Why Transit Will Never Be Energy Efficient

At a recent presentation, the Antiplanner mentioned that transit is not energy efficient because most transit vehicles run nearly empty most of the time. A “gotcha” look appear on the face of an audience member, who said, “but what if more people rode transit?” Yes, and cars would be more energy efficient if they were filled to higher occupancies, the Antiplanner replied, and if pigs could fly, we could just ride around on pigs and we wouldn’t need to debate this at all.

ModeAverage Occupancy
Automated Guideway7%
Cable Car36%
Commuter Rail21%
Demand Response12%
Heavy Rail17%
Light Rail14%
Motor Bus15%
Trolley Bus16%
Van Pool59%
Ferry Boat20%
Publico34%
Monorail7%
Inclined Plane19%
Vintage Trolley10%

Yet there are very good reasons why public transit occupancy rates will never rise much above their current levels of about one-fifth full. 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.

As shown in the table, some kinds of transit do average more than one-fifth full. Van pools run during rush hour and are probably the only form of transit that are truly energy efficient. Cable cars are mainly a tourist attraction and run through the center of one of the densest cities in America. Puerto Rico’s Publicos are privately operated and go where they can make a profit.

Most forms of transit are not likely to replicate any of these very specialized cases. Even commuter trains, which often operate only a few in-bound trains in the morning and out-bound trains in the afternoon, average only 21 percent full.

Transit advocates have an interesting response to these facts. Buses are energy efficient, they say, if you count only rush-hour bus service. We run buses during other times only to meet other social goals, so we shouldn’t count the energy costs of transit during those times. Even if you believe this ridiculous argument, the chart on page 16 of this report is based on a hypothetical study of energy costs, while actual energy costs of buses and other forms of transit tend to be not significantly better (and in the cases of buses much worse) than cars.

The real significance of the lifecycle study quoted in the VTPI report is that the non-fuel energy costs of rail transit tends to be greater than the fuel costs, while the non-fuel costs of cars tend to be less than the fuel costs. “Current results show that total energy and greenhouse gas emissions increase by as much as 1.6X for automobiles, 1.4X for buses, 2.6X for light rail, 2.1X for heavy rail, and 1.3X for air over operation,” says the lifecycle study.

ModeFuel CostLifecycle Cost
Cars3,4375,500
Light Trucks3,7526,000
Buses4,1865,860
Light Rail3,5639,260
Heavy Rail2,3875,000

As shown in the table above, 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.

Share

24 thoughts on “Why Transit Will Never Be Energy Efficient

  1. JimKarlock

    A single occupancy 6 passenger car is 17% full
    A single occupancy 5 passenger car is 20% full
    A single occupancy 4 passenger car is 25% full

    How many transit options beat the single occupant, 5 passenger car? Not many!

    Thanks
    JK

  2. Borealis

    This is a very compelling point. The Antiplanner should use it more often.

    Buses can adjust and put resources into the shorter runs. Trains have a hard time doing that. Both buses and trains can’t do much about the one-way flow of rush hour traffic. It is difficult for buses and trains to schedule resources for both rush hours and yet not incur costs for the inefficient time in between.

  3. OFP2003

    Well, here’s a point where my observations differ. WMATA trains tend near 100% seat-full (few to none standing) at the start of their rush-hour runs. This is due to the commuters arriving at the end-of-the-line stations with huge parking facilities and bus hubs. Now, I don’t know what capacity seat-full is perhaps less than 50%. Of course, the trains still arrive nearly 100% empty at the end-of-the-line stations. So, actually, I guess my observations don’t differ after all!!!

  4. Jardinero1

    To be fair Mr. O’Toole should say that, in addition to privatizing transit, we should privatize the roads that autos use. That way car owners would be forced to internalize the costs of their choices.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    Jardinero1 wrote:

    To be fair Mr. O’Toole should say that, in addition to privatizing transit, we should privatize the roads that autos use. That way car owners would be forced to internalize the costs of their choices.

    France and Italy have (mostly) private and tolled motorway networks (autoroutes and autostrade, respectively). As I understand it, these roads are still owned by the national governments, but they are built, operated and maintained by private concessions.

    There are a few such toll roads in the U.S., including the adjacent and connected Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road.

    Virginia has the Dulles Greenway and the Pocahontas Parkway.

    North of the border in Ontario, Canada, there’s the Highway 407 toll road.

    Speaking of being fair, many public toll roads and toll crossings divert some of their toll revenues to transit subsidies, something that these private toll roads don’t generally have to do.

  6. FrancisKing

    “…but what if more people rode transit?”

    Well, indeed. If transit was free at the point of delivery, delivered at wholesale prices by the council; if buses has the kind of quality that people take for granted with cars; the buses would run full.

    Some British cities have free shuttle buses around the town centre. These are always full.

