A passion for public transportation as a sustainability strategy

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - 10:57am



Alexandra McNally is fascinated by transportation systems, hoping to one-day increase ridership and efficiency. She is not an engineer, and while interested in economics, McNally doesn’t want to bolster public transit to better the market. Instead, she wants to change how the masses move in an effort to alleviate pressures on the environment.

“As far as climate change is concerned, less car use means less fossil fuel use,” says McNally, a senior Schreyer’s Honors student. “In that sense, by using public transportation, we would be decreasing the amount of emissions going out. Not only that, but I think it’s a healthier lifestyle.”

McNally, 21, began to see transportation as a viable solution to environmental issues sophomore year in an urban planning geography class. She learned about a bus system in Curitiba, Brazil, which sparked her interest, as it is one of the of the most heavily used transit systems in the world, according to Urban Habitat.

“It’s pretty cool,” she encourages. “They are able to track how many people are at a stop, so they can determine what kind of bus they send and how big it needs to be. It’s more flexible, which I think is really interesting. That’s where my passion for transportation came from.”

McNally took this interest abroad junior year, spending a semester studying in Spain. As she explored her new home, certain transportation methods stood out.

“Madrid and Barcelona had amazing systems,” she gushed. “They were so clean in comparison to many US systems, but also very easy to use, especially when my Spanish was still shaky.  There were times when I was in Madrid and I almost swore I was in an airport instead of an underground metro stop.”

Comparatively, the system in Philadelphia, she complains, is filthy, limited, and oftentimes inconvenient. A significant change, she argues, could come from changes as simple as using metro cards instead of clunky coins.

When her program ended in Spain, McNally went backpacking through Europe. It was during this time that she took her transportation critiquing a step further and began writing about every system she came across in a small journal. Germany made the biggest impression. McNally described Berlin’s public transit as “complete,” including a subway, buses, trains and ferries – all of which were on time. As she moved up into the extreme southwest of the country, she came across her favorite system yet.

“Freiburg is considered the greenest city in Germany,” she explains. “They have a great transportation system called the VAG. Trolleys take the place of cars in the center of the city; no one can drive cars. I thought that was interesting.”

McNally’s concern for the environment may have matured in college, but was based on a fundamental respect for nature, instilled by her family.  She describes her parents as being “very outdoorsy,” while her mother, an avid recycler, always encouraged conservation habits. So when McNally arrived at Penn State, she signed up for architecture classes, hoping to learn about green development. However, she was sidetracked by a wide range of interests – from art history to economics – until she found a major that didn’t force her to sacrifice anything.

“Geography as a whole is versatile, so I have been able to include all those aspects somehow,” says McNally, a human geography major and GIS minor. “Art history has a lot to do with cultures, looking at art and seeing how it reflects the past or present. And I have even taken an economics geography class.”

Above all else, human geography underlines her passion for sustainability, allowing her to explore how humans interact with the environment.

“A lot of the environmental issues we are facing today were brought on by people,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I want to look at ways we can change that.”

And she has. As a rising junior, McNally spent her summer canvassing for Clean Water Action  in Philadelphia, an organization that aims to protect the environment and community through safe water practices.

McNally worked from 2 p.m. to as late as 10 p.m., going door-to-door, debriefing the community on environmental issues, especially regarding Marcellus Shale drilling in northeast Pennsylvania. The ultimate goal was to get a moratorium, which would stop natural gas drilling until environmental impact statements assessed the situation.

“When a person is living in a desolate area, not making a lot of money, and they are offered $50,000 a year for their land, I can understand why that person would say yes,” admits McNally, whose uncle works for a natural gas company. “But I don’t think people know how it can affect their health, their children’s health, or the environment.”

In addition to fundraising, she encouraged community members to write letters to congress, which would support future grass roots lobbying efforts in Harrisburg.

“I gained communication skills and learned so much more about the way our government works,” she reflected, “Also, I still feel so passionate about Marcellus Shale, and spreading the word. Not enough people know about this huge issue and natural gas drilling in general, and what it does to the environment in the end.”

Last summer, McNally continued working for land conservation and water resource protection with the ClearWater Conservancy in State College. Instead of knocking on doors, she used her geography skill base to work as a GIS intern, creating and cleaning up maps for meetings, finding data from different agencies and conducting her own field work. In total, she produced 12 maps.

“On my last day, my boss Katy came up to me and said, ‘You really did great work. We knew when you came here for such a short time, it would be too short,’” said McNally, who turned a part-time position into a full-time internship. “That was really good to hear.”

Now in her last semester at Penn State, McNally is writing her thesis on transportation in State College, and applying to graduate school, including Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the University of British Columbia and Columbia to name a few.

“As far as after graduate school, I would work for both the public or the private sector,” McNally imagines. “I really want to get involved in promoting public transportation, but I could also see myself becoming a professor one day down the road.”