A new report from Florida’s National Center for Transit Research looks at how transit can save energy. The report’s lead author, Steve Polzin, has been mentioned here before. Some of the findings are more surprising than others.
Transit uses about the same amount of energy as driving, the report finds, and transit in most places (including most Florida cities) uses much more. It has become more energy efficient in the past couple of years, but that is mainly because budget cuts have forced transit agencies to cut marginally productive routes. Expanding transit is not the key to saving energy, the report suggests; making better use of transit’s surplus capacity is.
The report also examined the effects of transit service on personal travel choices. People who live “in proximity to transit” use less energy not because transit is energy efficient but because they travel less: about 12 miles less per day per adult. This means nearly 20 miles less auto travel, 2.4 miles more transit travel, and 5.5 miles more of other modes (walk, bike, ferry, taxi, air).
Advocates of transit-oriented development can’t crow about these results, however, because they apply mainly to low-income people. People in households earning more than $70,000 a year who live in proximity to transit actually travel more than people with similar incomes who live away from transit. Much of this additional travel is air travel. Maybe people who live in dense, inner-city neighborhoods just have to “get away” more than people who live in the suburbs.
“The ability of transit investment and/or land use policy to create environments similar to those that now require less travel is dependent on both the willingness of additional persons to be attracted to those environments and the extent to which travel behaviors change to reflect those of current urban residents who have access to transit,” says the report. The report adds that infrastructure changes needed to make neighborhoods more transit-friendly also have energy costs.
Density advocates like to argue that people living in dense areas drive less and higher gas prices mean people will live in denser areas. They are missing a lot of critical factors about how cities work. Among others, transit’s share of commuting depends mostly on having lots of jobs near the hub of a hub-and-spoke transit system, not on population density (else Los Angeles would have higher rates of transit usage than New York).
The Florida paper did not consider some more in-depth questions about living in proximity to transit. What is the impact of 12 miles of less daily travel on such people? Do they end up paying higher housing and consumer costs? Are low-income people in such neighborhoods more or less likely to increase their incomes over time? Unless planners are willing to confront such issues, they should drop all of their dreams of turning American cities and suburbs into little Manhattans.