Thursday, August 07, 2008

Puncturing Rail Myths

Just wanted to pass along this excellent data-based analysis of rail myths and realities (hat tip to Barry). To be frank, it contradicts my own support of some LRT and some commuter rail, but it's really important we understand the limitations of rail, even if we still decide to pursue some of it anyway. Lots of great graphs too. An overview: (see the pdf for backup on each point)
  1. Myth 1: Rail transportation is inexpensive. Reality: Rail transport is several times more expensive, per passenger mile, than driving or flying.
  2. Myth 2: We’ve subsidized highways and airports for years; now it is time to subsidize alternatives. Reality: Since before 1975, subsidies to Amtrak and transit have been many times greater, per passenger mile, than subsidies to highways and air travel.
  3. Myth 3: High gas prices are leading millions to turn to public transportation. Reality: High prices may slightly reduce driving, but hardly any of that reduction is taken up by public transport.
  4. Myth 4: Giving people transportation choices similar to those in Europe will get people out of their cars. Reality: Despite high gas prices and huge subsidies to transit and intercity rail, Europeans drive almost as much as Americans.
  5. Myth 5: Mass transportation saves energy. Reality: Getting people to drive more fuel-efficient cars will save far more energy than building rail transit.
  6. Myth 6: Rail transport can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reality: Diesel-powered transport emits as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as driving, and electric power only reduces emissions if the electricity does not come from burning fossil fuels.
  7. Myth 7: Rail transport helps low-income people. Reality: Financial troubles with rail projects have forced many transit agencies to reduce bus service to low-income neighborhoods.
  8. Myth 8: Rail transport promotes economic development. Reality: Rail transport has not been a catalyst to economic development, but it has been a catalyst to subsidies to economic development.
Conclusions
Rail transit and intercity high-speed rail are expensive programs that require huge subsidies and provide little in the way of energy savings or other environmental or social benefits. Rail transit attracts few people out of their cars, and intercity high-speed rail mainly takes business from the airlines. The economic development benefits of rail transportation are also greatly exaggerated. Federal, state, or local officials who are truly interested in saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions should find more cost-effective solutions than new rail projects.
Number 7 is particularly worrisome here given the front-page Chronicle story this morning on extremely long Metro bus commutes to cover short distances, which generated a firestorm of comments (most recommended at bottom here). Do we have our priorities right on bus (both local and commuter express) vs. rail spending? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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10 Comments:

At 9:33 AM, August 08, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Get ready for a pro-rail supporter to comment on the use of "per passenger mile".

The reality is that is the best metric to compare various modes. Although a mile of the Katy Freeway may cost more than a mile of commuter rail or LRT, the Katy Freeway will move a lot more people.

Included in that Katy Freeway mile is a device that will generate more revenue than rail modes also. And although the freeway will get more cars in the future on it, it will still move more people effectively.

My only pro-rail feelings come from the fact that the FEDS are allocating more of our road tax dollars to rail transit. Since my money is going to be wasted, it may as well get wasted in my back yard!

 
At 1:50 PM, August 08, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Myth 4: Giving people transportation choices similar to those in Europe will get people out of their cars. Reality: Despite high gas prices and huge subsidies to transit and intercity rail, Europeans drive almost as much as Americans.

From the data, they show rail and bus in Europe as 15% of travel, and US at 4.3%. That's a pretty good difference. Plus, they don't include miles traveled by walking and biking. I'm not sure I trust the numbers they are using here, but using them as a starting point, I'm guessing that in Europe you end up close to 30-40% of all miles traveled by public transport / bike / walking, and probably somewhere around 40-70% of all trips. I'm guessing in the US the figures are below 10% for miles traveled and trips even when you add up bike / walk / rail / bus.

(FWIW, I can also verify this against my own personal experience - when I have lived and traveled in Europe, I have used a car very infrequently. I walked and rode the metro, bus and rails all over the place. On my last trip to Italy, I did rent a car - and maybe I did drive 90% of my miles. But guess what? 90% of my trips were walking. Here in Houston, I drive or fly virtually everywhere. Walking is typically done more for enjoyment than to get something accomplished.)

Large difference or small? Depends on how you frame the debate. Statistics are meaningless without looking at context. IMHO, you have a huge difference here. The report leaves out some important transportation modes that are heavily used in Europe to try to imply that driving is used as much as it is in the US. How convenient.

 
At 2:07 PM, August 08, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

See here and look at exhibit 1 & 3 if you don't believe me. For example, The Netherlands has 44% of trips by bike or walking. In Germany, the figure is 34%. In the US, the figure is 6.9%.

When you add in 15% of miles by rail and bus from the article you cited, which let's say is >25% of trips in these countries, you end up with somewhere around 70% of all trips in our European counterparts that aren't taken by car. As opposed to around 80%-90% of US trips that are by car. It takes a contortionist (or someone with an agenda) to try to argue that this is not a significant difference.

