Cars more economical, as energy efficient, improving faster than bus and rail
2012-08-17: Transport economist Randall O'Toole puts the case well that the future lies with cars. In a short piece for the National Center for Policy Analysis he makes the case that contrary to fashionable opinion transit is not more environmentally friendly than cars. Cars of course are more economical and more convenient for most trips which is why they are America's real mass transit mode.
With 2010 figures O'Toole - a policy analyst with the Cato Institute - calculates that Americans spend about $975b on cars and highways. For that they got 2,600b vehicles miles of travel or with average vehicle occupancy of 1.7 persons/vehicle they got 4,400b person-miles of travel.
$975b/4,400 = 22c/mile average cost per person mile in a car.
Transit by comparison collected $12b in fares taking people 53b person miles so fares are comparable $12b/53b = 23c/mile average fare cost per person mile.
Trouble is, whereas car drivers pay most of the the costs of their travel through taxes, registration, buying and paying for their cars upkeep and parking, insurance etc etc transit is hugely subsidized.
Transit subsidies are $40b or per passenger-mile $40b/53b = 75c/passenger-mile.
Total cost of transit is $52b which for 53b of passenger-miles means it's close to $1.00/person-mile or more than four times the cost of cars.
Cars use about 3,500 BTUs/passenger mile slightly less than the average transit bus 4,200 BTUs/passenger-mile but more than rail transit 2,500. (Estimates are for 2009 in Table 2.12, 2.13 p2-14, 15 Transportation Energy Data Book: 2011, Oak Ridge National Lab http://info.ornl.gov/sites/publications/files/Pub31202.pdf)
However cars are rapidly improving in energy efficiency whereas rail transit is worsening due to the low occupancy of new trains being built in places particularly unsuited to them. (New York City's subways carrying about half the national rail transit load are heavily used and loom large in the average.)
Emissions are generally proportional to energy use, O'Toole, points out, so cars are better than buses, and not as good as average rail - but closing the gap.
"Compared with driving, rail transit is slow, inconvenient and expensive. Although some rail lines may bypass congested roads, most people do not live and work right next to rail stations or transit stops, meaning door-to- door travel time for transit tends to be far longer than for driving....Contrary to popular belief, transit is not more environmentally friendly than automobiles, and when all subsidies are counted, it actually costs several times more per passenger mile than driving."
O'Toole's conclusion: "If transit costs far more than driving and does not save energy or reduce air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions, then there is little justification for... subsidies to transit infrastructure...In fact... subsidies may be one reason why transit has become so costly and ineffective. Since transit agencies get most of their money from taxpayers rather than transit riders, they cater to elected officials rather than their customers, building expensive transit projects that the elected officials can take credit for even though those projects do little to improve actual transit service."
OUR THOUGHT: Cars are mass transit, rail & bus is niche transit
At 4,400b person-miles of travel in cars versus 50b in transit the vast mass of our travel is by car 4400/4450 = 98.9%. Cars are therefore indisputably the mass transit mode of Americans, and so-called 'transit' (rail and bus) caters to tiny-in-nationwide-terms niche markets.
It should be called niche transit for serving well, for example, the niche market of Manhattan, and being important in a handful of very large cities in serving concentrations of downtown jobs along corridors of high density. But downtown jobs are a niche market, in most large cities less than 15%, and housing densites are almost nowhere sufficient to allow significant proportions of people to live conventiently to transit stations or stops.
The future is with smarter more individualized door-to-door travel with an array of choices of vehicles that will be able to find parking, navigate the best routes and before long, be capable of doing the driving itself - so that the humans they are designed to serve can safely chat on their cell phone, argue with or entertain one another, text or read the news or their work... or just doze off. Only personal vehicles - cars - are capable of carrying conveniently not only adults but children and pets, sports or musical equipment, hobby items, groceries, home improvement purchases and the infinite array of 'stuff' people have, and want to move around.
Only cars can cater to the richness and diversity - the untidiness, if you like - of real people's lives.