Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bus capacity background, again

In my last post, I discussed the brewing storm over bus capacity in Manhattan. It wasn't the first time: in 2008 I wrote that the Lincoln Tunnel vans were a shining beacon of profitable transit that Dick Gottfried was threatening to firebomb. In 2009 I wrote that Alan Gerson (anybody miss him?) was holding up the East River Esplanade because he didn't want buses stored on West Street in Tribeca. A better way, I argued in both cases, would be through-running of commuter buses from New Jersey to Brooklyn and Queens.

As Joel pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, and as the Wall Street Journal detailed recently, the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan serves a truly staggering number of buses. It has already been expanded once, in 1979, and has been at capacity for years - anyone know how many years it's been full without anyone in power trying to add capacity? This is why buses are picking up and dropping off passengers on the street - if you want to add a route, there is literally nowhere else to go.

There has been significant discussion of bus storage: I've been very critical of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign recently, but they have been involved - in their high-level way, without much organizing at the local level. Christine Berthet, of the Hell's Kitchen community group Chekpeds, has been a strong and sane voice on this issue, as she is on most transportation issues. City Planning has undertaken a study of bus parking in Chinatown, and something called the Mayor's Midtown Citizens Committee did a study in their part of Manhattan. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is looking to adapt the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel garage for buses.

I'll have more about potential solutions and about the media and governance issues, but in the meantime I want to highlight the fact that I've been talking about this for two and a half years now, and not much has changed. I'm loath to compare bus frequency to the shooting of unarmed civilians, but I have to ask: how long do we have to keep repeating that the bus riders matter? How long must we sing this song?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Manhattan bus capacity, again

You might not realize it, but we're in the midst of a large expansion of transit capacity. That expansion is in jeopardy, though, primarily because a lot of people don't realize it. If we don't do something, it could come to a screeching halt, and years of work could be undone.

No, I'm not talking about the ARC tunnel or the Second Avenue Subway. I'm talking about the boom in buses. You may have heard about them - every once in a while there's a breathless "trend" article about how all the cool kids are taking Megabus or the Chinatown buses, because they can do social network marketing on their iPads in transit instead of wasting time behind the wheel listening to Rush Limbaugh and books on tape.

You may have also noticed the growth in other bus services: gambling buses to Atlantic City, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods; Chinatown vans traveling to Flushing, Elmhurst and Sunset Park; Jamaican and Haitian dollar vans; I believe that the MTA also expanded express bus service after they took some routes over from the "private" operators. They've cut it back since, but I think overall there's still a net increase. Tour bus usage has also increased; many tour companies offer "hop-on, hop-off" tour bus networks that function as a parallel transit network without some of the "riff-raff" that tourists might fear in the subways. Hospitals like Sloan-Kettering and universities like NYU also run shuttle buses between campuses.

Well, that's wonderful, right? A large increase in transit capacity, largely undertaken by private operators, at no cost. No expensive holes in the ground, no stations, just reuse existing infrastructure. The miracle of buses! It almost seems too good to be true.

As usual, what seems too good to be true usually is. In this case, there is a cost. On a crowded island like Manhattan, the existing infrastructure is always being used by somebody, as we saw with the 34th Street Transitway. It turns out that they built the Port Authority bus terminals for a reason. Curbside long distance buses were tried years ago, and they require taking street and sidewalk space that other people want for parking and walking.

The buses themselves need places to lay over between peak periods, and these places are hard to come by, in part due to the gentrification of Manhattan. In 1950 and 1979 the corner of 40th and Ninth was a low-rent district; now there are very few left in Manhattan. Many bus drivers simply park their buses at the curbside for hours until the next shift.

I'm not sure how many people realized that this was actually a stealth land grab for transit, but the people who used to use the land have figured it out, and they're not happy. One article after another appears in the papers, each one a bit more insistent, each one enlisting another clueless pandering politician.

Right now the support for buses is diffuse, which means that there could be a big backlash that could set back transit in this city by years. I'll talk more about what we can do about this in a future post.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Satisfying the gambling urge

There are many plans for new casinos in the New York area. Already, there are "racinos" at Pocono Downs, Monticello and Yonkers, and a casino boat operating out of Freeport. There are plans for a new racino at Aqueduct, and speculation about Indian casinos licensed by the Shinnecocks on Long Island and by the Munsee in the Catskills.

