By Alana Masciana
What’s the best way for cities to become more sustainable? For Thomas Abdallah of MTA New York City Transit, the answer is mass transit. Citing the finding that the transportation sector accounts for the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, he outlined in an approach to sustainability focused on this notion.
Abdallah, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, spoke to undergraduate and graduate Earth Institute students on September 28 as part of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development’s Speaker Series. In the hour-long session, Abdallah emphasized the many hats he wears—engineer, professor, and author—and the way this flexible mindset has enabled him to succeed in achieving his sustainability goals.
Abdallah explained that he has focused his career on the pursuit of making mass transit more sustainable; but surprisingly, he did not always think he would work in the environmental sphere. In the summer of 1985, after finishing his senior year and receiving his diploma from Rutgers University, he found himself without work in the field he received his major in—a field he had been assured would have a great job market—chemical engineering. So, widening his approach, he applied to an environmental technician position, and from there, fell into environmental engineering at MTA. As he describes it, this is where he found his drive for sustainability. In his role as an environmental engineer, he adhered to the status quo, but found he wasn’t satisfied with the results. As part of the job, he was applying for permits to build on top of wetlands; in doing so, he was not breaking any laws, but as he describes it, was “simply complying.” Abdallah decided that was not enough; he decided to do better.
About a decade into the job, Abdallah initiated the establishment of New York City Transit’s Environmental Management System, which created the framework and guidelines by which his organization would fulfill its environmental responsibilities. After this development, he found it easier to initiate the changes he sought. Other innovations he has been a part of at the MTA include regenerative braking in subway lines and the Stillwell Terminal solar roof (which provided 210 kWh of energy for terminal use before being damaged by Hurricane Sandy). He was also the driving force behind the development of Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot (which incorporates recycled materials and features an extensive green roof—and was the nation’s first inner-city LEED Gold-Certified bus depot).
For Abdallah, all of these experiences reinforced the usefulness of collaborative sustainable solution-finding. Throughout the session, he kept returning to this point: sustainable issues are solved by groups of people, not individuals. In his career, this has played out in the way transportation agencies in other cities have been able to incorporate and adapt ideas first tested by the MTA to improve their own sustainable infrastructure. Before he finished, he left attendees with a final thought on the matter: “If everybody does a little bit, [we see] a big change.”
Up next, the Speaker Series will host Brittin Boenning, Phil Ludvigsen, and Rich Erickson of First Environment, and Susanne DesRoches of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency as well as the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at email@example.com.
Alana Masciana is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.