Can Mass Transit Save the Environment? Right Wing or Left Wing, Here’s a Post Everybody Can Hate

(Photo: RJ Schmidt)

A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?

They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and — depending on the author’s point of view — self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full. (For example, see this.)

But in the real world, this is emphatically not the case. At any given time, the average auto has somewhere around 1.6 passengers, and the average (typically 40-seat) bus has only about 10. Rail vehicles typically have more passengers (on average about 25), but then again they are also typically much larger. Thus their average load factor (percentage of seats filled) is also not high, at about 46 percent for heavy rail systems (think subways in major cities) and about 24 percent for light rail (think systems that mostly run at street level).

It is not clear that moving around large and largely empty vehicles is much of an improvement over moving around smaller ones. In fact, it may be worse. According to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, in 2010 transporting each passenger one mile by car required 3447 BTUs of energy. Transporting each passenger a mile by bus required 4118 BTUs, surprisingly making bus transit less green by this metric. Rail transit admittedly fares better, at 2520 BTUs per passenger mile, but even this is not the kind of slam-dunk advantage over the auto that transit advocates might hope for. 

There are some qualifications here, some of which aid transit and some the car. The sources of transit’s energy—electricity in the case of rail, and often natural gas in the case of bus—are typically cleaner than those of the auto, so that even with higher energy usage, transit may produce fewer greenhouse gases. Still, even taking this into account, a bus produces more CO2 per passenger mile than the car for most trips.

Transit looks better when the environmental costs of building the vehicles and infrastructure are spread over the passenger miles that each mode will accommodate. Taking this into account, an average bus at normal load factors does currently produce slightly fewer pounds of CO2 than autos, and rail transit does much better.

On the other hand, electricity is not much cleaner than gasoline if it is derived primarily from coal, and in some states, such as—surprise—West Virginia, nearly all of it is. And in any event, the electrification of autos is advancing. Moreover, greatly increased fuel economy, even for regular old internal combustion vehicles, is rapidly making cars more efficient. By the time the new fuel economy standards for autos are reached in 2025, a new car’s average mpg will have increased from 27 to about 40, meaning that in terms of energy efficiency, cars may leave buses behind and begin to be competitive with rail. 

Does this mean that efforts to increase ridership will not help—and may even harm—the environment? Not so fast. In fact, the environmental benefits of higher transit ridership might be very great—but they depend completely on how those increases are obtained.

Pumping up ridership by adding transit service will probably do little good, and may even be counterproductive. The reason is that new service promises to reduce transit’s already less-than-spectacular load factors and result in largely empty vehicles.

Why? At this point we have picked all the low-hanging fruit in terms of transit markets. We already have extensive rail transit service in the places where land use and demographic characteristics are congruent with high transit use—such as central Chicago, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and (writ very large) New York City. For the most part, any new transit service has to go to relatively low-density cities and low-density areas within cities, meaning that new investment would drag transit’s overall efficiency down, not up. 

To give an idea of how this phenomenon works, the heavily used New York subway system (58 percent of seats are typically filled) produces .171 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile, less than 1/3 the average for cars nationwide. However, the much more lightly used Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Memphis light rail systems actually produce considerably more CO2 per passenger mile than cars do. Unfortunately, due to diminishing returns, new rail transit systems are more likely to resemble the latter three than the former one.

On the other hand, if we can persuade travelers to leave their cars and ride existing transit service, rather than new service, the environment will benefit greatly. Given its current low load factors, transit generally has plenty of capacity to absorb new customers with practically zero additional energy expenditure.

Strategies to pursue this would involve economic incentives to influence behavior. These might include pull strategies designed to lure riders onto transit, such as fare cuts, or push strategies designed to get them out of cars onto transit, such as increasing gas taxes, congestion tolling, or charging market rates for street parking. Note that pricing strategies of this sort would also help the environment by raising auto efficiency through increased incentives for carpooling. 

Thus it makes more sense to focus on policies that attempt to change travel behavior as opposed to building infrastructure and buying vehicles. However, public policy in recent decades has self-defeatingly focused on the latter strategy, not the former. This has proven very popular, since shiny new trains and buses allow politicians to take credit for very visible improvements, while the costs of said infrastructure and equipment are essentially invisible since they are spread broadly across the American public and are hidden in arcane budgeting processes. (With a thicket of passenger fares, fuel taxes, sales taxes, bonding, advertising revenue, etc. coming from federal, state, regional, county, transit district, and municipal administrations, it can be difficult even for experts to determine who pays what for transportation.)

So there it is: to benefit the environment, probably the best thing to do is be very skeptical about adding new transit service and even to discontinue some service we are currently providing (sorry, liberals). Simultaneously, we should raise fees and taxes for driving (apologies to you conservatives). The best I can offer to keep the comments section below free of hate posts is that at the moment the chance of either happening is small. This may make good sense given the current political atmosphere—but it makes little sense for the atmosphere of the planet.

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COMMENTS: 172


  1. Min says:

    Hm, one thing I’m wondering is, by taking a car off the road when converting a driver to a commuter, does that reduce congestion in the roads, thus leading to an increase in gas mileage for drivers? If that’s a large enough effect, should the lowering of car pollution due to the higher MPG be credited to public transit, not to cars?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 45 Thumb down 3
    • Rex says:

      Reducing congestion also incentives more people to drive

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 7
      • Michael Peters says:

        But no more than before. Capacity hasn’t changed you’ve just reduced congestion so it’s still a net win for everyone.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 10
      • Vince says:

        @Michael Peters: You’re ignoring the pent-up demand for driving that exists in regions with high levels of auto congestion in which case a decrease in congestion increases demand for driving trips.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4
    • JAM says:

      One thing I never see discussed with respect to light rail systems is the congestion they create at crossings in downtown areas. Many times it seems that when the light rail comes through, cars back up for blocks with there motors running, waiting for the crossing to open.

      Not sure how it plays into the overall numbers, but it should be counted in the analysis.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 6
      • etherist says:

        YES! This is my frustration with light rail in the medical center where I work. I can wait 3-4 minutes for a light to cycle if there are a north-bound train and a southbound train approaching the intersection where I am waiting to turn left.

        I would love to be able to take bus/train to work, but that would trade an 10 minute pleasant drive by car for a 30-40 minute unpredictable commute by bus and train, including a 5-minute walk to the bus stop and a 5-minute walk from the train stop to work.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
      • jkg says:

        Yes! And those pesky people walking too! We should get rid of them walking across the street and then MPG would really go up!

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 7
      • Vince says:

        At the same time, the congestion that is created by the train decreases the demand for driving by increasing commute time. In your case, it still makes sense to drive; for other people, the additional congestion created by the train is enough to get people out of their car and into alternate modes of transportation.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
      • Jonah Gruber says:

        Another thing that is never discussed, and I’ve been reading a lot about this fairly controversial issue from many different perspectives, is the bigger picture in terms of cost:

        - Over 30,000 people are killed in the United States in car accidents every year. Many hundreds of thousands more suffer serious injury. What is the overall cost of these deaths in injuries? The cost to the health insurance pools? The burden on our strained medical system and emergency response system? How does this compare to the relative safety of rail?

        - If you talk about foreign oil dependence, you have to talk about what the REAL price of oil is. How much of our defense budget is appropriated to defending and securing petroleum sources? What is the actual impact of fracking and the infrastructural costs associated with it? This is a huge debate in and of itself.

        - What is the economic impact of having a rail-based economy versus a car based economy? When gas prices go up and people can’t get to work during a recession, are they in a worse position than those who are able to take the train or rail?

        - Here’s a weird one but an interesting one. Are people who ride public transit less stressed than rush hour drivers? According to APTA, “People who live or work in communities with high quality public
        transportation tend to drive significantly less and rely more on alternative modes (walking,
        cycling and public transit) than they would in more automobile-oriented areas. This reduces
        traffic crashes and pollution emissions, increases physical fitness and mental health, and
        provides access to medical care and healthy food.” Wow! That sounds like hundreds of billions of dollars of value right there.

        Simply comparing train size to car size is shoddy science. Railways can add more and more cars. Roads need to continue expanding into sparser areas. The above article does not go into the cost effectiveness of city density, which makes one question it entirely. Simply ending transit service based on Eric Morris’ argument would be devastating to imperiled outer urban areas where working class people live. What would the cost of paying for all of their food stamps be when they lose their jobs?

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  2. Laurent Duval says:

    Are averages really pertinent when discussing mass transit load ratios ? I mean, if you’re taking a subway ride at rush hour on a very busy line to commute between your home and your workplace, you won’t suddenly switch to that very quiet line over there, far from both, just because there’s an incentive to use mass transit more. Of course, adding more overloaded buses, subway cars and trams on busy lines will raise the average, but at the probable cost of more users opting out due to discomfort (or even insecurity, as it’s the case in my city, Paris).

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 3
  3. Gary says:

    Here in Wales ,one gets a free bus pass at 60 years old- this is the best incentive for me to use the bus and according to your article I’m only filling an otherwise empty seat- my partner and I only need one car between us ,the car gets used less so lasts longer and congestion and CO2 are reduced. I must be in eco-heaven already -and if you get on the double decker the view from upstairs of the hills one side and the sea the other is stunning.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 35 Thumb down 4
  4. Brent says:

    The answer is autonomous cars. Distributed, flexible, & minimal infrastructure costs.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 13
  5. martin says:

    You might also consider that having a car also encourages people to travel longer distances than they typically would just riding mass transit. So even if the passenger mile efficiency is worse it could still lower emissions overall due to fewer miles traveled.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 40 Thumb down 6
    • Katherine says:

      How does having a car incentivize people to drive longer distances? I would think the opposite could be true. If you are driving somewhere, you can take the most direct route. When you have to use public transit, you might need to make a few transfers or take a line that is not as direct.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4
      • Betsy says:

        I don’t think “longer distances” in this case means taking a longer route to the same destination, it just means driving more often. Personally, when I am taking the bus, I organize my errands more efficiently, whereas when I have a car and can drive from one side of town to the next twice a day on my own time if I want to, there’s less incentive to limit my trips. (Obviously I will have to still have to pay more for gas, but that is a delayed negative consequence and doesn’t affect my decisions as strongly.)

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0
  6. Jeff says:

    I see a lot of sides to this debate and one is on the price component, specifically those that argue it’s too expensive of a project to take on…but do the detractors pay attention to the cost of car ownership?

    http://newsroom.aaa.com/tag/your-driving-costs/

    Wow…$8,946 for the average sedan and $11,370 for the average SUV…ANNUALLY. Now multiply that out for the number of vehicles on the road (there are stats for that, too)…

    http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_11.html

    So let’s take the lesser figure ($8,946) and reduce the total number of cars by just 1% (2.5 million cars)…and redirect those funds. Hey, we just came up with $22.3 billion.

    Yes, it’s much more complicated than that…just pointing out the argument of “I don’t want to pay billions for my transportation” is seriously jaded as we already pay trillions annually to this for our cars. If we could convert auto manufacturing plants quickly to create tanks for the military in the 1940′s, surely we could convert empty factories (or live ones, for that matter) to create parts necessary for rail in the 2010′s, right?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 8
    • joe J says:

      The real problems with your math is. Althought 1% sounds small it is actually huge to get that many people to change their life style. Even if they took mass transit they would still have cars to go places mass doesn’t go. so reduce it to .01% change. And compare that to the cost of just Californias light rail that some are pushing which is projected to be $100 to 300 billion, for just that project alone. So even if this project stopped every single Californian (about 2% of the country) from having a car. it wouldn’t be close to cost effective

      Thumb up 9 Thumb down 6
      • Rxp says:

        You’re comparing the gains from reduced car ownership, which are annual, to the total cost of California light-rail. So, in your example, we’d break even within 5-15 years.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6
      • Joe J says:

        Only if you assumethe laughable that there is zero anual cost to running the light rail. It’s annual projection is also about 5-10 bill/yr. So it would never break even.
        And that assume the part I had commented on which was this one project would not get rid of 1% of the cars in the entire US, since it could oly effect those in a part of California, so using the 1% (22 billion) value is ridiculous. An overyl optimistic view would be .01%. Which would put the potential savings on the order of .2 billion. or a net loss of several billion per year.

        Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4
      • cm25 says:

        FYI: California makes up 12% of the total US population, not 2%.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
    • etherist says:

      The cost of driving my Japanese coupe to work are about $7,000/yr considering depreciation, maintenance, fuel, insurance, and parking. I typically go to work 200 days/ year.

