Everyone should know how to respond to stories like this, because they’ll keep coming. From Kevin Libin at Canada’s National Post, an article called ‘Save the Environment: Don’t Take Transit.” It quotes the usual suspects, but it still needs a clear response:
“Subsidized transit is not sustainable by definition,” says Wendell Cox, a transport policy consultant in St. Louis, and former L.A. County Transportation commissioner. “The potential of public transit has been so overblown it’s almost scandalous.”
It’s not that environmentally minded transit promoters are being dishonest when they argue that city buses are more efficient than private cars: It’s that they’re talking about a fictional world where far more people ride buses. Mass transit vehicles use up roughly the same energy whether they are full or empty, and for much of the time, they’re more empty than full.
For the bulk of the day, and on quieter routes, the average city bus usually undoes whatever efficiencies are gained during the few hours a day, on the few routes, where transit is at its peak.
In 19 years as a transit planning consultant, I’ve studied the operations of at least 100 bus and bus+rail systems on three continents; I have never encountered one whose overriding goal was to maximize its ridership. All transit agencies would like more people to ride, but they are required to run many empty buses for reasons unrelated to ridership or environmental goals. To describe the resulting empty buses as a failure of transit, as Cox does, is simply a false description of transit’s real, and conflicted, objectives.
If public transit agencies were charged exclusively with maximizing their ridership, and all the green benefits that follow from that, they could move their empty buses to run in places where they’d be full. Every competent transit planner knows how to do this. Just abandon all service in low-density areas, typically outer suburbs, and shift all these resources to run even more frequent and attractive service where densities are high, such as inner cities. In lower-density areas, you’d run only narrowly tailored services for brief surges of demand, such as trips to schools at bell-times and commuter express runs from suburban Park-and-Rides to downtown. If you do such a massive shift of resources, I promise your productivity (ridership per unit of cost) will soar, and you won’t have as many empty buses.
Why do we know that’s the answer? Because if you rank a transit agency’s lines by productivity (riders per unit of cost), the top ranking services are almost all in one of these categories: either (a) all-day high-frequency service to areas of high density or (b) peak-only commuter express from suburban centers to downtown, or (c) services to suburban schools at bell-times.
So if we were talking about Seattle’s King County Metro area, for example, a ridership-maximizing service plan would probably offer no all-day transit service outside the City of Seattle except for links to the densest suburban centers such as downtown Bellevue and perhaps some older, denser inner-ring suburbs such as Renton and Burien. Beyond that, the suburbs would have nothing but school services and express buses to Seattle at rush-hour. In the dense urban fabric of Seattle, on the other hand, you’d have buses or streetcars every three minutes on every major street, with lots of rapid-bus overlays, etc, etc.
The outcry would be tremendous, the politics toxic, the prospects for implementation zero. I would never propose it. But there’s no question that such a service change would dramatically increase ridership, dramatically reduce the number of empty buses, and thus improve how transit scores on the kind of tally that Cox and his allies propose.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, transit agencies have to balance contradictory demands to (a) maximize ridership and (b) provide a little bit of service everywhere regardless of ridership, both to meet demands for ‘equity’ and to serve the needs of transit-dependent persons.
One analysis that I’ve done for several transit agencies is to sort the services according to whether they serve a “ridership” related purpose or a “coverage” related purpose. Ridership services are justified by how many people ride them. Coverage services are justified by how badly people need them, or because certain suburbs feel they deserve them, but not based on how many people ride. I encourage transit agencies to identify which are which. Once a transit agency can identify which of its services are trying to maximize ridership, you can fairly judge how well those services are doing in meeting that objective, including all the environmental benefits that follow. Until then, the Cox argument is smoke and mirrors.
My 2008 Journal of Transport Geography paper on transit’s multiple purposes, exploring how transit agencies can get control of this narrative, is here.
Photo from lantzilla via Flickr, via Streetsblog Los Angeles
Jarrett, Libin does address that in the last paragraph of his article. In a pretty lame way, it’s true, but he does.
As a former Seattle resident, your description of the high ridership plan sounds pretty good to me. Could the empty-running coverage-oriented buses be replaced with some sort of dial-a-ride system running full?
Jarrett, good post. I have a question about cities with weak urban cores. I don’t know much about Seattle, but the story that the numbers tell is that the city’s population is currently near its historical high. But what do you do in cities that are losing population, like many in the rust belt? In my hometown, Cleveland, the population is lower than it’s been since 1900. Many urban neighborhoods are no longer the densest areas (there are 3 inner-ring suburbs more dense than the city-proper). What do you think?
Does anyone else think it is funny that this guy’s solution to empty and inefficient public transportation is to encourage people to not take it?
On top of your arguments I also wonder whether implementing a plan which maximizes ridership isn’t countereproductive; a lot of those fairly empty buses are likly used by people who transfer to high ridership lines. Removing or reducing them might significantly reduce overall ridership.
Cox is a well-known (in the US at least) shill for various right-wing causes; his “solution” is to build more freeways and not build transit at all–and to dismantle what solutions we have.
Utterly nobody in professional transit planning takes much of what he says seriously. Unfortunately, many politicians (typically those ideologically opposed to transit, or those feeling heat from transit opponents) will trot out Cox, Randall O’Toole, and other propagandists as reasons why it ought not be built.
Rob, you have an excellent point about land use and the transit. The two are two sides of the same coin. It is not coincidental that the New York and Washington are the two cities with the highest per-capita transit ridrship. They are also the cities with the densest urban cores, at least as far as office space. Obviously New York is first but Washington now has the second most square feet of office space in its downtown (comparable to what they call “Midtown” in New York).