Pocono Downs is right on a train line and could eventually get direct service from Penn Station via the Lackawanna Cut-Off. Monticello used to be served by a branch line, but those tracks have been gone for a while. The Shinnecock lands are served by the Montauk Branch, and Freeport by the Babylon Line. Yonkers Raceway is near the Harlem Line, but it's a long walk or a shuttle bus ride.

Bizarrely, the Aqueduct racino has been touted as a way to avoid a repeat of last month's overnight gambling bus crash. "If you're coming from Chinatown, all you have to do is get on the A train," Audrey Pheffer told the Daily News.

We already knew that Pheffer is not a friend of transit; if I'm in a charitable mood I'd say she's clueless. There's a similar level of cluelessness and/or chutzpah involved in this statement of hers.

The overnight gambling buses exist because their passengers work crazy hours, and the only times they have available to gamble are in the middle of the night. It's nice that the Aqueduct racino will only be a half hour away instead of four hours, and reachable by the A train (although I'd think twice about taking a lot of money on the A train in the middle of the night). But will the Aqueduct be open late enough? The Yonkers Raceway is open until 2AM most nights and until 4AM Friday and Saturday nights, and the gamblers still chose to go to Mohegan Sun. What hours will the Aqueduct be open, and will it be enough to draw the overnight gamblers away from Connecticut?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Transportation myopia for commuter rail

Jeff "Pantograph Trolleypole" Wood has a post questioning the value of building new commuter rail lines, as contrasted with light rail or streetcars. He points to several new lines where ridership is well below expectations, and argues that such tiny numbers do little to further our goals.

It has always been acknowledged that these new commuter rail lines are oriented towards relatively affluent park-and-ride commuters, so they won't increase access for underserved communities. The claim was that they would get people out of their cars for at least a portion of the trip, leading to greater efficiency and less pollution and carnage. In addition, some people claimed (or at least hoped) that they would attract relatively well-connected passengers, who in turn would have an interest in lobbying for the maintenance and expansion of the transit system. Jeff argues that such small numbers do very little to help us reach any of those goals.

Everyone seems to agree that these commuter lines are a miserable failure, but there is disagreement over why exactly they failed, and how to avoid failures like this in the future. Jeff takes a technical approach, saying that the problem is that the lines tend to be located in old freight rights-of-way far from residential, job and shopping centers and served by large park-and-ride lots. Significantly, these lines all tend to be relatively low frequency, sometimes only a few trains a day. He recommends that agencies pursue light rail through urban areas instead, and contrasts the ridership numbers on these commuter rail lines with numbers from new light rail lines.

Yonah Freemark expands on Jeff's post, but argues instead that the problem is a political failure, due to a futile attempt to distribute funding across metropolitan regions, hamstrung by bad zoning.

I think they're both confusing correlation with causation. Both of their explanations are probably true to some degree, but in fact only one could, or none; we don't know. There's another factor at work that I think plays a role. I don't have any proof, only a similar causation, but that is enough to require more support for Jeff and Yonah's claims. Both bloggers are suffering from transportation myopia, because for every one of the commuter rail lines that Jeff lists, there was a major road project that improved car travel and took riders away from the commuter rail lines.

Northstar commuter rail I-94 third lane
Capital Metro US 183 toll road
RailRunner Big I reconstruction
Music City StarI-40 widening
Utah FrontRunner I-15 Ogden-Weber Expansion
Portland WES Oregon 217 Modernization
Oceanside Sprinter CA Route 78 HOV Improvements (planned)

Now I know some of the readers are going to jump in and say, "but that highway project outside of Portland is only one lane in one direction for a few blocks!" Yes, but there are numerous other highway expansion projects going on in the area. You can quibble with the details, but I think you'll agree that the overall picture is sound.

If you regularly commute from Maple Grove to downtown Minneapolis and keep getting stuck in traffic jams on I-94, you might consider switching to the Northstar trains. But then if MnDOT adds a lane to I-94 and traffic moves smoother, you might stay in your car. This is partly a failure of commuter rail, partly a failure of regionalism, but mostly a failure of transit advocates to realize how much of a threat competing road projects can be to the train lines they so desperately want to see.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When safety makes us less safe

Jim O'Grady of WNYC reports on a rant about bus safety from James Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1984 to 2001 (under three presidents!). Hall is now a lobbyist on Capital Hill, who was paid $80,000 last year to represent Porsche on emissions regulations. O'Grady did not mention Hall's current job, or whether he was speaking for himself or a client.

