services and in some cases make small expansions or improvements (the Boston T, DC Metro) many are under used (Los Angles, Houston Metro, Boston T, used by just 11% of the population, and Atlanta MARTA –used by just 4%), don’t adequately cover the locations of commuters (San Francisco BART), are dirty (NYC MTA, well basically all of them except the DC Metro), suffer from delays or service cuts (ok, all transit systems), are getting more expensive (again, all). Only four transit systems in America have at least some portion that operates 24 hours a day. While cars and cell phones are technologically reconceived practically every year, public transit across America hasn’t seen any technological leaps in decades.

Even in New York City, home of the oldest and largest public transit system which services the most passengers in the country, things are heading south. Despite improvements for lowest-carbon transport (Thanks for the bike lanes, Mr. Bloomberg!), New York City’s government has raised the cost of riding the subway and buses for the fourth time in the last five years, causing some loyal riders to turn to other options. And the fare hikes are part of a package deal that also includes service cuts.

In short, the general trajectory of public transit in America bends toward a lower quality and more expensive product.

As Paul Krugman so aptly argued in an October New York Times column, people are losing their appetites for large-scale infrastructure projects, as illustrated by New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie’s recent decision to stop construction on a commuter train tunnel that would connect northern New Jersey to Manhattan. However, an appetite for large-scale infrastructure projects is exactly what we will need to overhaul and improve our cities public transit systems.

As has become the theme in this blog, let’s look at the comparison with China:. The Chinese government is investing aggressively in public transportation, precisely in an effort to keep people off the roads especially during rush hours. Subway fares have gone down under a government low-fare program from 8RMB ($1.20) to 2RMB (30 cents) over the last few years. Instead of service cuts, lines are expanding rapidly. China’s $1.4 trillion stimulus package helped accelerate the development of a new generation of high-speed passenger rail lines throughout China’s populous east coast.  China, which is in the business of setting records, surpassed the world train speed record when one train hit 416.6 kilometers (about 259 miles) per hour.  As one would expect, the Field of Dreams quote rings true: if you build it, they will come. On April 30, 2010, a record 6.4 million people (the link is in Chinese but you can read the numbers) rode the Beijing subway (one of which was me!)

The lesson: shiny new technology is great, but if you care about the environment please lobby for, vote for, give money to, talk about, promote and keep yourself informed about politicians and government agencies that support good old fashioned public transportation.  Because the future of American transit, and therefore whether America can pull its own weight in the global fight against climate change, is in their hands.