Op-ed | Take the subway and help save the planet this Earth Day

MTA Chair Janno Lieber
MTA Chair Janno Lieber
File Photo by Ben Brachfeld

Some people think the subways are dirty, but – irony of ironies – it’s actually the cleanest and greenest way to get around, a fact I won’t hesitate to remind New Yorkers this coming Earth Day.

Mass transit allows New York City to have the lowest carbon footprint per capita in the nation, removing at least 17 million metric tons of carbon emissions from the air every year by getting people out of their cars. That’s equivalent to the amount of carbon absorbed by growing 281 million tree seedlings for 10 years. Cleaner air benefits everybody – those who ride with the MTA and those who don’t. As I like to say, the MTA is the antidote to climate change.

To continue providing this enormous benefit for the region, the MTA needs to be fully funded – as I’ve discussed many times in the lead up to this year’s State budget. And it needs to be THE choice for all New Yorkers: faster and more convenient than any other mode of travel.

We’re headed in the right direction. On-time Performance (OTP) on the subways is the best it’s been in 10 years and the commuter railroads consistently hit 95% OTP or better. And we’re not forgetting about buses. We continue to work with the City Department of Transportation to modify traffic signal timing and expand the use of automated cameras to keep bus lanes clear and our vehicles moving faster, so they spend less time idling in traffic.

To be even more green, we’re also moving full speed ahead to transition to a fully zero emissions fleet. We have 15 zero emission buses in operation right now, with another 60 on the way. And we just submitted a grant application to the federal Low or No Emission Vehicle (LoNo) program to help purchase another 255 buses. The MTA is seeking $204 million to offset the cost differential of switching to electric. If approved, it would surpass last year’s record-setting LoNo award of $116 million to the MTA.

But nothing is more important for New York’s climate goals than congestion pricing.

This is something we need, not just for air quality, but to finally do something about the insane gridlock we have in the Central Business District, which is a real threat not just to the economy, but to people’s lives.

Traffic is so bad that ambulances can’t get to hospitals. Fire trucks are delayed. Police response to 911 calls – crimes in progress! – are taking much longer. Paratransit, Access-a-Ride vehicles can’t get around, not to mention our e-commerce vehicles that our economy is so dependent on.

Charging drivers to enter the busiest part of our city will reduce traffic and air pollution, and the revenue generated will go to improving public transit. Eighty percent of commuters use transit to get into the Central Business District than drive – eight times the number of drivers. Congestion pricing will be transformative for the region, and we’re on track to have the program up and running hopefully in 2024.

Our year-round job at the MTA – not just on Earth Day – is to stick up for transit riders and promote a region with cleaner air, less economy-killing gridlock and fewer traffic fatalities. That’s not just our mission, it’s a critical goal that matters to all of us.

Janno Lieber is MTA chair and CEO.