People walking around Manhattan, NYC commuter
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How to commute green

The Sustainable NYC Commuter: Transportation Options in the City Ranked

Kailey Luzbetak
January 10, 2024

What is the most sustainable way to get around New York City?

New York City is the most dense metropolitan area in the country, and there are many ways to get around. But it is not always clear what is the most environmentally friendly option for doing so.

Calculating the exact sustainability or carbon footprint of each transportation method is tricky. However, there are some important broad takeaways about transportation sustainability to keep in mind when making decisions about how you’ll make your way around the Big Apple.

Walking and biking, the tried and true methods

If you are able, walking and biking are arguably the single most sustainable options for getting around any city given that they require virtually no generated energy. However, given the sheer size of New York City and physical distance between some boroughs, many of us can’t only get around as a pedestrian. Enter: bicycles!

People biking and walking in Manhattan

One of the things that makes biking uniquely sustainable is the fact that bike frames tend to hold up for a very long time with proper care. Older bikes, though cheaper to find for resale online, are often not any lower quality than new bikes. Whereas a car from 1985 would struggle to get around in 2023, a steel cycling frame from the same year could easily support a commuter. So, in addition to not requiring gasoline, you can reuse the same physical bike, ultimately reducing overall consumption: a giant win for sustainability.

As an added bonus, biking in New York City is easier than ever. Since 2018, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has expanded and enhanced over 330 miles of the city’s bike network. In 2023 alone, the DOT installed a record number of protected bike lines. The result? The number of cyclists is higher than ever, which means fewer people purchasing gasoline for their cars.

Perhaps most importantly, whether you’re using a traditional bike or an e-bike, relying on city bike infrastructure also increases the demand for more bike infrastructure, which creates a positive and sustainable feedback loop. This is a very key part of the sustainable transit equation: ensuring that your decisions incentivize more city- and state-wide investment in sustainable infrastructure.

Embracing the subway system

Nearly 9 million people use some form of public transit in New York every day, which is higher ridership than any city in the United States. This is in part because of the massive scope of the transit system in the city. The vast network of buses and subways can transport large numbers of passengers simultaneously, which makes for much more efficient energy use per person compared to private vehicles, which tend to have an occupancy of just one or two people per car. It also, perhaps paradoxically, requires a lot less physical space than cars do. Parking lots, parking spaces, and highways require huge amounts of land that could otherwise be dedicated to dense housing, bikeways, or green space.

NYC subway, MTA

The added bonus of riding the bus or taking the subway is similar to that of using the city’s bike lanes: the higher the daily ridership, the more NYC will plan to expand its transit options, creating a feedback loop of more sustainable transportation infrastructure for everyone!

Save rideshares for exceptions – and aim for EVs!

It is no secret that traditional combustion engine vehicles are massive contributors to climate change. This is an especially inconvenient truth for many of us Americans, whose towns, cities, and suburbs are built almost exclusively around cars as the primary mode of transportation. New York City, luckily, is one of several cities in the country where you can comfortably and conveniently live without a car. But sometimes, we simply have to grab a quick rideshare or use our own personal vehicle to get around. Whether that be because our destination is not easily accessible by transportation or because we’re running late and need to arrive somewhere more quickly, it’s understandable that relying on a car is occasionally inevitable. Luckily, there are ways you can minimize your environmental impact by prioritizing an electric vehicle – even if you don’t own one yourself.

Earlier this year, NYC announced an exciting new plan to make all shared rides zero emission by 2030. In the meantime, consumers can already opt into taking an EV instead of a traditional gasoline powered car on both Uber and Lyft. In just one month of 2021, over 100,000 taxi rides and over 500,000 rides from rideshare services like Uber and Lyft in New York City alone every day. If even a fraction of these rides were taken in EVs, it would make a substantial environmental impact.

While EVs are not the only transportation solution to the climate crisis, they will certainly play a key role. And, even though the industry is in its infancy of addressing some of the environmental impacts of EVs, we have already seen great improvements. In recent years, some manufacturers have entirely eliminated the use of cobalt in EV batteries; the industry overall uses six times less cobalt than in the past. The recent Inflation Reduction Act also put pressure on companies to use U.S. supply chains and clean up the EV production process. These changes matter, and experts anticipate that we will see even more of them in time. Plus, EVs are already significantly less damaging to the environment and climate than the traditional cars that most Americans drive.

Contributing to a positive climate feedback loop

There is no single “right” way to commute sustainably in New York City, but opting to rely on the city’s public transit or commuting by bike are certainly the preferred options. Plus, by making use of existing city resources like bike lanes and public transit infrastructure, you are increasing the demand for both – which will only increase NYC’s overall sustainability. And when you need to grab a rideshare, opt for an EV, which will substantially reduce your environmental impact.

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