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Why car drivers should love transit

December 15, 2009

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. mpm permalink
    December 16, 2009 9:30 am

    Great post. I love the twisted logic that 1 bus = 1 car, instead of 1 bus = 75 cars. As you allude to, and as my statistics teacher used to say, “You can make statistics say anything you want.”

  2. Tessa permalink
    December 16, 2009 10:59 am

    “the average motorized city bus burns 27% more energy per mile than a private car and emits 31% more pounds of CO2.”

    This statistic makes me giggle, because it suggests that a bus that has, on average, just two passengers is more energy efficiency than a car.

  3. Tessa permalink
    December 16, 2009 11:00 am

    (prev. comment was unfinihsed)

    ..and yet he uses that to justify his argument that buses are bad. It simply doesn’t add up.

  4. December 16, 2009 12:05 pm

    I’m completely in agreement. I would also add that if we then want to reduce the amount of travel by feeder buses, the solution is to create more density around rail stations. In higher density communities in Asia and Europe, upwards of 70% of residents within 800m of a station walk to the train station.

    One question Gordon – is the italicized section a quote from a book or is that your summary?

  5. Rod Smelser permalink
    December 18, 2009 1:05 am

    From the article in the Sun (originally National Post)

    The U.S. Department of Energy’s Data Book shows that while transit’s energy efficiency has worsened in recent decades — transit buses today consume 4,315 BTUs per passenger mile, or about 50% more energy than in 1980 — the trend in cars has been the opposite direction: Today’s cars are already nearly 20% more efficient than they were 25 years ago, down from 4,348 BTUs per passenger mile in 1980 to 3,514 in 2007

    That seems to be the core of the argument, and there must be some assumed or average occupancy level in both the car and the bus to derive any per passenger mile figure on fuel consumption. But those occupancies aren’t stated here, so I guess somebody will have to look it up.

  6. Tessa permalink
    December 18, 2009 9:59 am

    The thing about buses energy use per passenger mile is I expect that’s largely driven by the continuing push to expand transit into further reaches of suburban and exurban communities, and that the buses themselves are actually getting more efficient.

  7. mike permalink
    December 18, 2009 5:14 pm

    I have my doubts about the environmental benefits of streetcars.

    First there is the issue of limited transit budgets. Transit doesn’t cover its costs from user fees so it needs to rely on subsidies. (So do freeways).

    But streetcars have the high capital costs of rail with low passenger capacity of buses and higher operating costs of buses.

    Given limited transit budgets, to expand your streetcar network often you end up cannibalizing the subsidies that previously supported your bus network. If your goal is to increase transit usage, I am not sure that building out streetcar networks is actually a good thing.

    So while streetcars are powered by hydro in Vancouver, I am not sure that they are net benefit to the environment if building out the streetcar network means that other people lose the subsidy that supported there local bus line.

    For transit agencies in the US, labor costs are a much bigger expense than fuel costs. Transit agencies normally have labor contracts that require at a minimum 4 hour shifts. To minimize that labor expense, transit agencies respond by trying to run bigger buses with more capacity. The transit agencies don’t have enough capital to support two different bus fleets (one for rush hour and another for offpeak operations) so they run the bigger buses all of the time.

    If you want to make transit more efficient raise the gas tax and get rid of free parking. Those are the policies that tend to shift people from cars to transit and raise transit utilization. Regular transit buses get 4-6 mpg and hybrid buses get 6 -8 mpg, but hybrid buses cost more and don’t last as long. The way to increase the mileage of bus passengers isn’t to buy hybrid buses as much as to increase the number of people riding on a specific bus line ie raise gas taxes.

  8. Rod Smelser permalink
    December 21, 2009 1:03 pm


    If you want to make transit more efficient raise the gas tax and get rid of free parking.

    This move will likely raise the overall level of demand for transit and therefore its average efficiency level, but what happens when peak load expands? Then more buses and drivers have to be hired and the problem replicates itself.