      But I would still own a car if I took mass transit to work! My choice.
      Mass transit to work every day would cost close to $1000/year in passes. The _excess_ cost of me driving to work (still have to pay insurance + parking , although less gas, maintenance, etc.) is probably about $2500.

      I would love to be able to take bus/train to work, but that would trade an 8-10 minute pleasant drive by car for a 30-40 minute unpredictable commute by bus and train, including a 5-minute walk to the bus stop and a 5-minute walk from the train stop to work. My commute home by car is a little longer, 15-20 minutes.

      Mass transit would add at least 45 minutes/day to my commute. Multiplied by 200 days/year = 150 extra hours/year spent on mass transit, waiting in 90+ degree heat and humidity, in the cold, in the rain.

      I can easily afford the extra $2500/year and consider it money well spent.
      My office mate, who leases an M3 ($2000/year on TIRES + $1200/month lease! etc.) lives out in the suburbs, and really has no mass transit option. His drive is probably an hour round trip. Poor slob. I chose to pay more to live in the big city, with all the hassles, to have more time at home with my kids instead of in the car.

      My office mate made a different choice, and I think he’s reconsidering it.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Rashad says:

    I’m surprised that in your final paragraphs you didn’t talk about the central factor that makes mass transit work – population density! If you can’t build high density housing near your mass transit stations, then yes it is pointless, but if you can then it clearly seems worth it.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 58 Thumb down 1
    • Steve says:

      This is clearly the point missing from the article. The suggestions in this article are all focused on HOW people get places, not WHERE they are going from and to. The biggest problem the US has in terms of transportation is the truly insane development patterns post-WWII, which got really bad by the 1980s and 90s. Only in the last 10-15 years have we started to rethink our concepts of development and start to… not exactly move toward a more sustainable kind of development, but at least move away from the truly absurd, 100% car-oriented modes of development we have used for the last 50 years.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 4
      • FrMartinFox says:

        The “problem” is that in the U.S., people are free to live where they like and go where they like, stay as long as they like, and shape their own plans. The “problem” is freedom.

        I live in Ohio, where there has been talk of building a supposedly high-speed rail link from Cincinnati to Columbus and Cleveland. It would cost a fortune to build, and not be high-speed until another chunk of money is spent. It sounds so good–until you think about this question: why would people who can drive–and have the options I mentioned above–choose the rail instead? If you take the rail, you have to leave the business trip–or the family event or baseball game–according to the rail timetable. If you’re shopping, you won’t have the trunk and back seat of your car to carry your loot. And so it goes.

        So, yes, the fact that people get to go where they want–as Steve and many planners lament–is the “problem” that makes many mass-transit plans untenable.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 16
      • JesryPO says:

        Of course, it is a “problem” because there actually is NOT choice and freedom in most cities with regards to housing. Good luck finding a townhouse without a yard to maintain in Texas or full-service condominium near shopping and entertainment in Indiana. We don’t build them, because we do not have the infrastructure to support them, forcing those (like the educated young) who do not want to live in a single family house on a quarter acre to “choose” to live in Chicago or New York. Not to mention the abysmal “choices” we give to our mobile elderly…

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 4
  8. Enter your name... says:

    I didn’t think that greenhouse gas emissions were really a big goal for promoting mass transit. After all, we started promoting mass transit even before anybody knew what a greenhouse gas was. I thought the main goal was to get more people to/from work during rush hour (in particular) without having to waste real estate and infrastructure on places to drive and to park quite so many cars.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 48 Thumb down 1
    • triclops says:

      In the US, especially here in CA, the CO2 argument has been used a lot recently. Basically, whatever argument the proponents think is currently the trendiest is used. It has been about the environment, creating jobs, helping traffic, and myriad other half-truths.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 7
      • twofortyseven says:

        Triclops, your comment implies that there’s some sort of evil agenda that proponents of public transportation have, which they mask with “trendy” arguments they don’t really believe about jobs, environments, traffic, or CO2. So what is that hidden agenda? The only people who really have hidden motives here are the contractors who build the rails and busses, which I believe would account for a small percentage of the vocal supporters of public transportation.

        For the rest of us, it’s because we actually believe the arguments in support of public transportation. These arguments might be half-truths or flat-out wrong. People can believe things that are false. But that doesn’t mean we’re just bandying trendy arguments and half-truths to mask our real motives.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  9. James says:

    Seems to miss a couple of points. First, if you have your existing electric-powered transit system running on coal-fired electricity, it is pretty easy to switch that system over to electricity generated from natural gas, nuclear, wind, or dilithium crystals. Not much you can do with petrol-powered cars if petrol becomes scarce.

    Second, I think the real benefit comes from forgetting about transit altogether. This is the 21st century: if I want something – this post, say – to be seen by perhaps thousands of people all over the world, I don’t have to hand-write a copy for each one, and send out messengers on horseback or sailing ship to carry the copies to their destinations. I just send out a few electrons & photons (fiber-optic cables) instead.

    Much work, and in particular much of the work being done by mass-transit commuters living/working in congested urban areas, could similarly be done simply by sending out those lightweight, energy-efficient electrons & photons. Why not a comparison of that to other transit systems?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
    • Rob says:

      Bingo. The key is less transit, not mass transit.

      A lot of our traffic problems would simply disappear if we could break away from the traditional office. Telecommuting is just one (although probably the best) possibility. Even in jobs where a physical presence is absolutely required, businesses could do things like extend work hours outside of the traditional 9-5 so that workers can drive or ride in outside of rush hour. Large companies might locate small satellite offices near dense population centers, rather than having a single mega-location in a central commercial district. There a tons of possibilities but little incentive for businesses to change how they work.

      I think that even conservatives (like myself) would be open to price incentives. The trick to winning them over is to make new taxes and cut old ones. It’s hard to object to a revenue neutral tax.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0
      • Edgar says:

        Ah yes, telecommuting.. the newest way to get someone to work 12 hours a day for 8 hours pay. Oh, and I forgot… pay for your office equipment and supplies out of your own pocket.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • Travis says:

      Telecommuting is nice, but having a centralized place is also important for a lot of reasons (confidentiality for meetings, for example).

      There should be a push for people to stay home more often and work from home though. Along with a push to get people to live closer to their workplace. Doing these two things would reduce CO2 Emissions far far more than any amount of mass transit ever could.

      I do think we’re beginning to see the start of such movements though. Here in CA traffic is very reduced every Friday. I suspect its because people tend to telecommute on friday.

      Now that you make me think about it, I think a Freakonomics episode on telecommuting would be amazing. It could address the failing of the “hour / wage” model in many forms of work, in favor of a “contract completion” model, as well as things like reduced overhead from requiring less office space, and finally other positive externalities like reduced congestion and CO2 emissions.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
      • James says:

        Confidentiality for meetings? First, it’s trivially easy to encrypt any data stream going over the internet. Second, just think how much the productivity of the typical worker would increase if we didn’t have to waste time in meetings.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
    • Joe j says:

      ” it is pretty easy to switch that system over to electricity generated from natural gas, nuclear, wind, or dilithium crystals”
      LOL good joke, because it is actually near impossible to switch.
      Nuclear, the last new one ground broke in 77. unless you consider 45 years to be quick or easy..
      Wind? only is semi useful in certain locations and with electrical transmission losses what they are, is mostly a joke.
      Nat gas is a possibility, but again another fossil fuel.
      Dilithium crystals. lol

      Cutting down transit, is possible. Just run into the problem of convincing 100s of millions of people with different wants and desires and lifestyles to forgo all that.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3
  10. Tim Johnson says:

    This might be bad for liberals and conservatives, but good for libertarians. Decrease public spending on unnecessary items while raising consumption taxes? Sign me up.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3
    • Travis says:

      I thought Libertarians were opposed to consumption taxes… Pigovian tax would be ideal in this situation, though.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5
  11. Speed says:

    In order for any mode of transit to gain ridership it must provide service from where people are to where they want to go. In the decades since the hayday of municipal rail and bus, people have moved from concentrated multi unit apartments to single family houses in the suburbs and beyond. Similarly, jobs have moved from large factories and office buildings with thousands of employees “downtown” to smaller facilities in office and commercial parks — once again in the suburbs and beyond.

    It is unlikely that central planners in the US can reverse this trend in any time frame shorter than decades. And if they do, what happens to all the abandoned real estate?

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • gevin shaw says:

      Of course, it was “central planning” that built the freeways that made the suburbs possible. And it took decades. Not disagreeing with you, just noting that there’s always a balance between meeting a demand, and creating it.

      Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
      • Speed says:

        The interstate highway system was designed and built to carry traffic between cities — which may be why it is called the INTERSTATE highway system. An unintended consequence is that it allowed people to move farther from the city center and commute by car. The central planners, always being the last to know, followed up by building networks of freeways in and around cities to serve the locals.

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  12. Sean says:

    I live in Calgary, Alberta (Canada) and our public transit system consists of both light rail and buses. During morning and afternoon rush hours, the entire system is oversubscribed. Stories are common about people waiting on a cold morning for a bus and unable to get onto it when it arrives because the bus is already full to bursting, and so the commuters must wait for another one. The trains are jam packed.

    The point is this: during the middle of the day once everyone is already AT work or school, yes of course buses and trains run at lowr occupancy. This is to be expected. For the very same reason there are fewer cars on the streets at 2 PM then at 8 AM. This should be factored into calculations… How much less energy per capita is a jam packed train using than all those vehicles stuck idling in a traffic jam during commuter peak times?

    Secondly, notwithstanding the above, I actually think that the majority of the users of the system have their own incentives to use mass transit that have nothing to do with CO2 emissions. Some of those reasons include the very high expense of parking in our city (which is amongst the highest in North America), lack of available parking at colleges and universities, the desire to avoid heavy traffic, people who don’t own cars, and so on.

    Now, the net result of so many people using mass transit during rush hour is that there are indeed fewer cars driving around, which means less pollution, but I would strongly argue that’s really just a handy side-effect, a positive externality, to providing people with the means to move around without driving themselves.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2
  13. Colin says:

    Interesting points and a worthwhile read.

    Not directly related to the environment, but what about productivity losses due to commuting or driving? Where I live, and I imagine this is true in many other areas, mass transit doesn’t save me time. For some, I’m sure mass transit avoids being stuck in traffic and actually saves time and not just hassle, gas, CO2, etc.

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  14. Joel Upchurch says:

    Brad Templeton has been engaged in these issue for years. Read this on his blog. http://www.templetons.com/brad/transit-myth.html
    He does a lot of analysis on robocars and robotaxis. I’m interested in robobuses, where people can connect into a website where say their stop and the destination and time. The system then texts you your pickup time. The buses won’t run when there is little demand. The current system where people drive the buses and the drivers keep driving even when there is no demand is very inefficient.

    The problem with current cars is that the cars weight too much and they haul too much dead weight around. If the average vehicle weighed a few hundred pounds, then the BTU per passenger mile would skyrocket.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
    • BikerDad says:

      “The problem with current cars is that the cars weight too much and they haul too much dead weight around. If the average vehicle weighed a few hundred pounds, then the BTU per passenger mile would skyrocket.”

      That’s a problem that’s also a benefit. That “dead weight” helps keep the occupants from being dead. Yes, you can design a “car” that only weighs a couple hundred pounds. It also will only carry one person, it takes so long to get up to speed that granny drivers run it over, and when it gets hit, the occupant has barely more protection than a bicycle. Oh, and it has no a/c and no heat, and gets blown all over the place.

      Now, if we completely rejiggered our entire transportation system, all of these shortcomings could probably be addressed. Catch is, we don’t get to just swap out our existing system with the “optimal” system overnight.

      The most “efficient” motorized transportation is the moped. Why not just use those?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
      • Joel Upchurch says:

        By your logic motorcycles would be outlawed and everyone would be required to drive an SUV. We could build a vehicle far safer than any motorcycle at a fraction of the weight of a common passenger vehicle. The real way to reduce passenger deaths on the highway is to get rid of manually driven vehicles, since it isn’t the vehicles that are dangerous, but the drivers.

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  15. John Halunen says:

    Pretty sure bicycles blow the doors off the efficiency of mass transit even in NYC? Would help with our obesity problem too.

