Want to cut carbon? Get off the bus.

I've been acquainting myself recently with the work of Randal O'Toole, an economist and fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute. His work has a lot to do with the failures of government planning, and focuses on articulating free-market solutions to pressing environmental issues. His most recent work concerns urban mass transit, a topic of particular salience to Toronto. His point is that if you're looking for ways to quickly cut carbon emissions, mass transit isn't the best way to go about it. While the American fleet of personal automobiles have actually become 40 per cent more efficient per passenger mile, bus and rail transit has actually become less efficient. The key issue is ridership- a full bus delivers impressive efficiency, but a 44 seat vehicle with 14 people on board is far less efficient than if those people drove modern cars.

Here's what O'Toole has to say on light rail, something the TTC seems very eager to implement:

Most light-rail systems also consume as much as or more energy per passenger mile than SUVs, and 40 percent emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car.

Moreover, even where rail operations do save energy, this savings hardly ever makes up for the huge energy cost of rail construction. Metro, Portland's regional planning agency, estimated that the area's North Interstate light-rail line would require 172 years of operational savings to make up for the energy cost of construction. Highway construction also consumes energy, but because highways are more heavily used than rail lines, their energy cost per passenger mile is far lower.

If we ignore construction costs, many rail operations do consume less energy than the average auto — but almost none consume less than a Toyota Prius. As Lave suggested in 1979, to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is far more cost-effective to encourage people to drive more-fuel-efficient cars than to build rail-transit lines.

O'Toole suggests the biggest trouble with car transportation is urban congestion. In the states, this wastes something like 3 billion gallons of fuel each year, in turn emitting 28 million tons of CO2. So the answer may be more roads, not less. Moreover, urban congestion can be eased through something as simple as better coordination between traffic lights. Anyone driving on Queens Quay at 5PM can testify to the sheer idiocy of the current timers.

His paper on transit (read it here) concludes with what I think are some pretty rational policy provisions:

  • Powering buses with hybrid-electric motors, biofuels, and—where it comes from nonfossil fuel sources—electricity;
  • Concentrating bus service on heavily used routes and using smaller buses during offpeak periods and in areas with low demand for transit service;
  • Building new roads, using variable toll systems, and coordinating traffic signals to relieve the highway congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year;
  • Encouraging people to purchase more fuel-efficient cars. Getting 1 percent of commuters to switch to hybrid-electric cars will cost less and do more to save energy than getting 1 percent to switch to public transit.

Sage advice, particularly for Toronto. Rather than throwing money at the frankly awful TTC, we need a more realistic strategy for cutting carbon. It's this kind of thinking that will help us overcome global warming, not the pie-in-the-sky solutions peddled by many of today's so called environmentalists. Like a recent issue of Wired pointed out, global warming is far too important to be left to the ideologues.