Is A Prius Greener Than Light Rail?

Light rail vehicles aren't as green one might think, and cities that really want to lower carbon emissions might want to take a harder look at new hybrid-electric buses, argues a recent column.

"Light rail in practice uses about as much energy to move a passenger a mile as does your average car, reports transit expert Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank. When it comes to carbon dioxide per passenger mile, light rail beats the average car only in some cities -- mainly where electricity doesn't come from coal or oil. Nearly everywhere, you put out less carbon by driving a Prius than by taking the train.

This isn't what most people expect. Still, O'Toole, a longtime critic of light rail, confined himself to data from federal transit and energy agencies. When I checked with head researcher Steven Polzin at the transit-friendly National Center for Transit Research, he said the numbers were good and the conclusion true. Most people assume rail is far more efficient, "but the empirical data isn't very compelling," he said."

"If you fill the trains, per-passenger energy use is lower, but, says Polzin, the average load per railcar has fallen in the long run as rail expands to more marginal markets. The share of commuters taking public transportation has fallen in 20 of 25 cities since the installation of light rail or, for older systems, since 1970, say federal figures. Most of those lured by trains came off buses, not out of cars.

The upshot, says O'Toole, is that while light rail puts out about 0.36 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile - and more than a pound a mile in Baltimore, Pittsburgh or Cleveland - a hybrid Prius puts out 0.26."

"Minneapolis actually did lower carbon emissions with its light rail line, saving 16 million pounds of carbon dioxide when passengers switched from buses. It's also saving millions more by replacing old buses with hybrid-electrics. But while light rail cut carbon at a cost of $2.20 a pound, says O'Toole, buses did it for 60 cents."

Full Story: Another green tale is derailed




Oh Gee O'Toole coming up with far-stretch "statistics" about how transit doesn't work. That's a surprise. Of course, "journalist" bite on this trollop supposedly out of "balanced" interests in reporting. The reality is that everything O'Toole touches is so eschewed even the Politburo wouldn't find it credible. It's one thing to have an opinion that much is fair and democratic, but to pose opinion as research is just plain garbage.

People such as O'Toole will go down in history as the players behind the fall of American Society as we know it...complicit to the core in undermining our ability to make rational decisions because of their stupid, selfish, bias'.

Electric Transit vs. Autombiles

There are several things that need to be pointed out about Randal O'Toole's half-baked analysis of the alleged energy inefficiency of electric transit, particularly rail.

1. A major advantage of electric transit, bus or rail, is its ability to use ANY source of electricity, generated from fossil fuels or not. While electric rail systems in the Midwest and East use coal-fired electricity, many other systems do not. In the West, electric rail obtains the lion's share of its power from nuclear, hydro and other low or no emissions sources. Several years ago, the Calgary light rail transit (LRT) system began to purchase electricity from wind farms on the quite windy plains of Alberta.

2. Even when coal is the primary source of power, electric transit contributes to lower oil usage and fewer imports. Just because coal may be the primary source of electricity in many regions, that is not a valid argument against electric-powered transit. ON the contrary, due to the flexibility of power sources with electricity, such transit systems can quickly take advantage when the necessary transition is made to non-fossil fuel sources and/or clean coal.

3. O'Toole, many academics and other anti-transit activists understandably do not wish to discuss the wider, systematic impacts of transit on transportation patterns and land use. One key study estimates that for every passenger mile on transit, slightly more than two urban vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is suppressed or foregone. This study documents the connection between transit and lower vehicle usage that has also been documented in dozens of other studies. This effect is particularly significant when less than 40% of U.S. residents have easy access to transit at the present time.

4. The heavy emphasis on "gross energy" usage measured in BTU's by O'Toole is less significant than it may seem. BTU's used is important when fossil fuels are burned because this combustion leads directly to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and waste heat. With nuclear power, there are no GHG emissions but a lot of waste heat that can be put to other uses such as district heating, water desalinization on the coasts, and/or industrial use requiring process heat.

With most renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric, "gross energy" is essentially meaningless in this "Prius vs. Electric Transit" argument, except that efficient extraction of available energy keeps the price of the power obtained down. Taking O'Toole's reasoning to its logical extreme, if wind and solar only captures 10% of the available energy, or a hydroelectric project only captures 25% of the energy available, he'd still report absurdly high BTU's expended. Never mind that in these cases, nature still radiates this energy into Earth's environment--whether humans choose to tap into it or not.

There's more to it...

Completely agree with previous posts. Also, they are obviously using actual ridership, and not potential ridership in their calculation for trains, which doesn't take into account the potential to add more passengers at virtually no additional cost. They also do not specify how many passengers they are assuming are in the Prius. I suspect they are assuming 4, which is unfair when you are assuming a train at actual average ridership, because I assume the Prius average is closer to 1.5 people per vehichle.

Also assumed is that passenger vehicles are getting the average MPG when competing with a train, when in actuality most transit riders are avoiding the gridlock that results in autos getting half or less of their "average" MPG.

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