This job density was not the case between the 1968 riots and about 2002. After the riots, entire blocks of downtown Washington were left in rubble and converted to surface parking lots. Two main things happened to result in all the infill: 1) building the Verizon Center downtown (with NO surface parking lots) to de-mystify the area and 2) the completion of the Metro system. Since all Metro lines go downtown, it is the most convenient place for everyone in the region to get to.
A small footnote is that Washington has a Congressionally-imposed height limit that is approximately 10 stories (the specific rules can be found here). The height limit has made it so that landowners can only build less costly 10-story buildings and also makes it so that the opportunity costs of surface parking lots are prohibitively high. Those opportunity costs couldn’t kick in until the Metro was complete and people no longer needed to take cars to get downtown. With the Metro, Downtown is a convenient central destination for all, rather than an inconvenient location.
The key is to always remember that land use and transit use are twinned together. Also, a diversified multimodal transit system whose parts complement each other always draws more riders and induces more positive human-scale land use changes than a bus-only system. It is not fair to compare a bus-only system to anything as it’s a barebones system. You get what you pay for. There are half-empty buses in midtown Manhattan. Big deal. That’s because the subway is stuffed to the gills. Same in Washington with the Metro.
Tell someone to visit New York or DC or Boston or San Francisco if they want to see how transit works when it’s not just buses and gas-guzzling suburban sprawl.
An interesting (albeit un-scholarly) article on the fuel efficiency of busses vs cars is here. Computing this stuff is complicated (and subject to much variation), but seven passengers on a 40′ diesel is a typical “break even” point compared to a reasonably fuel efficient auto driven by a single driver. (Keep in mind that to compare auto fuel efficiency to bus fuel efficiency, one must compare “city” mileage, not highway mileage). If you are comparing to motorists driving in SUVs or other lower-efficiency vehicles, the break-even point drops even lower.
Certainly, there are many lines (or entire systems) which fail to average 7 passengers; but any decent system in a reasonable city should have no problem. And if a transit system really IS seeing such low passenger volumes, there is the option to run smaller vehicles.
Well, it’s probably the most amusing example of the sort of mendacity we’ve come to expect of the National Post since “Terrible Sea of Fire Engulfs All“.
More seriously, though, the sort of service levels you describe (and Cox intimates) for a high-ridership transit service more or less replicates the operating model in Richmond, Va. While it’s convenient for people who both live and work in the city itself, art-school hipsters (ahem) dashing about inner-city neighborhoods and certain classes of suburban commuters, it provides very limited opportunities for convenient transit to the sort of services that, for the most part, are only provided in the suburbs. Many of these areas, such as some of the edge cities in the far western and southwestern edges, are totally inaccessible by transit at all.
And yet, I imagine the sort of criteria Cox proposes allowed GRTC to win an APTA award for overall service. I’m still not really sure why.
This is crap. The point should be… there’s a seat for you, and if you take it there is no extra emissions for you riding (virtually), however if you drive you’re polluting a ton. So ride the bus if you care about the environment. You should be looking at your personal carbon footprint not the system’s.
I also agree with all the land-use stuff that clearly plays a role here.
I never thought about it that way, Jared, thanks for the excellent post. We need all the good arguments we can get here in St. Louis.
Cavan: Washington isn’t the second-densest job center in the US; Chicago is. The reason Washington Metro gets higher ridership than the L is that it’s somewhat better-designed – its lines connect to one another better, and mostly run from one side of the city to the other rather than looping around and going back.
Danny: it’s not funny at all – it’s quite rational. Cox gets paid to lobby for GM’s astroturf organization, the American Highway Users’ Alliance. He’s not going to say transit is green any more than a Tobacco Institute fellow will say second-hand smoke kills.
Given that the US government presently owns GM, ya think they might consider firing Cox? 🙂
I wish. But Cox’s association with GM is loose and long-term – that’s how Demographia can keep operating even when GM has no money.
Alon, I stand corrected on the dense job cluster point.
The land use argument still makes sense. The many bus lines in our region that get 10,000+ ridership a day wouldn’t get such high ridership if they didn’t complement the Metro. Even less so if the Metro didn’t support and induce human-scale walkable urban land uses.
Cavan: yes, pretty much. The parts of the Washington Metro that work well with TOD and connecting buses, e.g. the parts in Arlington, Alexandria, and DC proper, are every bit as successful as comparable European systems. Metro gets less ridership only because of TOD-less freeway segments like the suburban Maryland branches.
This analysis only makes sense to me personally if the “coverage” service charges more than the “ridership” service. Otherwise the people who cost less to move are subsidizing the rest, which sounds the wrong way round to me.
Jarret, your response misses the central point of the article, which is simply that transit is not a green or environmentally sustainable alternative to cars. Yes, the reason for that has to do with the nature and purposes of transit, which mean that buses and trains are frequently operated with far fewer passengers than they are able to carry. Cox and O’Toole are perfectly well aware of that. But it doesn’t alter the fact that transit is not green.
No, I'm saying that judging transit based on what it contributes to green outcomes reflects a false inference about transit's purpose. Transit could contribute a lot more to green outcomes if it were run with that objective, but we choose not to do that because of other competing objectives.
Adams, what Cox is saying isn’t “Run transit better to increase fuel economy,” which would require him to admit, for example, that despite FRA rules forcing American trains to weigh twice as much as their European counterparts, American passenger rail consumes about 20% less energy per passenger-km than cars. He’s saying, “Don’t take existing transit, but drive.”
Jarrett, the most common argument I see from transit proponents for expanding transit is that transit is greener than cars and that mode-shifting from cars to transit will benefit the environment. Cox’s and O’Toole’s point is that it’s a specious argument.
Alon, no, Cox is not saying that. His argument is about transportation policy, not individual behavior.
