NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 18, 2008

Mass transit is not a greener form of transportation.  Some transit systems take twice as much energy per passenger than private cars do and are highly dependent on fossil fuels, according to studies from the Department of Energy (DoE).

But how can this be? A full bus or trainload of people is more efficient than private cars, sometimes quite a bit more so, says Brad Templeton, founder of ClariNet Communication Corporation.  However:

  • Transit systems never consist of full vehicles, but in order to encourage riders, systems offer frequent service which results in emptier vehicles outside of rush hour.
  • Transit vehicles tend to stop and start a lot, which eats a lot of energy, even with regenerative braking.
  • Most transit vehicles are heavy and are not aerodynamic; according to the DoE, compared to new cars, buses and trains are 60 and 25 percent less efficient, respectively.

Moreover, transit infrastructure is paid for by state or federal money, while drivers and fuel are paid from local city budgets.  This pushes local city transit agencies to get bigger vehicles and fewer drivers, says Templeton. 

Source: Brad Templeton, "Is green U.S. mass transit a big myth?", June 9, 2008.

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