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Thread: Study on the "green-ness" of public transit

  1. #1
    Cyburbian JimPlans's avatar
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    Study on the "green-ness" of public transit

    I ran across this blog posting at the Monitor:

    How green are trains, public transportation, and hybrid cars? It depends.

    The blog post references this research paper:

    Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains

    While the results didn't really surprise me (such as the fact that nearly empty buses pollute a lot more per passenger than an SUV and that all environmental impacts of transportation options should be measured, not just operational ones), they did make me ponder the implications of the findings.

    To me, the take-away is that public transit systems that don't implement serious TOD planning and zoning changes that allow high density and resulting high levels of use aren't really doing the environment any good. Also, we need to power our buses with something other than diesel engines (or feed those engines biodiesel).

    Any other thoughts?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    The most interesting part of this article was the mention that fuel-efficient and hybrid cars are actually bad financially for governments who repair roads based on gas taxes, as we do here in America. I think this might help the realization of a mileage tax or congestion pricing in American cities.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I like the article, but the research is much more interesting. It gives a good threshold of how many passengers you need to pick up to make it efficient.

    My questions has always been, at what point does a hybrid vehicle's fuel savings match the construction cost of the new vehicle (speaking in terms of carbon footprint). If I were to spend the money on a hybrid, would it actually be greener than keeping my '96 truck. The truck burns more gas, but the energy cost of construction has already been paid.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Heavy trucks do vastly more harm to roads than cars to. I heard about a study where heavy trucks were causing like hundreds of times more wear per vehicle mile traveled, but I don't remember the exact figures.

    Hybrid vehilces use up less fuel and pollute less, so I can't see that as a bad thing.

    As far as mass transit goes, I remember a statistic from somewhere that Metro busses in King County, Washington, were carrying an average of 2.2 passengers at a time. Because they have to cover more miles per trip, they end up being a terrible deal from every vantage point--pollution, increased congestion, funds taken from road/freeway maintenance, etc.

    Unfortunately, the transit unions have so much political power than good transportation policy is difficult to enact. The public sector unions pour over $9 billion a year into Dem campaigns (and some into RINO's and some socialist advocacy groups). I mention this here because they are, IMO, the biggest obstacle to good transportation policies.

  5. #5
    Of course an empty bus is going to use more energy and be less efficient than a car. But the savings at peak times are quite overwhelming. It would be interesting to see if the benefits of peak travel for transit outweigh the inefficiencies at non-peak times.

    Also, the article does not take into account the other problems with cars: land consumption. It only uses the infrastructure cost of building parking (mostly just paving over land) but the other environmental impacts. This would have an energy cost as well.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Also, we need to power our buses with something other than diesel engines (or feed those engines biodiesel).
    Actually, thats a bad idea. Vechicles running Biodeisel tend to have more mechanical problems in the pump and injectors. Biodeisel holds together more (it has a higher viscosity). The best way to explain this is with oil. If you put a 30W50 oil in an engine needing 10W40, you're not gonna do very well. The oil is too resistant to flow, as is Biodiesel compared to diesel. However, there are companys that make vechicles specialised for biodeisel. The same principle holds for putting Ethanol in a gas engine. You can, but you're gonna **** up your engine.

    It's sad that the major thing I have to talk about isn't even on topic.

  7. #7
    I'm skeptical about the validity of the argument. For instance, I've read articles which argue that hybrids are worse than SUVs because they a) don't last as long 100k miles v 300k miles, and b) the mining of the materials for their batteries creates more pollution than building an SUV.

    Of course, such articles are written to imply that driving an SUV is just fine. The writers do not argue that people should ditch SUVs and Hybrids, and drive smart cars or mopeds or (gasp!) walk.

    The point made earlier that good public transit goes hand in hand with good TOD and urban planning is, IMO a no-brainer. But the public only sees empty buses, without looking at the lack of side walks, density, narrower streets... etc...

  8. #8
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Sorry for the duplicate posting. Can a moderator help me delete this one? I can't seem to figure it out....
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  9. #9
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Well, now I have my skeptic hat on as well. One thing I did not see in the study is the estimated cost (monetary and carbon output) of, say, road maintenance compared to rail maintenance over time. Maybe they considered that,but I don't have time to look at the original study.