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    • Rob says:

      Great on paper but it falls apart in reality. Are you going to pick up the kids from daycare on your bike? What about grabbing drive-thru on the way home? No stopping by for eggs on the way home either. Am I riding to work in my business casual clothes or trying to change in the men’s room before and after? How long is too long for that bike commute anyway? My 20 minute drive turns into an hour long bike ride. I could use the exercise but I can’t afford to spend the time.

      The realities of the urban landscape pretty much make bike commuting a fringe behavior, however admirable it may be. Good for you if you can pull it off but it’s simply not an option for most people.

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      • James says:

        All those “problems” have ready solutions. If you’re one of the small fraction of the population who has kids in daycare (I’m not), you can haul them in a kid trailer. There’s no reason you can’t ride your bike through the drive-through, or – I know this may come as a shock to some – you can actually PARK IT and go inside to place your order. Likewise, I’ve frequently carried a couple of bags worth of groceries in my bike saddlebags.

        As for the time factor, say that the commute by car takes 20 minutes, and you need an hour of cardiovascular exercise per day for health. That’s 80 minutes total, but if you commute by bike, you combine them and save 20 minutes.

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      • Sandy says:

        I commute by bicycle about 12 miles (round trip) five days a week. I know I could adjust to a longer commute, but I have to admit this is about as long as I’ve ever had to ride on a daily basis. I can’t honestly tell you how much farther than that would be too far. I used to haul my kids to and from school in a bicycle trailer, but they are much too old for that now. They ride the bus to college by themselves. I stop at the grocery store quite regularly, and yes, I even manage to bring home uncracked eggs. I usually change clothes at work, but sometimes bike in the clothes I’ll wear when there. You’ve got me with the drive-thru, though. I get off of work at midnight, when the dining rooms of those places are usually closed, and I’m not always successful in getting served while on a bicycle. My point is that none of your objections are really significant to somebody who wants to commute by bike. If you’re too lazy to do it, that’s fine. I’m a pretty lazy person myself. I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of figuring out which drive-thrus I can be served at on my bike in the middle of the night if I wasn’t such a fat, lazy slob. I can admit that my weakness for cheeseburgers is my own problem. You should admit that your belief that biking to work is impossible for you is not due to the “realities of the urban landscape” but rather to the reality that you are too lazy to do it. Don’t try and run me off the road, and please don’t try and talk others out of it, as more cyclists on the road does more for my safety than the helmet I almost always wear. If you can not do those two things, I think we can each pursue our own lazy lifestyles in peace.

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  16. Derek says:

    It seems like best solution is to start building cities to look more like New York, dense urban centers are more efficient in almost every way and are generally the biggest wealth producers in the world.

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    • Molly says:

      “Best” for mass transit, not for raising families, living in a low-crime area, or having my preferred quality of life. No way in this world would I want to live in NYC.

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  17. JDAntos says:

    “we have picked all the low-hanging fruit in terms of transit markets… any new transit service has to go to relatively low-density cities and low-density areas within cities, meaning that new investment would drag transit’s overall efficiency down”

    In the medium to long-term, this is not really true. Transit enables density and walkability. Building transit to a new area will create a new transit market, as long as zoning allows/encourages. The Orange Line (Rosslyn-Ballston corridor) in Arlington, VA is a great example.

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      Examine the density of Orange County, California. I live there and it would be difficult to imagine a system of transit that would work efficiently without completely redesigning the entire county. This is the sixth most populous county in the US, but geographically the cities are packed in with no space between most cities. For transit purposes it acts like a single large city with the density of a suburb and no center or downtown. Any solution would be a web of lightly-used lines.

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  18. Deron Lovaas says:

    I am an advocate for public transportation, and I agree with much of this analysis. Transit investments need to be carefully targeted so we don’t end up with stranded assets, which we can’t afford especially now. And the factor that matters most is load factor. If that can be driven up through cost-effective tools like pricing and land use policy changes then the investment can pay off. Would be useful to see an analysis of transit lines nationwide based on load factors, both a snapshot of current conditions and projnections. Would show which are thriving, which are struggling or failing, and which are in the middle.

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  19. BikerDad says:

    Overlooked is the key consideration of transportation:

    We don’t transports ourselves from place to place for the benefit of the environment. We do it to get from place to place. While it may be worthwhile to consider the cost to the environment (whether increased CO2 qualifies as a “cost” is a separate question), if we don’t consider the cost to people (taking 2 hours to get to work rather than 30 minutes – which depending on where you are can give the advantage to the car or to the transit), then the economics truly is freaky, and not in a good way.

    “So let’s take the lesser figure ($8,946) and reduce the total number of cars by just 1% (2.5 million cars)…and redirect those funds. Hey, we just came up with $22.3 billion.”

    Redirect it how? The individual shelling out those $8,946 has the CHOICE of doing so, and benefits directly. If they want to redirect it, by, say, dropping $3,000 on a good scooter and then paying $100 a month for the next 5 years to run it, thus saving $30,000, that’s their choice. Mass Transit in this country is NOT choice driven. Can a market in mass transit even exist? Perhaps. We can certainly get closer to one by de-regulating and opening up the coach/taxi markets.

    That, btw, would be an interesting thing for Freakonomics to examine. Open vs closed taxi markets.

    fwiw, I happen to love trains. They just aren’t economically practical for transporting people in most of America.

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  20. Ian M says:

    “On the other hand, if we can persuade travellers to leave their cars and ride existing transit service”

    Two big problems
    1) The transit system is stuffed to overflowing at times when people most want to use it
    2) The incentives are small when the transit load is light. Yes the bus has empty seats in off-peak times but the buses are further apart time wise while the car traffic is light and parking is cheaper.

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  21. Tom says:

    I believe that the direct emissions reductions from mass transit are probably tiny compared to the indirect emissions reductions resulting from the long-term lifestyle changes that mass transit enables. NYC has the lowest per-capita emissions not because we all take the subway, but because we all live in high-density buildings. However, without mass transit, I doubt NYC could have ever grown to this density.

    I believe that the real benefit from mass transit is in making it easier for people to move into the cities, where they will have a significantly lower ecological footprint.

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  22. Eric M. Jones. says:

    I’m absolutely in favor of public transportation. I lived in NYC for 6 years and never needed or wanted a car…(Where would you park?).

    But there is no solution to AGW other than by limiting population.

    Say goodbye to all the tigers, whales, tuna, elephants, and wild animals and say goodbye to every beautiful natural place. A human want to push out another baby that will send 1,000,000 kg more CO2 into the sky. Oh joy. When Mitt Romney has ten kids…we should all cringe…and shed a tear. Your freedom to overpopulate is your freedom to eliminate nature.

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  23. Travis says:

    Perhaps it’s just snark, but the initial paper referred to compares single passenger cares to buses with 1, 5, 11, 50 and 70 commuters in it. It’s not blatantly comparing “worst case” car to “best case” bus. It’s comparing worst case car (which is very close to “average” car, by the way) to a variety of cases with a bus.

    While it’s true that Public Transit loses efficiency as our populations spreads out, on the other hand our densely populated areas are generally underserved by public transit, which is why it often remains an unpopular choice.

    It’s definitely worth thinking about these things, but unfortunately it may lead us to the conclusion that the suburban sprawl is simply not tenable as a planning solution. Raising the cost of driving though would be a great first step in addressing the problems created by our suburban sprawl mindset.

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  24. Kwei says:

    With few exceptions like NYC , many of the mass transit in the US hardly qualify as a “network”, albeit rail, subway, tram, bus, or all combined. Unless both places are close to the stations, it simply takes much longer to use mass transit to get from point A to B, even if one includes the time stuck in traffic. Imagine cars can only run on highways and one has to walk all the local routes. Scale of transit SYSTEM and ridership is an chicken and egg question, and time, not just fare or gas tax, is certainly an incentive (or more likely, disincentive) to convert drivers to commuters.

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  25. Adam says:

    If you just tax carbon, and then charge enough money to cover costs on public transportation, (building only when it should be possible to cover costs), won’t it all work out?

    All these gyrations and maneuvers to try and figure out what to do and how to game the system are because taxes are not popular broadly and it’s not clear what to do without them.

    I think this post is mostly just going to anger the right wing, who don’t believe any of this is a problem.

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  26. Eli says:

    If new infrastructure and public vehicles are replacing older and less efficient ones, then there’s an emissions benefit even without changing load factor. That’s not necessarily self-serving politics and patronage.
    And as has been mentioned, adding new riders by adding new buses may be beneficial if it improves MPG for all the cars on the less-conjested roads. It’s a good point that new buses aren’t necessarily better, but the still might be.

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    • Joe J says:

      Actually busses tend to add to congestion, it’s the frequent stops blocking the lanes. A car will stop only at it’s final destination a bus stops every few blocks. And when it stops it also stops all the cars behind it.

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      • jenne says:

        Actually, not so very true. In many areas, buses have designated stops, and as long as the cars and trucks are obeying the law by not parking in the bus stop, the rest of traffic doesn’t have to stop for longer than letting the vehicle pull out or in– exactly the same as for a car. Since in between the bus reduces volume on the road, the net is a savings.

        With the aging population, it may actually reduce CO2 in states that provide free or very reduced cost public transit for the elderly during non-peak times, since instead of someone driving to pick up the patron, driving to the patron’s destination, driving back from the patron’s destination and then driving home, travel is only from and to the patron destination. Add that to increasing the average ridership, and the problem begins to solve itself.

        (Though by definition, most connector bus lines will average half full because you start out with nobody on there and hopefully end up with a full bus as you near the transfer point.)

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      • Philo Pharynx says:

        @Jenne – only a few places have dedicated spcaes out of traffic for bus stops. The rest of the places, they interfere with traffic. As for busses pulling into and out of traffic, it’s not “exactly the same as for a car”. First, a car pulls into and out of traffic once per trip. Busses do this regularly. Second, a bus requires a large space to pull into traffic. Especially extended/flexible busses. I know it can be hard finding a car-length to pull into in heavy traffic. Finding a bus-length is much more difficult. The delay for this is split between the cars and the bus, but it leaves the whole system less efficient.

        However, I do agree that reducing the cost for non-peak usage will increase the benefits and allow the system to be better utilized off-peak. However, it also means less money into the system and increases the fraction of the cost paid through taxes.

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  27. Philo Pharynx says:

    I like how this example is balanced. I live and work in a low-density area. My fifteen minute car ride would have to be replaced by a two-hour bus ride involving two transfers. The trip back home takes even longer. I have a difficult time seeing a way to make this efficient without a technological improvement.

    With self-driving cars, I could see a system where the majority of the population gives their origin, destination, maximum time and budget. Autonomous vans with a smart routing system would try to accomodate everybody in the most efficient way possible. It would only work if there were a significant population using it though.

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  28. tioedong says:

    Now, if you’d only discuss the reality of getting an aged, arthritic population to ride bikes: all those photos on green blogs show happy Europeans riding bikes with the sun shining never seems to realize that it might not be desirable if you are 70 years old and live in Minnesapolis…

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    • Sandy says:

      I think we can safely give a pass to all the septuagenarians with arthritis living in Minneapolis, and still make great strides by encouraging more people to ride a bike. Not everybody needs to do it. I own a car and use it. If most people rode a bike for some of the trips they make, that would be huge step in the right direction.

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  29. Chuck Fowler says:

    Where is the environmental cost of residence, office and road in your calculation? Can mass transit encourage more efficient development of housing and office space? Beyond the environmental costs, what about the value that mass transit provides to those not yet fortunate enough to afford a vehicle? Does mass transit create efficiencies for both employees and employers (employee doesn’t need a vehicle, employer has a broader pool).

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  30. djfedder says:

    We will never have enough information to determine this unless we factor in locality densities. It’s not just how we get to work, it’s also where we work.

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  31. Howard Brazee says:

    If we go out of our way to drive to the rail station, we need to include those extra miles driven with the calculation.

    Or if we get by with one fewer family vehicle, the environmental costs in producing that vehicle should be calculated.

    Nothing’s as simple as we would like.

