The Mass Transit Panacea and Other Fallacies About Energy

If most people want to drive cars, how will subways save fuel? Did OPEC decide which states should have gasoline shortages—or is it possible that OPEC is not the villain? How does it happen that the price of gasoline (in uninflated dollars) has dropped continuously since 1940? An economist raises these and other iconoclastic questions about the "energy crisis."

The "energy problem" is now the longest-running show in Washington. It was pretty good theater for a while: lots of motion, a constant stream of new actors, and a change of villains from time to time. But the plot is beginning to seem a bit repetitious. Nixon, Ford, or Carter puts forth a solution, then Congress tears it apart. Set 'em up and knock 'em down, just like a Punch and Judy show.

There are a variety of conflicts and confusions behind the congressional opposition, but four deserve special mention: the conflict over automobiles versus mass transit, the confusion over the role of energy prices, the conflict over decontrol of oil and the windfall profits tax, and the confusion over the goals of the synthetic fuels program.

Automobiles vs. mass transit

The received wisdom on this topic is easily stated: 1. It is self-evident that public transportation is vastly more energy-efficient than automobiles; 2. It is selfevident that investing money to improve transit facilities will attract many more passengers. Therefore, the national energy policy ought to give major attention to building new transit systems and revitalizing old ones. Unfortunately, both of these "self-evident" premises turn out to be false. Let's take them in order.

Relative energy efficiencies. If we compare the actual measured operating efficiencies of the average car being sold this year and a modern rail transit system (say, BART in San Francisco), we find that the difference in efficiency between them is much less than the energy efficiency difference between the average imported car and a standard-size American car. That is, people who switch car sizes can save more energy than those who switch to trains. Not only is the energy saving greater, but it is also considerably easier to persuade people to change car sizes than it is to persuade them to abandon cars altogether.

Attracting people onto transit. The history of transit patronage in modern times has been one of continual decline. Most academics and policy planners assumed that this decline could be reversed, and that substantial numbers of people could be brought back to transit, if attractive service were provided. So Congress passed a law and the Department of Transportation spent billions of dollars over the last decade trying to discover what might attract passengers. I think it is fair to say that they tried an enormous number of different and imaginative experiments, and that none of these has generated a substantial increase in patronage.

The Department of Transportation has used as incentives lower transit prices (even free transit), higher parking charges, higher bridge tolls, more attractive buses, more convenient schedules. It has also experimented with every conceivable kind of new technology. None of these innovations attracted a significant number of people away from cars.

Each transit innovation—from sophisticated, computerized heavy rail to light rail to people-movers—was to be the solution. The latest idea is a bus that lowers its body when it approaches a curb to make it easier for passengers boarding—the so-called "kneeling" bus.

The auto has easily resisted all these challengers because, from the point of view of its users, it is a greatly superior form of transportation: it takes people where and when they want to go and by the fastest, most direct route. It does cost the user more than transit but, given our high level of income, almost everyone can afford one. Except for a few situations, involving very high density cities or very long distance commuters, it is economically impossible to produce any form of public transportation that will be capable of luring a significant number of people out of cars.

While these failures to revitalize transit are discouraging from the urbanologist's point of view, they should not be viewed as especially discouraging from the perspective of energy conservation. The fact is that transit's potential contribution to solving the energy problem was always insignificant. To understand why this is necessarily so, we must understand a generalization which I call the Law of Large Proportions. In its briefest form, this law states: "The biggest components matter most."

To change something (such as energy consumption) inside a system, we must concentrate our attention on its largest components. A small improvement in a major component makes more difference than a large improvement in a minor component. The application of this law in transportation is particularly striking because of the enormous difference in the relative size of the two components: only 3 percent of passenger trips are made via public transportation. That is, cars use most of the energy, and we ought to concentrate on improving their efficiency. Instead, public policy has been totally preoccupied with transit: policy planners count it a major victory for energy conservation when some heroic set of policies increases transit patronage by 30 to 40 percent. But this ignores the fact that even a 100 percent increase would not make a noticeable dent in the energy consumption picture.

Alternatively stated, if we increase the fuel efficiency of the average car from 15.0 mpg to 15.2 mpg, we save more energy than we do by doubling transit patronage. Public transportation cannot make any significant contribution to energy conservation in the near term, and even in the long term its contribution is likely to be insignificant.

Why, then, our continued preoccupation with transit, and our spending of billions of dollars to increase transit patronage? I think the answer lies in a set of deep-seated prejudices concerning the automobile, rather than in any real hope for radically improving transit patronage. One of the major intellectual currents of our time has viewed the automobile as some kind of evil demon which is threatening to destroy urban civilization. And so urbanologists have been searching for a silver bullet to slay the demon. Rail transit was the first candidate; alas, people still insisted on ignoring transit and using their cars. So the trusty old bus was given a new suit of armor and sent into battle: free transit was tried and failed, and is apparently to be tried one more time.

Given that we cannot devise anything capable of exorcising the demon auto, perhaps we ought to accept the monster as a given and concentrate on civilizing it. From the energy perspective, this means we should improve auto fuel efficiency; from the urban perspective, it means we should curtail auto emissions, and decrease auto size to reduce parking requirements. Along these lines, the Department of Transportation has recently proposed a joint effort of industry and government to "re-invent" the automobile. The basic goal is a safe, clean, 50 mpg auto, and the first steps toward a cooperative research effort have already been taken.

Of course, none of this is an argument to discard transit. That would be an absurd policy, since public transportation is vitally necessary for our high-density cities, and for many segments of our population in all cities. We do need to preserve, and even improve, transit for these people. But let's keep our goals straight: we obviously need to preserve mobility for the transit-dependent fraction of the population, and we obviously need to preserve the viability of our downtowns. The energy goal is just not a relevant argument.

The role of energy prices

Economists and energy experts want to increase prices in order to cure the energy problem. Everyone else seems to believe that high prices are the problem. This conflict over raising prices is at the very core of most of our energy policy arguments, and it merits a detailed examination of the underlying logic. The dialogue between economists and skeptics runs something like this.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In