Road To Hell Is Paved With Public Transit

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre, Transportation, Worth A Look

The average public transit bus in the U.S. uses 4,365 British thermal units, a measure of energy, per passenger mile and emits 0.71 pounds of carbon dioxide. The average car uses 3,445 BTUs per passenger mile and emits 0.54 pounds of CO{-2}. Whether you seek to conserve energy or to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, your public policy decision here appears remarkably obvious. Get people off buses and get them into cars. The decision to do precisely this will get progressively easier. By 2020, the average car will use only 3,000 BTUs per passenger mile; by 2035, only 2,500 BTUs. By this time, the car will be – by far – the greenest option in the 21st century urban transit system.

Thus calculates Randal O’Toole, an Oregon economist with impeccable environmental credentials. Senior economist for a number of years with the Thoreau Institute (an environmental think tank in Portland) and lecturer in environmental economics at Yale and at the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. O’Toole has been described as the next Jane Jacobs, the influential contrarian environmentalist who ironically worked in more innocent times to keep cars out of North American downtowns. Author of provocative books such as The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths and The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Mr. O’Toole is now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the Washington-based libertarian think tank. He reportedly cycles to work every day.

Most public transit systems, Mr. O’Toole says in a research paper published in April, have never done the job that governments entrusted to them, which was to move large numbers of people safely to work in the morning and to move them safely back home at night. (On the basis of every billion passenger miles, he asserts, “light-rail [public transit] kills three times as many people as cars on urban freeways.”) Judged on either environmental or economic efficiency, he says, public transit systems consistently produce diminishing returns.

New York operates the most energy-efficient system in the U.S. – but only because its buses carry an average of 17 passengers, or 60 per cent more “load” than the 10.7 passengers carried by the average public transit bus nationwide. (The average public transit bus has seats for 39 people and standing room for 20.) New York keeps losing market share to cars, too. In 1985, the public transit share of passenger travel in New York was 12.7 per cent, far ahead of the No. 2 system (with a 5.2 per cent share) in Chicago. By 2005, though, the public transit share in New York had fallen to 9.6 per cent; Chicago, in the same period, had fallen to 3.7 per cent. At the lower end, Buffalo fell from a 1.2 per cent share of the passenger market to 0.6 per cent; Sacramento fell to a 0.7 per cent share from 0.9 per cent.

The great boondoggle of the past few years, Mr. O’Toole says, has been light rail, a fashionable alternative to heavy rail, the underground subway train.

“Most heavy-rail systems are less efficient than the average passenger car and none is as efficient as a Toyota Prius,” Mr. O’Toole says. “Most light-rail systems use more energy per passenger mile than an average passenger car, some are worse than the average light truck and none is as efficient as a Prius.” Curiously, the Prius delivers exceptional mileage but emits roughly the same greenhouse gases (per passenger mile) as the average car and average public transit train.

Perhaps because they remain market-driven enterprises, cars and trucks have eclipsed buses and trains – by a wide margin – in energy-efficiency advances in the past generation. Americans drive four times as many miles as they did 40 years ago but produce less than half as much automotive air pollution. Some new cars pollute less than 1 per cent as much as new cars did in the 1970s.

Public transit buses are a different story. In 1970, the average bus used 2,500 BTUs per passenger mile; by 2005, it used 4,300 BTUs, a 70 per cent increase. In 1970, by way of contrast, light trucks used 9,000 BTUs per passenger mile; in 2005, they used 4,300 – a decrease of 50 per cent. The average pickup truck is now as energy efficient now, per passenger mile, as the average bus.

“The fuel economies for bus transit have declined in every five-year period since 1970,” Mr. O’Toole says. Why? U.S. public transit agencies keep buying larger and more expensive vehicles – and then driving around town with fewer people in them. In 1982, the average number of bus occupants was 13.8; by 2006, it was 10.7.

“Since 1992, American cities have invested $100-billion in urban rail transit,” Mr. O’Toole says. “Yet no city in the country has managed to increase [public] transit’s share of commuters by more than 1 per cent. No city has managed to reduce driving by even 1 per cent. People respond to high fuel prices by buying more efficient cars – and then driving more.”