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  32. frank says:

    When Eric writes about Transit, just close your browser window, or wait for the red pen to come out, because the guy’s windshield perspective completely biases his analysis:

    http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2009/11/ftfy.html

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  33. Taylor says:

    Excellently presented and thought provoking, but one thing that transit provides to me is stress relief. Taking the train reduces stress (good for my health – possible reduction in future health care costs?), and gives me time to read, do some work or just zone out. Although an argument can be made that many Atlanta drivers regularly do those three things while driving…

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  34. Tom says:

    Before anything I think it is important to note that C02 is not the ultimate measure for saving the environment which is much more complex issue. That is because C02 is only one of the greenhouse gases present in our atmosphere and greenhouse effect is not the only issue we are facing, neither is climate change. Amongst other issues there is air and water pollution (C02 isn’t in itself directly harmful for human health but soot, sulfur dioxide, benzene and formaldehyde are, and they present in car exhausts) and the great species extinction. To face these complex issues there is not one magical solution like mass transit or wind farms but a wide variety of policies which must be lead jointly.

    This is an interesting article, but it fails to take into account broader issues which plead in favor of mass transit, to harm the environment less.

    The first one concerns the use of land and the type of urbanization implied by massive car usage. Cars require a great amount of parking space, near users homes, jobs, shops and preferred leisures. Individual car have a usage span which is very low, most of the time they just sit in parking areas. All of these parking areas need to be dimensioned in order to deal with peak usage, meaning more concrete and less nature which has a very heavy impact on the environmental assessment. The same goes for roads who need to be dimensioned for peak usage, again using more space. Also, individual car usage favors urban sprawl, which creates a dynamic implying more need for displacement and car usage because distances are greater and more land use for urbanization.

    The second one concerns the cost of congestion, because of peak usage during rush hour by commuters. When a car is blocked in traffic it emits even more C02 and burns more fuel which has an extra impact on air pollution.

    Which brings us to the third issue, air pollution, which is an environmental issue, has an impact on our health and a heavy cost. So does the stress implied by traffic and the noise made by cars, motorbikes and scooters. As mentioned earlier in this post exhaust fumes released by cars are very harmful for human health.

    Finally, individual car usage also generates a lot of accidents, which cost a lot and are not taken into account in this analysis. As far as the environment is concerned accidents imply repairs, ambulances, hospitalizations etc. which are not neutral.

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      The type of urbanization is very important to people’s lifestyles. I know that I would not want to live in the dense urban environment that it would take to have efficient mass transit. I’ve enjoyed visiting New York and San Francisco, but I’d hate to live there.

      Once again, self driving cars (a technology that we are on the cusp of) would solve several issues. Accidents would be reduced. Parking space would be reduced in multiple ways – expanded car-sharing, the ability for cars to park themselves denser than humans can, and the ability for cars to park themselves more distant than humans would find convenient.

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      • James says:

        And I don’t even enjoy visiting. I can’t help but compare the efficiencies of that sort of urban life to battery chicken farms and cattle feedlots.

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  35. Swami says:

    I’d throw yet another monkey wrench at the “accepted wisdom”: Do buses really reduce congestion?

    If the 1.6 to 10 ratio is correct, one bus actually displaces only 6.25 cars. But it will stop and start more frequently, and more importantly in urban traffic, be much slower to accelerate and decelerate, thereby failing to react to constantly changing conditions. And 6.25 cars will flow around an obstacle or bottleneck much more smoothly than a single bus.

    Anyone who has seen what an articulated bus negotiating a left turn in New York City traffic knows exactly what I’m talking about.

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      I agrees that a bus needs to be considered as more than just a long car in traffic engineering.

      But as devil’s advocate, the times when traffic is most congested are times when the busses are likely to be operating at high capacity – often standing room only. And given the increase in both initial and maintenance costs, would they use articulated busses on routes that don’t experience high peak ridership?

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      • Swami says:

        They do. You can find articulated buses running around the Bronx at all hours, with sometimes just a handful of riders.
        I don’t know why.
        Governments do the strangest things at times.

        On Lincoln Avenue south of 138th street, the same lane is marked as “Bus Lane” and “Bicycle Lane”. They don’t mix well.

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  36. JoAnn says:

    These discussions of mass transit vs. car usage to “save the environment” never seem to factor in people with children, only single people going to work.

    I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with my husband and children. He drives his 24 mpg commuter car 12 miles to the Metro station, then spends the last 5 miles of his commute on the Metro. Total commute time: 45 minutes. Total gas used: 1 gallon. Total miles per gallon per person: 24. I shuttle my 5 children around to dance, soccer, baseball, scouts, etc., in my 18 mpg minivan. Therefore, for each gallon of gas I use, each person has been driven 18 miles for a total of 108 people-miles per gallon. When put in those terms, my minivan has way better mileage than my husband’s!

    Now, we have taken the Metro into the District on occasion, but at $11 per day per person to make one round trip, plus the $5 cost of parking in the Metro garage, it costs our family of $82 just for one day’s transportation — more than it costs me to fill my van and drive them all around to their activities (located much closer to our house) for a whole week! It is far cheaper to drive all the way into D.C. and pay the high parking fare — costing closer to $30 for the trip.

    The nearest bus stop is 1 mile from my house but then doesn’t travel to the soccer field or dance studio, so I couldn’t use it for that purpose. Plus I wouldn’t want my young daughters waiting at a bus stop alone in the dark for the bus to come. With the cost of housing in this area, we can’t afford a house large enough for our family that is closer to my husband’s office, either. I also tend to go grocery shopping every few weeks — imagine trying to bring groceries for 7 home on the bus! Having a vehicle greatly cuts down on the time I spend running errands.

    Before someone starts pinging on me for the size of my family, I am exercising my right to freedom of religion in choosing how many children to have. I see the government mandating fuel efficiency standards (i.e., automakers will no longer manufacture family-sized vehicles such as SUVs and vans because they can’t get the gas mileage to comply with the standards) and using my tax dollars to fund mass transit (which is neither convenient nor a cost savings for my size family), as an afront to my First Amendment rights. If I have the means to support my family, why is it anyone else’s business how large it is?

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      This is a big issue with mass transit. There is a big difference between commuting and other types of driving. Most people’s commute is the same each day – it can be planned for in aggregate and understood to be at a certain baseline in aggregate. Other types of driving are chaotic and it’s much harder for a plan to cover this kind of driving efficiently. You will always have some level of underservice or oversrvice.

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  37. Benjamin L. Smith says:

    The big problem with this post is found in one particular part: According to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, in 2010 transporting each passenger one mile by car required 3447 BTUs of energy. Transporting each passenger a mile by bus required 4118 BTUs, surprisingly making bus transit less green by this metric. Rail transit admittedly fares better, at 2520 BTUs per passenger mile, but even this is not the kind of slam-dunk advantage over the auto that transit advocates might hope for.

    This is nowhere near a fair comparison. As a national statistic, the 3447 BTUs per passenger mile for cars includes a huge component of travel which is free-flowing rural travel which in terms of BTUs and gas mileage is much more efficient than stop and go urban travel, especially the type of urban travel in dense urban areas where bus transit has to operate. A fair comparison would have to use a number for the BTUs produced by cars in urban travel only. If the buses were not there to take the trips, the trips would divert to cars in urban travel situations (stop-and-go).

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    • Philo Pharynx says:

      But using only urban figures for cars is cherry-picking as well. Busses are at their most efficient in a dense urban environment. A bus in a less dense environment becomes much less efficient because ridership drops a lot.

      In a dense environment, mass transit makes a lot of sense. In a less dense environment, individual cars make more sense. Applying one solution to all situations doesn’t make sense.

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  38. Karthik says:

    In India the occupancy is much higher than in the US in most of the mass transit services. Still, there are services which actually require serious push strategies to ensure a shift of the huge population towards mass transit which would make a stellar difference in the impact on the environment.

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  39. Jake says:

    What about the effect of destination. I would expect building a train out to an airport, which is generally a low density area, to increase ridership throughout the system because it now makes the system more useful. Same could be said of remote shopping districts or amusement sites. Therefor increasing mass transit infrastructure can, in some cases, increase ridership.

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    • Mark says:

      It is more common now to have major league ballparks/arenas connected to mass transit that lead to park & ride lots in suburban districts. It relieves the congestion when arenas are built in dense cities as too many cars are in the same place at the same time.

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  40. Jake says:

    I live in Pittsburgh and ride the light rail – and I can definitely say that the cars are very packed close to the city during rush hour both ways – but the system gets inefficient because it travels about 15 miles out of the city core into areas that are low-density where the ridership falls steeply.

    Cars can fill up by about the 6 mile mark from downtown.

    On weekends and late evenings, the cars are almost empty, and really drag down overall “per ride” efficiency.

    Having spent time in NYC and Chicago – I imagine that the “to mile 6″ during rush hour numbers are comparable to those cities efficiency.

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  41. Mark says:

    I didn’t see any counter argument in the comments along the line: “If they build it they will come”.

    The highway/interstate/car only transportation spawned the suburban development.

    Recent mass transit development has spawned the development of ‘edge cities’. They are typically suburbs close to a metro core that have developed an urban feel by increasing high density development around mass transit stations. These developments don’t transform metros overnight as it takes time for housing and urban amenities to follow accessibility. In the long run these edge cities become self contained and people have less need to commute to other suburbs or central core cities.

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  42. David says:

    I have a better solution that would accomplish reduction of green house gas emissions and increase awareness and demand for public transportation.

    End the Rural Utilities Commission and its subsidies to power companies and “phone” prodivers (which include cable, phone and cell phone utilities).

    We have people who choose to live out in the middle of nowhere or so far out in the country that if this was a free market, they would have to pay for installation of power lines and other utlities to where they live.

    This has the pervarsive effect and bigger effect.

    The entire infrastructure that supports these locations is costly to put in and maintain, if these people moved into more urban areas, density would increase, with increased density you achieve efficiency of resources, it would also increase the need for public transit.

    Done.

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  43. FrMartinFox says:

    The article is good, and raises so many of the right questions about various assumptions at work in these discussions. But I think it fails to notice a huge, un-examined assumption of its own.

    A lot of mass-transit systems, particularly those involving rail and stations, involve huge costs. The money does not fall from heaven; it is diverted from other uses as part of the economy. On top of this, the author speaks breezily of increasing costs for driving, without acknowledging any negative effects to that.

    The mis-allocation of resources, speaking broadly, makes society poorer than it might otherwise be. Why is that a desirable outcome?

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  44. Ani says:

    Why not popularize RO-RO?

    Cars can get on the train at NY and get off at Chicago. If rail capacity is underutilized, then surely this would be the way to go!

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  45. Fabio Escobar says:

    The post gets off to an unserious start by using the “save the environment” theme. This is a vague and childish notion on a par with Easter bunnies and Santa Claus. The very notion of “environment” is already suspect, as in reality every resource use has to be analyzed on an ad hoc basis. Attempts to spin broad principles out of the immense complexity of “environmental” science are thus based on weak conceptual foundations. These weaknesses are unfortunately multiplied when someone attempts to craft principles for public consumption in a 2000-word blog entry or a 100-word comment.

    Science is hard. Scientific journalism is impossible.

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  46. Don says:

    Two other assumptions that distort the advantage of mass transit derive from an assumption that the miles that make up mass transit passenger-miles are the same as the miles that make up passenger car passenger-miles. It is not likely that combinations of mass transit will be able to connect its users as directly as autos do. In addition, numbers which favor mass transit infer that mass transit is a more or less total replacement for autos. It is likely that most commuters in lower density urban settings will need additional, and presumably less efficient, transportation on each end of their mass transit commute. At the very least, this will entail the need for continued capital equipment expenditures for most users (cars) which will reduce the total savings often attributed to mass transit.

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  47. polistra says:

    Leaving aside your weird apocalyptic astrological delusions about Evil KKKarbon, there is still one important reason for mass transit.

    It provides opportunity and freedom for people who can’t afford or can’t drive a car. This wasn’t quite so important 30 years ago when you could keep up an old beater on a minimum budget, but with modern cars it is crucial. Repairs and insurance on modern cars are beyond a poor man’s budget and skills, and older or disabled people can’t [or shouldn't] drive anyway.

    If we want to give poor folks a fair chance, mass transit is imperative.

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  48. Keith H. says:

    Rail commuters also have the opportunity to be productive, e.g., use tablets/smart phones to handle email, etc. A NYC-area rail line even offered MBA classes for regular commuters.

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  49. Tarrou says:

    Cost is a huge issue here, from personal experience. I sometimes take the train to Chicago, not having to park a car and deal with traffic is worth the $150 round trip, no biggie. But I also take a yearly trip to California, across the country. I wanted to take a slower trip last year, see the countryside, take the new woman along etc. I priced Amtrak round trip…….$1200 per person. I logged onto my travelocity and picked up a cheap plane ticket for $280. Airplane takes 6-9 hours depending on layover, the train takes three days, and for five times the price. Rail can’t compete like that.

