Is a Car More Environmentally Friendly Than Mass Transit?

Angie Schmitt takes issue with the controversial premise of a recent story from the popular Freakonomics guys. True to their reputation for counter-intuition, their most recent report makes the claim that "driving is greener than transit."
Michael Caven / Flickr

In a recent, attention-grabbing story for Marketplace, Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame explores what Schmitt contends is an "intellectually dishonest argument" about the relative environmental friendliness of driving a car versus taking public transit. Clemson University’s Eric Morris, a regular contributor to the program, walks Dubner through the argument for the benefits of the car based on per-passenger energy consumption.

As Schmitt explains, "Buses are potentially much more efficient than cars, Morris admits. But many buses are underutilized: The average bus carries just 10 passengers, while the average car carries 1.6. As a result, Morris says, those traveling by bus consume 20 percent more energy per passenger than people driving in cars."

While Schmitt seems to agree with Morris's assertion that "if we can persuade more people to leave cars and move onto the existing transit system that we already have, that's a complete win for the environment," she takes issue with his simplistic argument against building new transit in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Memphis.

"Clearly, many American cities need to repair decades’ worth of damage to the walkable urban fabric that makes transit efficient and well-used," says Schmitt. "They also need to build better transit so new walkable development can flourish."

"Dubner notes at the beginning that New Yorkers have the smallest per-capita carbon footprint in the United States, but he never fully explains why places with good transit like New York, Boston, and San Francisco also have some of the lowest energy consumption rates in the country. There’s no reason places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Memphis can’t join them as green cities with great transit."

Full Story:  Freakonomics Hucksters: “Save the Earth, Drive Your Car”


Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245
AICP CTP Storefont Display

The first online AICP* CTP exam prep class

Are you ready to take the AICP* Certified Transportation Planner exam?
Priced at $245 for May exam!
Wood necklace with city map

City Necklaces

These sweet pendants are engraved on a cedar charm with a mini map of selected cities. The perfect gift for friends and family or yourself!
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $16.95 a month