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Some time back the Straight Dope column carried a story comparing the efficiency of public transit with automobiles on the basis of passenger miles per gallon (or per BTU when the transit used electricity). They discovered that any advantage was slight on that comparison. Such comparisons neglect two critical points:
1) When there is more than one person in the car, the analyses are incredibly generous about their definition of "passenger mile" when it applies to automobiles.
2) (And much more important) The comparisons assume that there is an already-existent route and an already-existent housing pattern to be compared. This is incredibly silly when you are discussing automobiles.

Details after the jump.

1) Consider two kids going to soccer practice. Joey takes a bus for five miles -- 5 passenger miles. Sammy's mom drives him five miles, drops him off, and drives back home until it is time to pick him up -- 15 passenger miles. You might answer that most automobile trips are with only one person in the car; that is true, but the passenger miles per gallon figures are arrived at by assuming that a significant fraction of the trips include more than one person.
And this doesn't even consider the trips that the driver makes to care for the car.

2) Much more vital, though, is the common observation that areas without public transit are grossly spread out. You need more lanes in the road, parking spaces for every adult in each household, other parking spaces for each shopping destination. And, when actual needs are met, the sprawl is so great that you might as well have some more lawn as well.

If you don't have enough people in walking distance of your small store to support it, then the small store can't compete with the big store even farther from the customers. All the stores are  larger with significantly longer drives to go there.

There was a study made in El Paso decades ago. Their streets were crowded, and they asked what the total effects of widening them to accommodate traffic would be. The computation was that this would result in longer trips, but no less crowded streets. There are population densities which are great enough that people walk most places and are satisfied with public transit for most of their long trips. There are much lower population densities in which people can live comfortably with only automobile transportation. Intermediate population densities simply are unlivable.

And, just as high densities encourage and support public transit, public transit encourages and supports high densities. Most EL stations on the CTA are surrounded (often occupied) by retail stores. They sell to people getting on and off the trains, but they also sell to people living nearby. The availability of retail services attracts residents. For that matter, the closeness of the nearest bus stop or EL line is a frequent matter mentioned in apartment ads. Since public transit attracts tenants, the next time that a lot in the neighborhood is built on, it tends to be for a larger number of apartments.

So miles is a ridiculous measure of travel efficiency between cars and busses. People might be a more reasonable measure. How many people can you reach on a gallon of gas per passenger?

Well, one starting comparison is between Manhattan and Montana. It's a little unfair, not only does Manhattan have a greater resident population, but almost a million people come into Manhattan every week day and have to travel. Almost nobody from outside has a destination in Montana, and hardly any more people from outside cross the state on any given day. Still, ignoring that many more people have to reach destinations in Manhattan than have to reach destinations in Montana, how long does the average trip take in either location? A healthy person can cross Manhattan -- lengthwise -- on foot from one tip to the other in a few hours. You couldn't get across the state of Montana in a car in that length of time. If you wanted to go from one average location in Montana to another by private plane, your time from home or office to new home or office -- if not from runway to runway -- would take as long as a walk in Manhattan.

But we aren't comparing time consumed; we're comparing energy consumed. Here, the distinction is even more impressive. The gasoline consumed per mile is slightly lower for a bus trip in Manhattan than for a car trip in Montana. The gasoline consumed per representative trip is something like 1/100th as much.

Now, these are extremes. Most people -- even most US drivers -- live in an area more navigable than Montana. And there are no other areas as densely populated and well-served by transit as Manhattan. Still, the extremes tell you something. Once we reach the density that makes mass transit efficient, further density, further mass transit, decreases the average citizen's energy footprint.

Originally posted to Frank Palmer on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 10:02 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Great Metric (4+ / 0-)

    Of course, if federal, state and local governments begin to consider this metric in public policy, rural areas will be placed at a significant disadvantage.

    Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project. http://www1.hamiltonproject.org/es/hamilton/hamilton_hp.htm

    by PatriciaVa on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 10:10:44 AM PDT

    •  Yes. (5+ / 0-)
      rural areas will be placed at a significant disadvantage.

