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

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.

A Monopolist's Bridge

More than 25 per cent of trade between the U.S. and Canada goes over the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The bridge, built in 1929, has since 1979 been owned by one individual -- Matty Moroun. He also owns duty-free stores and sells gasoline that escapes taxes. The Bridge isn’t quite a monopoly—there is also a tunnel; but the Bridge is more convenient for a lot of traffic.

Michigan has a constitutional amendment on the ballot requiring that any new bridge be approved by voters before state money is spent on it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bridge owner is funding a large advertising campaign supporting the amendment. No monopolist likes to have the stream of monopoly profits diminished, which a new bridge would surely do. His political advertising is a smart move for him—a good way to ensure a continuing flow of profits.  Whether it’s good for Michigan, for U.S.-Canada trade and the well-being of the average North American consumer is questionable.  (HT to DJH)

Why My Favorite American Cities Have a Chinatown

Relatives from South Africa were visiting and we got to talking about which cities to visit in America. I shared my list: San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Philadelphia. Each city has a Chinatown. Coincidence? Or maybe the connection is just that I like Chinese food. Indeed, our family has been going to a favorite dim-sum restaurant most every week since moving to Boston seven years ago.

Then the larger connection came to me. Chinatowns were made by Chinese laborers building the railroads (when the laborers had finished this vast public-works program, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred most Chinese from emigration to or citizenship of the United States). Having a Chinatown marks a city as of the railroad era, built up before the wide deployment of the automobile. As Lewis Mumford said, "The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is actually the right to destroy the city." Cities with Chinatowns had enough roots to escape carmageddon.

A Bill of Goods? Assessing the Transportation Legislation

Do you want the good news, or the bad news… or the bad news… or the bad news… 

Okay, in this post let’s start off on the bright side. At a time when the two parties cannot agree on the menu at the Congressional cafeteria, the Republicans and Democrats have found something they can agree on. After three years of debate and nine temporary stopgap extensions, Congress and the President have enacted new transportation authorization legislation. This bill divvies up the gas tax money, plus some miscellaneous revenue from other sources (more on this later), and funds and regulates the federal surface transportation program for the next 27 months. 

In many respects, this is a pretty remarkable achievement. Things could have been worse: on the same day that the transportation agreement was announced, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on healthcare. Compared to the stark partisanship surrounding that issue, when it came to transportation, John Boehner and Harry Reid held hands around the campfire and sang Kumbaya.

Is a Meat-Eating Cyclist a Contradiction?

In response to James McWilliams's still-reverberating post about why more environmentalists don't promote veganism, a reader named Mary writes:

I have always wondered why environmentalists are so reluctant to promote veganism, but eager to promote alternative transportation. Many residents of the U.S. are currently locked in to their car-dependent lifestyle, with large mortgages in suburbs with no safe sidewalks or bike lanes and inefficient transit. Ditching their car is logistically much more difficult to do than buying beans instead of meat at the grocery store. Currently, the infrastructure for reducing car use is lacking in many communities, though vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained.

It's an interesting point. A few related thoughts come to mind:

The Train, The Train! Federal Transportation Legislation: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi all! Sorry I haven’t been writing much of late; I’ve been dealing with the minor matters of filing a dissertation and finding myself gainful employment. The first step is complete: I get to call myself a doctor now, though it is a source of considerable disappointment to my friends that after almost eight years of study I’m not the kind of doctor who can prescribe them medical marijuana. The second step is complete too: I’ll be joining the faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina as an assistant professor in the fall. I’m thrilled to be going to Clemson as I think very highly of the department, the setting, and winning college football.

Anyway, I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, this time about my dreams for transportation—which are turning out to be nightmares. Like one of those stories where a genie gives you three wishes and every one of them boomerangs. Or even better, a bad episode of Fantasy Island:

Hitchhiking Gets a Hearing in D.C.

Inspired by our podcast “Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?,” transportation scholar Alan Pisarksi organized a discussion session on the topic at the recent Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington D.C.  Pisarski, who was also featured in our episode, hoped the event would encourage scholars to apply insights from the past to current issues in transportation policy.

Freakonomics Quorum: Can Amtrak Ever Be Profitable?

Amtrak’s ridership and revenue has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years, and 2011 set a new ridership record with 30.2 million passengers, and $1.9 billion in ticket revenue. But, even though it took in $1.42 billion from Congress last year, it still manages to lose $1 billion annually. This is hardly a new development. Amtrak has a long and storied history of functioning at a loss despite government subsidies.

So, as we enter what appears to be a new era (maybe?) of government austerity, it seems worth asking if Amtrak can ever turn a profit without government help. We rounded up some people who pay attention to this issue and asked for their ideas to fix Amtrak, if it can be fixed at all.

Did Blackberry Outages Cut Abu Dhabi Traffic Accidents by 40 Percent?

A three-day Blackberry service outage last week in parts of the United Arab Emirates once again demonstrates the value of "distracted driving" laws. According to an article in The National, an English-language paper in Abu Dhabi, traffic accidents in Dubai last week fell 20 percent from average rates on the days when BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents last week fell 40 percent, and there were no fatal accidents. According to the article, on average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, and a fatal accident every two days in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi recently launched a campaign against cell phone use while driving and plans to use electronic evidence in traffic cases.

Should There Be a Hitchhiking Renaissance?

One of the greatest transportation resources out there is… your backseat. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, the average vehicle commuting to and from work has only 1.1 people it. This means that about 80 percent of car capacity goes unused. In a moment when we’re worrying about gas consumption and carbon emissions, […]