Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bicycle & Transit Infrastructure More Efficient Than Car - Road Combo

Classes start up again within a week, and what am I doing for my last week of summer? Why... reading a book titled Sustainability and Cities by two professors, Peter Newman & Jeffrey Kenworthy.

The book lays out how the automobile city is an extremely inefficient method of moving both people and goods in an urban setting. The freedom that has seduced so many people into buying a car in the belief that all roads are empty like in car commercials is questioned and proven to have been a very short transitory state. Sustainability and Cities is full of great data compiled from academic studies - admittedly a little old at this point, as most were undertaken in the '80s and '90s -but still very useful.

Again and again the bicycle and transit come out on top of all other types of transportation. For example, a study (Aschauer 1989) of transportation costs associated with moving around the Boston urban area shows that on a per mile basis, cycling is the cheapest form of transportation. In the study cycling costs $.13-.14 per mile compared with a single occupancy vehicle (SOV) at $.81-.94 per mile while rail operated at $.29 per mile.

The costs associated with personal vehicles is something that most people dealing with transportation and alternative transportation are well aware of. Even so, it can be a very contentious issue as promoters of laissez faire will point out that cars promote economic activity, provide freedom of movement, and are what the public wants, and so roads are needed because the demand is present; this, of course, discounts the fact that roads are a government provided service, that externalities are discounted, and the billions of dollars spent convincing people that they aren't good Americans without a car.

In five studies conducted in the early '90s the average external costs of operating a vehicle came to $3,063 per year (those costs not taken into account and not paid for by the individual). In 2007, there were roughly 250 million registered vehicles on the road in America. That comes to $765 billion in external costs that are not factored into our conscience decision to operate a motor vehicle (very rough estimate, probably higher at this point). Externalities in this case include pollution, loss of productivity from congestion, traffic accidents, etc.

This doesn't even begin to take into account all the myriad costs associated with the build out of auto-centric cities. Dependence on auto use forces other urban systems to change - we need a place to park all those cars - and each one, sprawl, parking lots, land paved over for roads, congestion, adds to the inefficiencies of automobile use.

This point can be visualized in the following graph (sorry for the low quality), which displays the relationship between density and private transportation energy use. The graph shows per capita energy use - basically how efficiently we use our wealth to accomplish our daily needs - and America scores very badly - with our cities hovering around 60,000 megajoules (MJ) expended for transportation on a per capita basis. One MJ is equal to 947 BTUs, 1 million joules, 238 kilocalories or .277kilowatt hrs - thats a lot of energy. 60,000 MJs are equal to 56 million BTUs.

Every other region of the world is more efficient in moving people and goods around their cities than America, with Asia being the most efficient. Pretty straightforward, the more dense a city, the less one has to travel to take care of their daily needs and trips to work. Why drive when most things are within a mile of your residence.

America has, for a long time, believed that economic and ecological constraint do not apply to how we organize our society. We could always develop land on the urban fringe to create jobs and housing for our growing population while ignoring the costs. This worked well for the first half of the experiment, but now the costs have so exceeded the benefits of low density sprawl that we are seeing major environmental, economic, health, and even moral consequences from our arrangement of cities. Suburbs aren't going away, and neither is the car or the detached single family house, but its important that these things are re-envisioned to meet America's needs and challenges in the 21st century.


Rantwick said...

Very good summary! I've always been a huge fan of large, properly funded mass transit initiatives, because I believe that kind of infrastructure is more likely to be used by people to get out of their cars than bicycling.

It surprised me a little to see Canada slightly ahead of the US in this regard... I thought we were about the same in how we develop and transport.

CarFree Stupidity said...

From what I have been reading, American cities are extremely dense in their centers with jobs, but very few residents.

Canada has a lot of the same kind of sprawl, but the central parts of the cities are a much greater mix of residents and jobs. Also, there is a greater emphasis on mass transit

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