Thursday, March 12, 2009

Car vs. Bus, Surprise

The private automobile has been the target of liberals for as long as I can remember. In the seventies they attacked cars for causing urban congestion. So they cancelled major freeway improvements into cities to discourage cars, with predictable results: more congestion. Next it was pollution, so the manufacturers developed technology to satisfy the 95% plus reduction of pollutants. Problem solved? No, just a new target, this time fuel economy and resultant carbon dioxide. At a certain point it becomes obvious they just don’t like cars, and by constantly moving the goal posts back, they can keep the pressure on to make it more difficult if not impossible to own one.

Why the hatred for the automobile? Probably because it has been such a liberating factor for the middle class. It allowed them to move out of fetid, corrupt cities to the suburbs and still have the ability to access work and shopping. It allowed them to travel economically where and when they wanted, unfettered by the constraints of public transportation. Yet it is public transportation that they want us to use. Public transit varies in quality and comfort. Nothing can prepare a non-New Yorker for the shock of an MTA subway at rush hour. It is one of the most demeaning experiences you can imagine. Jammed together with strangers, there are times you wonder when the person next to you last took a shower. Women hold their handbags under their arms protecting them. Subways are noisy and unsteady.

On the other hand Washington DC’s Metro and San Francisco’ BART provide quality transportation. But still nothing compares with being able to drive yourself from your home to your destination and not have to worry about timetables, transfers or your safety. Most, if not all transit systems operate at a loss. New York City recently debated whether they should raise fares to reduce a two billion dollar deficit to one billion. In Lee County, Florida where I live, the county government dropped a bus route aimed mainly at tourists traveling to the beach. The math was simple. It cost $6 per passenger to operate the system and a ticket costs $1.

Buses are backbone of urban transit systems. It is assumed because of their passenger capacity and diesel engine they are more fuel efficient per passenger mile than a car. But is that true? Buses operate at maximum capacity inbound in the morning rush hour. But they deadhead back almost empty. They sit with their engines idling to heat them in the winter and cool them in the summer. They operate with very few passengers in the off hours.

Recently the US Department of Transportation published a study of energy use for various modes of transportation. Surprisingly the automobile is very close to bus transit in energy efficiency, with the bus only 8% more efficient per passenger mile. Based on the most recent figures (2006) a bus uses 3,262 Btu per passenger mile, while a passenger car uses 3,525. Not enough difference to pry my hands off my steering wheel.

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