      As they should be.

      Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

      •  You support the Defense of Marriage Act? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        grover, lgmcp

        After all, majoritarianism and all, and emotional needs are needs, even if they're irrational.

        How'bout giving that a re-think, eh?

        •  You conflate "needs" with "irrational desires" (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          neroden, AdamR510

          "What Washington needs is adult supervision" - Barack Obama

          by auron renouille on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 07:17:31 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  you and the poster to whom i replied.... (0+ / 0-)

            .... both conflate majoritarianism with democracy.  

            •  They don't conflict. (0+ / 0-)

              But the US isn't a democracy, it is (with all apologies to the Soviets, who polluted the term beyond recognition), a democratic republic, in which representatives are elected democratically but the rights of the minority are protected through a series of checks and balances found primarily in the judicial branch but also, to some degree, in the executive (e.g., veto power) and the Senate (e.g., advice and consent).  In reality, it's simply a republic, but we use the word "democratic" to rightly differentiate from oligarchic republics ruled by small classes of elites, much like many of the 20th century authoritarian governments of Europe attempted (and like Russia seems to be perfecting).

              You can use "direct democracy" and "majoritarianism" interchangeably.  The concept you're looking for, which not enough people in the US seem to understand (not referencing you, referencing idiots that news reporters interview on the street) is that what makes the American system of government such a fascinating experiment (and, at times like now, nearly ungovernable by design), is the fact that, unlike Parliamentary systems, there are numerous circuit breakers in all three branches that prevent the majority from running rampant.  There is a very good reason that Japan, Germany (and Iraq and Afghanistan) didn't end up with a three-branch system such as ours - the Marshall Plan people knew damn well that a republic with so many circuit breakers would not be able to meet the need of the permanent crisis of a postwar nation.

              It's something teabaggers don't get, and it's something that the strident Obama critics don't get - changing the policy of the United States is like, by definition, like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around.  No matter how much you want or need to, you're not going to do it quickly, on account of those circuit breakers.

              So, as you describe, the Constitution as written is designed to be a small-r republican system of government, just with democratic principles infused throughout.

              "What Washington needs is adult supervision" - Barack Obama

              by auron renouille on Wed Jul 20, 2011 at 06:54:18 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  I mostly agree (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lgmcp

        with the added thought: rural electrification. Benefitted few in the short term, in the long term benifitted the entire nation.

        A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

        by Karl Rover on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 05:05:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Headline changed (0+ / 0-)

    Those of you who saw the original headline, without the initial T, might wonder WTF?

    Well, I write diaries offline and post using coy-&-paste. And I copied a little less than I'd written.

    Corporations are people; money is speech.
    1984 - George Orwell

    by Frank Palmer on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 10:32:55 AM PDT

  •  You might appreciate this graph (13+ / 0-)

    It compares per capit a gas consumption with population density in major cities.

    densitypricegas

    Source Wikipedia

    "senilebiker's diary Is officially DO NOT RESPOND. They don't like being ignored." Courtesy of the MFDKGC

    by senilebiker on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 12:36:11 PM PDT

    •  highly useful info. (5+ / 0-)

      You & I butt heads over other topics (2nd Amendment) but it looks like we're on the same page about sustainability.  

    •  That might be a bit misleading insofar (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greatdarkspot, Tennessee Dave

      as the majority of automobiles in Europe are diesel powered (so gasoline might appear be misleadingly low - really, both gasoline and diesel should be summed (as they should for the USA))

      •  Its actually Gigajoules (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        high5, Roadbed Guy

        so it includes diesel, I beleive.

        "senilebiker's diary Is officially DO NOT RESPOND. They don't like being ignored." Courtesy of the MFDKGC

        by senilebiker on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 10:59:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  So does it take into account (0+ / 0-)

          the amount of energy (of whatever form) to run the buses, subway trains, trolleys, etc?

          •  My understanding is that it would (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Roadbed Guy

            be the sum of the energy derived form liquid fuels for transport, e.g gas, diesel, lpg, but probably excluding kerosene (JetA1).

