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April 24th, 2005

Cars Better Than Public Transit?

You know, it’s articles like this that get me peeved.

The premise of the article by Robert Farago is that cars, in general, are a better choice than public transportation for… everything. Also, environmentalists are a little nutty when they talk about trains and buses being better for the environment than cars given how clean cars are nowadays.

The very first thing I want to address is a long-standing issue in the gearhead community: namely that one can’t like cars and be for the environment. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius (that’s a hot machine) certainly make things easier to digest. But the polarization has really been exaggerated in the past 15 years or so as SUV sales have climbed, encouraging an “Earth be damned” attitude in many of their buyers. It’s frustrating to see an article like this which attempts to “solve” the transportation problems in this country by actually encouraging that cars are the solution.

Now, I love cars. But I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that the problem with public transit in this country is that it hasn’t had money invested in it the way highways have. The author of the editorial cites Amtrak’s problems with its high-speed (?) Acela trains and the diesel engines used by most trains out there. His argument that people prefer private transportation “by a huge margin” is, in my opinion, due to the fact that there isn’t any truly appealing public transit option out there. You want Amtrak? Amtrak’s being whacked by the Bush administration, so they’re out of commission. High-speed trains – national ones? Not while the Big Two are in the pockets of Congress.

Instead of investing money solely in roads, we should be embarking on a future worthy of Eisenhower: one that envisions a modern, high-speed, national train grid instead of cars. Encourage simultaneous construction of highways and railways. Get people to consider public transit by making it a reasonably-priced option, and get people off of Big Oil.

The idea that environmentalists have been using full buses for comparing their efficiency to cars is a bit skewed, too. Again it’s a cart before the horse issue: if public transit isn’t appealing, people won’t use it. In addition he doesn’t even mention the initiatives by many public transit orgs across the country to use corn-based oils or hybrid engines in their buses.

I won’t deny that cars have gotten considerably cleaner than they used to be. But tell me, how many SULEVs are out there? Not many. The lack of compelling public transportation on a national level with the continued love affair for big, comforting SUV-like vehicles equals a continued gas crisis. Robert mentions a German study suggesting that cars are the best way to go (which, I’m sure, played really well in Europe.) But he doesn’t mention that selfish, short-sighted editorials such as his only serve the global stereotype of the lazy, careless American.

Posted in Cars

FROM: Andy
DATE: Sunday April 24, 2005 -- 2:34:18 pm
Well, I ride the train to work (suburbs to Chicago) and it's just so darned convenient - sleep on the way in, read on the way out. Commute time is about the same, but consistent for one, and much more relaxing.

But, I was shocked by this statement in the article - "By contrast, today’s gas-powered cars are so clean-running you can no longer start the car, close the garage door and kill yourself." There is no way this is true - is there?

FROM: Chris [E-Mail]
DATE: Sunday April 24, 2005 -- 7:05:40 pm
For most of the country outside of the NE and a few large cities, mass transit will never be a viable option. Stuff is simply too spread out.

FROM: Monica
DATE: Sunday April 24, 2005 -- 7:33:39 pm
I have a big problem with the non-login in the first half of that editorial. In the second half he does raise an interesting point. Yes, it isn't fair to say buses get better efficiency/less pollution per rider if you're only calculating those numbers with full bus capacity. But the author is missing the point--if more people used public transportation, the pollution per person/fuel per person would be skewed the other way. And probably handily so.
I'd love to see re-engineered (tee hee!) trains--more of them and less polluting (apparantly they're just about as bad as airplanes in terms of pollution). But yeah, as Chris brought up, is there/can there be a solution for rural areas? (I don't think mass transit is only viable in large cities, though. Madison seems to be doing okay, at least for now.)

FROM: Monica
DATE: Sunday April 24, 2005 -- 7:45:28 pm
from today's NYT:

Lesli An Orio, 38, a Web site manager for a bank in Charlotte, N.C., is one of those who has reacted strongly to the price increases.

Returning from her honeymoon last April to ever-rising gasoline prices, Mrs. Orio decided to leave her brand-new silver Subaru Outback at home and ride the bus to work. She moved her two young boys to a public school closer to home in January so they would not have to ride 38 miles to their private school in the family's supersize Ford 150 pickup truck.

