We’ll never get to Kyoto by transit

There is a popular perception that transit is an important strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, in the expectation that drivers will abandon their cars en mass. Thus, the Association of Canadian Municipalities and big city mayors have called for a national transit program.

However, things are not that simple. Predominant views do not establish reality and the mayors’ program is a prime example. If every car were to be retired, the nation would fall far short of achieving its Kyoto Accord greenhouse-gas reduction objectives.

More importantly, there is little potential for transit to replace automobile travel. Automobiles increased affluence by increasing exponentially the jobs, shopping and other destinations that can be reached in a fixed period of time. The irony is that, in the modern, sprawling urban area, traffic congestion is less intense than in the more dense urban areas, because traffic is diluted. For example, in the New York area, the most sprawling urban area in the world, work-trip travel times are the shortest to jobs in the outer suburbs and the longest to jobs in the core, despite its being served by one of the best transit systems in the world. Remy Prud’homme and Chong Wong Lee of the University of Paris have shown the substantial economic growth gains that occur when people can reach more jobs in a fixed period of time.

To replace automobile travel with transit would require automobile-competitive transit systems — service that is as fast and convenient as the car. Transit is automobile competitive for some trips to the largest downtown areas, such as Tokyo, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and works very well in these locations. But large downtown areas are geographically small and generally represent less than 20% of metropolitan employment. For example, in the United States, Bureau of the Census data indicates that nearly one-half of all transit commuting is to downtown areas, which represent less than 0.1% of the urban (developed) land area.

Transit service is woefully slow and often not even available to other destinations. Transit travel takes too long. Statistics Canada data indicates that worktrip travel by transit is 80% longer than by car. This means people have less time and, indeed, were they to switch to transit, the economy would be less productive. It might be argued that the answer is more transit service. This is infeasible. In most urban areas, the required automobile-competitive systems would cost more annually than the gross income of the entire population.

It is thus not surprising that there are virtually no proposals (much less serious plans) anywhere in the world to establish the automobile-competitive transit systems that would be required to attract significant numbers of drivers from their cars. It is also why there have been no successes in attracting material numbers of drivers from their cars anywhere in the world. The reason is simple. For the most part, transit does not go to where people need to go from where their trips begin. And it cannot for a price that can be afforded.

Toronto Mayor David Miller says that there is not enough money to keep transit systems going. Of course there isn’t, and there never will be so long as urban areas use antiquated public-monopoly systems. Around the world, the competitive market has been employed to substantially reduce unit costs and increase service levels.

In London, the world’s largest bus transit system reduced its costs per kilometre 50% from 1985 to

2000, through the use of competitive tendering. At the same time, service levels were expanded 32%. Substantial benefits have been achieved by similar programs in Stockholm (where the subway is also competitively tendered), Copenhagen, Perth, Adelaide and other areas.

Some places, like Canada and the United States, are still wedded to the hopeless monopoly model and severe cost escalation has been their reward.

Finally, the mayors call for a national transit program. This would be costly and ineffective, because money from afar is simply not used as carefully as local taxes. European nations have devolved transit funding and programs back to the local level, principally for this reason. Again, the national transit program model is the United States, where costs have quadrupled relative inflation. Canada can expect the same result: a lot more expenditure and little more service.

The first step in reducing greenhouse- gas emissions with transit would be less hot air and more reality from its naive advocates, with their hopeless proposals.

This article originally appeared March 13, 2007, in the National Post.