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    • Slarty Bartfast says:

      Agreed. I was looking for a way to bring my 80 year old father to California. I don’t believe he’s capable of handling the stress of air flight. Coming from New Orleans by train would require a dog-leg trip to Chicago first, then San Francisco, for a 2,000 round trip.

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  50. Slarty Bartfast says:

    Raising taxes on commuters hurt the lowest income individuals. I’ve recent ridden with a long-haul driver and a taxi service and they are barely scratching a living right now. Add taxes on top and you may make their living untenable.

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  51. Betty Chambers says:

    Doesn’t anyone realize that corporations enjoy putting their campuses far out of the reach of bus and train lines? Even if they are within reach of a door-to-door commute, time lag is a factor. A drive of 35 to 60 minutes can often take 3 plus hours by mass transit. It’s not fun waiting in searing heat, icy cold, a snow storm or driving rain for a bus that’s over 30 minutes late.

    And not every woman wants to be grabbed, groped, pinched, molested or harassed by the wonderful animals, oh sorry, horrible excuses for human beings they have to ride mass transit with. I got into my car to get away from the smell, filth, physical discomfort, exhaustion and fatigue, criminal harassment, theft and every other social ill that comes from riding a bus or train.

    Safety, comfort, health and timeliness will overcome the absolute misery and nastiness of public transit.

    I’m so glad there is a push back to the notion that we all must be shoved into sardine cans just to “save the planet.”

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    • amosbatto says:

      The more people who use the mass transit system, the more convenient it becomes. It also has a lower proportion of those people who you don’t want to sit next to. Frankly, part of the problem of the US is the fact that we try so hard to segregate ourselves from people who we consider undesirable, so it makes us uncomfortable when we are forced into contact with those people. If we have to rub shoulders with them, then me might decide to fix many of the social problems which generate those sorts of people. I have lived in many cities in Latin America and have never been afraid to ride the bus, but I definitely felt afraid to use the public transport system in some US cities as a middle-aged white guy

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      • Philo Pharynx says:

        And this is part of the issue. You would need to get more people to ride the unpleasant mass transit in order to get the money and funds to improve it. In the meantime it would become more inefficient by having more riders than the current system. You aren’t making a persuasive case.

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  52. Adam says:

    To all the skeptics: what would it take for you to change your mind? To my knowledge, Global warming does not contradict the Bible unless you think there’s something in there about Jesus promoting unfettered capitalism no matter what. What if the southern US turned into a desert? I’d personally like to get to the part of the story when we avert disaster, but there are so many of you that we cant.

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  53. amosbatto says:

    The obvious conclusion as commentators have already noted is to encourage the development of densely packed urban areas and discourage the development of sparsely populated suburbs. Encourage urban infill and prohibit more suburbs. Prohibit any zoning laws and neighborhood associations which try to prohibit urban infill and neighborhood stores and businesses. These are solutions that progressives and environmentalists love, but conservatives hate.

    Frankly, the arguments in the article only make sense in the US, where we have insane city planning, which requires an auto to get anywhere. I have lived in 3 different US cities (Austin, Colorado Springs and Bloomington, Indiana) without an automobile. In the end, I found that it was easier to use the bicycle than waste my time riding buses. In contrast I have traveled all around Latin America and lived in a number of places (Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia). In all those countries it was much easier and less hassle to live without an automobile than have one. For example, when I worked in a software company in La Paz, Bolivia, only 4 out of the 50 employees drove to work, because it was too much hassle to mess with parking, police checks and the cost of gasoline. It is considered socially unacceptable to not have a car in many parts of the US. I got very tired of people looking at me strangely when I was walking or bicycling in a place which was designed for autos. Try bicycling home at midnight on a busy street when no buses are running and you quickly decide that you need to buy an auto to live in most parts of the US.

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  54. Harvey Bernstein says:

    First of all, bringing in Aristotle is a cheap shot. This whole blog is devoted to that point.

    We have had 2 generations of favoring the automobile. We tore up the trolley tracks in NYC in favor of buses; in LA in favor of highways.

    Climate change will not wait 2 generations. Otherwise the choice would be obvious. The most valuable real estate in the NY tri-state area is located along heavy rail. LA sprawl follows the old rail lines. Rail encouraged concentration, not the other way around. I put less than 6,000 miles/yr on my car.

    Cars encourage sprawl. But that sprawl is fait a compli. It will not be reversed in less than a generation. Conservatives are fond of ‘dynamic scoring’. I think we need to look at the value of a mile of mass transit vs. a mile of highway over 20 years. My contention is that the value of the mass transit will rise at a much steeper slope than the highway. If you build it, they will come.

    In the shorter term, our options are constrained. The author’s analysis seems sound. But it is completely predictable that our current direction will not produce an acceptable future. Whether it is climate change, congestion, pollution or oil shortages the auto has gone from a luxury to a necessity to a problem.

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  55. Dave says:

    Um, doesn’t this just mean more people should travel by Public Transport in the US. Obviously if the services are ubder utilised they will not be efficient.

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  56. Martin E. says:

    By saying that improvements in gas powered engines will negate the marginal benefits of transit ignores the fact that those same improvements will likely be utilized in trains and buses.

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  57. LK says:

    If the SF Bay area had a transit network like Paris or Tokyo, I would take it everyday to work. The author says that the Bay Area is saturated in terms of ridership (low hanging fruit). I feel the transit infrastructure in most US cities is not at a critical-mass in terms of convenience and connectivity in order to make it a serious option. While I do agree that its way too “cheap” and “convenient” to drive a car and true (environmental) cost needs to be added. For me if mass transit can get me in about the same time as what it takes me to get to work by car (30min), I will switch to mass transit. Today, I have to walk for 15 min to a light-rail station and take a 30min ride and then walk to work on the other end for another 15min. It is not a serious alternative because of time it takes and loss of flexibility. It is a chicken-and-egg issue. People won’t ride because the network is limited. The network will not be expanded because the ridership is low.

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  58. david willmott says:

    Generally an excellent article, not before time illuminating the distortions the (now western world-wide) ruling Absolutist Enviro-Planning Complex uses to “justify” empowering itself to play at designer cities while also pretending to save the planet.

    (signed) AjaxTFC

    (Off-line Note to author : the proposed modifications in the “edited” version below warrant your consideration for any re-issuance of the article in a second version.)

    Can Mass Transit Save the Environment? Right Wing or Left Wing, Here’s a Post Everybody Can Hate By Eric A. Morris in freakonomics.com 11/07/2012 Coloured italics by Ed
    A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit (and the “smart growth” urban planning for which it is an essential basis) is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely lighter per capita bus transit if not heavier per capita rail transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?
    They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and — depending on the author’s point of view — self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full. (For example, see this, being Table 1 and derived conclusions of “Public Transit Buses : A Green Choice Gets Greener”, Chapter 12 in “Manufacturing Climate Solutions” by Duke University’s CGGC, prepared on behalf of Envtl. Defence Fund
    Out in the real world, this is emphatically not the case. At any given time, the average auto has somewhere around 1.6 passengers, and the average (typically 40-seat) bus has only about 10. Rail vehicles typically have more passengers (on average about 25), but then again they are also typically much larger. Thus their average load factor (percentage of seats filled) is also not high, at about 46% for heavy rail systems (think subways in major cities) and about 24 percent for light rail (think systems that mostly run at street level).
    It is not clear that moving around large and largely empty vehicles is much of an improvement over moving around smaller ones. In fact, it may be worse. According to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, in 2010 transporting each passenger one mile by car required 3447 BTUs of energy. Transporting each passenger a mile by bus required 4118 BTUs, surprisingly making bus transit less green by this metric. Rail transit admittedly fares better, at 2520 BTUs per passenger mile, but even this is not the kind of slam-dunk advantage over the auto that transit advocates might hope for.
    There are some qualifications here, some of which aid transit and some the car. The sources of transit’s energy—electricity in the case of rail, and often natural gas in the case of bus—are typically cleaner than those of the auto, so that even with higher energy usage, transit may produce fewer greenhouse gases. Still, even taking this into account, a bus produces more CO2 per passenger mile than the car for most trips.
    Transit looks better when the environmental costs of building the vehicles and infrastructure are spread over the passenger miles that each mode will accommodate. Taking this into account, an average bus at normal load factors does currently produce slightly fewer pounds of CO2 than autos, and rail transit does much better.
    On the other hand, electricity is not much cleaner than gasoline if it is derived primarily from coal, and in some states, such as –surprise – West Virginia, nearly all of it is. And in any event, the electrification of autos is advancing. Moreover, greatly increased fuel economy, even for regular old internal combustion vehicles, is rapidly making cars more efficient. By the time the new fuel economy standards for autos are reached in 2025, a new car’s average mpg will have increased from 27 to about 40, meaning that in terms of energy efficiency, cars may leave buses behind and begin to be competitive with rail.
    Does this mean that efforts to increase ridership will not help – and may even harm – the environment? Not so fast. In fact, the envir-onmental benefits of higher transit ridership might be significant, but they depend completely on how those increases are obtained.
    Pumping up ridership by adding transit service will probably do little good, and may even be counterproductive. The reason is that additional services tend to reduce transit’s already less-than-spectacular load factors more than they attract additional usage.
    Why? At this point we have already picked all the low-hanging fruit in terms of transit markets. We already have extensive rail transit service in the places where land use and demographic characteristics are congruent with high transit use – such as central Chicago, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and (writ very large) New York City. For the most part, any new transit service will be installed in smaller, relatively low-density cities and low-density areas within larger cities, meaning that new investment would drag transit’s overall (nation-wide) efficiency down, not up.
    To give an idea of how this phenomenon works, the heavily used New York subway system (58 percent of seats are typically filled) produces 0.171 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile, less than 1/3 the average for cars nationwide. However, the much more lightly used Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Memphis light rail systems actually produce considerably more CO2 per passenger mile than cars do. Unfortunately, due to diminishing returns, new rail transit systems are more likely to resemble the latter three than the former one.
    On the other hand, if we can persuade travelers to leave their cars and ride an existing transit service, rather than a new service, especially out of peak hours, net energy consumption and the environment may well benefit. Given its spare capacity out of peak hours, existing transit generally has plenty of capacity to absorb new customers with no additional energy expenditure.
    Strategies to boost off-peak transit’s comparative attractiveness would involve economic incentives to influence behavior. These might include pull strategies designed to lure riders onto transit, such as fare cuts, or push strategies designed to get them out of cars onto transit, such as increasing gas taxes, congestion tolling, or charging higher rates for parking, both on- and off-street. Note that pricing strategies of this sort might also help the environment by raising auto efficiency through increased incentives for carpooling.
    Thus it makes more sense to focus on policies that attempt to change out-of-peak travel behavior as opposed to building more transit infrastructure and buying more buses and/or trains. However, public policy in recent decades has self-defeatingly focused on the latter strategy, not the former. This has proven very popular, since shiny new trains and buses allow politicians to take credit for very visible improvements, while the costs and benefits of cross-subsidisation (incentives plus disincentives, bribes and penalties) are essentially invisible since they are spread broadly across the total transport system users and are hidden in arcane budgeting processes. (With a thicket of passenger fares, fuel taxes, sales taxes, bonding, advertising revenue, etc. coming from federal, state, regional, county, transit district, and municipal administrations, it can be difficult even for experts to determine who pays what for transportation.)
    So there it is : to benefit the environment, probably the best thing to do is be very skeptical about adding new transit services, and even to discontinue some of the services we are currently providing (sorry, liberals). Simultaneously, we could raise fees and taxes for driving (apologies to you conservatives), although resulting environmentally-advantageous behaviour would also result in reduced convenience. The best I can offer to keep the comments section below free of hate posts is that at the moment the chance of either happening is small. This may make good sense given the current political atmosphere – and it will make negligible difference to energy consumption.

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  59. Stephen Swanson says:

    Excellent article.

    Another cost not mentioned is the marginal cost of public infrastructure (ie roads, bridges). Is a person-mile of rail is less costly (and CO2 emitting) to maintain than a person-mile of asphalt? I’m betting it is. All those highway lanes need plenty of resources to build, maintain, plow, illuminate, and police.

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  60. Faria says:

    The post only forgets that transit usually is above capacity at rush hours, when most people need it. Simply giving incentives so that more people using the same transport would mean a complete chaos, everyone’s welfare would lower: either you pay more than before to use a car, or use a worse over-crowded bus/train system.

