Research Rest-Stop │ “Evaluating Public Transit as an Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction Strategy”

Every Wednesday, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) highlights some interesting research related to or innovations in transportation, sustainability, or energy.

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A recent Victoria Transport Policy Institute study evaluates how well environmental and transportation policies coordinate with each other in efforts to limit climate change as well as how public transit improvements can support energy conservation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Critics of these improvements often argue that public transit uses more energy per passenger-mile than other modes of transportation, including private automobiles. What this doesn’t show is that public transit saves more energy in urban areas where improved bus lanes and faster loading times can help to reduce inefficiencies. These improvements typically provide additional benefits besides simply energy conservation and reductions in GHG emissions. As a result, improvements to public transit help to save not only energy but time and money too.

The report argues that transit improvements have great benefits to an overall transportation system and the environment. It notes:

[H]igh quality transit is more than simply a vehicle; it is an integrated system that includes compact, attractive stops and stations surrounded by compact and mixed-use development with reduced parking supply, good walking and cycling conditions, and more social acceptance of carfree living.

As part of this, the report cites “Effects of TOD on Housing, Parking, and Travel,” a 2008 publication by Robert Cervero and G.B. Arrington, which found that residents living in transit-oriented developments (TODs) typically owned 15-30% fewer vehicles, drove much less as confirmed by their driving 20-40% fewer miles a year, and walked, biked, and took public transit much more often than they likely would have in communities that depend primarily on the automobile. While this is one of many studies cited by the report, the results appear clear: that high-quality transit and improvements to public transit tend to have significant benefits to the environment and to residents’ quality of life.

In order to increase transit benefits, the report offers several strategies. These include having transit priority, which may involve special lanes for buses and other high-occupancy vehicles to allow them to travel more quickly, traffic signal preemption, which gives public transit vehicles an early start in passing through intersections, and quicker fare-pay systems so that passengers can board more speedily. Offering cash to commuters in lieu of receiving a free parking space has also been found as a good way to increase transit use. Lastly, commute trip reduction (CTR) programs aim to help commuters reduce the travel times of their commutes and can include elements like rideshare matching, guaranteed ride home programs, and telework.

Given these considerations, what are some benefits you feel public transit contributes to the environment and to communities? What other strategies may be helpful in encouraging transit use?

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