Again, Adams, I'm saying that transit is much greener than cars if you design it for that purpose. Transit is actual several different public benefits being delivered through the same product. Transit agencies run non-green services because they have non-green goals to meet, but what should matter is the green-ness of transit services that are actually intended to be green.
The notion that it is better for someone drive than to occupy an otherwise-vacant seat on a bus that is running regardless, is quite simply nonsense.
Because there is a vacant seat doesn’t mean there is someone choosing to drive instead of take that particular bus trip. It may be the bus route is poorly designed to begin with.
If GM can make “green cars” then surely transit can better achieve green objectives. Perhaps rather than dismissing Cox’s arguments as red herrings we should define what could make transit green and measure against that in those cases in which we have asserted a green objective. It may be that some service types can be more green while others are focused on other objectives (paratransit will never be green, though it could be greener than today). Imagine if transit routes could be LEED certified or some comparable set up, where, while not every route is designed to meet green goals, transit agencies could confidently refute Cox’s arguments with specific services.
A little off topic, but did anyone get a chance to see Ray LaHood on The Daily Show? Nice discussion on the beginning of high-speed rail in America. Check it out.
Multimodal Man: Again, the empty bus doesn't mean the route is poorly designed. It may mean that it is well designed in pursuit of non-ridership objectives.
Fascinating response. I completely agree with your assessment, Jarrett. In a typical example, I’m working at an agency right now where there are routes with pathetic ridership that are virtually impossible to get rid of due to the politics of the area.
I like how you ask agencies to define coverage versus ridership services – although it’s been my experience that even with this, Board’s are unwilling to make the tough decisions necessary to move beyond where they are today.
The key is that transit is not only about maximizing ridership – it’s meeting all sorts of other goals as well.
Jarrett, thanks for another great article. Of course the emptiness of the Randall Cox and O’Toole arguments is that they are comparing a barely-begun system (what, a hundred billion a year worth of public transit fragments of buses, trams and rail in America) with a finished system (the public super expensive American highway network, that takes another couple trillion dollars a year worth of rolling stock/maintenance/injuries and a hundred million unpaid drivers, volunteering two hours a day, to make it all work).
Cox and O’Toole could have used the same superficial analysis to “prove” that short lengths of expressways should not have been built in 1955. After all, if you built a few miles of expressway that didn’t plan to hook up to lots of other expressways, there’d be huge costs and not many “riders”. Who’d want to ride a few miles of a distant circle freeway that didn’t connect to other cities, didn’t even close a circle, and never ran near downtown?
Of course a fragment of freeway would be ridiculously expensive and ill-used, just as underfunded mass transit in America looks expensive until there’s enough of it to be networked together with great connections like in Paris and Barcelona.
Heck, Cox could prove that it makes no sense to build a lone cellphone tower because it would never get used much. Sure, if you don’t have the vision to see how useful the cellphone towers would become once they’re everywhere.
It’s easy and misleading to blame the victim, to look at underinvested non-networked mass transit, and point out that it doesn’t do the exact same thing and reach as many people as our fully connected multi-trillion-per-year private automobile system.
But maybe the easiest way to see past the “transit isn’t green” line is with an occasional whiff of reality. 800 gallons of gasoline are consumed by the average resident of Atlanta, in one way or another, cars/trucks/whatever, every year. In Barcelona that number is about 50 gallons. What will the long term consequences be to the lives of Atlantans when gas reaches 10 dollars a gallon, compared to the impact on daily life and housing patterns in Barcelona? Those simple numbers make the gasoline deniers’ handwaving sound like a very small voice, at the bottom of a quite deep beer mug.
This whole thing seems pretty simple to me. Some transit is environmentally beneficial, and some transit is not environmentally beneficial. But the transit that is not environmentally beneficial needs to exist for other reasons, and will exist regardless. So it makes no sense to judge it against an environmental standard.
Why not just treat the arguments as red herrings? This sort of advocacy reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Bart changes his school report grade to an A to be allowed to go to Camp Krusty. Homer’s response: “Bart, a D changes to a B so easily, you just got greedy”.
If you were trying to talk down transit use, why cook numbers so ludicrously? The only people who are going to agree wear tin foil hats.
It’s a shell game. The trick is to keep five things in your head at the same time: emissions, efficiency, fairness, society AND carnage. Jarrett’s three was apparently not enough.
Yonah now has a piece up on much the same subject, referencing this post.
“To describe the resulting empty buses as a failure of transit, as Cox does, is simply a false description of transit’s real, and conflicted, objectives.”
First of all, I don’t see where Cox says that, or anything very like that. The only quotes from Cox I find in that article appears to be a criticism of Federal funding for transit and of overselling transit’s advantages, and later on about the greenhouse impact of transit vehicles relative to cars.
That said, what you said does appear to be the general theme of the article, but through a very narrow lens that you ignore.
Yes, buses have to run empty to provide proper service to many areas. However, if your goal is saving energy or saving carbon, the fact that the buses have to run empty means they are actually worse than private cars, so people who are trying to sell you transit on the basis that it is “green” are wrong. Buy transit for other reasons, but not because the vehicles will save energy, because (he says) they won’t.
That said, I noticed something curiously absent from his comments. He talks about how the switch to hybrid cars is changing the average energy use of carsforthe better, widening still the gap between cars and diesel buses. Does anybody even make standard diesel buses anymore? All of the buses Hampton Roads Transit has bought in the past few years have been hybrids or fully-electric, and buses do exactly the kind of driving where a hybrid with regenerative braking excells. I recall seeing a thing in Popular Mechanics less than a year ago about a bus manufacturer who had the idea to make their hybrid buses also usable as emergency generators, with a single bus able to power a small hospital. The tone ofthe article suggested that hybrid buses were nothing very unusual, but the generator idea was.
