Without ridership, public transit fails at energy efficiency

Randal O'Toole argues that public transit will never be more energy efficient than the private car -- at least not at current ridership levels. Is it doomed to fail?

The future is in rail! Or trolleys! Or buses! Or ferrys!

According to one expert, it's none of these. Because if U.S. cities are serious about energy efficiency, public transit is not the way to go.

Writing at The Antiplanner, urban policy expert Randal O'Toole argues that public transit will never be more energy efficient than the private car -- at least not at current ridership levels, with light rail at 14 percent, commuter rail at 21 percent and trolley buses at 16 percent.

The problem, O'Toole writes, is that public transit modes spend an awful lot of time empty:

Suppose you take a bus or train to work during rush hour and it seems full. But it really only seems full as it approaches the center of town. It is likely to be nearly empty when it starts its journey in the suburbs, and be nearly full only when it gets close to the city center. Over a single, one-way journey into town (or out of town in the afternoon), the vehicle is likely to average only about half full.

Plus, that bus or train has to return in the other direction, and then it could be nearly empty. Now the transit line averages just one-quarter full. Add to that all the trips made during non-rush hours, and it is hard to imagine that transit vehicles can possibly average much more than one-fifth full.

There's no doubt that public transit helps in myriad ways, from neighborhood development to economics. (Infrastructure investment carries a high price tag, but it also stokes an economy in a way that few other projects does.)

But an environmental argument? O'Toole says it's not as rosy a picture as it seems:

The high rail non-fuel costs cancel out the slight fuel-related energy savings of rail transit over cars. In any case, the only strategies that might make transit energy efficient are to run it only during rush hours or only in dense city centers–and even then there is no guarantee. Of course, there is a third strategy: privatize transit and let the private owners decide when it is efficient to run.

Of course, privatization also means putting at risk all of the other benefits of transportation authorities. But it's a daring suggestion, because most transit authorities are not successful businesses, and regularly run in the red.

What do you think?

[via Planetizen]

Photo: Ed Siasoco/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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