Connecticut is in the middle of a serious, dangerous heat wave, as is most of the rest of the US. The cause, scientists say, is man-made climate change. But that should be obvious. How can anyone look at a world consumed by wildfires, drought, severe storms, and heat waves and continue to deny that climate change is real?
Those governments not controlled by right-wing climate deniers are beginning to take slightly bolder, if still hesitant, steps to mitigate the crisis. President Joe Biden announced some fairly moderate executive orders this week aimed at bolstering the offshore wind industry and helping communities struggling with climate change’s effects, though he stopped short of declaring a formal climate emergency.
Here in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont announced the enactment of new laws that would, among other things, more heavily regulate heavy and medium duty trucks and require all school buses to be electric by 2040. These are welcome moves, though it feels like they’re also either politically neutral in that most people don’t own medium or heavy-duty trucks, or they kick the can so far down the road, to 2040 in this case, that nobody has to do anything about it right now.
Frustratingly, despite all the rhetoric about a real and present danger from climate change, government policy still seems stuck in the beginning phases of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s why Connecticut should make public buses free forever.
Wait, what? What do buses have to do with climate change?
Fighting climate change isn’t just about weaning us off of fossil fuels, though that’s a huge part of it. It’s also about changing some of the habits that got us into this mess in the first place, including the perpetuation of a society where 99% of us need a car to do basically anything. This has been around for less than a century, but because our first waves of suburbanization came right as car culture was hitting its stride, we used all of that boundless, optimistic postwar energy to build communities that put the car first.
It happened like this. Huge expressways smashed through cities, obliterating long-established urban neighborhoods, and then radiated out into the countryside to fuel the growth of communities that were unlike anything we’d built before. Developers, instead of building houses tightly packed together as they had in the past, used the huge swaths of land they bought up to spread us out along leafy, quiet streets. Each house got a nice big yard, and as time went on those yard sizes increased. In the beginning, a quarter or a third of an acre was nice, but in the 1970s and 1980s half acre-, one acre-, and even two-acre lots were the prize, which meant that our houses were spaced farther and farther apart. Thanks to new zoning regulations, shopping, schools, and offices were now far away, as well. The only way to reach them? A car. Everything was designed assuming people had cars. And if you didn’t have a car, well, tough for you.
This suburban sprawl, and all of the fossil fuels we burned driving our cars around in it for 70 years, are major contributors to climate change. Every car we can get off the road means fewer greenhouse gasses pumped into the air.
And that brings us back to the buses.
This year Connecticut, partly in an effort to fight inflation and high gas prices, made all of the public buses in the state fare-free. Not surprisingly, ridership has gone up. Of course it has. Who wouldn’t want to use something that’s free?
And that’s great! Buses are a public service, and we should want more people to ride them. If reducing fares to zero makes ridership go up, that tells us that a lot of people who would have ridden the bus didn’t do so because of the fares. Bringing back the fares would end up pushing people back to cars.
Not only is eliminating fares good environmental policy, it’s a smart way to give people who really need it a break. The working classes are the heaviest users of buses, and saving $61 a month or more on fares can mean a lot for someone working a low-wage job.
Plus, isn’t it fair that if we aren’t going to put tolls on our publicly-maintained roads, we shouldn’t require bus riders to have to pay up every time they get on? The roads are free. Why not the buses?
Gov. Lamont and the General Assembly should keep our buses free. It’s the right thing to do for the environment and for the people.