            Without this, the study would be meaningless.

            If you look at the graph, you can identify two effects - population density, and gas taxes. Even thought he population density in Australian cities are similar to US cities, the higher gas taxes have resulted in a choice for more fuel efficient vehicles, and more efficient usage.

            Australian prices are about US$ 1.50/litre, while Euro prices are around US$ 2.10 /litre, while US prices are around USD 0.90 /litre (4$/gal)

            "senilebiker's diary Is officially DO NOT RESPOND. They don't like being ignored." Courtesy of the MFDKGC

            by senilebiker on Wed Jul 20, 2011 at 06:10:26 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  So it's just *liquid* fuels? (0+ / 0-)

              And doesn't account for the the eletricity needed to run the Metro/subway/trolleys?

              I'd be interested in seeing what the * total * amount of energy expended by commuters in the various scenarios!

              •  Interesting point - but with wind/solar (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Roadbed Guy

                of declining relevance.

                You have different options of looking at thios issue - you can drill down to the n'th degree, or you can take a helicopter viewpoint and look at the big picture.

                The big picture is that the US which has around 5% of the world population consumes 25% of the transportable hydrocarbons (oil and LNG).

                With respect to oil, around 2/3 of the US comsumption is imported, and around the same amount is used for transportation ( gasoline/Diesel.)

                If the US could reduce it's per capita gasoline consumption to the same level as Europe. it would extend peak oil by about a decade or so.

                "senilebiker's diary Is officially DO NOT RESPOND. They don't like being ignored." Courtesy of the MFDKGC

                by senilebiker on Wed Jul 20, 2011 at 06:33:40 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Sure, one way or another liquid fuels (0+ / 0-)

                  will decline in relative importance, that's inevitable due to "peak oil" if for no other reason.

                  However, I suspect that the demands for electricity to run transportation could be larger than you suspect - for example, what about Tokyo (which wasn't on your chart) - it's freakin' huge (5x larger in area than Rhode Island, for example).

                  And * everybody * has a really long commute!!

                  In any event, IMHO most "optimistic" types here are DailyKos way overestimate the ability of wind & solar to supply the demand for new, let alone to replace existing, electricity.

                  For example, coal use IN the USA increased almost 3 % last year, putting it on pace to double in 25 years or so.

                  And coal exports are BOOMING!  To places like India (here's a largely ignored diary on that topic)

                  Insofar as somewhat less coal is used than oil (simply because electric train based mass transit is more efficient) that's clearly a good thing.  But somehow, the trends are not encouraging on where things are headed over the next generation (and after that, it might be too late).

                  •  Don't fall into the trap "all or nothing" (0+ / 0-)

                    Peak oil is projected to arrive at a supply plateau as demand continues to increase.

                    there are two issues here.

                    1) How do we continue to power our lifestyle

                    2) How do we control the carbon emissions.

                    The second problem is partailly self regulating - when there is no more oil/gas, we will stop polluting the planet.

                    As for the first, we don't need to go immedfiately to 100% replacement, but need to create alternatives at a faster rate than the increase in demand.

                    Is this possible - yes by a combination of conservation and renewables.

                    Germany has gone from 10% to 17% renewables for electricity in under 10 years, while at the same time, demand for energy has grown less than 10% over the same period and is flat for the last five years, due to conservation measures, and is projected to remain flat for the foreseeable future.

                    However the elephant in the room is the USA - 5% of the world's people scarfing 25% of the world's oil and LNG, and so far doing absolutely fuckall to address the problem.

                    "senilebiker's diary Is officially DO NOT RESPOND. They don't like being ignored." Courtesy of the MFDKGC

                    by senilebiker on Wed Jul 20, 2011 at 09:55:12 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

    •  european cities (0+ / 0-)

      I lived in Leipzig for a few years. It's really true: you can have a wonderful quality of life without a car. Everything is close together, there are lots of tiny neighborhood stores that offer quality you'd have to search hard for in the USA (rolls freshly baked by a master baker one block away for breakfast every morning?), and yet most buildings are only four or five stories high and there's tons of green space.