 
At 3:43 PM, August 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is yet another report which shows that the fixation on rail is costly for society. In most situations in the United States, buses or BRT make more sense. Our HOV system is great - relatively inexpensive, very fast, carries a huge number of commuters, and can travel anywhere in downtown to disperse riders.

Many people may complain that the Katy Freeway is expensive, but the fact is that is will carry a huge number of transit patrons on its HOT lanes - probably (actually, surely) more than any rail line would. Plus, it will generate toll revenue.

Why the fixation on rail when we can get the job done better and cheaper with buses? I suppose I'll never understand.

 
At 4:55 PM, August 08, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

"Myth 5: Mass transportation saves energy. Reality: Getting people to drive more fuel-efficient cars will save far more energy than building rail transit."

So, Myth 5 is not a myth at all. Mass transit really DOES save energy. A Prius simply saves more.

 
At 5:09 PM, August 08, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

Why must you use Amtrak subsidies in your argument against city transit? Is that the only subsidy you could find to make your point? Ask any "pro-rail supporter", and he will tell you that Amtrak is a collossal waste of money, with the exception of a few Northeast lines.

kjb, in an era of declining auto usage, due to rising fuel costs, what benefit is a HOT lane? Sure, the Katy HOT lane raises revenue for those who can afford it, but what about all of the commuters who can barely afford $4.00 gas? Do they eat cake?

As for trading in the SUV for the Prius, I notice that there is no calculation for the cost of transitioning to this energy efficient form of transportation. If one REALLY wants to calculate costs, the lost lost equity in now nearly worthless SUVs plus the higher cost to acquire now prized Prius' should be included...well, if one were trying to be intellectually honest.

 
At 5:55 PM, August 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The main benefit of HOT lanes is it helps pay for the lane which is used at high-speed by buses, vanpools, and carpools - spreading the high gas costs over more people to ease the burden. Those drivers willing to pay the toll for a fast ride essentially subsidize more affordable commute solutions for others (by covering the capital costs, unlike rail).

 
At 4:22 PM, August 12, 2008, Anonymous The Antiplanner said...

michael: Trips are not the same as passenger miles. Walking and cycling trips are much shorter than driving trips. So even if Europeans take more walking and driving trips, it doesn't reduce auto's share of passenger miles by a whole lot. I don't think anyone has good data comparing walking and cycling in Europe vs. the U.S. anyway. Research by French economist Remy Prud'Homme shows a strong positive correlation between commute speeds and incomes, so societies that rely more on walking and cycling are likely to have lower incomes.

redscare said, "So, Myth 5 is not a myth at all. Mass transit really DOES save energy." No, it doesn't. Buses use a lot more energy per passenger mile than cars. Rails use slightly less energy in operation, but when the total energy costs of a transit system -- rails plus buses plus construction costs -- are compared with the total energy costs of driving, transit uses more energy.

 
At 4:51 PM, August 12, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>michael: Trips are not the same as passenger miles. Walking and cycling trips are much shorter than driving trips. So even if Europeans take more walking and driving trips, it doesn't reduce auto's share of passenger miles by a whole lot.

Why should we be looking at data that ignores that the vast majority of their trips are these types of trips? Why should the mileage data exclude these types of trip miles? Your only argument is that "we do not have the data" and you assume that the effect of such data is negligible.

Furthermore, I would argue that modal share of trips should be given more weight than passenger miles. Cities should not be punished because they were well designed such that people could work, play, and live all in one walkable or transit-oriented area.

The point of the original article is that essentially, Houston is just like Paris, because when we get in a motor vehicle to go vast distances - it tends to be the car, or maybe even the plane. Never-mind that upwards of 75% of Parisian trips are by rail, bike, bus, or walking, and 90% of Houston trips are not.

Does saying that we both use cars to travel great distances tell us anything useful about how to design an urban city of rapidly increasing density? Or is it just meant to mislead by looking at data that weight miles traveled and therefore favor things like exurban travel, intercity / intercontinental travel, and even perhaps freight and air-mail travel (which has 1 passenger, doesn't it?)? I don't deny that these types of travel are important - but when looking at what American cities need to do to develop, I do think it is pretty worthless to look at such data. I would rather see data limited to urban areas only and including all types of travel - including walking and biking. Ideally, you could group travel miles / mode by city density or area density as well.

When you have that data, you can tell me that Paris and Houston are the same. Until then, I'm not buying it. And evidently the French aren't either - which is why they are doubling the size of the TGV, etc... as the saying goes, "money talks...".

>>No, it doesn't. Buses use a lot more energy per passenger mile than cars. Rails use slightly less energy in operation, but when the total energy costs of a transit system -- rails plus buses plus construction costs -- are compared with the total energy costs of driving, transit uses more energy.

See here for a good post about this fallacious and misleading argument. This is almost certainly not true given the increased transit ridership we are seeing these days.

 
At 10:00 AM, October 11, 2009, Anonymous Holiday Accommodation UK said...

I also think that "myth 5" is not actualy a myth as even though more fuel efficient cars will surely help but is not a actual subsitute for a efficient mass transport system.But I will say that it will complement it excellently.

 

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