  9. Rod Smelser permalink
    December 21, 2009 1:19 pm


    The thing about buses energy use per passenger mile is I expect that’s largely driven by the continuing push to expand transit into further reaches of suburban and exurban communities, …

    Excuse me, but what new suburuban bus services do you mean? There haven’t been any except the new 595 bus from Langley to Maple Ridge over the Golden Ears Bridge.

    I have been on #701 buses running from Haney Place to Coquitlam Centre that are packed. I have also been on other buses, such as the C series buses, where once I get off, it’s empty except for the driver.

    Please don’t make the Vancouver-centric urbanist assumption that all transit services in the suburbs and exurbs are some wholly unjustified extraction on our part from the owners of $600 per square foot condos in Yaletown. We pay taxes too, thank you very much. And we pay the same gas taxes as you do. Much of that goes towards providing Vancouver with expensive LRT lines, including the very expensive underground RAV lines, and at some point the proposed $3 billion squandering on a subway to UBC, all to keep the Pt Grey property owners happy that they don’t have an overhead Skytrain like the poor working class schnooks in East Van.

    As our former Mayor Gord Robson pointed out, for a fraction of $3 billion we could provide conventional LRT lines throughout the valley. This is an issue of tax and expenditure equity.

  10. Tessa permalink
    December 22, 2009 3:51 pm

    Rod, I think you took something I said and turned it into something that it really wasn’t intended as. I used to ride the 240 from north vancouver daily, and it was packed. I also used to ride the 211 home after rush hour and it was often pretty empty, even though during the rush it was largely full.

    Transit has had to keep up with expanding lower density areas in areas like Langley and even in parts of Surrey, Burnaby, the tri-cities and the north shore and, yes, Maple Ridge. While commuter buses will be packed, much of that service is under-utilized, especially compared to service in higher density, mixed use corridors (regardless of which city those corridors are in, whether it’s Vancouver, Burnaby, North Van or Surrey) But it’s those lower density, single use routes that end up being subsidized by both the high density routes and taxpayers at large.

    As for the LRT/skytrain debate, this is stupid infighting between allies. It’s not that Vancouver is getting all the tax money, it’s just that in Vancouver the tax money is spent on skytrain while in Pitt Meadows/Maple Ridge they spent it on a brand spanking new, wider bridge for cars (two, actually, over the Pitt River and the Fraser), which together cost far more than the Canada Line, if anyone is counting. The problem isn’t that the government is stealing your tax dollars for Vancouver, the problem is they’re spending it on the wrong priorities for your community. Don’t get mad at me, get mad at Campbell.

    And the UBC line, in my opinion, ought to be skytrain. It would save transfers and create a more efficient overall service, it would have a far higher capacity when that capacity is very clearly needed and it wouldn’t be limited by the very real challenges of running an efficient light rail system in such a densely built up area. A light rail system would likely have only slightly higher capacity than existing double buses that run every two-to-three minutes already, and it would likely also be only marginally faster, thus not solving the problem. And it’s good to keep in mind that such a system would attract riders from across the region, not just those areas.

    Also, to Mike, trams generally provide higher capacity than buses and can also add more than one car during rush hour, then shorten to one car during off-peak times, addressing another concern you raised while at the same time having one driver in both situation. Market research has also shown car drivers are much more likely to ride a tram or streetcar than they are a bus, for some reason.

  11. Rod Smelser permalink
    December 28, 2009 2:15 pm

    The notion that the Pitt River and Golden Ears Bridges took more tax dollars than the RAV line is not accurate AFAIK, since the latter is entirely financed by tolls, and the former cost less than $200 million. Both projects are needed on a longer term basis, and disputing their necessity is at least as irrational as opposing public transit.

    The notion that bus routes in Vancouver are always running at capacity is not accurate in my experience. A route such as 22 MacDonald will have people standing at rush hours, and be mostly empty two hours later.

  12. Tessa permalink
    January 4, 2010 12:14 pm

    I’ll simply repeat my paragraph, Rod, when I say that service in high density, mixed use corridors, regardless of the city, are constantly full, whereas they aren’t in single-use, low density corridors, which would probably include the Macdonald corridor.