    Perhaps creating incentives for people to work unusual hours would enhace transit efficiency better, so that the train is never too full neither too empty. But that’s difficult or impossible for a lot of activities.

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  61. John says:

    What about electric cars?

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  62. Sesha Swami says:

    Humm..

    I have lived in US, parts of EU and in India. Problem of here is is truly unique to US. Below are few of the dis-incentives to transits that I see :

    Having an isolated transportation system that caters ONLY only to get to work and back; Not branded as one for “Family” and for “Every Occasion”. So, the tendency is to look at available personal transportation ( I guess. 0.6 of the 1.6 load factor in autos would have come from leisure drives)
    While I have seen commercials for every single brand of autos, I have not seen a single commercial for / from an transit agency -awareness . There is an perception set that unless you are a felon, or a ineligbile for a DL with your medical / legal / immigration status, you would drive.
    Transit systems have to be implemented as a strategy and have Communities built around transit with definitive stronger incentives other than making commuter passes ( $50/Per Month) tax free.

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  63. Steve Hoffman says:

    You touch on it lightly but do not expand the issue. What is the cost in dollars ($) of each mode of transportation per passenger mile. I would venture to guest that with commuter rail the cost is quite high (adding in all the hidden costs, i.e. tax subsidies, infrastructure, etc…). As with any commodity choice for consumers, is not the free market the best vehicle for determining the effectiveness and efficiency of said commodity?
    Conventional wisdom would say that electric cars are the most efficient. Yet, the GM Volt sells for $45,000 and costs GM $80,000 +. That can’t be to efficient for GM and is certainly not efficient for the American taxpayer. And here again, the free market steps in and provides evidence that the Volt is not a viable choice, sales are low if nonexistent!

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  64. Patrick Phillips says:

    Land use is mentioned only in passing–and as a fixed factor–but it’s a big part of the transit equation. We have to start building our cities differently, with more compact, mixed-use neighborhoods, jobs and housing closer together, and high-quality infrastructure for getting around without a motorized vehicle at all. Urban form is dynamic and has a big potential impact. It’s a mistake to assume our current land use pattern is fixed.

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  65. charles says:

    I think what a lot of people seem to be missing is the after WWII the government subsidized building the suburban town in a massive way. If free market principles had been in place without government interference the suburban phenomenon just would not have made sense for most. If government had more wisely supported denser models of growth our costs would be way less overall and our public transportation would be much more efficient in cities like Houston (and we wouldn’t have so many millions of miles of strip-malls in this country which I would count as a win).

    I do think the author is making some incorrect inferences from the data though. He correctly points out that cars create fewer BTU per passenger mile than buses do, but he ignored the reports differentiation between cars and personal trucks (which would seem to include SUVs and should be included in the figures he mentioned). He also notes that specific systems are less efficient. A good example would be RI where they have a bus system but it wasn’t designed to be efficient, it was added so that those who cannot afford other transportation can get places. That system obviously has a slightly different goal than a system in a big city.

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  66. John says:

    What about reducing transportation demand by increasing density? This is most economically done by reducing or eliminating mandated off-street parking minima in our zoning codes, which make density more expensive than sprawl.

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  67. charles says:

    Also, I was just looking over the table which displays the BTU per passenger mile and noticed that the BTU per vehicle-mile for cars vs buses is 5,342 vs 35,953. If we were to use the number of 1.6 passengers per car and 10 passengers per bus, the BTU per passenger mile would come out to 3,338.75 for cars and 3595.3 for buses… so it looks like someone’s data is fishy somewhere.

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  68. John says:

    Conveniently ignored is the humble bicycle.

    A bicycle’s going to blow all these efficiency numbers out of the water. A BTU is about a quarter (kilo-)Calorie, so if it took 2000 KCal to ride a mile, I’d be eating 12,000 Calories per day just to get to work and back. I think it’s safe to say that a bike gets at least an order of magnitude better efficiency.

    Besides, bikes are way cheaper than a car, require less infrastructure than cars or transit, and have the added benefit of bouncing back the fastest after a natural disaster, as New York has discovered recently. Good for your pocket book, good for your help, good emergency preparedness, good for the planet.

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  69. Paul says:

    What amazed me was that back in 1995, during the Transit strike in Minneapolis/St.Paul, far from having gridlock, there was less traffic on the road, less traffic jams, no hulking buses making noise and blocking vision, and overall the whole commuting experience was much less of a headache. It was very noticeable.

    Now granted, a lot of people were carpooling and people were staggering their traveling hours, perhaps not something that could be sustained.

    And of course, people who don’t have cars totally rely on transit. But the resulting ease that resulted with no buses on the road gives one pause.

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  70. Gregor Macdonald says:

    Eric, I assume you’d allow that 60 years of the automobile era reduced density in many Americans cities, and I wonder that you would entertain the possibility that restoration of public transport would also, eventually, restore density. As Los Angeles, for example, lays down light rail track (on several routes, over the historical rights-of-way) is it not likely that the resurrection of this grid will guide and persuade development? Pasadena, CA for example has become newly attractive as it now sits at an LA Metro terminus and I see residential and commercial development has followed. Further, LA city and also LA people have extended these new Metro stops by connecting bike paths or walking routes.

    I agree, when you are standing on a corner in Denver and the new Fastracks train rolls by, it seems like a lonely and singular vehicle in a widely dispersed topography where the land spreads out into distant suburbs. However, Denver is another example of how development–which may have already started to migrate back to downtown–has been further supported by reestablishment of light rail.

    Best,

    G

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  71. Quinn Raymond says:

    There are a lot of problems with this article, but perhaps the greatest one is that it ignores the fact that as cars become more efficient, people tend to drive more– erasing the efficiency gains and increasing sprawl.

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  72. john elberling says:

    this entire article is premised on a statistical manipulation that blatantly mis-represents reality.

    the 1.6 person average occupancy of autos and 10 person average occupancy of buses it cites for its entire rationale is of course a 24/7/365 average number. but not an “anytime” average as the article misleads. the linked DOE site does not break out the stats by time of day.

    but of course mass transit systems and highways are designed to move rush hour peak loads 2/5/200 days a year. that design load is about/less than 1.1 persons per car and buses at full capacity, let’s guess 40 or more per bus/transit car.

    unless you plan to abolish rush hour somehow, those are the stats that matter for capital investment and operational infrastructure for our transportation systems. those are the figures to use to calculate the cost/benefits. even before considering broader issues of environmental impact and land use efficiency.

    the other function of mass transit off-peak service, especially outside work hours, is to provide affordable service to people without cars for the non-work aspects of their lives. yes, in the name of cost efficiency you could cold-blooded cut that service off due to its very high marginal costs. screw them, they can walk or stay home, should plan their movements more carefully.

    i guess that is where you are coming from?

    the sad thing is, this kind of phony “analysis” is going to get picked up around the web as “proof” for the agendas of the government haters. i’m sure Fox News will be calling.

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  73. Matt says:

    “The major rationale” for transit is not reducing GHG or reducing congestion. Those of us who do this work for a living understand that this is not what the models show. What transit does do is give people choices, connect workers with job opportunities, and signal a willingness by a city or metro region to compete economically with other places around the world, which are investing billions in modern transit systems. Talk to young, educated, skilled workers about why they want to live in cities. Talk to business leaders about why they value transit (accessibilty to airports, access to a skilled workforce) and I think it will change your view of what transit’s “benefits” really are.

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  74. jbdigriz says:

    You’re viewing mass transit impact/effectiveness and pollution as a snapshot, and not a rolling event over time and larger spaces. It’s obvious to state that mass transit has been used to push development. While people won’t move to a newly-provisioned area solely on the basis of mass transit, if combined with placemaking priorities and denser, walkable community designs, residents will move over time so long as you’re not creating 120-minutes commutes. They will either displace from the center, or move inward from further suburbs. I sense there’s a case to be made for cumulative savings over time and space.

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  75. David G. says:

    Mass transit exists so that people who cannot afford a car, or who are elderly or disabled, or who, God forbid, prefer it over other forms of transportation can get from Point A to B. Carbon emissions are not a great factor in deciding to invest in public transit infrastructure. Once that public transit infrastructure exists, though, the marginal carbon emissions associated with using it are negligible. The bus runs and emits carbon regardless of whether I am on it. This is not true of my car. On the margins, car use is much more carbon intensive than is public transit.

    You propose not building new public transit where doing so would mean higher carbon emissions per person per mile traveled. What about those aforementioned disabled or elderly people? Should we leave them stranded?

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  76. BobN says:

    Speaking of the real world, it makes little sense to include transit-horrible places in your measure of how transit is. That would be a bit like comparing the effectiveness of superhighways in LA vs. Juneau, AK.

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  77. Ken says:

    Isn’t one obvious response, that this analysis is simply an argument for doing more to encourage mass transit? I doubt there’s much one can do to increase average people per car beyond 1.6, but there’s plenty that can be done, I think, to encourage great public transportation ridership. All the writer is pointing out is that at low utilization, public transportation may not be much more efficient than cars, if at all. Well, okay…

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  78. Brendan says:

    Great article. The only problem I have with it, is that it ignores the relationship between mass transit and density, and the benefits density has on the environment. It is difficult to incentivize a dense urban environment without the infrastructure to support it. Dense development is certainly more likely to be built around rail stations, for instance. Dense urban environments help the environment much more than less dense ones, just by nature of the fact that densely packed cities are more efficient at transporting energy throughout it. The effect is synergetic, to a point. As is true with almost anything, there is a point of diminishing returns.

    In a dense neighborhood with local amenities, people have less of an incentive to use cars *or* transit – they’ll walk. In a healthy urban environment, people will need transportation less, but the density will still be high enough to supply trains and buses and make them more efficient.

    You assume that everyone is making a trade off between a car or a train/bus, when in reality, transit incentivizes density and is a necessary component of walkability/bike-ability. Even if trains were *less* efficient, they’d still be more efficient just by the nature of the fact that density is more efficient.

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  79. Praxis says:

    Eric writes:

    “On the other hand, if we can persuade travelers to leave their cars and ride existing transit service, rather than new service, the environment will benefit greatly.”

    Not true. The environmental benefit would be trivial. Transit has only about a 1% share of combined transit passenger-miles + automobile passenger-miles. So even if we could double transit’s share of the combined market without any increase in transit services (i.e., doubling the average number of riders on transit vehicles), it would only reduce combined emissions by about 1%. And doubling ridership without any increase in transit service would be virtually impossible as a practical matter. So even achieving a trivial 1% reduction in emissions through mode-shifting from autos to transit would be enormously difficult. There is simply no way mode-shifting offers any serious potential for reducing emissions from passenger transportation.

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  80. joe says:

    This all assumes that people come first, and then mass transit comes later. What if we acknowledge that density of cities is endogenous (aka, density can be CAUSED by mass transit, and less density is caused by cars). If we acknowledge this factor, then your argument of diminishing returns doesn’t hold (along with most of the other calculations). Why do you think Houston is less dense than New York City? Because one had mass transit, and was built around it, and the other did not and it was built around the car.

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    • Praxis says:

      The pattern of diminishing returns from transit expansion has been demonstrated empirically. It just doesn’t attract enough people.

      Houston is less dense than New York City because it was built in the automobile age. New York is dense because it was built before the mass affordability of cars. Travel speeds were much slower, so buildings had to be closer together. There’ll never be another New York. Almost all new urban development will be low-density and car-oriented.

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  81. Bob F says:

    See the following article that came out a week before this one:

    http://planet3.org/2012/10/31/does-public-transportation-save-energy/

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  82. Bob F says:

    The energy benefit of transit is it allows you to build compact cities and still get people where they need to go. That has the effect of reducing travel needs for everyone, including the 80% who will still drive to work. As we build out new “Smart Growth” communities, we can build in a way to minimize travel distances — and then add transit service to the extent that congestion and demand warrants it.

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    • Praxis says:

      We could build even denser cities and walk or bike everywhere. That would save even more energy. But people don’t want to live that way. And they don’t want to live at transit-oriented densities either. Cars are just a much faster, more comfortable, more convenient and more practical way of getting around. That’s why they’ve displaced transit almost completely, and why for 50 years we’ve been designing our urban areas mostly for cars instead of buses and trains. The only urban areas where transit still has a substantial share of the transportation market are old dense cities like New York that were built before cars became widely available, and where driving (and parking) is difficult and expensive because of the lack of space.

