Flutterby™! : Looking for arguments

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Looking for arguments

2011-01-12 17:08:18.389032+00 by Dan Lyke 13 comments

It's difficult to make a case for public transit based on energy costs. At best buses only save about twice the fuel of single-passenger automobiles, although with higher efficiency commute vehicles or carpooling this drops off, so if a bus takes much longer than a car you start to find that paying for fuel is way overshadowed by wages.

It may even be difficult to make that based on overall costs, yes, highways and roads are incredibly subsidized, far beyond gasoline and other fuel tax levels, but so are public transit modes.

Heck, if you go back to the railways of the 1800s you find that though the railroad barons got incredibly wealthy, their personal fortunes were remarkably close to the amount of public debt that the railroads ended up defaulting on. Basically, railroads have long been mechanisms for wealth transfer.

So many of the arguments for public transit that actually make internal sense are about access to transportation for poor people, or about changing the culture and development patterns to build cities and metropolitan regions for which public transit can actually have a reasonable energy or economic payoff.

I'm looking for other pro-transit arguments. It doesn't matter too much to me whether you agree with them or not, what I'm looking for are arguments that internally make sense. I'd especially like to find sociological models or arguments about how transit shapes communities, but even well thought out arguments about subsidies will catch my eye.

Heck, some good papers about train or ferry commuters being happier than those traveling similar times by car because of a better user experience would also be appreciated.

[ related topics: California Culture Sociology Interactive Drama Public Transportation Community Politics Trains Work, productivity and environment Law Automobiles Economics Machinery ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 16:31:38.942253+00 by: crasch

Happened across this recently:


#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-18 20:36:34.394682+00 by: Medley

Did a quick google to see if the Transportation Research Board has done anything on the energy question. Here are a couple of links to start, but I didn't dig much further than this:




More broadly: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10110#description

Digging through these might provide pointers to the sorts of material you're looking for.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-18 15:57:17.706642+00 by: Dan Lyke

Jeff, thinking a little bit more about costs of the manufacture of the vehicles (and similarly, maintenance costs of road vs rail), I wonder if the fact that transit organizations are (or should be) smart enough to be purchasing vehicles based on more of an economic decision than individuals would help there. ie: People buy cars because they "feel" right, even when those cars have a 100k mile lifespan. Trucking companies and transit agencies put enough miles on a vehicle that they actually have reasonable time feedback on overall capital+operating costs and may choose to spend an extra $50k up front to make sure that that bus lasts for another quarter million miles.

Larry and Brennen, thanks. I know that on at least one route I used to bike to work, a bunch of us used the bus to cross the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. This was something of a problem because the buses all have 2 bike racks on the front, but for that few mile stretch we had bikes lined up several deep in the wheelchair area (if the driver was nice to us, he didn't have to be), and once or twice ended up waiting a half an hour for the next bus.

Along that route some people started biking less of the route so that they'd get their space on the bike racks earlier (ie: get on at San Rafael rather than San Quentin).

Also of interest: Fast Company claims the Political Economy Research Institute "Estimating the Employment Impacts of Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Road Infrastructure" study says that spending for bike infrastructure means more engineering costs, lower construction costs.

The result: pedestrian and bike infrastructure projects create 11 to 14 jobs per $1 million of spending while road infrastructure initiatives created seven jobs per $1 million of spending.

I have the report up and ready for reading, but I suspect this is some serious apples and oranges stuff again.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-18 09:07:53.901933+00 by: brennen

All right, this is an argument I haven't really heard much in this discussion, but it occurs to me that my largest personal use of the transit system is as a support mechanism for biking and walking. When I take the bus a couple of miles downtown, I'm usually expecting to walk an equal or greater distance. When I ride my bike the 8 miles to work, the bus is a viable backup in case the weather really goes to hell or I get a flat. Because I have those options, I'm far more secure in leaving the house without a car. It seems to me that if we want to make human-powered transportation a viable option for more people, we could do a lot worse than maintaining a mixed-mode support system.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-17 12:16:43.107175+00 by: Larry Burton

Have I ever told you about my effort to use public transportation? It involved an eight mile drive to a bus stop, a ten mile, stop and go bus ride, a thirty-five mile train ride, another four mile bus ride and a one mile walk. Needless to say it only happened once.

