Sunday, August 16, 2009

Don't take the light rail -- you'll kill the planet!

That's sort of the message from today's Denver Post op/ed by Chuck Plunkett (whom I generally like). Plunkett heavily cites a Cato Institute study that calculates the per-passenger-mile fuel use of both the light rail and modern automobiles. According to the estimates, light rail is no more energy efficient than a 2008 sedan in transporting people downtown, and is substantially less efficient than a Prius. This is because the Denver light rail draws power from Xcel Energy, which uses mainly coal and natural gas to produce its electricity.

I have my doubts about the numbers, but let's just take them as truth for a moment. The analysis misses a number of important features of mass transit.

For one thing, saving fuel is not the only potential advantage of riding mass transit. Taking the light rail downtown is a lot safer than driving there. It also eliminates the need to pay for parking, a considerable expense in the downtown area. Furthermore, mass transit can substantially affect residency patterns over the years, encouraging denser housing construction that makes for more walkable communities. Everyone driving a car, even a Prius, encourages further suburban sprawl. Everyone driving a car also creates more traffic congestion, which reduces fuel efficiency and work productivity. (It also increases the time that suburbanites spend sitting in traffic listening to political talk radio, but that's another issue.)

Finally, because the light rail is run on electricity, it need not be dependent upon fossil fuels. Electricity can be generated from clean sources, as well, while Priuses still have to burn dead dinosaurs, even if they do so in a somewhat more efficient manner than Camrys.

One more thing: by the study's math, one simple thing that would increase light rail's fuel efficiency would be to increase ridership. This could be done by lowering ticket costs or making bulk ticketing deals with area businesses. Running op/eds discouraging light rail use might have the opposite effect.

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