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      • Gerry says:

        You are ignoring new development in communities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Denver. And how many people are jumping to move to these places versus Houston and Detroit? As a redisent of a small town forced to drive into the suburbs due to my job, I am very sick of people saying that this is some kind of choice that I am making.

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      • Praxis says:

        Most new development is low-density and car-oriented, not high-density and transit-oriented. That includes most new development in Portland, Minneapolis and Denver. The most recent Census data shows that the vast majority of growth in the U.S. is occurring in suburbs, not in dense urban cores or downtowns.

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      • Green Mountain Bot says:

        Minneapolis has had the largest total growth of any city in Minnesota over the last 10+ years, and Saint Paul is second. Some cities have had higher percentage growth, but in terms of bodies moving in, the core cities are ahead of the rest.

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  83. Frank says:

    It is tremendously refreshing to see an honest analysis of the relative costs and environmental impacts of public transit and private cars. Perhaps the evaluation can, in the future, be expanded to include the cost (value) of riders’ time spent traveling. I haven’t read other comments on this piece yet, but I can be sure it is filled with virulent anti-car rants filled with the transit fanatic’s trademark refusal to accept the facts.

    Thank you to Freakonomics for once again injecting fact into the discussion.

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  84. Chris Theis says:

    This story brings up one of my pet peeves, HOV lanes. In my narrow view of driving the streets of Denver it seems that HOV lanes create more congestion than not. I don’t think many drivers are changing their driving habits to take advantage of the HOV lanes, so the overall effect of the HOV lanes is more pollution.
    As I have sat in the traffic jams and watch the empty HOV lanes I have wondered if Freakonomics has had the audacity to disprove the efficiency of HOV lanes. I am sure politician, left or right will ever take this on.

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  85. Jei says:

    Your biggest mistake is that you assume the only place to add new transit is in low-density areas. With crush-loaded transit vehicles during rush hour, adding more vehicles easily increases ridership while remaining extremely efficient. Interestingly, mass transit probably follows the same rules as highway capacity–in certain markets, you can never build too much. Think about it, would you switch if the vehicles came every 3 minutes during peak? Wouldn’t everyone?

    The best incentives to ride transit is not actually the cost of driving vs. riding, but the time penalty. Transit has to take no more than 10-15% longer. Investments to make our transit faster than driving in markets where that is possible is also a good investment.

    Also, on an individual level, your choice to ride transit is always a carbon benefit. The marginal carbon cost of an additional passenger is very low.

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  86. Gerry says:

    The big factor not mentioned here is the development patterns that transit encourages. Consider Portland, OR, where dense development, with a small footprint, leads to lesser impact on the environment. Compare that to places like Houston and Detroit, developed around the automobile, where long commutes emit large amounts of pollutants and encourage land use that destroys the natural environment.

    As an electrical engineer, I take strong issue with the idea that electrification of automobiles is around the corner. While GM and Nissan have accomplished wonderful things with the Volt and Leaf, there is no sign that the economics of these vehicles will ever reach a point where a middle class family could afford two of them. Engineers do not magically invent more fuel efficient cars whenever policy makers snap their fingers, so the mandated increase in fuel economy standards is by no means a guarantee of tomorrow’s reality.

    Development patterns in these low carbon footprint cities- like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, depend on transit. These cities simply would not exist as we know them without transit.

    Electrified transit is the proven technology that we have right now to drastically clean up how me move ourselves and develop communities. California’s bullet train, for example, is planned to operate with 100% renewable energy. We need to break the cycle of addiction, reject the temptation of questionable promises, and improve our country with what is already there for us- electrified transit.

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  87. Gary Hewitt says:

    There are three ways that public transportation can reduce carbon emissions:

    1) Reducing Auto Trips: This is only variable considered in your blog post.

    2) Reducing Congestion: Auto benefit from reduced congestion when public transportation is available. The reduced idling and travel time for autos reduce emissions.

    3) Allowing for Compact Development: The existence of public transportation allows compact development where walking and biking are possible. These reduced trips also have a positive impact on emissions.

    The American Public Transportation Association has a more thoughtful way of calculating the Green House Gas Emissions for public transportation. It is available at http://bit.ly/Jmc2aL.

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  88. Jarrett Walker says:

    To put my remarks in context: I’ve been a transit network design consultant for 20 years, and am also the author of the blog HumanTransit.org and the book Human Transit (Island Press, 2011) which rebuts many of the false assumptions in this article.

    First, it’s absurd to claim that emissions reductions or energey efficiency are the primary benefits of transit; there are many others, including making it viable to build denser communities that are more sustainable in a wide range of dimensions. For lower income people who cannot afford to drive, transit is a means of retaining jobs, and for seniors and disabled people, it is a crucial tool of social inclusion.

    Second, like most right-wing commentary on transit, Morris’s rests on the false assumption is that transit agencies are all trying to maximize ridership as their overriding objective.

    In 20 years as a transit network design consultant working across North America, Australia, and New Zealand, I’ve never encountered a transit agency that pursues a ridership goal as its overriding purpose. Transit agencies are always required to provide large amounts of service despite predictably low ridership, for reasons including basic access for seniors and the disabled and the perception that service should be delivered “equitably.” While equitable is a slippery word that means different things to different people, its effect is to justify service spread all over an urban region, even into areas where ridership is inevitably low (usually due to a combination of low density and street networks that discourage walking).

    In my own work, I refer to these predictably low-ridership servics as coverage services because they are tied to a coverage goal that conflicts with a goal of maximum ridership. Typically the coverage goal is stated in the form “__% of residents and jobs shall be within ___ feet (or meters) of transit.” This goal requires service to be spread out over areas where prospects for ridership are poor. I then encourage transit agency boards (or Ministers) to think consciously about what how their service resources should be divided between ridership goals and coverage goals.

    If this method ever becomes common, it will be possible assess bus services that are trying to achieve high ridership. Only that universe of services is relevant to discussions about whether bus services provide ridership effectively.

    A more extensive geometry-based discussion of exactly this issue, and how it needs to be managed in policy thinking is in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit.

    Regards,

    Jarrett Walker
    Jarrett Walker + Associates
    Consultant in Transit Planning and Policy
    1327 SE Tacoma #166
    Portland, OR 97206
    503 208 4249

    jarrett@jarrettwalker.com
    blog: HumanTransit.org

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  89. TroyJmorris says:

    I have a hard time entertaining this theory when the aspect of congestion isn’t even given a nod to. That’s where the environmental impact can be found.

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  90. conservativetransituser says:

    No hate posts from me. Great observations. I use as many travel modes as I can, depending on the situation. Living in the Seattle area, we have (or should say used to have) a very good bus system, at least in terms of coverage, transit hubs, decent scheduling. the real problem is financial–the very large public/tax subsidy required to maintain service.

    We also have a light rail system that has cannabalized the bus system to a certain extent but is also pretty reliable. But it’s busy and crowded at the commute times and less so during non-peak periods. Also requires massive public subsidy.

    This being an uber-liberal region, there is a distinct “anti-car” and “anti-highway” attitude that has limited road capacity–i.e. the roads that both cars and buses run on. We have gotten smarter about peak time tolling, HOV lanes, bus only lanes.

    Gas taxes have risen substantially the last few years but at least there have been some much needed improvements. Telecommuting/teleworking is not as prevalent as it could be as not making trips is the best environmental solution.

    Our real problem is bad drivers and bad weather. Clueless drivers are the region’s biggest problem. People just don’t move and causes traffic problems all day long. Combined with bad weather and difficult topography, getting around at peak times here stinks.

    Would love to know your opinions on “transit oriented development”.

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    • rob says:

      Are you claiming that the highways are not paid for with taxes/public money?

      Are the highways or roads unsubsidized? Do they turn a profit?

      Do you think that the 20% of Seattle households that do not own a car choose not to own a car based on their uber liberal views?

      I live in Seattle as well. I own a car. The “mass transit system” is a joke here.

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  91. Soumyanath Chatterjee says:

    This is a classic example on debunking a good idea by giving carefully chosen examples of faulty implementation. Author’s ignorance could have been tolerated but here we see willful mischief to justify bad practice.

    If utilization of public transport is low the fault is not with transportation system but with social makeup that do not give incentive to use a better system. Government needs to make cars costly to travel, impose justified carbon tax on it so that more people will travel by mass transport system.

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  92. TestD says:

    Thoughts to ponder . . . .

    Congestion was mentioned enough in these comments to make the point. I would like to emphasize that even without congestion, I drive many more short trips between stores that are literally across the street from each other. When I take the bus, I plan more and walk more.

    It has been pointed out that mass transit has a social goal as well as emissions goal. But these ideals are actually connected. Some of the riders do not (or cannot) have cars at all. They would not be exchanging one form of transport for another. It could be argued that cutting bus services would eliminate a certain portion of emissions entirely, since they would have no way to travel. It could be argued as well that this would force them to buy a car, and that car would not be performing to the sales sticker emission rates. Forcing riders into cars in this case would actually increase emissions.

    I would also like to respond to the San Fransisco transport issue brought up in one comment. SF may seem terrible, but I found that the large variety of transit method made our visit to downtown SF enjoyable and without substantial delays. I walked a lot, but only by choice. It may be different for a resident, but at least it saved me from bringing another car into the bay area.

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  93. Alex says:

    So the “Real World” example of the relative environmental impact of single-occupancy vehicles and transit is the USA, where the government has supported transit significantly less than in every other developed country for the last 70 years and where land use policies encourage the sprawling, car-oriented (heck, car-required) development that makes transit inefficient? Wouldn’t the actual “Real World” example look at a country where (unlike the USA) transit is actually an agent of environmental policy? How do these numbers look in Japan or Germany? Or Canada or Australia for that matter?

    I absolutely agree with your conclusion, though, and cities like Albuquerque and Seattle are finding that upgrading existing bus services has made them more productive and thereby presumably lower environmental impact. But why muddle that important point by claiming that the US transportation system is indicative of the potential relative environmental impact of transit?

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    • Praxis says:

      The government subsidizes urban mass transit at a rate of about 70 cents on the dollar. Despite that enormous economic advantage over cars, transit has only a small share of the urban transportation market. That’s an indication of just how strongly people prefer cars to buses and trains.

      Cars also dominate urban transportation in Europe. They’re just a bit less dominant over there than they are in the U.S. Mass transit’s (modestly) higher share of the urban transportation market in Europe is easily explained by historical factors: European cities tend to be older than American cities. They were mostly laid out before the mass affordability of cars. Consequently, they tend to have lots of narrow streets and closely-packed buildings that makes them difficult to retrofit for the age of the automobile. Until recently, Europeans were significantly poorer than Americans. Fewer Europeans could afford cars. Mass transit was more of an economic necessity. And European countries are much more densely populated than the U.S. They don’t have the vast areas of undeveloped land for their urban areas to expand into, like we do in the south and west, where most new urban development is taking place.

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      • Green Mountain Bot says:

        That 70% figure you use is an awfully wide brush. In the Minneapolis/Saint Paul region, for example, roads are subsidized at a rate equal to the subsidy of buses, and that rate is considerably higher than the level of subsidy for light rail.

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  94. rob says:

    If you are measuring fuel per person per mile, should you take into account the fact that congested commuters get way worse mileage when they sit in start/stop traffic and run the engine for a much greater amount of time than in an uncongested commute?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes up the “20%” efficiency claim.

    Sounds like we should ditch buses and start hitch hiking …

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  95. Todd Litman says:

    As a professional transport planner and economist I have worked on numerous studies which evaluate various transportation energy conservation and emission reduction. There are a number of factors to consider in such analyses which were overlooked in this column.

    I agree that the key to increasing energy efficient is to provide more incentives for people to reduce unnecessary driving. However, this includes more than just increasing fees and taxes. In addition to more efficient road and parking pricing (i.e. charging motorists directly for using roads and parking facilities rather than financing them through rents and general taxes), it is possible to convert fixed vehicle costs such as insurance and registration fees into variable costs, a concept you’ve previously endorsed (www.freakonomics.com/2008/04/18/freakonomics-in-the-times-magazine-not-so-free-ride/ ).

