“You never know what the future will bring,” says Steve Polzin, of the Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research. “If we are not careful, we could do some things that would make corn ethanol look like a wise investment.”
What things are those, Steve? For his answer, take a look at his July 11 article in the Urban Transportation Monitor. The recent Surface Transportation Policy Commission recommended investing in intercity rail, saying that trains “consume 17 percent less energy per passenger mile than air carriers and 21 percent less than automobiles.”
But, Polzin notes, the recently passed Energy Independence Act requires autos to become 40 percent more efficient in the next 20 years, and the next generation of airplanes is also likely to be at least 17 percent more efficient than the current one. So, Polzin asks, why should we “spend decades and billions for intercity rail”?
“Historical modal efficiencies are not particularly important,” he points out. “Future investment decisions should be based on expected future modal efficiencies.”
Polzin has arrived at some points that have also been made by the Antiplanner. For example, he observes that the recent increase in transit ridership “could only explain 1-2 percent of the decline in” driving.
But Polzin makes several more points that I’ve never considered. For example, he notes that automobiles and buses have short life cycles, so they “can enable relatively rapid integration of state-of-the-art technologies.” Planes and trains may last longer, but that’s a disadvantage when technology is changing. “Modes where the vehicle and guideways are integrated systems” — that is, rails — “may be far more difficult or expensive to upgrade to newer, more efficient technologies.”
The Antiplanner has noted that autos operate about one-third full (1.6 occupants in vehicles that average perhaps 5 seats), while buses and trains tend to be only about 10 percent full. But Polzin adds that “autos never have empty reverse commute trips or deadhead mileage back to the garage.” I guess I should be using total vehicle miles rather than just vehicle revenue miles when calculating transit vehicle occupancies.
Polzin also notes that increasing transit service to meet the demand caused by high energy prices may actually “result in lower overall operating efficiencies.” “We need to be judicious in determining how the public responds to planners’ visions of future travel options,” he concludes. High gas prices may “change behaviors, but we need to use caution in estimating how quickly travelers will trade off time and convenience for energy cost savings.”
While some people erroneously call the Antiplanner “anti-transit” (meaning, “if you don’t support our super-expensive form of transit, you must oppose all transit”), Polzin can hardly be accused of such a thing. He has worked for transit agencies in Chicago, Cleveland, and Dallas, and served on the board of directors of Tampa’s transit agency. But he is an engineer, which means he asks hard questions that many planners and virtually all passenger rail supporters would like to ignore. Let’s hope more people begin to ask such questions.