Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Most Earth-friendly Mass Transit?

What kind of mass transit is the most eco-friendly?

Intercity buses. Yup. Most of us don't travel much on intercity buses, and we have reasons for that. Bus routes between cities in the U.S. can be unreasonably long - I think Charlotte to Birmingham takes 1 or 2 days one-way, as I recall from our friend Carra. But other bus routes make a lot of sense. The trip from Charlotte to Asheville NC is only about 3 hours (same as by car), it's cheaper than the gas to drive it yourself, and the bus is remarkably punctual - unlike Amtrak and many airplanes. All in all, buses are not a bad way to go, unless it's a very long route that stops in every burg and holler.

Convenient or not, bus travel is green, we have to give it that. Michael Brower and Warren Leon of the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated that intercity bus travel is by far the least polluting
mode of personal travel per passenger-mile. Intercity buses are 2 to 4 times less polluting than cars and trucks, per passenger-mile. Intercity buses are also less polluting than passenger trains and air travel, per passenger-mile.

You might guess that cars and trucks are the most polluting form of travel. And you'd almost be right. But motorcycles are actually worse. A motorcycle generates the same amount of greenhouse gases as a car, per passenger mile, but twice as much toxic air pollution and 3-4 times as much toxic water pollution. Even though motorcycles get good gas mileage, their small engines have fewer emissions controls than cars. Also, they're made of a higher proportion of steel and other metals than other vehicles, which accounts for their high toxic air and water pollutant emissions.

The best way to reduce consumer fuel consumption is obviously to travel less, but that’s hard to do when lots of us live in the suburbs and work downtown. Our local newspaper here in Charlotte often features developers who are planning self-contained and mixed-use communities, which in the future will house workers closer to jobs and services. We need more such housing and we need it now, before we pass one of those infamous "tipping points" on our journey toward climatic upheaval.

For now, we could reduce fuel consumption tremendously by making better use of mass transit, especially in cities. Half of the United States' 26 largest urban areas currently fall short of the EPA’s minimum air-quality standards. Increasing ridership on the 35 public transportation systems serving these cities (subways, light rail, intracity buses) would improve air quality, congestion, and the financial strain of building new highways and widening roads.

But... municipal dollars won't be funneled into mass transit unless consumers demand it. So let's start demanding. If you live near a functioning mass-transit system, consider using it, even if just one day per week. Every little action helps. Just doing one little thing can inspire you to tell someone else about it, who might then do it themselves, and might tell someone else. Action generates its own momentum. I believe that.

by Sally Kneidel


Michael Brower and Warren Leon, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists (New York: Three Rivers Press).

Robert J. Shapiro, Kevin A. Hassett, and Frank S. Arnold, “Conserving Energy and Preserving the Environment: The Role of Public Transportation,” American Public Transportation Association, July 2002, mass transit buses motorcycles greenhouse gases climate change global warming

1 comment:

fpteditors said...

Excellent post. Currently the auto and sprawl are heavily subsidized. The best way to begin reversal of this is to make urban transit fare-free. Gradually this will shift us back to town centers and walkable communities. The organic farmers will slowly reclaim the suburbs.