August 5, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Cornell, COVID and Climate Change; Take the Bus.

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When asked about the plan for Cornell’s reopening during an interview with Scot Vanderpool, General Manager of Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit, I shrugged and gave him the same answer that Cornell students have had to repeat to family members and friends: “We still don’t know.” It is daunting for students to think about this semester’s empty lecture halls and the absence of the usual morning hustle to get to class.  However, for TCAT, a business whose financial stability relies on students using bus transportation to and from class, will also suffer from this restructured semester.

Public transportation throughout New York State has undoubtedly been impacted by COVID-19. Even with extreme safety precautions in place and free bus fares in some areas (such as Tompkins County), public transit ridership in major cities has gone down by 50 to 90 percent since the pandemic started. However, even before the pandemic, public transportation only accounted for 8 percent of passenger-miles in the U.S. So, why should we care about taking public transportation now, in a time when people are concerned with the spread of COVID-19? The answer is simple: Sustainability and equitability. Public transportation is an important service for disenfranchised communities who are expected to be most severely impacted by climate change. The maintenance and further expansion of reliable transportation services to areas outside Ithaca is essential to equality for people who depend on the bus system, and also decreases carbon emissions from the transportation sector. You probably remember learning in elementary school about the action in our daily lives that can be eco-friendly: Riding bikes, carpooling and taking the bus are all simple ways to decrease carbon emissions. However, with New York State’s new goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, taking the bus means much more than simply lowering one person’s carbon footprint.

The widespread movement to mitigate carbon emissions reached a victory point last summer, when Governor Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act into law. As one of the most aggressive pieces of climate equity legislation in the country, this law mandates that 100 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions be eliminated by 2050. Not only does it institute swift climate action, but it also propagates an equitable transition, providing jobs and significant funds to disadvantaged communities.

To reach these climate goals, the CLCPA called for the formation of the Climate Action Council, a group of climate scientists, state agency representatives and green energy industry leaders whose job is to implement the goals of the CLCPA in an equitable and sustainable manner. In order to reach the 2050 goal set by the CLCPA, the CAC has outlined emissions reduction models for various industries in New York, including the transportation sector. The CAC is currently planning a 33 percent reduction of carbon emissions from 2016 levels in the transportation industry by 2030. This projection includes about 70 percent of buses to be zero emission.

In order to gage the viability of these goals, I discussed them with Vanderpool, a trailblazer in the path to sustainable public transportation in New York State. TCAT is already a leader in reaching these goals; as of 2019, they announced they would be transitioning their buses to an all-electric fleet. Vanderpool thinks that it is possible for public transportation agencies throughout the state to follow the same path; that is, if enough funding is made available to them.

In order for bus companies such as TCAT to receive proper funding for their zero-emission fleets, Vanderpool claims that it is important for the state to see that people are actually using the buses. While bus companies such as TCAT have been able to receive some funding from grants and the Volkswagen settlement, Vanderpool states that they will still need additional funding to reach their zero-emissions targets, funding which will most likely come from the government. Now, here’s where you come in: To solidify the message that community members want and need clean and reliable transportation, take the bus if you are able to do so. Not only are bus rides free, but with personal protective equipment available to all riders and regular cleaning, Vanderpool reasonably argues that TCAT buses could certainly be safer than most local grocery stores in terms of the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

COVID-19’s impact on the environment is misleading. The media has been broadcasting seemingly-positive news about significant greenhouse gas reductions from leading emitters at the beginning of the pandemic. Areas such as California are even experiencing noticeable changes in air quality. For this reason, many people assume that a silver lining of COVID-19 is the ease of human-caused environmental pressures. However, the pandemic has actually slowed important processes such as climate policy advocacy, implementation and action. With COVID-19 causing a recent decline in Ithaca’s ridership by 80 percent and delays in the manufacturing of their zero-emission buses until June 2021, Vanderpool claims that patience will be key for TCAT to meet their sustainability goals.

Vanderpool’s conclusion is a call to action for those who are eager to get back to work and class this semester: We need to take the bus! It’s an easy way to help New York State achieve its climate goals.
Abigail Frankel is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.