A year later, Mrs. Orio has grown used to her new routine, which saves her about $368 a month in gasoline costs and another $125 in parking fees. (In addition, she said, her 35- to 45-minute commute now permits her to get ahead on her reading; she recently finished James Michener's thousand-plus-page epic "Hawaii.")

"I will never take my car again," Mrs. Orio said in a telephone interview. "Public transportation in Charlotte is archaic, but I've gotten to enjoy my time on the bus. And the money I save goes to a college fund for the children. I would not have done this if it had not been for high gas prices."

from 4/23/05 article, "Oil's Lesser Role in U.S. Economy Limits Damage From High Prices," by Jad Mouawad.

FROM: Paul
DATE: Sunday April 24, 2005 -- 7:48:00 pm
Chris, to wit Denver is putting together a really solid public transit system - and it's quite spread out, out there. They're adding light rail all over the metro area and will be adding commuter rail to Boulder and DIA - both sorely needed. But yeah, things are pretty spread out in the west as it's simply the way things developed.

All of this reminds me a little of the old Maxis game A-Train. Once I built stations, cities popped up around them and roads followed - instead of the other way around.

FROM: Dave Walls [E-Mail]
DATE: Sunday April 24, 2005 -- 10:50:25 pm
For every city like Denver, which Paul mentioned, there's a Philadephia, where SEPTA is overpriced and it takes forever and a freaking day to get from here to there.

On the bright side for me, there is a SEPTA train station one block from my apartment in Suburban Philly, so a 10 minute train ride gets me into downtown Philadelphia. I'm the exception rather than the rule.

FROM: Joseph
DATE: Monday April 25, 2005 -- 9:25:19 am
Buses and trains aren't the only form of public transportation. Before GM and Standard Oil leveraged them out of big cities with buses, streetcars used to provide the main form of public transportation in the U.S.

I lived in New Orleans for many years and experienced riding the streetcar many times. I conclude that it's nineteenth century techonogy is far superior to that of the twenty-first century bus. First, streetcars don't ride on rubber. Rubber tires are extremely inefficient and are responsible for a huge amount of wasted energy. Second, streetcars ride on their own tracks and so don't tie up traffic, don't cause further pollution by forcing passenger cars to idle behind them. Third, if the argument that one engine for a slew of people is good, than one engine (the powerplant) for an entire fleet of streetcars must be better.

Though not as large as it was in its heyday, the New Orleans streetcar system is very popular and expanding. Recently, New Orleans added the Canal Street line which employs the latest streetcar technology. The original Canal St. line was torn down in 1967 or so and replaced with dirty stinking buses. Citizens of New Orleans have complained ever since, and downtown New Orleans went into a tailspin.

Why? I think in part because people, for whatever reason, like to ride streetcars and don't like to ride buses. No one puts the image of a bus on a product to sell it. How many products show the San Fransisco streetcar? Well more than Rice-a-Roni.

When the Canal St. line opened up again, the ridership far exceeded even the most optimistic predictions.

Citizens of other cities, whose thriving streetcars fell victim to dual attack of GM and Standard Oil, which sold them the bill of goods that buses were somehow better than streetcars (I wish I had been there, what did they say, I wonder?) have lived the rest of their lives wondering why the streetcars were removed for buses?

I grew up in Cleveland Ohio, which had a thriving streetcar line that it lost in the 1950s or so. The now old-timers used to go on and on about riding them. These were people who set foot on a bus maybe once and didn't like it.

Cleveland's streetcars went to Toronto, which is now experiencing its own streetcar renaissance, in part, because the streetcar's positive effect on a downtown, and the negative impact observed only, sadly, after its absence, was noticed.

The answer is to bring the streetcar back and get rid of the dirty, filth spewing, spewing black-smoke-belching, slow and wasteful buses.

I'd definitely ride a streetcar to work, but never a bus. How do I know? Because I did. I have the opportunity to ride the bus to work now--no way. Buses are too gross.

I remember, as a kid, my father showing me some of the old Cleveland streetcar tracks that had somehow been left unpaved. He seemed very disappointed about it and blamed the city's politicians. I'll never forget it. My dad is the furthest from a green liberal there ever could be; he is a staunch Republican. And yet, he loved the streetcar. Was there ever a dad who was so disappointed over the loss of a bus system to a new streetcar system? I doubt it.

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