Does Rail Transit Save Energy or ...
Far from protecting the environment, most rail transit lines use more energy per passenger mile, and many generate more greenhouse gases, than the average passenger automobile. Rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets. While most rail transit uses less energy than bus- es, rail transit does not operate in a vacuum: transit agencies supplement it with extensive feeder bus operations. Those feeder buses tend to have low rid- ership, so they have high energy costs and green- house gas emissions per passenger mile. The result is that, when new rail transit lines open, the transit systems as a whole can end up consuming more energy, per passenger mile, than they did before. Even where rail transit operations save a little energy, the construction of rail transit lines con- sumes huge amounts of energy and emits large volumes of greenhouse gases. In most cases, many decades of energy savings would be needed to repay the energy cost of construction. Rail transit attempts to improve the environ- ment by changing people���s behavior so that they drive less. Such behavioral efforts have been far less successful than technical solutions to toxic air pollution and other environmental problems associated with automobiles. Similarly, technical alternatives to rail transit can do far more to reduce energy use and CO2 outputs than rail transit, at a far lower cost. Such alternatives include the following: ��� Powering buses with hybrid-electric motors, biofuels, and���where it comes from nonfos- sil fuel sources���electricity ��� Concentrating bus service on heavily used routes and using smaller buses during off- peak periods and in areas with low demand for transit service ��� Building new roads, using variable toll sys- tems, and coordinating traffic signals to relieve the highway congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year ��� Encouraging people to purchase more fuel- efficient cars. Getting 1 percent of commuters to switch to hybrid-electric cars will cost less and do more to save energy than getting 1 per- cent to switch to public transit. If oil is truly scarce, rising prices will lead peo- ple to buy more fuel-efficient cars. But states and locales that want to save even more energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will find the above alternatives far superior to rail transit. Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions? by Randal O���Toole _____________________________________________________________________________________________________ Randal O���Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. Executive Summary No. 615 April 14, 2008 ���������������������
Introduction Once upon a time, so the story goes, evil automobile and oil companies bought up the nation���s efficient streetcar lines and disman- tled the trolley systems that commuters loved in order to force people to buy cars and gaso- line instead.1 The moral of this oft-repeated fairy tale is that we should unshackle ourselves from slavery to auto dependency and petrodominance by building modern light rail, streetcar, and other rail transit lines. The truth is that the streetcar conspiracy is a complete myth that has been frequently debunked by academic researchers.2 In 1933, General Motors and two oil companies did purchase National City Lines, which owned a number of transit companies, in order to sell their buses and diesel fuel, not to dismantle transit systems. In 1949, General Motors was convicted of conspiring to monopolize the bus market through its investments in transit com- panies, so it divested itself of National City. In 1910, streetcars served 750 American cities. By 1966, all but six of these streetcar sys- tems had been dismantled and replaced by bus- es.3 General Motors and the oil companies had an interest in fewer than 25 streetcar companies at the time they converted to buses. In many cases, National City purchased the companies in the same year they stopped running street- cars, suggesting the decision had been made before National City made its investment.4 In short, the General Motors ���conspiracy��� was involved in less than 5 percent of the con- versions from streetcars to buses. The other 95 percent knew something that many cities today have forgotten: bus service costs less to start, operate, and maintain can run on schedules that are as fast or faster than light rail and is more flexible than rail service. Rail advocates have used the streetcar-con- spiracy myth and other myths as a part of their campaign to persuade cities to build new rail transit lines. This effort has been remarkably successful: in the last 15 years alone, American cities have spent $100 billion on new rail tran- sit lines.5 Since 1980, 15 U.S. urban areas that were once served exclusively by bus transit have opened new light-rail lines. Light-rail lines are also under con- struction in at least two other regions, and in the planning stages in several more and several other regions have opened or are planning commuter- rail lines that use existing tracks. Rail advocates claimed that rail transit would cost little to build and operate, attract people out of their automobiles, relieve con- gestion, and restore inner cities. Although most transit agencies that built these lines claim they are successful, an objective look at the evidence reveals that these benefits are just as mythical as the streetcar conspiracy. ��� A recent review of rail projects found that the average cost was 40 percent higher than the estimates made when the deci- sion was made to build it.6 ��� The Government Accountability Office notes that bus rapid transit can cost as little as 2 percent as much to start, cost less to operate, and provide faster service than light rail.7 ��� A comparison of the cost of rail transit systems with the benefits provided by those systems found that, ���with the sin- gle exception of BART in the San Fran- cisco Bay area, every U.S. [rail] transit sys- tem actually reduces social welfare.���8 ��� The cost of rail transit is so high that many transit agencies have been forced to raise fares and/or cut back on bus ser- vice, leading to actual losses in transit ridership in such regions as Baltimore, Los Angeles, and San Jose.9 ��� Even in regions where transit ridership has increased, those increases rarely keep up with increases in driving so in almost every new rail region, transit car- ried a smaller share of passenger travel after rail service opened than before rail construction began. ��� The American Public Transportation Association brags that ridership on light- rail transit is growing faster than any oth- er form of transit.10 But this is only be- cause agencies are offering so much more 2 Twentieth- century streetcar companies knew what many American cities have forgotten today: buses cost less, can run on faster schedules, and are more flexible than rail service.
