Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are Mass Transit Systems Really More Efficient than Cars?

Some would have you believe that mass-transit systems are always more efficient than cars. But, it doesn't take much critical thinking to realize that this isn't always the case. Consider that mass-transit vehicles:

  • are much heavier than cars
  • must stop (and hence accelerate) frequently
  • carry relatively few passengers during non-peak times and when traveling in non-peak directions
I'm not going to do a full analysis here since someone has already done that work for me. I encourage you to read Brad Templeton's mass transit analysis. His is one of the few, if not the only, analysis I've seen that is fair and reasonable. He notes that the US would be better off promoting fuel-efficient cars (increase the gas tax, anyone?) than building public transit where the benefits are murky. The Toyota Prius's 50 miles-per-gallon combined rating beats the average commuter rail efficiency and one of the more efficient subway systems (NYC). Of course, Brad fairly notes that at an individual level, mass transit is more efficient from a marginal perspective since the buses and trains are running no matter whether you use them or not.

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