Mass Transit Unintended Consequences

December 13, 2012

By: Matt Palmer

Monday marked the opening of the new west leg of the LRT in Calgary. The $1.4 billion dollar project took more than two years to build, and was the first extension of the LRT in 25 years. The goal obviously, is to get more cars off the road and relieve some of the traffic congestion from the west side, which continues to grow at a rapid pace.

Over the last few days, as I have been out going to meetings, I noticed that the LRT cars have not been full in the middle of the day, most particularly the ones heading west out of downtown. Now this could be due to all sorts of factors, one being that building ridership may take a little time. But it is curious. I am sure cars are full during peak hours, but the train I saw had less than twenty people on it.

I was listening to a podcast from “Freakanomics Radio” yesterday called “Mass Transit Hysteria”. When I got home a friend had emailed the article from http://www.freakanomics.com, “Can Mass Transit Save The Environment“.

The article points out that many studies of mass transit compared to car traffic make incorrect assumptions about mass transit being green compared to cars, leading to skewed numbers.

A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?

They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and — depending on the author’s point of view — self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full.

I will let you go on to read the article, but it strongly asserts that some of the assumptions we make about what is greener, “mass transit” in this case, may not hold true. Some of this has to do with load factors. It would be interesting to see what the load factors are for Calgary Transit, because Calgary remains a very car centric city, and still has great challenges in getting people to abandon their cars.

The thrust of the author’s case is about focusing on policies that inspire changing behaviours as opposed to putting great amounts of money into infrastructure that may not fulfill the intention.

However, public policy in recent decades has self-defeatingly focused on the latter strategy, not the former. This has proven very popular, since shiny new trains and buses allow politicians to take credit for very visible improvements, while the costs of said infrastructure and equipment are essentially invisible since they are spread broadly across the American public and are hidden in arcane budgeting processes. (With a thicket of passenger fares, fuel taxes, sales taxes, bonding, advertising revenue, etc. coming from federal, state, regional, county, transit district, and municipal administrations, it can be difficult even for experts to determine who pays what for transportation.)

Calgary has major challenges ahead in making the city less car centric, building walkable neighbourhoods, and reducing the environmental footprint. Mass transit definitely has a role to play, but what other solutions might be out there that will create efficiencies , reduce energy usage, and at the same time fulfill our quality of life ambitions?

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Mass Transit Unintended Consequences

  1. codybattershill says:

    This is a great article and something that we need to think about. Lots of the time we tend to get stuck looking at issues in a one-dimensional manner. The truth is everything humans do requirea energy and has a consequence on the environment. whether it’s driving a car, driving a hummer, driving a diesel truck or taking the train. There is no such thing as free energy, all energy sources whether it’s coal power or windfarms, solar power or natural gas…everything has an impact on the environment and associated advantages or disadvantages to us economically and out of convenience.

  2. cody.battershill@facebook.com says:

    This is a great topic for discussion, a lot of the time people don’t realize that everything humans do and every energy source that we consume has an impact on the planet. there is ultimatley a trade-off between the economics of how we live, convenience and the environment. looking at different perspectives on mass transit is an interesting discussion something I haven’t heard too much about thank you very much for this great post!

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