      Weirdly enough, there are lots of Germans who can't wait to get out of these dense cities into the suburbs now growing around them, complete with soulless malls and big-box stores. Humans are strange. But, on the bright side, when cars become unaffordable, we might get some great litttle cities! Maybe it won't be a disaster at all! God, am I ever optimistic tonight!

  •  methodological stuff (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cocinero

    I'm at work so I don't have complete attention for figuring out the methodology you've described.  

    However it seems unduly complicated compared to the following:

    For any given trip, calculate total energy consumption:

    For example mom drives kids to sports practice, hangs out to watch sports practice, drives kids home.  Round trip, three people, mom & two kids.  Gasoline, miles driven, persons: total fuel used divided by three.  

    Do same calculation for same trip using city bus.  Compare.  

    Now this can be scaled up to a town or city level by looking at total fossil fuel consumption for transportation by automobiles in a town, and comparing to what it would be with reasonable assumptions if public transport is introduced:  What's the net change, considering both the drop in gasoline usage due to less driving, and the added diesel usage for the buses?  

    There are some patterns of development where the net change will be unfavorable (empty buses, waste) or not worthwhile (net change close to zero).  Those patterns of development are undesirable and should be minimized in the future, and those areas should be changed in ways that become more favorable (e.g. build more homes close to shops, build more shops close to homes, etc.: zoning changes and resulting development).  

    There are some patterns of development that will have highly favorable outcomes: build more like that, and change zoning elsewhere to be more like that.

  •  seeing, hearing, smelling: (4+ / 0-)

    High-density development is a "good thing" in the abstract, but "checklist engineering" runs risk of turning it into a bad thing.

    It's easy enough to build apartments for visual privacy.

    But acoustics and smell are every bit as important.   You don't want to hear your neighbor's music or sex life, or have them hearing yours.  You don't want to smell your neighbor's smoking or cooking, or have them smelling yours.  

    And trying to control peoples' lifestyles, e.g. "no smoking in your apartment, no music after X at night or before Y in the morning," is an unacceptable invasion of personal privacy that tends to grow over time:  First it's no smoking, next it's no cooking pork chops to avoid stinking out the observant Jews or Muslims in the next apartment.  First it's no loud music, next it's no loud sex, next it's no noisy children's toys, etc.  

    Those kinds of "lifestyle rules" are enough to make most people run screaming for a tree-house in the woods where they can make whatever noises or smells they like without being told how to live.  

    The answer is to build the infrastructure properly, so people don't hear or smell each other, and aren't heard or smelled by their neighbors.  

    Oldschool apartment buildings in New York are a good example of how to do this right.  Lots of heavy masonry provides acoustical privacy, and windows that open provide olfactory (smell) privacy.  

    Modern sealed buildings with thin walls and windows that can't be opened are the paradigm case of the wrong way.

    This is not difficult, it's all been done correctly before.  

    •  It's easy to build soundproof apartment walls (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      billmosby, G2geek

      Developers don't do it because they're saving money.  :-P

      Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

      by neroden on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 08:12:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The Germans and the Soviets (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        senilebiker, G2geek

        did so very easily: reinforced concrete. I have had the good luck to spend a bit of time in an apartment on the 5th floor of an old Ekaterinburg apartment building. It overlooked a park on the Iset river in the historic part of town. During the long summer nights, the park was used for nonstop partying. As long as you kept out of a direct line of sight of the park through a window, you honest to god could not hear the party, especially if you had a fan going.

        Neighbors? I neither saw nor heard any of them at any time. As far as I know, I was the only person in that building of a few hundred units.

        I don't know how green it is to build an apartment building with inches-thick reinforced concrete in all directions, but that's one easy way to make them soundproof.

        I wouldn't go for high density living any other way, given my experiences with the crackerboxes we have here.

