Is Riding Transit Necessarily Better For The Environment Than Driving?

In the third of a 5-part "Rethinking Green" series, the National Post casts doubt on public transit's ability to reduce global warming while praising driving; applying similar scrutiny to recycling and aquaculture in the first and second installments

Can driving be more sustainable than riding transit? What if the buses are continually empty? Or does it even matter if the primary goal of public transit is to serve those who don't have access to private auto transportation? These are the type of questions asked by the reporter in National Post's "Rethinking Green" five-part series.

"If the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution and gas consumption, and maximize the environmental impact of sustainability spending, we may be better off without publicly funding transit at all."

"Unfortunately, right now the state of the art is that you're generally better off with private automobiles when you're talking about energy utilization. About the only way that transit can be competitive for energy or for environmental quality is if the transit lines gets an incredible amount of use, far higher than is now normally the case," says Tom Rubin, a transit policy consultant in California, and former chief financial officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority."

Thanks to Thomas A. Rubin

Full Story: Rethinking Green: Save the environment: Don't take transit



Distortions About Transit Versus Driving

The headline of the newspaper article has the biggest distortion:
"Save the environment: Don't take transit"

Of course, if any individual switches from transit to driving, there is a increase in energy consumption: no less energy is needed to power the bus with one less passenger, and more energy is used by the one added car. The headline was written by a reporter who doesn't understand the basics.

The right-wing consultants quoted in the newspaper story contradict each other:

“Unfortunately, right now the state of the art is that you’re generally better off with private automobiles when you’re talking about energy utilization. About the only way that transit can be competitive for energy or for environmental quality is if the transit lines gets an incredible amount of use, far higher than is now normally the case,” says Tom Rubin,

While Randall O'Toole's study for Cato says:
"All transit together does emit less CO2 than passenger cars carrying the same number of people the same distance (about 13% less) but even that gap is disappearing -- fast."

Rubin's claim is refuted by O'Toole's study. O'Toole's error is obvious: if you build transit, you can also build transit-oriented development, which means that people travel shorter distances and walk on many trips. The shorter distances travelled (= fewer passenger miles) provide the important environmental benefit. Energy consumed per passenger mile is a side issue.

Wendell Cox makes the same obvious error:
“At this point, a Toyota Prius is less greenhouse-intensive than New York City Transit,” Mr. Cox says.
Look at the number of people on a New York subway train, and imagine the congestion if they were all driving Priuses on the surface street above. To shift from NY transit to Priuses would require much lower densities, much more VMT, and therefore much more energy consumption than transit. Cox should realize this, since he spends much of his time promoting low-density sprawl.

The one grain of truth in all these distortions is that there are two tiers of transit service in American cities. There are major transit lines that are heavily used and are far more environmentally benign than automobiles. And there are some bus lines that provide life-line service for the transit dependent, that are little used, and that consume lots of energy per passenger mile.

Of course, it makes no sense to average out these two tiers of transit use and to conclude that we should not build any more heavily used major transit lines, because the underused bus lines bring down the average.

Charles Siegel

More On The Distortions About Transit Versus Driving

For a good refutation of this article, see

Charles Siegel

Another thing wrong with the article.

The other thing wrong with this article is that the presents the current financial state of public transit as if that state actually has something to do with the environmental impacts of public transit. The poor financial state of public transit agencies is a direct result of the fact that they are all public monopolies. As with any monopoly, the customers don't matter, and, throw in the public part, and any semblance of caring about cost control goes out the window. That is why transit agencies are constantly in financial duress. However, the environmetal impacts of public transit are completely independent of the financial state of public transit (or at least any connection is very tenuous at best.... i.e if they had infinite funds they could make buses that run on wind power or something along those lines).

Irvin Dawid's picture

Excellent critique of "Green is NOT riding transit" article

from Human Transit: A blog by public transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker (with thanks for Sierra Club transportation committee member Martin Dreiling):

the "transit isn't green because it runs empty" argument deserves a response - read this critique". "It quotes the usual suspects, but it still needs a clear response....Maximizing transit ridership is NOT the overwhelming goal of most transit agencies......" E.g. they have to maintain service to low-density areas. But read Walker's explanation for a fuller understanding.
Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

Another Rebuttal

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