Hall argues that recent bus crashes, including the gambling bus crash, show that buses aren't safe enough, and that the government needs to legislate stricter standards. He criticizes the American Bus Association for lobbying against (Word doc) a recent "safety" bill. The bus industry and the government, he charges, "have treated the people who ride these buses as second-class citizens and given them second class safety.:

There are lots of problems with Hall's entire line of reasoning, and I may get a few blog posts out of this, but let me focus first on the idea of safety. It's easy for "safety" people like Hall to get so fixated on their jobs that they miss the bigger picture. In this case the bigger picture is that improving the safety of individual rides may make bus rides more expensive, less available or less comfortable. This may convince potential passengers to choose to drive or fly instead, and that in turn may make us all less safe, due to two important principles.

The first is that professional automobile operators are safer than amateurs, and the second is that each additional operator increases the danger. Operating a motor vehicle safely is a difficult job, and training and experience help a driver to overcome that difficulty. A professional driver has a career and a reputation to maintain, while an amateur cares much less about being thought of as a dangerous driver; for some it is even a marker of coolness.

There are also job standards and workplace rules that require minimum levels of competence, sobriety and rest. They are not always followed, but they are stricter and better enforced than the laws regulating amateurs.

The other principle is that driving is a human activity requiring attention and good judgment, and even the best operators occasionally fail. The more operators you have on the road, the greater the chance that any one of them will make a potentially fatal mistake.

If you have five hundred people going from New York City to eastern Connecticut, they could travel in four hundred cars or in twenty buses. It's completely infeasible for all four hundred cars to be driven by professionals, but that would only bring a fraction of the potential safety improvements. The safest would be twenty buses driven by responsible professionals, but if even half of those buses were driven by poorly-trained, irresponsible, stressed and/or fatigued drivers it would still be a lot safer than if the passengers all drove themselves.

Air travel is safer than individual drivers, but still much less safe than buses. Convincing people to choose bus travel over driving not only improves their safety, but the safety of everyone on the road with them.

Many of the proposed bus safety improvements are sound, but the seat belt proposals are not. Long bus rides are already uncomfortable; requiring seat belts could drive away some of the riders who have been attracted by wifi and power plugs. The cost of implementing these and other safety requirements should be taken into consideration. A high enough cost upfront could jack up the bus fare high enough to drive many passengers away, or it could reduce the bus company's profit enough that it would cut back on service.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

We didn't start this war (these wars)

So Wendell Cox has come out with several books and articles arguing that transit, pedestrian and cycling advocates are waging a "War on Cars." As Sarah Goodyear sums up, people like her, Eric de Place, Todd Litman and Ezra Klein are bewildered by this accusation. War on cars? We just want choices. Can't we just be pro-transportation?

Those of us who have been fighting this for years know that there is a struggle going on. The problem is that we didn't start it. It just happens that several different campaigns that have been waged on several different fronts have used cars as their primary weapons. These include the March of Progress, the civil rights struggle, the American dream, the Back to the Land movement, and now the Mr. Austerity beauty contest.

You could characterize these campaigns as the War on Proven Technology, the War on Black People (and Mexicans Too), the War on Renting, the War on Cities, and the War on People who Make Less than $250,000 a Year, but unlike Wendell Cox I will be charitable and assume that people are motivated by positive goals. Despite these positive goals, though, these campaigns have had many negative effects. The casualties have been fairness, equality, resource conservation, clean air and water, safety, health and community.

It isn't one war, but the values we cherish are under attack from many different directions, and we are sticking up for them. We are fighting back against the Deniers and the Not Our Problem crowd. We're trying to get help from the You Can't Do That Without a Car crowd, but it's hard when they are convinced that we can't win.

The fact of the matter is that we can't just be pro-transportation. We can't afford "choice" or "balance." We can't afford to build and maintain two redundant transportation networks, one with private cars and trucks and one without. We may not really be able to afford one transportation network. We need to pick the cheaper one and focus on it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Competing for resources

Noah Kazis at Streetsblog has a nice analysis of the current mess with the 34th Street Transitway, with quotes from Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Joan Byron at the Pratt Center for Community Development. Noah stops short of saying what needs to be said, though: what happened with the 34th Street Transitway was a miserable failure for the "bus rapid transit" strategy followed by Slevin and Byron (and Walter Hook from the Institute for Transportation Development Policy, and to some extent Noah's old boss Aaron Naparstek).

