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Students march through New York City clutching signs and banners in support of the Youth Climate Strike.
Students walk out of school to take part in a march to demand action on the global climate crisis on September 20, 2019 in New York City. In what could be the largest climate protest in history and inspired by the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, people around the world are taking to the streets to demand action to combat climate change.
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Climate Strike: Why transportation is key for these student activists

“You gotta walk the talk, bike the talk.”

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old face of the youth climate protest taking place in cities around the globe today, certainly knows how to make an entrance. She arrived in New York City aboard the Malizia II, a solar-powered yacht, on August 28, in preparation for a series of speeches at the UN and Washington D.C. that calmly, cooly, and effectively told the powers that be to stop talking and start acting.

But she’s far from alone, as crowds of youth protestors, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, worldwide, speak to the power of the climate strike movement, as well as the importance these activists and students place in reforming the transportation system as part of a larger, society-wide environmental overhaul.

Ethan Wright, 19, a freshman at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a director of Zero Hour, a climate action group, carpooled with friends to reach the D.C. subway system, which they rode to reach the protest in the nation’s capital.

“We hope this protest and these strikes leads to a cultural shift away from fossil fuels and unsustainable transportation, and towards investing in public transportation and investing in opportunities and access for local communities,” he said.

Nina Tran, 18, a student in Hamilton, Ontario and cofounder of the Environmental Community of Hamilton Students, planned to get to protest in her hometown “through some lovechild of biking, busing, and walking.”

“I understand that that’s not feasible for everyone, and that’s ok!” she wrote in an email to Curbed. “Thank you for coming out to the strikes and fighting for a better collective future for all.”

Nina Tran, 18, at center: “You gotta walk the talk, bike the talk. I’ve done my best to bus, bike, and walk everywhere. Being a climate activist has made me a transit activist.”
Hollie Pocsai

And Azalea Morgan, 7, and her sister Ember, 9, are biking and riding the train with their mom Molly Morgan, a biology teacher and tutor, from Andover, New Hampshire to the protest in New York City next week (currently, they’ve made it as far as the Boston area). During a stop at a bike shop, Azalea said that the nation needs “more bike lanes, more bikes, less cars,” and Ember says that the government should work to reduce the cost of technology like electric cars.

“A lot of people want to buy them, and know they’re a lot better for the environment, but they’re so expensive,” she says.

A generational gap around getting around

Today’s massive Youth Climate Strike may be seen one day as a pivotal moment, when a new generation pushed political leaders to adopt more sustainable policies. In gatherings in town squares, city centers, and public parks, it also served as a symbol of the importance of transportation—and a shift in how our overall transit system works—to the wider youth climate movement.

Transportation is central to many of the goals and platform planks of today’s protestors. Many in the U.S are pushing for adoption of the Green New Deal, which includes renewed investment in public transit, carbon-free transportation options, and zoning and planning policies that push density, walkability, and access. Others are pushing local solutions as well. In Chicago, for instance, some strikers want the state to pass the Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act. The proposed legislation aims to move Illinois to 100 percent renewable energy as well as incentivize electric vehicles and the development of more EV charging stations.

“Friday is about putting the entire political establishment on notice that our generation is energized and mobilized, and we’re watching you,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement, during remarks in New York City’s Battery Park. “If politicians want our generation’s support, they need to treat this crisis like the emergency that it is and fight for a Green New Deal.”

Research says that millennials, as well as even younger members of Generation Z, have different views around transportation than older generations. While car ownership hasn’t significantly decreased—despite the generation’s well-documented preference for a more urban, walkable lifestyle, housing affordability and car-centric urban design has left many with little option but to buy a car—they tend to want to drive much less. According to survey data from the American Public Transit Association, more millennials want to live in transit-accessible, walkable neighborhoods, 41 percent versus 33 percent of baby boomers. And a study by Arity, a Chicago-based transportation technology and data company created two years ago by Allstate Insurance, found that more than half of millennials drivers say the money spent on upkeep for a car isn’t worth it and they’d rather be doing anything but driving.

Millennials came of age in an era of ridehailing and micromobility, offering even more options for car-free transit, or at least not having to own a car. And this shift in attitudes comes before factoring in the incredible environmental cost of fossil-fuel extraction, highway expansion, and underfunded public transit.

The climate, the car, and the disconnect

Tran says that her climate activism helped drive her love for public transportation. She was frustrated about the performance of buses, but when she realized it was due to “an underfunded, constantly cut system.”

“The idea that road space, parking space, and Canada’s $13 billion of road subsidies can be allocated to bigger, better things while mitigating climate change is crazy,” she says. “You gotta walk the talk, bike the talk. I’ve done my best to bus, bike, and walk everywhere. Being a climate activist has made me a transit activist.”

Wright says that he’s seen his friends be much more climate considerate than older generations, focused on carpooling when they go out. Part of that may be coping with a college student’s limited budget, but he also says there’s awareness that it’s about not defaulting to the convenient choice, it’s about keeping the climate in mind.

“There’s a growing cultural awareness of the urgency and danger of this climate crisis,” he says. “We can’t keep living the way we are with our current transportation sector.”

Wright’s activism extends to transportation around his campus. Zero Hour and other groups have pushed George Mason University to divest from the fossil fuel industry. He hopes the $3 million of the endowment currently invested in the transportation sector can instead be used to fund better ways to get around the campus, including more shuttles and electric vehicles.

It’s about larger, structural issues he says, not merely saying no using plastic straws.

Wright says that he was inspired to become a climate activist by the dire nature of recent reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which gave leaders a 12-year deadline to prevent the worst aspects of climate change, as well as a trip to Glacier National Park, when a ranger told him that the park would be glacier-free by 2040.

Tran agrees that the high stakes mean more than small actions.

“We must recognize how our cities are stacked against alternative modes of transportation, and how our land-use policy caters to and creates car-dependent sprawl,” she wrote. “Policies need to change. We need to refuse to expand into the green belt. We need to build denser, with more transit and amenities, to create a more walkable city. This way, changing one’s method of transportation is more accessible for all.”

As Wright, Tran, and the Morgans join more of their fellow students in this protest, how they met up with the crowd is as important as what they’re trying to say. The Climate Strike is about moving forward, and that’s only possible by moving in a different way.

“Collective effort is acknowledging that it’s about an action a day that can seem like a droplet,” says Wright. “But if you have millions of droplets, then that’s a river.”

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