    Antiplanner has made the same mistake as so many bus companies – to assume that buses must remain in a state of decrepitude.

    “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.”

    True. But the solution to running trains half empty is to run parallel commuter buses over the last part of the route, being cheaper than extra carriages and over short distances almost as fast as the train. Unfortunately Antiplanner has expressed his support for private and uncoordinated transit companies, so that it is impossible to do this. Again, franchising is the correct solution.

    “Plus, that bus or train has to return in the other direction, and then it could be nearly empty. ”

    The solution is to do what the airlines do, and charge at a level that will fill the vehicle. So people pay more into town than they do out of town.

    “As shown in the table, some kinds of transit do average more than one-fifth full. Van pools run during rush hour and are probably the only form of transit that are truly energy efficient. Cable cars are mainly a tourist attraction and run through the center of one of the densest cities in America. Puerto Rico’s Publicos are privately operated and go where they can make a profit.”

    Bicycles run at 100% occupancy, and have massive capacity for vehicles – in practical terms at least 5 times the vehicle capacity for cars. But you just try to find any council with the guts to make bicycles really work. Usually, you get a patronising gesture, followed by a shrug, and then back to work as usual, bullying cars drivers in a pitiful attempt to get them onto seriously underwhelming transit.

  7. The Antiplanner Post author

    Michael Labeit,

    No worries; the $1 book you found was probably a review copy Cato sent someone for free. Congrats on getting a good deal. While I am sure someone at Cato has to watch the bottom line, for the most part both Cato and the Antiplanner care more about getting the information out than about making money.

  8. Dan

    Auto dependency and anti-choice advocates, ware! More people to marginalize to maintain ideological coherence!

    Carmakers’ next problem: Generation Y
    People in their teens and twenties are more interested in gadgets than cars

    By Allison Linn Senior writer
    msnbc.com
    updated 11/4/2010 9:41:49 AM ET

    Meet Natalie McVeigh, the auto industry’s latest headache.

    At 25 years old, McVeigh lives in Denver and has two good jobs, as a research analyst and an adjunct professor of philosophy. What she doesn’t have — or want — is a car.

    A confluence of events — environmental worries, a preference for gadgets over wheels and the yearslong economic doldrums — is pushing some teens and twentysomethings to opt out of what has traditionally been considered an American rite of passage: Owning a car.

    “There’s kind of almost every force working against the young driver right now,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst and editor-at-large at Edmunds.com, an automotive research website.

    Brauer said this generation also is thinking more than any other about the repercussions of driving, both in terms of the environment and our dependence on oil.

    “They don’t just wholeheartedly see a car as this cool thing to go get,” he said. “There’s actually some caveats.”

    ‘I didn’t need it’
    McVeigh didn’t make a conscious plan not to drive. After living overseas as a teenager, she went to college in a small town and then moved to bigger cities for graduate school and work.

    At first, a car seemed both prohibitively expensive and unnecessary, because she could walk or take public transportation. Then, she just decided she didn’t want one.

    “I just kind of came to the realization that I didn’t need it,” she said.

    McVeigh uses public transportation to get to work and likes that she can spend her commute time reading or grading papers.

    McVeigh also likes getting the extra exercise when she chooses to walk to work or to the grocery store, and is happy to be saving money and not adding any more <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39970363/ns/business-autos the planet.

    DS

  9. ws

    I would argue that automobile ridership occupancy is the least likely form of mobility to increase its numbers regarding occupancy. Getting in another person’s car takes a social tie to the driver and probably proximity to that person. If those aren’t fulfilled, it’s unlikely that people are going to start picking up strangers off the street like transit does.

    Transit still holds the best potential in increasing its occupancy numbers as compared to cars, partially from the above reason.

    People are right in stating that if transit vehicles had higher occupancy numbers, that their energy efficiency is only going to increase greatly. That is not an if “pigs could fly” statement are you’re making it out to be.

  10. Andy

    A 25 year old “adjunct professor of philosophy” doesn’t want a car. Wow, stop the presses — DOG BITES MAN!

    If all the 25 year old adjunct professor of philosophy don’t buy cars until they get married, move to suburbs, have kids, and buy SUVs, then GM will lose about 5 car sales a year, only to sell SUVs a couple years later when she procreates (assumming something, not that there is anything wrong with that).

  11. bradtem

    It should be noted that within large urbanized areas, like Manhattan, Tokyo and others, the hub-and-spoke model that has everybody taking a trip to the central station is less common, and there are higher occupancy rates within the town centers. And commuter trains, which don’t run in the middle of the day (and often just leave their rolling stock downtown, not even sending most of it back in empty runs) do indeed have some of the best energy efficiencies of trains, as does Amtrak, which is moving hub to hub.

