The Antiplanner has reposted the consolidated spreadsheet for the 2010 National Transit Database. The revision of a file I posted last month fixes an error in the calculation of the total number of seats and standing room provided by each transit agency and mode of travel.
More important, the revised file includes some calculations, including BTUs and CO2 emissions per passenger mile, seats and standing room per vehicle, the average number of passengers per vehicle (passenger miles divided by vehicle revenue miles), and operating subsidies per trip and passenger mile. Many more calculations can be made using this spreadsheet and you are welcome to download it and do them.
The Federal Transit Administration added a new kind of transit this year: demand-taxis (id code DT). This is a demand-responsive system that uses private taxis in place of the wheelchair-accessible buses used by many transit agencies. This actually saves money as the average demand-responsive bus costs taxpayers about $30 a ride while the average taxi costs about $17 a ride.
As in previous years, the Antiplanner also added another mode code: SC for streetcars, which tend to carry far fewer people than modern light rail. While the FTA classifies all rail lines that run in streets as light rail, I sort out most vintage trollies and modern streetcars. This isn’t always possible: the report for Portland, for example, lumps its streetcar and light-rail data together.
For the first time, the database separates maintenance (which the FTA calls “capital improvements of existing service”) from true capital improvements (which the FTA calls “capital improvements of expanded service”). Taxpayers spent more than $6.2 billion on true capital improvements in 2010, including $2.9 billion on light rail, $1.7 billion on heavy rail, and $1.1 billion on commuter rail.
Here are some things we can conclude from these data.
1. Transit doesn’t particularly save energy. According to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, the average car uses about 3,500 BTUs per passenger mile (see page 2-15). By comparison, the average transit vehicle used about 3,440 BTUs per passenger mile. Getting people into cars like the Prius (1,700 BTUs per passenger mile) will do more to save energy and reduce pollution than expanding transit systems.
2. Light rail is even less energy efficient than transit as a whole. Light rail uses, on average, more than 3,600 BTUs per passenger mile. The most energy-efficient form of transit is van pools, followed by publics (shared taxis), heavy rail, and commuter rail. Automated guideways, demand-response, and ferry boats are the least energy efficient.
3. While commuter rail is, on average, more energy efficient than most other transit, the numbers are skewed by New York City’s commuter-rail system. Portland’s commuter-rail line uses nearly 6,000 BTUs per passenger mile, while Salt Lake’s uses well over 5,000. Of course, New York’s numbers also skew averages for heavy rail, bus, and transit as a whole, but not light rail because there is so little light rail in the New York metro area.
4. When taken as a whole, the transit systems for the vast majority of urban areas use far more energy per passenger mile than driving. Only New York, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco-Oakland, and Honolulu use significantly less energy per passenger mile than driving. While Minneapolis-St. Paul’s and Portland’s systems use slightly less energy than driving. Most others use much more: Seattle’s, for example, uses 4,900, Dallas-Ft. Worth’s uses 6,300, and Phoenix’s uses nearly 6,000 BTUs per passenger mile. This does not count the energy costs of constructing rail lines in these cities, which can be huge.
5. Once again, San Jose takes the prize for having the most pathetic major transit system in the nation. San Jose light-rail cars carry an average of just 16.6 passengers at a time, meaning they are only about 11 percent full. Denver closely follows with just 17.5 passengers per car. Despite the objective failure of its light-rail system and the absence of any need for a heavy-rail line, San Jose is moving ahead with construction of a BART line to Fremont.
6. One of the best, and by some measures the best, transit systems in America is in Honolulu, whose buses use just over 2,200 BTUs per passenger mile (compared with New York’s second-best of close to 2,600 BTUs per pm) and whose buses carry an average of 14.6 riders, compared with a national average for buses of just 10.7. Too bad Honolulu is set on spoiling the system by building an ugly, expensive, elevated rail line.
The problem with transit is that it pretty much has to run nearly empty, on average, if it is going to operate during most hours of the day and to remote suburbs where few people use it. The main use is during rush hour, and that is mainly in one direction even though vehicles have to make round trips to serve commuters. So while Washington MetroRail, for example, may seem packed during rush hour, it officially clocks in at just 13.4 percent full. Some commuter lines, both bus and rail, deal with this by operating only during peak hours. But if you want to serve more than a handful of commuters, you are going to end up with a system that is costly both in dollars and energy.