Making Up the Difference: Pt. 2 Mass Transit

This is part two of an ongoing series called Making Up the Difference where we will look at ways we can reduce oil consumption in order to ease the transition and to help prevent market forces from causing shortages in vital areas of our economy. In Part 1, we looked at plastic bags and the possible savings of roughly 20,000 barrels/day of oil consumption that could be saved through a variety of measures. Now we will look at a popular way people normally ease the impact of high fuel prices, mass transit.

Many believe that public transportation will be the primary method of moving people in an age where oil is scarce and there is no other way to economically travel great distances. The question is, how do we transition from the current state of infrastructure where a small percentage of commuters use public transportation to a point where a majority of travel is done either by walking or by mass transit? That is a solution involving many factors such as population density, zoning, electrification of rail and a massive movement of people. For now, we will look at what we can do in the short-term to increase ridership effectively, provide a basis for a future transportation network, and reduce oil consumption.

The first ever accounting of CO2 and oil savings from public transit was done by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. The group’s research found that transit saves 3.4 billion gallons of oil annually, with about 3.1 billion coming from the top 10 metropolitan areas1. This is the equivalent of about 220,000 barrels/day, or roughly 1-2% of total transportation oil consumption.

So, are there gains to be made from this relatively low level of savings? Of course. Currently, ridership is increasing across the country as fuel prices rise, pushing the system capacity, and causing many municipalities to look at expansion plans. Mass transit use is said to have increased by 3.3%, while miles driven reduced by 2.3%2 Light rail and streetcar were the modes of transport that increased the most during that time. As prices stay at record high levels, the amount of commuters that turn to mass transit is likely to increase. As long as the systems can meet further demand through increased funding and improvements, the oil savings are likely to continue to increase.

But there ultimately comes a point where we will see diminishing returns. Large-scale transit systems are limited to big metropolitan areas, and many train systems lack a feeder bus system that is essential to its functioning. In most parts of the United States, population density is not high enough to efficiently install a public transit system that would result in a net decrease in oil consumption. Therefore, without radical movements of people, we are limited to improving public transit in existing dense cities.

The easiest thing to do would be to add bus routes to existing systems, increasing the amount of people served. Larger projects could involve extending train lines to new areas along with adding feeder bus systems. New forms of transit could also be implemented. In Portland, Oregon, a streetcar system has been in existence for over ten years. It has not only the benefit of replacing drivers and decreasing oil consumption, but it also encourages more sustainable development. In the first four years there was $2.39 billion in residential and commercial development3. A similar system has been put in Minneapolis and another is currently being planned Grand Rapids, Michigan. All medium sized cities could benefit from implementing streetcars. The increased density in the city centers could also encourage people to move from the suburbs and provide a platform for other forms of transport, and decrease oil use through increasing walkability.

Streetcar systems don’t come cheap, typically costing $12 to $15 million per mile to build3. However, their return is seen very quickly, providing additional investment 10 to 20 times, and providing more economical transport for residents. One estimate is that an increase in the amount of urban rail of all types could result in a 4% decrease in fuel consumption, about 800,000 barrels/day4.

Hopefully, an increase in mass transit systems could passively encourage a movement of people into denser communities, allowing for a national infrastructure to be put in place and ending the trend of sprawl. At high enough densities, walking would be the most effective mode of transport, creating further gains. The government needs to continue funding mass transit in order to meet rising demand as well as looking to expand systems wherever possible.

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