So how does a Prius stack up against a hybrid bus?
And are modern trains more efficient than those currently in use in major cities’ transit systems?
When Cox says, later in the article, “”At this point, a Toyota Prius is less greenhouse-intensive than New York City Transit,” is he comparing apples to apples, or is he comparing a modern car against buses and trains that are decades old?
I’m not defending Cox, but I don’t see how it helps out position to accuse him of saying things he didn’t say. We can concede his position on the “green” issue without conceding the overall field, in fact we SHOULD concede it if he’s right. Then use it as an argument that the environmental impact of transit needs to be improved, since transit is necessary and good.
And if he’s wrong about the “green” thing, we need to say THAT.
Cox is not doing either comparison – he’s just lying.
According to an FTA official’s presentation, the carbon-intensity of the New York City Subway is one sixth that of a single-occupant car per passenger-km (see page 11), comparable to a fuel economy of 115 passenger-mpg. The Prius gets 40-45 mpg; at average load factors of 1.5 passengers, it would get 60-70 passenger-mpg.
By the way, page 10 of the above-linked presentation also shows that buses average two thirds the carbon intensity of a single-occupant vehicle. Hybrid cars are greener than average, but hybrid buses are greener than average, too.
If you fill a Prius with 5 people, then it gets 200 passenger-mpg and becomes greener than the average subway car, but still much less green than a subway car filled to capacity, with about 130 passengers per car. Using BTS data about passenger-mileage and NYC Transit data about vehicle-mileage, it appears that the average subway car has 29 passengers in it, so filling the train would more than quadruple energy efficiency. This means your fully-laden subway car consumes the energy equivalent of 514 passenger-mpg. This is in line with energy consumption statistics from Switzerland and Japan, where trains are fuller than in the US.
In fairness to Cox, there are plenty of people out there who are fervently “railigeous” and refuse to deal with transit in anything other than the most boosterish terms. The thing I like about this blog is that it takes a pragmatic view towards transit. Positive towards it, without being wedded to dogma about modes or universal applicability in all situations.
The problem with Cox isn’t that he’s fervent. Kotkin is fervent, and says idiotic things, but he isn’t a paid highway lobbyist who pretends to be a professional planner, and he doesn’t lie about basic facts.
In the quoted text, Cox refers to “New York City Transit.” Not the New York City subway. New York City Transit includes the subway, buses, commuter rail, and possibly ferries also. So accusing Cox of lying on the basis of a calculation that applies only to the New York subway is, well, lying.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I’ve seen you do this kind of thing before.
The commuter rail and ferries aren’t part of NYCT – they’re separate agencies, though they, too, have low energy consumption per passenger-km.
The buses are a wash with the Prius since they run fuller than in other cities, and at any rate, the subway accounts for two thirds of NYCT’s ridership.
Adams, I just looked up NYCT bus statistics, and Cox is still wrong. NYCT and BTS data combine to show that each bus trip in New York carries 195 passenger-miles. The average route, using MTA data about route lengths and the number of routes, is 8.42 miles, half the length of the busiest route; this yields 23 passengers per NYCT bus, or 82.5 passenger-mpg on NYCT buses.
In other words, both components of New York City Transit are considerably greener than a Prius. Can you please take back your statement that I lied?
Sorry, that’s not good enough. You haven’t shown that “the buses are a wash with the Prius.” In fact, you haven’t even shown that Cox’s statement is false when applied to the New York subway only.
What the hell are you talking about? All of my numbers here are in emissions equivalents. Do you disagree with the statistics I posted, or with the calculations? Or do you just think that “The subway emits the equivalent CO2 of 114 passenger-mpg” does not mean the transit is greener than a Prius?
First, the claim in question is about carbon intensity (actually, greenhouse-intensity), not fuel efficiency. I have no idea how you came up with your fuel efficiency figure for NYCT buses anyway. You can’t calculate fuel efficiency from route lengths or passenger-miles. You need data on fuel consumption also. And you need additional data to calculate carbon emissions per passenger-mile. They’re not simply proportional to fuel efficiency measured in mpg regardless of fuel and vehicle type. So where is your data? Where are your calculations? Show them to us.
You claimed Cox lied. Prove it, or withdraw your accusation.
My take on all this is that, to the extent that I advocate transit, it has little or nothing to do with the environment. I know some people focus on that; I have little interest in it. On the contrary, my main focus is on the urban “lifestyle”, so to speak. Cox et al.’s fantasy world without transit is completely impractical at densities higher than the average (American) suburb. The moment you have densities greater than a couple thousand per sq. mi., the infrastructure required for auto-centered transportation begins to consume the entire landscape–as downtowns across America amply demonstrate.
First: does Cox have any reliable data for his claim? Perhaps as importantly, did you read the data I linked to, or did you automatically assume I’m wrong?
Second: I used the FTA’s table about bus GHG emissions. The BTS dataset has its own figures for bus fuel consumptions, which are more favorable to buses; it claims buses average 4.65 mpg, which at average load factor translates to 41 passenger-mpg. In reality it’s more of a wash because diesel emits more per unit volume than gas, which is why I used the more precise FTA table, which also factors in lifecycle emissions.
If you look at page 14 of the FTA table, you’ll see different values of emission levels for buses at different load factors. The numbers are perfectly proportional to load factors. A bus with 5 passengers emits exactly 8 times as much per passenger-mile as a bus with 40 passengers.
If it makes you feel better, this rag is on the verge of bankruptcy. The National Post is like a Canadian newspaper version of Fox News, except that in Canada we actually fund public education so crap this stupid doesn’t go anywhere.