light-rail service. The average number of trips taken per light-rail vehicle mile declined from 7.3 in 1995 to 5.2 in 2005, indicating that light rail is suffering from a serious case of diminishing returns. ��� Although Denver, Portland, San Jose, and other cities often claim that light rail stimulated economic development, such developments are almost always support- ed by large tax subsidies.11 At best, the developments that result from rail transit are a zero-sum game, that is, they merely transfer developments that would have taken place anyway from one part of an urban area to another.12 One by one, all the original justifications for building rail transit have been discredited by the evidence. In response, rail advocates and transit agencies offer two new reasons for building rail lines: energy and global warming. Rail transit, they say, uses less energy and emits less greenhouse gases per passenger mile than buses, autos, or other forms of transportation. Cities that want to prepare for an age of scarce oil or limits on greenhouse gases, they argue, should build more rail lines. Many people accept these statements with- out question. A recent National Public Radio sto- ry argued that ���part of the solution (to global warming) is light rail.���13 Portland, Oregon, has been named the nation���s ���greenest city��� mainly on the strength of the supposed reduction in greenhouse gases emitted by its light-rail lines.14 Is this a valid argument? Assuming we are running out of oil and/or that anthropogenic global warming is a real problem, is light rail, or any form of rail transit, an appropriate re- sponse? To answer this question, we can look at the effects of existing and new rail transit lines on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the cities that have built and maintained those lines. Data Sources Data needed to calculate the energy effi- ciency and greenhouse gas emissions of rail transit are available from a variety of federal agencies: ��� The U.S. Department of Transportation���s National Transit Database shows fuel con- sumption by mode for most public tran- sit operations.15 ��� The U.S. Department of Energy���s Transpor- tation Energy Data Book provides factors for converting gasoline, diesel, kilowatt-hours, and other fuels into British Thermal Units.16 ��� The Energy Information Administration provides coefficients for estimating car- bon dioxide (CO2) emissions by energy source.17 It also provides data on the mix of energy sources used to produce elec- tricity in each state.18 ��� For comparison, information about auto energy efficiency is available in the Trans- portation Energy Data Book.19 Information about specific brands of autos is available from the Environmental Protection Agen- cy���s new measure of fuel economy for 2008 automobiles.20 These data can be used to calculate energy use and emissions for most of the transit sys- tems in the United States. However, there are a few limits. The National Transit Database only includes fuel numbers for transit lines that are directly operated by transit agencies. Agencies that contract out their operations to private companies such as Laidlaw or First Transit do not report the fuel those companies use. This means there are no results for many of the new commuter rail lines, including those in Dallas, Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, and the Washington, D.C., area. Still, data are available for almost every heavy-rail system, most light-rail systems, and several commuter-rail systems, not to mention hundreds of bus systems and the handful of trolley buses, ferry systems, and other forms of transit that still operate. For each of these sys- tems we can calculate BTUs and pounds of CO2 emissions per passenger mile. Calculations of CO2 emissions by electrically powered transit are complicated by the fact that 3 Now that all the original justifications for building rail transit have been discredited by the evidence, rail advocates offer two new reasons: energy and global warming.