The key here is that "BRT" has not just been sold as a bus improvement, it's been sold as an alternative to the subway. Aaron and even Commissioner Sadik-Khan have called it a "surface subway." Tri-State writes, "Select Bus is an effective way to bring faster, more reliable transit service to parts of the city which are underserved by the rail network." The Pratt Center writes about its "COMMUTE" plan:
In tight-budget times, BRT makes more sense than ever. Multi-billion dollar subway and commuter rail projects don't serve the communities with the most urgent transit needs; they also require an all-or nothing commitment that burdens the transit system and its riders with debt, and don't deliver their promised benefits for many years.

I'm all for bus improvements, but Byron, Slevin and friends are going beyond that and arguing that we should abandon any push to expand the subway network and focus on "BRT." How's that working out for us? Well, let's see, I've been waiting for many years and still haven't seen a physically separated busway delivered to the streets of New York. Our transit system and its riders? Burdened with debt in part from deferred maintenance while we're twiddling our thumbs waiting for "BRT" to arrive.

What went wrong? The pro-BRT crowd assumes that the only competition between cars and transit is for capital funding. BRT requires less capital funding, so it must be easier to put in. Well, no. Transit competes with cars for a number of different resources. Money, yes, but also land, people (to maintain and operate the system), the goodwill of the public, and the attention of the public.

Cars have a vast advantage in terms of people, because most of the operators and many of the maintenance staff are either volunteer or privately funded. In other places they have a vast advantage in terms of money. Here in New York the money is more balanced, but it still probably tilts towards the cars. "BRT" requires a bit less money to build, but more money and people to build.

What makes "BRT" so superficially cheap is that it requires no purchase or appropriation of land. Instead, it takes the land from cars, which Byron and Slevin treat as having zero cost. To the people who like to get their bottled water and Goya beans delivered to their doorstep, that land has a cost. To the people who believe that their customers all come by car, that land has a cost. To people who drive, the land used for "a vital traffic lane" has a cost.

These people may be wrong, or they may be blowing the whole thing out of proportion, but that's not the point. The point is that they and their representatives have to be convinced, just like the taxpayers and their representatives have to be convinced to support subway construction. Both of those require political energy, which is in short supply. The question is which one requires less energy.

In terms of goodwill and attention, the subway beats "BRT" by far. There are two separate, independent volunteer blogs dedicated to the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. Ben Kabak has branched out into other topics, but anything relating to the Second Avenue Subway gets his immediate attention. Phoenix has what, four blogs devoted to its tiny light rail line? There is no such blog for any of the "Select Bus" projects. People are fiercely dedicated to the subway system in a way that they just aren't with buses. They're inspired by subway construction in a way that just doesn't happen with buses. The subway has their goodwill, and it holds their attention.

Speaking of attention, who has been fighting for the 34th Street Transitway? Me, Streetsblog and the East Side Volunteer Committee of Transportation Alternatives. While this project was under attack by the ninnies at the Post and the Goya bean moron, where was Kate Slevin? Everywhere but 34th Street. Where was Joan Byron? Furthering kvetchocracy in Washington heights. Where was Aaron Naparstek? fighting for a bike lane. Eventually Tri-State blogged a bit about it, and Transportation Alternatives got involved, but it was too late. This is not the first time that the BRT activists have been MIA when they were needed, either. They were MIA for the Merrick Boulevard Select Bus too.

I'm not saying that these aren't worthy projects. (Okay, well maybe I am saying that furthering kvetchocracy is not a worthy project, but Byron has plenty of projects that are worthy.) I'm saying that buses just aren't that inspiring. I don't really blame Slevin and Byron and Aaron for getting bored and wandering off to work on other projects. Trains are that inspiring. Maybe they don't interest the BRT activists, but they do interest plenty of people, so that when kvetching started taking off on Second Avenue, the bloggers were there to remind people that there's a LOT of people behind the subway project.

The BRT efforts draw time and attention away from subway expansion, but they don't hold the attention, and the result is money and effort down the drain. Right now what we need to be doing is not spending a lot of time and energy fighting Mr. Goya Beans, but building support and starting to plan for our next subway expansion project. Whether you think that should be Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway, or the Tribororx, or the Seven to Secaucus, or the South Fourth Street tunnel, we need to get the ball moving now.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guest post: the source of the Long Island Bus crisis

Here is another guest post by regular reader George K.

For those of you that don't know, Nassau County officials have been neglecting to pay the MTA for providing the service run by Long Island Bus. As a result, the system has been in danger of either facing steep reductions by the MTA or facing privatization.