    Examples of higher density bus routes with high usage include 3, 9, 10, 8, 19, 20, 230, 255, 240, 49, and certainly many others that I’m not as familiar with myself. Many of these buses, I expect, break even. Though are not always at full capacity, there is a distinct difference between that and buses such as the 254, 212, etc., again using examples I’m familiar with.

    As for the Golden Ears Bridge being paid by tolls, last I checked I paid a toll every single time I rode the Canada Line, too. They are both paid with tax revenue and both collect fees for use, so they are essentially the same model. As for the usefulness, I won’t delve too deeply into what I don’t know too well, but I will say it could have included an LRT and didn’t and that speaks to the priorities of the province.

    Either way, the bridge is an expansion of car-based transportation in the region, and that’s where tax money from the Fraser is going into – it’s not going into Vancouver’s transit. The money simply isn’t there to be spent on large scale expansions of both transit and highways/roads, and expanding highways and roads will reduce demand and reduce the efficiency of transit, so in the end you’ve got to make your pick.

  13. Rod Smelser permalink
    January 13, 2010 5:42 pm

    “As for the Golden Ears Bridge being paid by tolls, last I checked I paid a toll every single time I rode the Canada Line, too. They are both paid with tax revenue and both collect fees for use, so they are essentially the same model. … ”

    You’re right that both GEB and RAV are P3s, but there the similarity ends. There were tax dollars up front, including federal contributions form people as far away and Newfoundland and Nunavut, towards the capital costs of RAV. For GEB, it’s all 101% user-pay, end-to-end, all capital and operating costs.

    Your last paragraph puts forward the oft heard dichotomies that are foundational to the urban/suburb politics of Vancouverism. Given that GEB and PMH1 are to be financed by tolls, that is exclusively by the users, how do they subtract in any meaningful way from the available funds for other transportation or non-transportation projects? I suppose you could put forward the argument that they occupy some of British Columbia’s optimal borrowing capacity, but for that to be a persuasive argument you’d have to assume that British Columbia is already nearing the ceiling on prudent borrowing.

    When he visited here in 2007 Anthony Downs of the Brookings Inst tried in vain to bring a bit more flexibility and bit less insularity to transportation discussions in this region:

    “It seems to me highly unlikely that Vancouver can add 750,000 people in a society with rising incomes and scattered employment locations and drastically reduce the share of commuting trips by car to the extent that your planners desire. You will have to increase the capacity of your roadways to some degree.”

    He may as well have saved his breath. Metro planners have for years tried to deny ANY need for increased road capacity for the simple reason that they rightly fear that if they do go there the consequent increased taxation of real property would lead to severely negative political consequences.

    The same taxpayer reluctance is now threatening basic transit services, as every other revenue measure Translink turns to is received with a hostile response, such as the commerically organized “protest” by downtown business interests against the parking tax. You know you’re in Vancouver when the biggest headline of the day on the morning broadsheet concerns a parking stall levy.

    I would not for a moment suggest that this taxpayer resistance is not a very understandable reaction to the highest real estate prices in the nation. Like other out-of-equilibrium situations this one will likely persist until large, externally generated shocks to the system force a realignment of market prices and political values, but that kind of shock adjustment is not without negative consequences.

  14. Rod Smelser permalink
    January 13, 2010 9:21 pm


    I posted a reply earlier today, but it seems to have disappeared.

    Suffice it to say there were general tax dollars contributed by all Canadians towards the RAV line, but the GEB and PM bridges are entirely user pay.

    As for the argument that there’s not enough money for both, I don’t know of any authoritative finding to that effect by, say, the BC Auditor General. It implies that BC is close to occupying it’s entire debt capacity, and simply cannot borrow further, even for fully or partially self-financing projects.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with Anthony Downs of the Brookings Inst, but when he visited Vancouver in 2007 he said that the area planners were mistaken if they believed they could accommodate another three quarters of a million people with zero increase in road capacity.


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