    However, one reason people don’t believe these occupancy numbers is because of an observer bias. On a full train with room for 100, there are 100 people observing a full train. On the same train with 2 people, there are only 2 people observing an empty train. And nobody but the conductor observers the truly empty train. Thus the majority of personal observations on average are of trains that are above the average occupancy. Only a comprehensive study of occupancy reveals the true numbers.

  12. Frank

    Carmakers’ next problem: Generation Y
    People in their teens and twenties are more interested in gadgets than cars

    No wonder you didn’t link to the story. One look at this anecdote reveals why. Take a look at the cherry picked North-Face-wearing, non-profit-loving, ultra-liberal lesbian featured in the article. Of course she doesn’t want anything to do with a car!

    Come to the suburb where I teach high school and talk to my students. Every last one of them wants a car. Some of them want to drop it, tint the windows, and get a massive system and listen to the foulest rap music at full volume and the windows down–even in the winter. Some want to “drift” their Hondas and others want muscle cars to race. Many of them need cars to get to their jobs. Many, especially younger students, have to riding the city bus to school; a mark of shame among my students, it’s what poor people do. They also hate it because they have to haul 20+ pounds of books and supplies half a mile (sometimes in blizzards) from the transit center to school with a load of books. And these kids aren’t sporting the latest North Face or Columbia all-weather gear. They’re wearing old, cheap coats from Old Navy or Wal-Mart. They have holes in their clothes. Some kids shoes are falling apart. No wonder they want cars.

  13. msetty

    A central conceptual error made by The Autoplanner in his post: he failed to distinguish between transit services that have a primary goal of maximizing ridership, versus those whose main purpose is to provide basic coverage and mobility to seniors, persons with disabilities and others who for various reasons cannot drive.

    See Jarrett Walker’s excellent series posts on this matter and related topics, starting with http://www.humantransit.org/2009/07/long-term-transit-plans-ask-the-real-questions.html.

  14. Dan

    A central conceptual error made by The Autoplanner in his post: he failed to distinguish between transit services that have a primary goal of maximizing ridership, versus those whose main purpose is to provide basic coverage and mobility to seniors, persons with disabilities and others who for various reasons cannot drive. [emphasis added]

    Slight correction:

    A typical error made by Auto Dependency Shills in their assertions…

    That is all. Happy Thanksgiving to the American readers.

    DS

  15. msetty

    And your point, Borealis?

    If low income seniors pay $3.00 per mile for taxis (the average U.S. price) and make 2 trips daily over an average trip length of 4-5 miles (considerably less than the U.S. urban average trip length), they’ll spend $25.00-$30.00 per day, or most of a $1,000 per month social security check.

    In this case, automobiles are usually cheaper, especially “beaters,” though many low income seniors and disabled persons simply can’t afford them.

    Not that I don’t think contracting for shared ride taxis doesn’t make sense instead of overpriced ADA paratransit, particularly with the pending availability in 2011 of the first real “from-the-ground-up-designed” accessible taxicabs, featured at http://www.vpgautos.com/. But the nuts and bolts of how to effectively do this is a different thread.

  16. Andrew

    Borealis:

    It is unrealistic to expect taxi’s to fulfill any sort of real mobility demands. I just took a taxi from the distant Pittsburgh suburbs to downtown and it cost me $100. The only reason I am took it is I am getting reimbursed by my employer. If I was paying myself, I would have prevailed upon a relative to drive me, as I think would 99 people out of 100. The taxi company is the only one operating in Butler County that I am aware of, and it has just a few cabs. No one would ever voluntarily leave their mobility to taxis and their exhorbitant prices.

    The prices of taxi rides in cities are mostly driven by the medallion system, which is a government swindle operation to artificially enrich the owners of government taxi licenses at the expense of taxi drivers and passengers. Maybe if there was an actual free market in taxi operations with no barriers of entry in the form of $250,000+ taxi medallions, this might be something worth discussing.

  17. Walt Brewer

    To quantify the peak hour performance of mass transit.
    On freeways at 2,000 vehicle/hr, and 65 mph, cars use about 172 feet/car including car length. Peak hr occupancy is down to about 1.2 average. Thus 143 ft used per passenger.
    A 40 ft bus carrying 50 people average uses about 214 feet, allowing 20 extra feet for added separations. Thus 4.3 ft/passenger.
    Car might deliver 35 or so pass.mile/gal, increasing at least 50% in a decade or two.
    Bus delivers about 150 p-mi/gal, with somewat less potential.
    For the city street case, bus ft/passenger is about 3, car about 83.
    Thus considerable favorable leverage for mass transit.
    I hasten to agree however the overall picture shakes out as in the article because of the very low ave bus occupancy.
    Using half or smaller size buses for off peak alleviates, and does not increase capital investment because they are cheaper, and both large and small can be used twice as long.

  18. Pingback: 2009 Transit Data » The Antiplanner

Leave a Reply