Finding a better way to examine emissions

(Jun. 16, 2009) Taking the train to work  is better for the environment than driving an SUV—right? Well, that depends.

For example, if an SUV—one of the worst energy performers—is carrying two passengers, it suddenly becomes just as (in)efficient as a bus carrying eight people. If the car is carrying 3 or 4 passengers, then it’s actually BETTER than a low-occupancy bus. Or, a commuter train about 1/3 full emits as much NO as a bus with 13 passengers or a sedan with one.

These are some of the findings from a recent study by researchers at the University of California. As part of the study, the researchers analyzed occupancy rates and the amount of emissions based on all factors—including construction, manufacturing, operation and maintenance—to determine the environmental impact of transportation.

Typically, when politicians and advocacy groups examine the environmental effects of a particular mode of transportation they consider only operational emissions—known more commonly as tailpipe emissions. But this cuts out a number of other factors that should be considered when looking at the environmental impact on the various methods of transportation.

While the CO2 emissions per person from an SUV are far greater than from trains and buses, they are even higher when the construction and maintenance of the highway, the manufacturing of the car and the mining of materials used to build the car are also included. But these factors also alter the emission levels when applied to train systems and airplanes.

The study, apart from a few exceptions, found what most us would have probably guessed. Trains and subways—when running with high occupancy rates—are much better for the environment and energy efficient than cars with one rider. No surprise there.

But it’s some of the studies more minor details that should assist lawmakers in making reasonable decisions in regards to infrastructure spending and transportation options. Adding bus lines to suburbs and outlying parts of the city may seem like a great way to cut back on smog and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But, as the study shows, increasing the number of empty buses can be FAR worse than encouraging people in the area to car pool.

Other details include showing that longer taxi times to more distant runways at our expanding airports may be more environmentally damaging than previously thought. Also, airlines that use diesel trucks to move baggage and mechanical parts around the airport contribute massively to the life-cycle emissions of airplanes. Airlines that have taken flack for charging customers for checking in additional baggage may be able to put an environmental spin on it and convince consumers that checking in bags is bad for the environment. Capitalizing on consumers’ environmental guilt is nothing new—right now it’s big business.

The report doesn’t provide a drastically new prospective to the current shift in government policy to promote more energy efficient methods of transportation—like mass transit. But it does offer some insight into how this shift should occur.

Dumping federal, provincial and state money into projects that seek to promote mass-transit and other “environmentally-friendly” modes of transportation may be more harmful than expected. Looking at some of the minor details of the report shows that some of the most effective ways to decrease emissions and increase energy efficiency is to use the current infrastructure more wisely. Getting more riders on the trains and buses we already have, and increasing occupancy rates in car-commuters may be more effective than a crass amplification of infrastructure projects.

The city should carefully examine ways to increase ridership on public transportation, but not do so in a way that’s counter-productive by increasing sprawl and making mass-transit system money pits for taxpayer money. Energy Probe’s own Lawrence Solomon, talking about early transportation development in Toronto in early twentieth century, said in his book “Toronto Sprawls: A History”, that “because few uneconomic lines were built to the suburbs, the development that occurred beyond the city limits also tended to be compact, within walking distance of the end of the transit line.”

Just as governments in Canada and the U.S. begin to implement their environmental agendas, they’re also calling for stimulus packages that throw money at projects that do exactly the opposite—road construction being the most prominent. By looking at transportation as a whole—including the many external costs—politicians can make informed decisions concerning infrastructure spending.

But if they’re simply looking for votes—watch out, it’s full steam ahead.

Brady Yauch, Jun 16, 2009

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