        Moderation in most things.

        by billmosby on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 09:22:17 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's all about construction materials (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Mad Season, billmosby, G2geek

          I live in a double house, i.e we have a shared wall with an identical(mirror image) house. The deividing structural wall is poured concrete, maybe 8" thick whereas the exterior walls are precast 6" thich blocks with 6" of outer styrofoam insulation.

          Our neighbour is a musician who plays piano every day, and the only time we hear it is when we are outside and his terrace door is open.

          On the other hand, I once lived in an apartment building where the apartments were separated by drywall. God , my neighbour hated it when my girlfriend came to visit.

          "senilebiker's diary Is officially DO NOT RESPOND. They don't like being ignored." Courtesy of the MFDKGC

          by senilebiker on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 11:06:11 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Heh... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            G2geek

            We lived across from a train switchyard in an old duplex in Tucson, which was also about a quarter mile off the end of the runway at Davis Monthan AFB. I got used to the sound of multiple railroad engines idling at slightly different speeds all night, and to the vacuum-cleaner like sounds of U-2s shooting landings, but never did become very acclimatized to the very vocal redhead in the adjoining duplex. At least I was young enough that I found her amusing, lol.

            Moderation in most things.

            by billmosby on Wed Jul 20, 2011 at 06:36:36 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  concrete is sustainable because it's permanent. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          billmosby

          The embodied energy content, when factored for the life of the building, turns out to be lower than practically anything else around.  

          Poured reinforced walls are even easier to do now, with ICFs (insulating concrete forms, they look like huge hollow Legos and are about as easy as Legos to use) and pumped placement of the concrete.  You can practically build all the structural walls of a house in a day that way.  

          NOTE: for DIYers:  

          The stuff you get when you order readymix has clever chemicals added to it to make it run like pea soup.  This makes it easy to pump and easy to finish etc., but without increasing the amount of actual water in the mix.  So the resulting product is every bit as strong as an oldschool stiff mix.

          If you're mixing your own concrete on a job site for any purpose at all including a walkway:  Do Not Not Not add extra water to try to get that soupy consistency!  You don't have the special chemicals to make it soupy but if you use water for that purpose the result will be terribly weak concrete.  You want a mix that's really stiff, using as little water as possible, so it's as strong as possible after it sets.   And after it's in the forms you want to keep the exposed surfaces moistened for two weeks.   That will give you strong results.  

  •  great diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cocinero

    "Don't fall or we both go." Derek Hersey 1957-1993

    by ban nock on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 04:53:38 PM PDT

  •  Just a quibble (4+ / 0-)
    Almost nobody from outside has a destination in Montana, and hardly any more people from outside cross the state on any given day

    You've clearly never been near Yellowstone or Glacier NPs in the summer, spring breaks or long weekends.

    But generally, you're right.

    © grover. My sockpuppet is a fuzzy blue muppet.

    by grover on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 05:18:12 PM PDT

  •  A saying I like: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    out of left field

    Building roads to prevent traffic is like building weapons to prevent war.  

    "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." -- Edward Teller

    by lgmcp on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 07:14:19 PM PDT

  •  Another factor that affects how people use (0+ / 0-)

    public transportaion is the cost.  In the SF Bay area, there are separate agencies for every type of public transportation and each one charges separate fares.  Whereas in Chicago you can go from bus to EL with a relatively inexpensive transfer.

  •  If I lived in Montana, why in the world (0+ / 0-)

    would I want routinely to travel from one end of the state to the other? I'd spend most of my time in a town and probably walk a lot of the time, just as I did when I lived in the "urban" part of Idaho Falls. Not as many people to choose from, perhaps, but way more than the number of names I can remember, lol.

    I'd be a lot more likely to cover significant parts of Manhattan than I would to cover significant parts of Montana. I've spent time in Manhattan on occasion and found it about as pleasant and interesting as I found Idaho Falls. It all depends on how you adapt to your environment and what you expect out of it.

    Moderation in most things.

    by billmosby on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 09:16:51 PM PDT

  •  Excellent. NT (0+ / 0-)

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 09:43:50 PM PDT

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