    It also seems to me that these figures are based on current ridership levels. One question I would have is: how many passengers/unit of time do trains or buses need to have to become more efficient than auto transport? I was surprised, for example, that planes were considered to contribute less when they are huge fuel users. One explanation is that planes are almost always full to capacity, whereas train or bus ridership in many cities (especially when considering peak and off-peak times) may be way below capacity. If the buses were packed, what impact would that have?

    Also, I would assume not all trains are created equal. How does the carbon output (including all life cycle considerations) of a diesel Amtrak train compare with light electric rail, for example?

    Personally, I thought the study was interesting for its insistence on considering the entire carbon impact of different transportation modes. I think, though, that what it shows is that more understanding is needed on what would makes different modes more or less impactful in terms of global warming contributions. The ultimate goal, afterall, is not to maintain our current output (which continuing to drive our SUVs would accomplish), but rather REDUCE it. So, how do we achieve that? Not easy, obviously, but saying that commuting by pickup is no less harmful than by train doesn't help us reduce anything. It does, however, make us question if we aren't actually increasing it.

    Lastly, MaxxOccupancy said
    As far as mass transit goes, I remember a statistic from somewhere that Metro busses in King County, Washington, were carrying an average of 2.2 passengers at a time. Because they have to cover more miles per trip, they end up being a terrible deal from every vantage point--pollution, increased congestion, funds taken from road/freeway maintenance, etc.
    I don't know where they were drawing these figures from (maybe specific routes) or when, but I have ridden buses in Seattle many times and, at least from my personal experiences, they are very heavily used. I was up there for a conference a few months ago and of the four times I rode (granted, roughly in line with rush hour) it was standing room only on an articulated bus. I was kind of blown away. In fact, I had to pass one bus up as it was too packed to accept more passengers.

    As a side note, I felt so terribly out of place on the bus in Seattle. It seemed everyone had some sort of digital gadget (they have wifi on the buses there) they were busy manipulating while sipping coffees and looking fashionable. Laptops, iPhones, Blackberries, and on and on. I had a cell phone that doesn't even fold and a 10 year old rain parka. I half expected people to toss me some change out of compassion.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  10. #10
    Cyburbian TerraSapient's avatar
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    The buses in Honolulu are also very heavily used. Frequently I am standing or giving up my seat for elderly riders. The city is in the process of designing a new elevated rail system that extends across the urban core area and into the most heavily developed areas for commuters.

    I was surprised to hear such an outcry from some people in the community resisting the new rail system, and instead demanding more freeways and more bus routes.

    True the rail system is expensive, very expensive, but I suspect that if you tally up how much tax payers spend on road maintenance and improvements, traffic infrastructure, etc. the gap in cost wouldn't be too far.

    I'm not a transportation planner and have never looked into the matter more thoroughly. I ride the bus and would love to use a rail system simply because I loathe cars and traffic and the expense of owning a vehicle.

    Can anyone out there provide an example where rail/transit proved to be cheaper than endless road/highway expansion? I know Portland at some point decided to rip out sections of their highway system and created parks in their place, as well as installed a rail system several years ago.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    I remember that, in Seattle, several prominent moderate Democrats were actually joined by some moderate Republicans in support of expanding the ride free zone to cover the entire county. It was found that this was vastly more cost effective at reducing traffic than building the expensive light rail system that finally went up.

    Today, neither the light rail nor heavy rail systems in place carry even one third of the anticipated capacity, and 70% of people using light rail just come off of other forms of mass transit.

    I believe that semi-private busses and vanpool turned out to be the ideal in terms of bang for the buck, according to first hand experience and research I did years ago. Private companies get tax free status and a modest subsidy in exchange for answering to public input and covering--at a minimim--certain routes specified by the public.

    Now that Metro in Seattle is operated by the thoroughly corrupt county government, there are actually fewer commuters using it (2.2 passengers per bus on average), and this state run monopoly eats up 35% of the county's transportation budget.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by maxxoccupancy View post
    I remember that, in Seattle, several prominent moderate Democrats were actually joined by some moderate Republicans in support of expanding the ride free zone to cover the entire county. It was found that this was vastly more cost effective at reducing traffic than building the expensive light rail system that finally went up.
    Do you have any links outlining this? I don't remember ever seeing anything about this, and I've kept up pretty well with the transit debates of the past decade in Seattle.