I used the FTA’s table about bus GHG emissions. The BTS dataset
What table? What dataset? Provide clear citations to documents, page numbers, chart numbers, table numbers, etc. Identify the data you are taking from each of your sources. And then show your calculations.
You claimed that NYCT buses carry an average of 23 passengers. That figure is inconsistent with the data in the National Transit Database. You don’t say what year your claimed figure applies to. Here are the Top 50 Transit Agency profiles for 2006. The data for NYCT is on page 12. Annual passenger miles for NYCT buses was 1,871 million. Annual vehicle revenue miles was 102 million. That yields an average number of passengers per vehicle of about 18.4. Not the 23 you claimed.
The datasets are the ones I linked to. The BTS tables are all on the pages I give, and are pretty self-explanatory; the table that cites passenger-mile numbers is the one I keep referring to.
And okay, so the average occupancy is 18. So it’s not 82.5 passenger-mpg, but 66.
I’ll explain my calculations (which, again, are straightforward – the 8.8 average occupancy comes straight from the BTS, and then I just look at the FTA’s page-10 table and the “private auto = 20.3 mpg” footnote) after you tell me what evidence Cox has that NYCT is on the whole less efficient than a Prius… though at this stage I should extract a groveling apology for calling me a liar in a comment charging that NYCT includes commuter rail.
I’ll explain my calculations … after you tell me what evidence Cox has that NYCT is on the whole less efficient than a Prius
I don’t have to tell you what evidence Cox has. The claim I’m challenging here is YOUR claim that he’s lying. Prove that Cox is lying. If you can’t prove it, withdraw your accusation.
which, again, are straightforward – the 8.8 average occupancy comes straight from the BTS, and then I just look at the FTA’s page-10 table and the “private auto = 20.3 mpg” footnote
More confusion. The “8.8 average occupancy” OF WHAT? Which “BTS” are you referring to? You’ve linked to two BTS documents. And what ABOUT the “FTA’s page-10 table” and the footnote. You say you “looked” at them. What data are you taking from them? What are you doing with that data? Again, clearly describe what data you are citing from each of your sources, and then show the calculations and results that you think demonstrate that Cox is lying.
If you look at page 14 of the FTA table, you’ll see different values of emission levels for buses at different load factors.
Meaningless. The numbers you’re citing here are national averages for all buses. The emissions of buses per passenger-mile will vary greatly depending on vehicle size, fuel/engine type, and operating characteristics. The buses at issue here are NYCT transit buses, remember? Where is your data and calculations for the carbon emissions of NYCT transit buses?
If Cox pulled the numbers out of thin air, it’s as good as lying.
As for facts, here it goes. The BTS has transit profile data; scroll down to the table labeled “performance,” which states that in 2005, buses carried 21.825 billion passenger-miles in 2.485 billion trip-miles. Conclusion: on average, US buses carry 8.8 passengers.
The FTA also has a presentation about GHG emissions. On page 10, a graph sourced to the EPA and the FTA’s data says that in 2007 the average bus had 67.7% the per-passenger-mile emissions as the average single-occupant car, which according to the EPA gets 20.3 mpg. All of my numbers are really just restatements of emissions numbers in the more familiar fuel efficiency terms.
Now, according to your NTD data, New York City Transit buses average 18.4 passengers. And according to the FTA presentation, on page 14, the per-passenger emissions of buses scale perfectly with passenger loads. The page-14 table also makes it clear that the FTA considers the average load factor to be 9. So it follows that average NYCT bus emissions are the equivalent of 63 passenger-mpg. The other BTS data I cited is just a smaller table. It has preliminary data for 2007 for passenger-miles and vehicle-miles. Using the 2007 data the average load factor is 9.11. If that’s what the FTA used, then the NYCT bus emissions are equivalent to 61 passenger-mpg instead.
For completeness, I should mention that the Mikhail Chester dissertation cited on page 14 as a source on bus emissions assumes a higher average load factor, 10.5, based on 2004 FHWA data. However, this is not the average load reported by the BTS or used by the FTA for its computation.
The 115 passenger-mpg claim about the subway comes from page 11 of the FTA data. Again, 115 is just a restatement of data given in terms of carbon emissions. The footnotes to the page 10 and 11 tables say the assumption for cars is 20.3 mpg, hence the conversion rate.
The FTA’s report on bus emissions is very NYC-heavy. It reports higher emission numbers for New York than for other cities, by factors of 33-50% (33% for less traffic-sensitive hybrids, 50% for the rest) for the same equipment, but explains that this is due to the slow traffic speed in Manhattan. The same factors apply to both cars and transit, so it’s not clear in what sense Cox would be correct except “If you drive a Prius on an uncongested highway, you’ll get a higher fuel economy than if you ride the bus in gridlock.” That’s still a whopper – sorry.
In addition, the equipment isn’t in fact the same. NYCT has more hybrid buses than other agencies. The data I have there is fragmentary, but USA Today quotes the APTA as saying only 2-3% of American buses are hybrids (link) as of 2007, whereas in New York the number is now 19% (850 out of 4,500) and was 7% (325/4,500) in 2005 (sorry, no 2007 data – but clearly, it would be much larger than 2-3%). The differences aren’t large, but they’re there.
Now, according to your NTD data, New York City Transit buses average 18.4 passengers. And according to the FTA presentation, on page 14, the per-passenger emissions of buses scale perfectly with passenger loads. The page-14 table also makes it clear that the FTA considers the average load factor to be 9. So it follows that average NYCT bus emissions are the equivalent of 63 passenger-mpg.