The situation has recently been resolved in the following way: The State Legislature has given the MTA $8.6 million on behalf of Nassau County to continue operating the bus service at the current levels. However, after January 2012, the system would be turned over to a private company to operate with a subsidy.

A small portion of the blame for the high cost of these routes is poor practices on the MTA's behalf. There are instances where buses deadhead very long distances when they could be making a revenue trip for a portion of that run, and there are several route restructurings that could be considered. For instance, combining the N24 and N51, would give riders along Merrick Avenue access to the Mineola LIRR station. Although this probably wouldn't generate enough ridership to save the N51, it would make it more cost-efficient in the interim.

Although part of the blame for these reductions lies on Nassau County executives for shortchanging the MTA, part of the blame lies in the fact that many of the people in Nassau County have an anti-transit attitude, similar to the attitude that can be found in many other parts in the country.

For instance the N22 and N73/N74 could've gotten more ridership if they were extended from the Hicksville LIRR station to the Broadway Mall, which is a short 1/2 mile trip. Since the routes end at the Hicksville LIRR station, riders must either walk or transfer to the N20, N48, N49, N50, N80, or N81 routes. Although it may appear at first that there are a lot of routes to transfer to, those routes run at a low frequency. At the height of rush hour those routes run roughly 8 buses per hour, which results in a frequency of approximately 8 minutes (though buses tend to be scheduled in pulses, to meet with LIRR trains). Off-peak frequency can range from 2-6 buses per hour. In any case, making a transfer when carrying shopping bags tends to make transit a very unattractive option, and in this case, the transfer could've been avoided by a short extension.

However this wasn't done because the owners of the mall didn't feel that it was worth the cost to maintain a bus station within the mall and residents in the community felt that the buses would attract the wrong type of people to shop at the mall.

Another part of the problem is that the wide roads in Nassau County entice people to drive, and many of those roads (particularly in Eastern Nassau County) have poor transit service, with buses running every 60 minutes without Sunday service. Here in NYC, we have some wide roads, but they generally have good transit nearby: A train, or at least a frequent bus route serves the corridor.

Another problem is the fact that park-and-rides were built to accommodate too many cars. Park-and-rides are not the answer. Stations like Hicksville have more parking spaces than daily commuters. Had there been fewer parking spaces, there would've been more of an incentive for people to buy a UniTicket and use the local bus to commute to the LIRR station, rather than driving. This program idea has been fairly successful at the other end of Nassau County in Great Neck, where, although the surrounding areas are fairly affluent, the ridership on the buses that feed into the Great Neck LIRR stations is relatively high for the simple reason that parking isn't as easy to find.

Overall, although Long Island Bus is saved for now, the reality is that Nassau County cannot go on maintaining the status quo. The fact that Long Island is more spread out means that the private operator is likely to be stingy with the service it provides, and the fact that people have an anti-transit mentality is what caused this situation in the first place. Ideally, we should encourage the building of higher density housing closer to LIRR stations, and locate office parks closer to these stations for reverse commuters from NYC. Residents would be lured to these dense developments, and would provide more support for transit subsidies rather than road subsidies.

As a result, Nassau County will become more sustainable in the face of rising oil prices. Residents working in Manhattan would be able to walk (or take a bus) to the LIRR rather than drive, and residents working in the office parks located near the LIRR would either be able to take the LIRR or take LI Bus as a crosstown service to access their jobs, and the service would run more frequently as a result. Low-income workers would no longer be faced with the financial burden of owning a car, and would be able to use the frequent east-west bus service (the dense housing would provide enough demand for transit that it could be split with the LIRR and LI Bus running in the same corridor) to access their jobs.

Some people may feel that the areas near the LIRR stations would become too ”urban” for them, since there would be more dense housing there to support the transit services in the area, and they would want an area that is quieter and more spread out. However, they can buy a larger house or apartment in a walkable area away from the LIRR, along a frequent bus route. The route doesn’t have to be as frequent as the Manhattan crosstown routes, but a headway of 10 minutes during peak hours and 15 minutes during off-peak hours would be sufficient to maintain a quiet lifestyle while still not having to own a car.

The development of more dense housing surrounding the LIRR can be done in a gradual manner. First, the price for parking in LIRR stations can be raised to a point where people find it more economical to take LI Bus to the LIRR station (some people might find that it isn't worth owning a car at that point, since they won‘t even be using for their commute). Then, when the demand for parking spaces is lowered, the land can be sold off and converted into residential units or office space.