I just started a new job that is fourteen miles from my home and should be an easy enough bicycle commute. As soon as I get a little more settled in I plan to start commuting by bike. If we are looking at providing clean, fuel efficient transportation options I think making it easier to bike and walk would be the best way to spend the money. It might also reduce health care costs.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-17 03:41:47.344647+00 by: jeff

I believe there have been some threads at Flutterby discussing related topics such as the scalability of urban sprawl and the optimum population density of towns and cities related to energy consumption.

Transportation energy costs and efficiencies are a huge factor in all of these discussions.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-15 16:12:46.442755+00 by: Dan Lyke

I need to track down at least some approximate numbers on that front, although energy is fungible to some extent: If you can repurpose energy to transport vehicles (ie: you discover some magical property of quantum physics that allows for cheap flying cars) you can also use it to generate electricity.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-15 04:29:20.091346+00 by: jeff

This is a fascinating discussion and the topic will become increasingly important as worldwide population steadily increases and natural resources steadily decrease.

Do these studies look at the total energy inputs, both localized and global? For example the micro/macro energy costs needed for manufacture of the transit vehicles and supporting infrastructure, including the entire entropy/energy dislocation chain?

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-14 10:54:18.913776+00 by: DaveP

I don't use much mass transit, but when I do, it's for the following reasons:

* I'm going to be drinking, and don't want to cab home. * I'm heading downtown, and feel that the parking costs vs. time spent tradeoff comes out in favor of mass transit. * I'm traveling in a city without my car, and mass transit's cheaper than a rental, plus I can sightsee on the way.

That's all the arguments I can come up with in favor of transit.

I sometimes wish there was a better transit option to get me to work, but just as frequently I wish that there was a better way to bike the last mile there. My work is in the 'burbs, and is ringed by freeways and railroad tracks. There's no way there that doesn't involve riding on a limited access road (allowed, but unsafe, IMHO), portaging across a rail grade (and trespassing), or adding multiple miles to the trip, on roads that are bicycle hostile. I'd love to be able to read a book on the bus-ride to work, but I'm unwilling to commit over an hour to a one-way commute that takes 12 minutes in my own car. If it were only a half-hour commute by transit, I'd think a lot harder about that decision.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-13 15:30:03.157855+00 by: Dan Lyke

Sean, that Why People Don't Use Mass Transit link is great, but doesn't go far enough into the lack of energy superiority of mass transit systems. On that second Krugman article, I'd like to see him address the lack of energy efficiency in those higher density areas he's talking about.

Light rail still ends up being inefficient, but because it's more comfortable and easier to navigate than a bus often ends up being used by higher income commuters over driving because of convenience.

Chris, the subtext of a whole lot of public transit argument actually ends up being income redistribution and "social justice", which means if you end the taxi medallion monopoly you end up alienating that political base (for some reason, usually because those folks haven't thought through their political philosophy terribly well).

Which is why I was looking for good arguments for mass transit. What I think I'm finding is arguments for better technology to improve automobile density.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-13 10:18:07.868743+00 by: crasch [edit history]

For some reason, public transit activists aren't very enthusiastic about jitney cabs. But it seems to me to be the ideal form of public transit.

End the taxi cab medallion monopoly, and a lot more people would step up to offer rides.


#Comment Population density made: 2011-01-13 09:14:01.395322+00 by: spl

One important argument is that strong mass transport supports a higher population density. Consider the Netherlands. The railway system keeps cars off the road and often leads to equal or sometimes faster transit times than driving. The road traffic here is pretty bad. I can't imagine how much worse it would be without trains.

Here are a few links I found after a quick search:

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-12 21:23:07.474547+00 by: petronius

Maybe the issue is that everybody uses roads, whether they have an auto or not. If you ride on the bus, it's rolling over the same road the auto owners are subsidizing throuogh their gas tax. The fire and police departments use the roads, and even bicyclists use them. If a walk to the store the bread was delivered by road. So non-drivers pickup about half of the road costs through their sales and property taxes, while the drivers pick up the other half through the same thing plus their gasoline tax. When seen this way, some subsidized transit doesn't seem so bad. However, there is a point at which lower ridership does make the subsidy less defensible. Maybe ridership per hour is a metric worth looking at.