No it does not follow. First, you haven’t shown how you calculated your value of 63 passenger-mpg from your data. And second, you cannot base a calculation of the fuel efficiency of NYCT buses on data for all US buses. It’s meaningless, as I already explained. Fuel efficiency varies greatly depending on vehicle size, fuel/engine type, and operating characteristics. For a given passenger load, large buses will tend to be less fuel-efficient than small buses; diesel buses will tend to be less fuel-efficient than hybrid, CNG and electric buses; buses on busy or congested routes that do a lot of stopping and starting will tend to be less fuel-efficient than buses on low-use routes; and so on. You cannot assume that the fuel-efficiency of NYCT buses, adjusted for passenger load, is equal to that of the average for all US buses. It’s just nonsense.
And you keep referring to “single-occupant cars.” But Cox’s comparison is between NYCT transit and the Toyota Prius, period. That means the Prius at average occupancy, not the Prius with only a single occupant.
The National Transit Database contains data on passenger-miles and fuel consumption for NYCT buses. In order to determine the fuel efficiency in passenger-mpg of NYCT buses, you need to use THAT DATA. You can’t calculate it from national averages. And to calculate carbon emissions, you need to use data on the amount of each type of fuel consumed (diesel and CNG) and adjust for the carbon content per unit of each fuel type. You haven’t done any of that. That’s why your claim that Cox is lying is itself a lie. Cox’s claim may or may not be correct, but you obviously don’t know whether or not it’s correct because you haven’t performed the necessary calculations.
We crossposted. I addressed your criticisms re: hybrids and NYCT versus rest-of-the-country in my last comment, with links.
For comparison: the Prius gets about 65-70 passenger-mpg at average occupancy (which is not the same as average commute occupancy, which is where it’s competing with transit). The subway gets 115 mpg. The buses are 18.3% of NYCT passenger-miles, the subway 81.7%, according to the NTD link. So given that the subway gets 115 mpg, to break even with 70, NYCT would need to average 25.5 on its buses.
Oh, come on, Adams. All the new NYCT local buses are hybrid, and they’ve been replacing buses at a pretty good clip. A huge share of NYCT buses is either hybrid or CNG. The numbers are all on Wikipedia, but if you don’t trust Wikipedia they’re on other sites as well. You could have figured that out yourself by now, but you’re obviously more interested in arguing about who’s a bigger liar than in finding out the truth.
There are so many lies and distortions in that article it’s practically criminal.
I’ve finally found data about NYCT fuel consumption – apparently, it averaged 2.81 bus-mpg in the 1990s (link), traveling 107 million miles on 38 million gallons of diesel. The numbers are old – at the time the city was just testing hybrids, and their actual fuel economy, 4 bus-mpg according to a bus vice president at the MTA, was not yet known. Now, 2.81 times 18.4 equals 51.7. Diesel is more carbon-intensive than gasoline, yielding a final answer of 45. For NYCT, this averages out to 89.5 passenger-mpg. (Yes, there’s CNG. But there are also hybrids, which I didn’t count – the average of 2.81 predates them).
In other words: NYCT is in fact less carbon-intensive than the average Prius, even a Prius that drives on uncongested roads. Against a Prius driving on New York roads, it’s not even a real race.
I swear this is my last post in this thread for tonight. But the FTA study on bus emissions says on page 39 of the PDF (i.e. page 30 in the document-internal numbering) that CNG and diesel have nearly the same carbon content. And the gas/diesel conversion is from the EPA.
We crossposted. I addressed your criticisms re: hybrids and NYCT versus rest-of-the-country in my last comment, with links.
No, you didn’t. None of your new links contain the data you need on NYCT buses any more than your previous links did. As I already told you, the information you need is in the National Transit Database. The NTD breaks transit data down by transit agency and provides data on passenger-miles and fuel consumption by fuel type for NYCT buses. The ONLY way to calculate the carbon intensity of NYCT buses is to use this data. So do so. Provide a clear citation to each of your data sources and, for the umpteenth time, show your calculations. Since you haven’t done any of this done, you obviously do not know whether Cox’s claim about carbon intensity is true or false. If you had any integrity, you’d admit that. I’ve already caught you in one huge error – exaggerating the average occupancy of NYCT buses by a third. Until you provide a clear set of calculations using data from official transit sources, you claims are simply worthless and your accusation against Cox is baseless.
At this point, Alon, you’d be better off writing a paper. Methinks that no matter how detailed you get, Prefesser Adams here is going to repeat his claim that you “show your work” and “show your sources”. You could post route and meter logs of every bus in New York City, correlating it with detailed boarding information, and it still wouldn’t be enough. You could write a PhD dissertation on the subject, get it published in a peer-reviewed transit journal, and you’d still get accused of BSing.
I can certainly follow your numbers.
The sort of sophistry in which Adams is engaging in is a bad-faith form of argument. It’s an example of the logical fallacy of “shifting the burden of proof”, to trick you into trying to score on goalposts which are moved at whim.
Adams: Put up YOUR numbers (citing Cox if you want) that show “New York City Transit” fails to outperform a Prius, or similar vehicle, with a single driver. Alon has put up a good argument, all you’ve put up is a litany of “that’s not good enough”. Well, that isn’t good enough. Alon has his case. Make yours.
With regards to claims as to whether Cox “lied”–I don’t know if deliberately made a factual assertion which he knows is false true. It ain’t my claim, I won’t defend it; I don’t care to get into an argument about whether a given statement is sufficiently intellectually dishonest to qualify as a lie, or a damned lie for that matter. I did claim him to be a “shill”, and his well-known position as a lobbyist for anti-transit organizations, certainly gives reason to doubt his objectivity. One criticism of Cox–admittedly hosted on a pro-rail website–is here. Another more scholarly criticism is here. Read them at your own risk.