Although we could potentially see some progress with projects such as the LIRR Main Line 3rd tracking project being designed, this cannot come quickly enough, and, as a result, everybody will suffer. People will remain stuck in traffic on the LIE, while low-income workers will be faced with the choice between purchasing an automobile or relying on infrequent buses that may not be there the next day.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Moving things to pieces of land

This series of posts about moving things around is part of a larger argument that anything you can do with cars, you can do without them. But as I mentioned in that original post, sometimes it's less efficient without a car. Of course, sometimes it seems less efficient without a car, but it turns out to be more efficient.

One potential objection to shifting all intercity freight hauling from trucks to rail and water transport is that roads are more efficient for the "last mile" (or ten) of large loads. Many factories and warehouses are spread out and not near railroads or waterways. If they are, they're not near docks or stations. They would have to be served by trucks anyway.

This argument rests on the idea that land use is constant, which is clearly false if you think about it. Pretty much every factory and warehouse, every junkyard and lumberyard, built before 1950 was located on a railroad or waterway, usually with its own spur, siding or dock. Since the massive postwar boom in highway construction, many of them have relocated to be near large roads.

This is the same as what we see in passenger transportation: development follows the transportation network, which follows government subsidies. Subsidize roads and you get road-oriented development; subsidize rail and you get rail-oriented development.

Obviously we can't just tear out all the truck ramps and loading docks tomorrow and expect the businesses to reconnect seamlessly to the rail network. It will take time for this shift to happen, just as it will take time for the rail network to be scaled up to meet this demand. But it will happen, and if done right it will fit in with the normal replacement cycle for these buildings.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Moving things from city to city

Let's start our discussion of freight with the biggest loads and the longest distances. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the problem of efficient intercity freight movement was solved over a century ago. As I understand it, rail infrastructure costs about the same as roads, and once it's built, some combination of rail and boat (by sea, lake, river or canal) costs less to maintain and operate than trucks on roads.

Jarrett likes to reduce things to simple geometry. The freight question reduces to chemistry and physics: steel on steel has less rolling resistance than rubber on asphalt. If you want to get into the details, David Lawyer has the data. Beyond energy efficiency, steel rails are also more durable than asphalt and rubber. Trains are also more efficient in terms of operating labor: the tracks and signals make it easier to predict what will be in the train's path, and where the train cars will go, which allows huge amounts of cargo to be moved by a handful of people.

Ships and lake boats are more efficient than cars because there's not a lot of competition for the space on top of the water, which allows us to make them bigger than any truck. They, and canal and river boats, can also take advantage of water currents for at least part of their journeys.

Of course, all these modes are way more efficient than air cargo, which requires pushing lots of air out of the way of the planes, and going fast enough so that they don't fall out of the sky until we're ready for them to. In terms of energy efficiency, the Department of Energy estimated that airplanes use 32,000 BTU of energy to move a ton of freight one mile, while trucks consume 3,100, boats 418 and trains 305 BTU per ton-mile (PDF, table 2.16).

What this all means is that if we can shift a freight load from truck to rail or boat at no extra cost, it will be cheaper and use less energy, and most likely pollute less. If there is an added cost to shifting the load from truck to rail, that cost should be compared with the cost of keeping it on trucks. Reducing highway and fuel subsidies is one way to make the cost of trucking more apparent.

Moving things around

I'm mostly concerned with passenger transportation, but I would like to spend a few posts talking about freight, also known as moving things around. It's another of those "muddle-headed transit advocates" topics that car apologists like to bring up, as in "You muddle-headed transit activists! Maybe you can move all the people around in trains and on foot, but what about trucks? Silly, you forgot that roads are also for moving things around! You don't want to be anti-truck, do you?"

Some people also use the freight issue against traffic calming and (bizarrely) road pricing. The argument goes something like this: "You muddle-headed street safety advocates! Don't you realize you'll slow the trucks down too! You'll ruin our struggling small businesses, and we'll lose the future to Atlanta!"

Of course, if our highways were only open to trucks we'd have much better freight movement, but a lane that's open to trucks is open to cars. In essence, private car owners are hiding their own greed and selfishness behind the genuine need to facilitate commerce.

Moving things around can also affect our goals directly. If we don't pay attention to freight hauling, it can be done in ways that pollute or injure people. It can be done in inefficient ways, and in ways that promote sprawl.

These are reasons why it's important for advocates of sustainable human transportation to pay attention to freight. I'm going to discuss various aspects of it in future posts, but if you've got your own blog, you're welcome to tackle it; let me know so that I can link to you.