Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Road to Hell

If you don't have enough money to fill your gas tank, you might want to consider selling Neil Reynolds the Brooklyn Bridge:

The average public transit bus in the U.S. uses 4,365 British thermal units, a measure of energy, per passenger mile and emits 0.71 pounds of carbon dioxide. The average car uses 3,445 BTUs per passenger mile and emits 0.54 pounds of CO{-2}. Whether you seek to conserve energy or to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, your public policy decision here appears remarkably obvious. Get people off buses and get them into cars.
Reynolds got these numbers from that cornucopian goofball Randal O'Toole, whom he claims has "impeccable environmental credentials." What this means in layperson's terms is that O'Toole is the senior economist at the Thoreau Institute, a Scaife-funded pro-automobile thinktank that he created and heads (which should definitely not be confused with the Thoreau Institute that actually has something to do with Thoreau).

To be fair, naming a pro-sprawl thinktank after Thoreau isn't O'Toole's only impeccable environmental accomplishment. He also rides a bicycle, like all good-hearted people. Perhaps that's why he "has been described as the next Jane Jacobs," presumably by people who thought Bush was the next FDR.

Before we get to the numbers cited above, which you've probably already recognized as flawed, let's have a look at O'Toole's shocking theory that "on the basis of every billion passenger miles...light-rail [public transit] kills three times as many people as cars on urban freeways."

That Reynolds is impressed with this claim is a bad sign, since pretty much anyone can see that there's something weird about limiting auto fatality statistics to "urban freeways," especially when the DoT statistics show automobiles killing more people than all other forms of transit combined in every year since 1960.

O'Toole might argue that limiting his statistics to urban freeways makes sense, if he's comparing autos to commuter trains. Except that plenty of commuters don't drive on freeways, or work in urban areas. Plus, urban freeway commutes tend to be congested; it's hard to get in a fatal accident when you're traveling at 25 mph. It's also possible that O'Toole favors this comparison because light rail takes a higher toll on pedestrians than freeways do.

But who knows? It's not my job to dredge up O'Toole's stats, or figure out his definition of "urban." Ideally, that'd be Reynolds' obligation. I do think it's fair to say that O'Toole's claim is meaningless without these data.

Anyway, back to the bus and car comparison. The first problem with O'Toole's argument, as Reynolds states it, is that "public transit" isn't defined. This is important because there's a huge difference in utilization rates between city and interurban buses, and utilization is crucial to efficiency. Second, O'Toole is perversely using overall underutilization of mass transit (which, I'm willing to bet, includes off-peak hours) as an argument for not riding buses during hours when ridership is at its peak. If you want to increase overall efficiency, it'd be better to use small shuttles during off-peak hours -- and to reroute lines to avoid hills, left turns, idling, and so forth, a la UPS -- than to cut service to people who need it.

Third, you don't usually see people calculating transit efficiency in terms of BTUs, because it begs the question of how the energy is generated. Buses and light rail are often electric, so the BTUs in question can be generated partly or entirely by renewable and low-emissions sources.

Since O'Toole complains that buses aren't as fuel-efficient as they could be, you'd think the logical solution would be to improve them, as so many cities and manufacturers are attempting to do. But O'Toole sees absolutely no need for this, as long as cars and gas are available to those of us who can afford them:
People respond to high fuel prices by buying more efficient cars - and then driving more.
If only every problem were that simple!

Which reminds me...when I was about four, I saw a picture of a starving African family squatting on a bare expanse of parched dirt. It disturbed me, so I asked my parents why these silly people didn't just go to a motel.

Imagine my surprise when they told me.


Anonymous said...

maybe you already said this and i just lost it amidst all the data, but even a child can find the one major flaw in the buses vs. cars comparison: buses carry more people. especially when the majority of cars on the road are occupied by the driver only, this is kindergarten math. does this idiot really picture millions of people driving around alone in transit buses? good god yes, i think he does.

Phila said...

maybe you already said this and i just lost it amidst all the data,

It's implied in the bit about utilization. Buses hold more people, but there's a certain point at which a car is more efficient than an underutilized bus, and that's the argument he's trying to apply systemically, on the assumption that buses nationwide carry about ten people, on average. That looks to me to be high enough to win out over 2 to 10 cars carrying the same number of people, but it's obviously not as high as it could be, and O'Toole's argument is that it's going to go even lower (though again, averaging ridership over all areas and times is problematic, as is treating the inefficiency of buses as sufficient reason to drive, even if you've got trains, ferries, and so forth).

Basically, granting that underutilization = inefficiency, there are better ways of remedying the problem than trying to reduce ridership further, and O'Toole's pseudoscientific focus on BTUs is an attempt to cloud that's error through exactitude, a typical wingnut tactic.

Anonymous said...

buses nationwide carry about ten people

i sure would like to know where that statistic comes from, especially when i have to stand up on the bus to get home from work every day. the only time i've been on a bus with less than 20 people on it was on weekdays in the middle of the day when most people were at work, or in the dead of night. but i've always lived in urban areas where people depend on the bus to get to work, largely because they can't afford to do otherwise. calculating from a "national average" doesn't seem very informative, as different locales have different mass transportation needs.

it's like the people who want to solve congestion by building more freeways. instead of thinking "how can i solve this problem?" they come into it thinking "how long can i get away with perpetuating this problem?"

Phila said...

calculating from a "national average" doesn't seem very informative, as different locales have different mass transportation needs.

Exactly. If you average urban, interurban, and rural ridership over their full schedules, it's pretty obvious that you're going to get a low overall number...but it's also obvious that you can't use ridership patterns in, say, Bowling Green to draw conclusions about transit efficiency in Brooklyn.

And it hardly matters in any case. I'd be willing to bet that even if fully loaded buses got 100 mpg, and private cars with single drivers got 3 mpg, O'Toole would still oppose public transit on principle.