    In addition, there are both efficiency and social equity justifications for giving transit vehicles priority on urban streets: it is inefficient and unfair that a bus carrying fifty passengers is delayed by congestion the same as cars carrying one or two passengers, since bus passengers require an order of magnitude less road space. A typical urban traffic lane carries up to about 1,000 people per hour in cars, and far more in buses, so any urban street with more than about 20 buses per hour should have dedicated bus lanes. This increases bus operating efficiency, which reduces fuel consumption per vehicle-mile, and attracts travelers from cars to public transit.

    Communities provide public transit in order to achieve two different and often conflicting objectives: to provide basic mobility for non-drivers, and to provide efficient transportation on major travel corridors. Yes, transit energy efficient would increase if service were reduced at times and places where demand is low, but this would reduce mobility for non-drivers.

    High quality public transit (relatively comfortable, fast and integrated) that attracts discretionary travelers (people who have the option of driving) can leverage additional vehicle travel reductions, so each passenger-mile of transit travel reduces more than one vehicle-mile of automobile travel. This occurs because high quality transit provides a catalyst for more transit-oriented development, that is, compact, mixed, multi-modal neighborhoods where residents tend to own fewer automobiles, drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit than they would if located in automobile-dependent areas.

    For example, in a conventional, automobile-oriented neighborhood destinations are relatively dispersed and walking conditions are poor, so virtually every trip is by automobile, and drivers must chauffeur non-drivers, such as driving children to school and to visit friends. As a result, virtually every licensed driver has a personal car. In a transit-oriented community, commonly-used services are nearby and there are good sidewalks, so residents are more likely to walk or bike to local shops, and commute by transit. This allows households to own fewer vehicles, typically owning a household car rather than a personal car. Since most (typically 70-80%) of vehicle costs are fixed, this reduction in vehicle ownership tends to significantly reduce vehicle travel.

    This explains why residents of transit-oriented communities tend to consume 20-40% less vehicle fuel than demographically comparable households in more automobile-oriented locations: shorter trip distances; shifts from driving to walking, cycling and public transport; and reduced automobile ownership which reduces lower-value vehicle trips.

    For more information see:

    ICF (2010), “Current Practices in Greenhouse Gas Emissions Savings from Transit: A Synthesis of Transit Practice,” TCRP 84, Transportation Research Board (http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/tcrp/tcrp_syn_84.pdf ).

    JRC (2011), “Location Efficiency and Housing Type—Boiling it Down to BTUs,” Jonathan Rose Companies for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov); at http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/pdf/location_efficiency_BTU.pdf.

    Todd Litman (2011), “Evaluating Public Transit As An Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction Strategy,” presented at Aligning Environmental and Transportation Policies To Mitigate Climate Change Institute for Policy Integrity, 26 October 2011, New York University School of Law (www.vtpi.org/tran_climate.pdf).

    Gil Tal, Susan Handy and Marlon G. Boarnet (2010), “Draft Policy Brief on the Impacts of Transit Access (Distance to Transit) Based on a Review of the Empirical Literature,” for Research on Impacts of Transportation and Land Use-Related Policies, California Air Resources Board (http://arb.ca.gov/cc/sb375/policies/policies.htm).

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  96. elvismann says:

    The energy requirement analysis does not assume traffic congestion for cars, and is therefore not complete. If you’re stuck in traffic a lot, the BTUs/mile go up dramatically. I agree this will also affect buses, but not rail/subways.

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  97. Jaq says:

    What if improving a transport system encourages more travel? If there’s less congestion and more efficient mass transport, people might decide to travel more often or further away than they would have otherwise, so they’d use more resources in total.

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  98. Praxis says:

    The Transportation Research Board report cited by Todd Litman in his comment above (his first link) confirms that the effect of transit on CO2 emissions in the U.S. is trivial. The report cites four studies that estimate the reduction in annual CO2 emissions from mass transit (Table 2 on page 16). The largest estimate is a little under 37 million metric tonnes of CO2 (MMtCO2). This value is the combined reduction in emissions attributable to mass transit from mode shifting, congestion reduction, and compact development.

    On page 7, the report cites a figure of 7,150 MMtCO2 for total annual U.S. emissions. So mass transit reduces total emissions by about 37/7150*100 = 0.5%. A benefit of half a percent is trivial. So
    focusing on mass transit is a waste of time. The only way to achieve meaningful reductions in emissions from passenger transportation is cleaner cars. Transit is a distraction.

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  99. Jack Feldman says:

    You’re all ignoring the social cost of mass transit. People who must depend on mass transit are more easily controlled. People who must depend on mass tansit are much less flexible in their travel. People who must depend on mass transit cannot choose their companions. People who must depend on mass transit are more exposed to predation.
    I grew up with mass transit in Chicago; I rode buses and the El a lot. You won’t get me on them again.

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    • Green Mountain Bot says:

      Yes, but in the absence of mass transit, people who are dependent on mass transit will be unable to get from place to place at all. Removing the transit doesn’t remove the dependence.

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  100. Tom says:

    Is that ~3000 BTU/passenger-mile averaged over the entire fleet? What happens if you compare transit vs. car for only trips which are truly comparable (intercity trips, including congestion)?

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  101. arthur says:

    I feel as though the straight BTU comparison is leaving another component out; you have to walk to the bus stop or train station. Maybe per mile there is similar consumption between vehicles, but having to walk to the train station and then again to your final destination could mean that the public transit user is using the vehicles for fewer miles, rather than someone driving from driveway to parking lot. Furthermore, driving even across the street from one store to another when running errands isn’t unheard of, but if you took the train to that part of time, you’d probably walk to your close by errands. Or bike.

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  102. Projjal Dutta says:

    Here is an entire post on another blog, inspired by this blog post. http://www.ubmfuturecities.com/author.asp?section_id=348&doc_id=523945&#msgs

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  103. Frank Illguth says:

    The Astronomical Jet Engine

    All Gore received The Pulitzer Prize for talking about our global warming problem.
    What prize will be given to that person who will do something about our global warming problem?

    My Astronomical Jet Engine has zero pollution, very quiet and is based on the same electronic principles that are in use today.

    With the help of my Atom Exhilarator I have been able to reorganize the above electronic technical principles. This has given me the opportunity to reach an advanced technical performance that is unknown to man today.

    My Astronomical Jet Engine will propel all the atoms in the jet engine compartment at the speed of up to 300 feet per second. That same Astronomical Jet Engine will also propel my high speed American Hydrogen Shuttle Express. By now you will say,” That is impossible”.

    That is exactly what Christopher Columbus would say to you when, you were standing on the deck of his ship Santa Maria watching Columbus navigate by the stars. You would inform Columbus, “ in 477 years from now we will land a ship on the moon that you see up there”
    Again, Columbus would say, “that is impossible.”

    My good friend Bjarne Heggset of Heggset Engineering based in Kristiansund Norway did not say, “ that is impossible” when I informed him that my non stop monorail train ( commonly called on Google ) The American Hydrogen Shuttle Express. This high speed train can load and unload up to 500 passengers with their luggage in less than two minutes when slowing down to 35 miles per hour, and then return to its normal safe speed of 200 miles per hour. Bjarne examined my illustrated drawings for over two hours.
    He then informed me. “This will certainly give our air lines some competition “. He also seed,
    “Frank, you may fine some problem promoting your train, your mechanical technology is 100
    years ahead of our time “.

    The inventor; Frank Illguth frank.illguth@shaw.ca

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  104. none says:

    The big problem with mass transit is that the greed of a very few can shut down a city. Consider the transit strikes when the very well paid union ‘workers” were too lazy to come to work for several days. Enough to cripple everything.

    If everyone has a private car, and a few people decide to be antisocial and hold the entire city hostage to their greed and refuse to drive, nothing happens. Life goes on for everyone as usual.

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  105. Daniel N. says:

    Way to take jet plans vs. trains into account. That’s where all the CO2 reduction comes from. Are trains mass transit? I don’t know, but we need more electric trains that run on wind and solar electricity and less planes that run on fossil jet fuels.

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  106. Jack Marson says:

    On the relationship between coverage and environmental efficiency: The low ridership lines help feed the efficient, high ridership lines, thereby making them more efficient. For roads, we recognize an elaborate hierarchy feeding each other, and don’t say, “If it’s under 10,000 ADT, it’s toast!”

    Having a strong network of transit lines in time and space makes people more willing to reduce their car ownership. That of course leads to more transit trips and fewer car trips.

    I would also think that being able to create locations served by multiple transit lines would be more encouraging of more transit use, less car use, and more transit-oriented development.

    http://www.carbonated.tv/news

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  107. john says:

    The author misses the point. Car ownership is a catalyst for urban sprawl. Urban sprawl, scientifically doesn’t make sense, it’s an unsustainable system of development. Yeah mass transit has its problems but it would work better if people lived nearer to where they work and play. The suburban model is an empty promise. It takes too many resources per person to keep it up. I think the vast majority urban planning community under the age of 40 feels this way. You can attack something on how it works but why stop there? The system could work under a different system. In a way your right. Adding light rail might not be the best idea with regards to the environment as of right now, but it is a step in the right direction. The suburban standard is unsustainable and by definition will come to an end at least for the middle class. Sprawl is unhealthy on a social, economic, and environmental level. We can’t have our cake and eat it too… forever anyway.

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  108. Mark J. Ambrose says:

    There is just one problem (and it is a fundamental one) with the argument presented in this post. When one evaluates the costs and benefits of any decision, one doesn’t care about the resulting averages, one cares about the margins.

    So, if one considers expanding the bus system in a certain city, the comparison should not be the avg. C footprint of all bus riders in the city vs. the avg. C footprint of all who drive. It should be the avg. C footprint of all the new bus riders who switch to using transit because of the expanded system vs. the C footprint that they had driving their cars before switching to transit.

    Now this is a harder number to get at than the overall averages. To get it we have to know something about who is likely to switch to using transit. However, my guess is that the typical person who might switch to transit is more likely to have been commuting in a single occupant vehicle (simply because family units who combine trips probably will still do so and carpoolers as well). Similarly, we have to estimate the marginal C cost/passenger of the expanded system (somewhat easier to do using fuel and ridership numbers for the original and expanded system).

    Looking at things this way, all the low-hanging fruit may not be gone. There may still be a number of areas where expanding transit systems makes sense in terms of carbon footprints.

    The same sort of analysis, looking at the margins, needs to be applied to any reduction in transit service.

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  109. David says:

    Just the sameas in the book you get basic science wrong, so why would I trust your economic analysis?
    Heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter objects, except in extreme cases such as a steel ball vs a ping pong ball or other situation such as sheet of paper vs a ball of paper where wind resitance effects change the outcome.

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  110. L Leeman says:

    I wonder..would all the ‘transit.. it will save the PLAnet!’ zealots stay in harness IF the problem could be reframed and solved a different way.

    I mean if you could operate cars (and I just mean fueling them, not building or maintaining them) with NO emissions that could be construed as harmful, and you could do the same for subways and buses, would you still choose to ‘get them out of their cars’ and in the case of a city poorly served by transit, still try to ‘get them out of their cars’?

    On the one hand, you have a system (cars) that is mostly direct to destination, no matter where the destination is. It also serves destinations where buses and trains do not. It is not time sensitive, meaning, you can use it any time of the day or night and usually get close to the same result. It is comfortable and personalized. lhe roads it uses are, in large part, necessary in any case, to transport food, clothing, medical assistance, building materials, policing, etc. etc.
    Most of all, PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT VOLUNTARILY.

    On the other hand, you have trains and buses(really big, heavy cars) that, depending on the trip taken, will usually NOT go direct to destination, and definitely will not go direct to many(even most) destinations because there is no service. It is time sensitive, and will likely give you less or no service if you work at night. It is not personalized, in peak hours it is uncomfortable, and mostly, you can’t ship things on it. The roads the buses use are, in large part, necessary in any case, for the same reasons as the car case. You may build fewer roads, but balancing that, you build very expensive dedicated track or blacktop.

    Critically, PEOPLE ARE NOT WILLING TO PAY FOR IT VOLUNTARILY when given the choice to pay for a car system instead. This could probably be argued, but my money is on it being emphatically true.

    In a city like mine, where transit is being touted mightily and there are very few trains and not yet any subways, the massive cost of building such a transit system is yet to be committed. If, instead, we could alter the fuel that drives cars, would we then choose to spend the billions on building a transit system?

    Rather, what if we, and all the other cities reaching a certain size, that could concievably practically operate a sucessful transit system, pooled our uncommitted billions to transition to hydrogen or electric vehicles. Would we then be at all intereted in Big Transit?

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