Certainly, many of the arguments advanced by Cox are somewhat specious. Including the one which is the subject of this post, for the reasons indicated by Jarrett, and a few others I can think of (the actual MPG of the US auto fleet is well lower than what a Prius can get in city driving; and the marginal environmental cost of adding an additional passenger to an extant transit system is quite low.) In addition, I’ll note that many transit systems, even on high-ridership lines, focus on things other than being “green”; such as operational efficiency from a financial perspective.
Adams and Alon. Please take it outside and report back if and when you agree. That comment exchange is a little over the border into personal invective, but I see how that could come about once lying was mentioned.
As I’m sure you both know, “lying” means intentionally saying things you consciously know to be untrue. The human capacity to believe in the truth of obviously false statements has taught me to be very, very reluctant to accuse anyone of lying. Such an accusation requires you to show that somebody doesn’t believe what he says, and that’s a very high bar.
I think some of the comments on this thread are missing the point. What Jarrett was trying to do was teach transit advocates how to respond to the “transit isn’t green because it runs empty” argument, and the comments suggest to me that some of us have not learned the lesson.
For the purposes of this argument, I am going to use the word “green” as shortform for environmentally beneficial, “not green” for environmentally detrimental, and “neutral” for environmentally neutral. Note that these are relative rather than absolute terms, as they are made in comparison to the automobile (i.e. a full bus is still environmentally detrimental, but less so than cars carrying an equivalent number of people, therefore it qualifies as “green” in a relative sense).
The argument is that some transit is green, and some is not green. There is enough transit that is not green to offset the transit that is green, such that transit as a whole is neutral.
What Jarrett has done is to essentially concede the argument, or at least not contest it. But then he has gone on to say that the transit that is not green is unavoidable for a variety of reasons. It cannot, and perhaps should not be gotten rid of.
If someone argues that you are not doing something good, or that are you doing something bad, it can be quite effective to reply that the bad thing is unavoidable. Let’s say that I have a diet of various foods, some of which are healthy and some of which are not. Someone might tell me that on the whole I am not a healthy eater, because the unhealthy foods I eat undo the benefits gained from the healthy ones. This may be true, but if I can say that the unhealthy foods are for whatever reason an unavoidable part of my diet, that is a good response. It exposes the criticism of my diet as unrealistic, and therefore a bit unfair. If my diet is in fact not a healthy one, this is the best argument I will be able to muster.
There are three other possible responses to this argument, some made by commenters above.
1) Transit will be more green if more people use it, and more people will use it if we build more of it (Russell in Cincinnatti). In other words, transit’s greenness is a variable, not a fixed value, and that variable is ultimately dependent on transit infrastructure investments.
2) There are other benefits to transit that have nothing to do with its relative greenness (Rhywun).
3) Even if transit at the macro level is not green, it is nonetheless green from the perspective of the individual user. So if you are an individual, and you take transit to work instead of your car, your individual decision is environmentally beneficial, regardless of what is happening with the system as a whole (Allan). This point is somewhat related to point (1).
I would suggest that people think about and memorize Jarret’s argument, as well as the three arguments I have summarized from the commenters. Because I suspect this is a discussion that will come up a lot.
If you understand the way these arguments are functioning, there will be no need to get into a debate about how many MPG a bus gets blah blah blah. And that is a good thing, because the facts and figures may not ultimately be on the transit advocate’s side.
Pantheon, my entire argument here is that the facts and figures are on the transit advocate’s side. It’s nice to imagine a world in which all cars are Priuses running on uncongested roads, and all transit vehicles are empty 15-year-old diesel buses, but in the real world, buses aren’t that empty, and transit agencies are better than drivers at adopting hybrid technology.
I’m not conceding the greenness argument because I have no reason to.
Alon, I don’t know who’s right on the greenness argument. It is all far too much work for me to bother trying to figure it out. But my concern is that as technology improves, the environmental impact of automobiles may become less and less. Maybe a century from now some new technology will exist, and automobiles will have no impact.
Also, I am willing to bet that transit agencies aren’t as environmentally beneficial as we might think, due to many unavoidable things (long underused but necessary bus lines, running buses to and from the garage, etc etc.)
So I think the environmental argument for transit is transient and weak. It isn’t a good playing field for us. Part of the problem might be that land use is a bigger determinant of energy consumption than transportation mode – i.e. the carbon footprint of a typical American megalopolis is going to be large no matter how people get around, because the distances travelled are so great.
That is why I prefer to focus on all the other benefits of transit. I don’t want subsequent generations to have to live in a soul crushing world of cardboard strip malls and bland suburbs. The real argument against the automotive lifestyle is that it is boring.
One other important point. The article is called “Save the environment: Don’t take transit”, and the description says it is part of a series on “unexpected ways to help the environment”. But the article itself is about the relative greenness of transit at the macro level. As I noted in point (3) above, taking transit instead of driving is always beneficial for the environment on the individual level. So the title of the article, which is a personal imperative, doesn’t actually follow logically from the article’s content, and in fact makes a very different and much broader claim. That is dishonest and/or incompetent journalism.
Technology works both ways. It cuts auto emissions, but cuts transit emissions even more. For example, consider hybrids. In 2008, 300,000 hybrids were sold in the US, out of a total of nearly 8 million non-SUV automobiles – i.e. 4%. For buses, the percentage is 22% of all new orders as of 2007. Trains can adopt regenerative braking as well, and both London and New York are bragging about a double-digit decline in energy consumption in the newest trains.
Or, consider electrification. Buses have been capable of running electric for decades; their fixed routes allow them to use catenary, which costs less than manufacturing buses to have batteries. Electric car technology barely even catches up – the batteries are still too expensive, doubling the costs of the vehicle.
By all means, talk about the environmental impacts of sprawl and 200′-wide superhighways, and about the capacity issues of highways. But gas consumption, carbon emissions, and pollution have to be among the major problems associated with cars today.
