My post on the Sun’s Community of Interest blog:

Kevin Libin has apparently never heard of an electric trolley bus.  Otherwise he wouldn’t have written a story that advises “Save the Environment: Don’t Take Transit.”

Based on American statistics, the article maintains that “the average motorized city bus burns 27% more energy per mile than a private car and emits 31% more pounds of CO2.”  From there he concludes that “once eco-conscious urbanites realize the bus is worse for the planet than cars, they’ll have little reason to keep riding.”

So, he concludes, scrap the subsidies, privatize transit, pass out car allowances, build roads, and don’t worry.  Car emissions will take care of themselves.

Silly stuff.   

And like arguments over climate change, the selective use of sources and statistics isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind.  But let me try. 

There’s one really excellent reason for car drivers to support transit.   Good transit makes for better driving.

How come?  Because of the Road Builder’s Paradox.

Actually, it goes under a lot of different names, but this is what it means:

People will tend to balance car trips with rail trips until the two are at equilibrium in time and comfort.  The equilibrium speed of car traffic on the road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys by (rail-based or otherwise segregated) public transport.

It follows that increasing road capacity can actually make overall congestion on the road worse.  This occurs when the shift from public transport causes a disinvestment in the mode such that the operator either reduces frequency of service or raises fares to cover costs. This shifts additional passengers into cars. Ultimately the system may be eliminated and congestion on the original (expanded) road is worse than before.

The general conclusion, if the paradox applies, is that expanding a road system as a remedy to congestion is not only ineffective, but often counterproductive.   (From Stephen Ingrouille’s Transport Newsletter.)

Because a good rail system like SkyTrain is also dependent on the feeder bus system, you can’t just cut out other forms of transit and rely on rail.  But even for buses, the efficiency of the transit system will increase if there are segregated rights-of-way. 

Once a transit system serves enough people effectively, car traffic will operate more smoothly than it otherwise would – so long as the equilibrium isn’t disrupted.  Without good transit, congestion builds on the roads, leading to the argument for more roads, which simply generates more traffic – and so on. 

Conclusion: car drivers and transit riders are in this together, each dependent on the other for the benefit of the transportation system as a whole.

As for emissions, electric cars and hybrids are nice, but they still can’t beat the virtues of a quiet, zero-emission, high-capacity trolley bus.   And believe me, you won’t see a trolley bus in Vancouver with only one passenger.