New York’s hidden green secret

A talk on Earth Day pulled back the curtain on something we thought we all knew: the MTA. Almost as inherent to MTA city travel as the sound of screeching brakes is the griping and groaning we do while on board.

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Two weeks ago, MTA Director of Sustainability Projjal Dutta enlightened attendees at the Green Festival by pulling back the curtain on something we thought we all knew: the MTA.

New Yorkers rely on the trains and buses to get us where we need to be, when we need to be there. Almost as inherent to MTA city travel as the sound of screeching brakes is the griping and groaning we do while on board. Why isn’t the train here faster? Why does it stop in the middle of the tunnel? Why don’t they run more crosstown buses? We’re really good at being critical of the system, some with vocal indignation and others with more mild resignation, and few of us has probably ever really stopped to think critically about this system we love to hate.

I spent my first 5 years in NYC in a love/hate relationship with the MTA. I loved when the M15 Limited got me from 14th to 96th in 15 minutes, but I hated when the 6 was so packed I had to let three trains go by and be late to work. I recognized and appreciated that the MTA let me never need or want a car and allowed me to be exponentially greener than my suburban counterparts, but I came to abandon my petty grievances and love the MTA wholeheartedly after reading Projjal’s interview for City Atlas where he explains the basic structure of the system and how the MTA is in fact doing a whole lot to be greener.

In his presentation at Green Festival (Taking the Car out of Carbon) he outlined just how much credit the MTA deserves for reducing carbon emissions. The MTA’s 2012 Earth Day Report on Sustainability found that every subway or bus trip prevents 10.4 pounds of carbon from being released, for a whopping 17 million metric tons collectively. The scale of the system allows it to be green in a way that has an instant and significant impact, a way that recycling your kombucha bottle simply doesn’t.

The scale of the system is an asset but also a liability. Mr. Dutta explained that because most of the underground infrastructure of the extensive system was built in the early 1900s, simply maintaining it for 24/365 use is the full time job of many. For all Projjal’s prestigious credits, among them certification as a LEED A.P. and MIT graduate, he has a knack for illustrating concepts in palatable ways. When an audience member at Green Festival complained about the constant route changes for construction and asked why they didn’t “just fix things right and upgrade them the first time so they wouldn’t have to continuously make repairs,” he didn’t gloss over the question with a boiler plate response one might expect of a city employee; he smiled and offered the following analogy: “how many things do you have that belonged to your grandparents? How many of them to you still use? How many of them do you use all day long every day of the year? How many of them do you share with millions of friends?” Obviously we can’t shut down the entire system for a year to take it out and replace it with an entirely new one, so the MTA is charged with coming up with creative ways to repair a system that is constantly in use.

In his presentation, Projjal used many graphics to illustrate how carbon emissions from driving are indisputably the most massive factor in greening our lives and the planet. He boldly stated that recycling, organic food, and plant based materials mean nothing if you’re driving to get them. He argues that climate change is in large part a result of the emissions from driving. In a fascinating micro-history of Eisenhower and American politics, Projjal explained how a shift in land use and population density resulting in response to the creation of the U.S. interstate system created a nation of drivers and carbon emitters. He offers the important distinction that cars themselves aren’t what pollute the planet and make us fat, driving them is. When you create a system of transit that fosters population density and practical land use, you create a system that does good things for the environment and better things for people.

Mr. Dutta also addressed how the MTA spends billions of dollars fortifying itself against flooding and other problems resulting from climate change, a problem to which the MTA system itself contributes next to nothing. He asked listeners to consider that the reason they don’t see more new trains and technology is because funds often have to be diverted to immediate problem solving for circumstances (often weather related) beyond their control; in these situations the MTA receives no extra funds for making these system amendments, consequently leaving them with less capital for the kinds of visible and meaningful-to-rider improvements (like countdown clocks and new trains with LED strips) that many riders lament the lack of.

Reconceptualizing the MTA and just taking time to pause on the platform to consider just how many hurdles that 2 train has to overcome to make it to the station may be tough, but it’s possible. Perhaps the most helpful grain of information for better understanding why the MTA works the way it does is to consider where the money comes from. The MTA is not a city agency; it’s a state one. Funding for the city’s buses and trains comes from Albany, not City Hall. When the policy makers all drove on state roads to get to their transit budget meeting, well, they just tend to put those roads before new signal switches for the BDFM and the millions who rely on the MTA annually.

[Note: Mr. Dutta is an advisor to City Atlas.]

(Crossposted from the Examiner)

Top image of newly built 34th Street 7 Station, courtesy of the MTA.