Alon, I have no doubt your figures accurately describe the situation today. My concern is, what will automobiles be like 50, even 100 years from now? The carbon emissions and fossil-fuel reliance of automobiles make them an unsustainable form of transport. But the arc of human history shows that humans have a way of figuring out how to solve their problems. And that is what worries me. If humanity decides that it wants to continue or even advance the automotive culture, I fear that it will eventually find a way to do it sustainably. That is why I am reluctant to invest too much in the environmental argument.
I have no idea what cars will look like 50 years from now. Mind you, a lot of environmentalists are much, much more pessimistic about carbon emissions than about other environmental issues, on the grounds that the orders of magnitude of emissions involved are much higher here.
The reason I bring up the environmental argument is that right now, the carbon issue is urgent, and it’s not going to be solved by decades of research into battery technology.
I also discussed the point about buses in sprawling areas regarding Columbus’ bus system. Outside of the urban core you have buses servicing the several miles of sprawl which surrounds it. It seems like an afterthought because it is. When you have a pole with the bus route number just off of a grassy, muddy ditch on the side of the road (no sidewalks)and the buses come one time about every hour (don’t miss it whatever you do), why even bother? Just do away with those hourly stops and keep the park & ride rush-hour service. I just never understood that, especially since to even get around those areas you can’t take the bus unless it’s on the way Downtown.
Not sure how common it is, but the other thing that gets me are how many stops are within a block of each other on the same side of the street here. It’s a total waste of money and hinders efficiency. I just don’t know how that even happens.
From personal experience as a transit user I know that the fundamental problem is not location (city versus suburb) but time of day.
Buses in Vancouver, such as #22, may well be packed to overflowing at 5pm. An hour and a half later they have no more passengers than a bus in Fort Langley.
Somebody wrote to Cecil at The Straight Dope about this very issue.
The Straight Dope is a Chicago-based syndicated newspaper column where the premise is you can ask any question at all and get an answer direct from Cecil (who “knows everything”) or from an expert in the field. Any question at all. “How long would the power stay on if we all turned into zombies?” “Why did the Beatles break up?” “Did Thomas Jefferson smoke pot?”
And today, “Is mass transit a waste of energy?”
Why wouldn’t it make sense in low density areas to use smaller vehicles like a big van rather than a whole bus?
In some cases, vans would make sense (and many transit agencies use them for paratransit).
* Some “coverage” routes do get a bit full during peak hours, and only are running mostly empty off-peak. Use of vans may interfere with peak hour capacity. Running busses during the peak and vans at other times introduces logistical issues, as well as potentially adding deadheading to swap vehicles, which undermines efficiency.
* Many agencies are more concerned with operational cost than with environment; and their biggest cost is labor and not fuel. On top of that, the need to maintain an additional vehicle type may add to their expense base (even if the van is cheaper to buy than a bus).
Here’s an interesting idea, though: Since the farebox recovery ratio of these services is so low–why not simply make them free? This will attract bodies on these busses, and may encourage a transfer to a ridership service (at which point the passenger will need to pay a fare anyway).
In cities with large unlimited monthly discounts, off-peak coverage service is effectively free.
Kathy. Transit's operating cost is mostly labor, so a smaller bus isn't any cheaper unless you get a deal to pay small-bus drivers substantially less.
Just stumbled on this one recently. I have to say I’m rather less forgiving of ‘coverage’ services than Jarrett is, and I’m inclined more to Alon’s view. Any form of transit has an ‘energy break-even point’ for occupancy, above which the energy consumption is always less than if the riders were all in single-occupant cars. For buses in particular, this point can be quite low: I’ve seen 7 passengers in the comments above, and in Australia I’ve calculated it as 3 to 4 passengers. (It seems that US buses are, or at least have been, more heavily built than Australian buses.)
My own feeling is that if a ‘coverage’ service can’t even manage this level of average ridership, then it is failing even to address the problem of transport disadvantage. I get the impression that most ‘coverage’ services pursue false economies by operating on highly restricted timetables that fail to serve the majority of trip purposes and leave people in chronic fear of missing the only bus home. If you moved such services to the highest-density parts of the city and still operated the same timetable, you’d still be guaranteed virtually empty buses. (Sure enough, here in Melbourne there are routes like this even in the denser suburbs; you see an east-west bus service running empty while the north-south tram service that runs every 5 minutes is always full.)
Elsewhere you’ve touched on the importance of networks in boosting transit use. But you can’t create a network from routes that operate 5 services a day. Cities like Toronto and Ottawa run bus networks that would probably be classified as ‘coverage’ services elsewhere, but they run them every 10-15 minutes throughout the day and people use them. The key is that they connect together and form a network.
As for the idea that transit is under threat from technological innovation to improve the energy efficiency of cars, it seems from the last three decades of people buying cars that any such innovation is on a direct collision course with consumer preferences. Basically, the way you make a car super energy-efficient is to turn it into a bicycle, and people looking for a car don’t want a bicycle. They want space and grunt and air-conditioning and safety features, all of which add to energy consumption even if the engine’s the most efficient in the world.
You can most certainly pay minibus drivers less, at least here in Quebec because a minibus requires an inferior, and easier-to-get license type than a full transit bus.
The ridership-maximizing scenario you envision is not entirely unlike Houston. (map)
Houston gets away with it for two reasons. First you have aggressive annexation which eliminates the “us versus them” of say Redmond vs. Seattle because Redmond becomes just another neighborhood in Seattle. Second, where you do have individual cities, most of them aren’t part of the METRO taxing area. And so in Pasadena you have a sort of welfare bus service that runs every 90 minutes on weekdays only, while in Sugar Land there’s nothing at all.