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."
November 16, 2012, 12pm PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Michael Caven

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."

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Published on Thursday, November 15, 2012 in DC.Streetsblog
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