    Today, neither the light rail nor heavy rail systems in place carry even one third of the anticipated capacity, and 70% of people using light rail just come off of other forms of mass transit.
    By heavy rail, I assume you're talking about Sounder commuter rail? There were projections showing 30,000 daily boardings by this year? Current ridership is about 10,000 daily boardings, and 30,000 for that corridor seems like a very unlikely projection that would have ever been made for 2009. Link light rail just opened a few months ago, with not all of the initial stations open until next month. I'm not sure if any ridership projections were made on just the limited section that is open now, but I know that current ridership is about 16,000 a day for the stations open.

    Now that Metro in Seattle is operated by the thoroughly corrupt county government, there are actually fewer commuters using it (2.2 passengers per bus on average), and this state run monopoly eats up 35% of the county's transportation budget.
    Where are these stats coming from? I'm not sure about the passengers per bus, but I do know that according to the ACS, the Seattle MSA achieves a higher transit commute share than all MSAs except New York, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington (all MSAs with substantially more rail transit). I would find it hard to believe that Seattle achieves that with buses running with 2.2 passengers on average.
    Two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, but three lefts do.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian TerraSapient's avatar
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    CJC I love your signature

    "Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do"

  14. #14
    Cyburbian safege's avatar
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    I have some transit advocacy material that everyone can take with a few grains of salt.

    Given on the chart is an arbitrary value of 1000 for a cars energy use with a car load of passengers.

    It looks like a bus has a value of 260 with a bus load of passengers.

    Disney style monorail is next at 240.

    Followed by both light rail, and suspended monorail/light rail hybrids at 75.

    Heavy rail is not on my chart.
    Psychotics are consistently inconsistent. The essence of sanity is to be inconsistently inconsistent.
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    Electric trains don't necessarily use any fossil fuels

    I used to ride the Calgary C-Train, which buys all of its electricity from a wind farm south of the city, and thus uses no fossil fuels at all. It carries nearly 300,000 passengers per day, which is more than any US light rail system.

    It's all a matter of choices. If you choose not to use fossil fuels, then don't use them. For instance, the small Canadian town I now live in has two hydroelectric power plants within walking distance of my house, one 50 MW and the other 100 MW. That's far more power than the town itself uses.

    In the US context, the best choice in most places might be natural gas powered buses since the US has a surplus of NG. I've worked for oil companies that ran most of their vehicles on natural gas (but they got it more or less for free). I also used to ride electric trolley buses to work, and they still make them, you know, although they are expensive.

    If you want to go fully green and not use fossil fuels at all, you might need to restructure your cities around electric trains. This might be too much of a conceptual leap for many Americans, unfortunately.

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    One problem with electric trains is the power still has to be generated from, in most cases, fossil fueled power plants.
    Trains are the most expensive use of mass transit dollars in any case.
    Trains are static. Their routes cannot be adjusted to accommodate shifts in population and urban growth patterns.
    The overhead costs are staggering.
    Payrolls, insurance, maintenance, etc., make rail transit unsustainable financially by their fare structures. It would be too much and nobody would use it.
    That's why additional taxes have to be levied on the population to pay for it.
    Portions of sales, gas and property taxes are already in use to fund rail systems at a time when only 2% of the commuting public uses it.
    It has been estimated that in some parts of the U.S., it costs approximately $40,000 per passenger per year for that person to use rail mass transit 5 days a week to and from work.
    All of that, and in most cases, they're still powered by coal fired electric plants.
    Mass rail transit is a 19th century solution chasing a 21st century problem.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian TerraSapient's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by JOBBOSS View post
    Their routes cannot be adjusted to accommodate shifts in population and urban growth patterns.
    The overhead costs are staggering.
    Payrolls, insurance, maintenance, etc., make rail transit unsustainable financially by their fare structures. It would be too much and nobody would use it.
    That's why additional taxes have to be levied on the population to pay for it.
    This statement could be inserted into a discussion of why personal automobiles are not sustainable as well.

  18. #18
    I would like to suggest that the cause for concern should not be electricity. Instead, it should be what generates the electricity. In 'Powering the Planet', a very strong case is made that our future is electric. But, importantly, the electricity must come from (1.) a smart grid that spans an entire nation and (2.) renewable resources -- in the case of N. America, mostly wind. (Author's opinion). What does everybody think about smart grids and non-fossil fuel generated widespread use of electricity?

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