Archives: 06/2009

Which Is Greener?

Which uses less energy and emits less pollution: a train, a bus, or a car? Advocates of rail transportation rely on the public’s willingness to take for granted the assumption that trains – whether light rail, subways, or high-speed intercity rail – are the most energy-efficient and cleanest forms of transportation. But there is plenty of evidence that this is far from true.

Rail advocates often reason like this: the average car has 1.1 people in it. Compare the BTUs or carbon emissions per passenger mile with those from a full train, and the train wins hands down.

The problem with such hypothetical examples is that the numbers are always wrong. As a recent study from the University of California (Davis) notes, the load factors are critical.

The average commuter car has 1.1 people, but even during rush hour most of the vehicles on the road are not transporting commuters. When counting all trips, the average is 1.6, and a little higher (1.7) for light trucks (pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs).

On the other hand, the trains are rarely full, yet they operate all day long (while your car runs only when it has someone in it who wants to go somewhere). According to the National Transit Database, in 2007 the average American subway car had 25 people in it (against a theoretical capacity of 150); the average light-rail car had 24 people (capacity 170); the average commuter-rail car had 37 people (capacity 165); and the average bus had 11 (capacity 64). In other words, our transit systems operate at about one-sixth of capacity. Even an SUV averaging 1.7 people does better than that.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy data that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded – the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

“Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,” says the DOE. “On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.” Moreover, the report adds, “if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat – making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

Projections that high-speed rail will be energy-efficient assume high load factors (in the linked case, 70 percent). But with some of the routes in the Obama high-speed rail plan terminating in such relatively small cities as Eugene, Oregon; Mobile, Alabama; and Portland, Maine, load factors will often be much lower.

Even if a particular rail proposal did save a little energy in year-to-year operations, studies show that the energy cost of constructing rail lines dwarfs any annual savings. The environmental impact statement for a Portland, Oregon light-rail line found it would take 171 years of annual energy savings to repay the energy cost of construction (they built it anyway).

Public transit buses tend to be some the least energy-efficient vehicles around because agencies tend to buy really big buses (why not? The feds pay for them), and they run around empty much of the time. But private intercity buses are some of the most energy efficient vehicles because the private operators have an incentive to fill them up. A study commissioned by the American Bus Association found that intercity buses use little more than a third as much energy per passenger mile as Amtrak. (The source may seem self-serving, but DOE data estimate intercity buses are even more efficient than that–compare table 2.12 with intercity bus passenger miles in this table).

When it comes to energy consumption per passenger mile, the real waste is generated by public transit agencies and Amtrak. Instead of trying to fill seats, they are politically driven to provide service to all taxpayers, regardless of population density or demand. One of Amtrak’s unheralded high-speed (110-mph) rail lines is between Chicago and Detroit, but it carries so few people that Amtrak loses $84 per passenger (compared with an average of $37 for other short-distance corridors).

Meanwhile, transit agencies build light-rail lines to wealthy suburbs with three cars in every garage. With capacities of more than 170, the average light-rail car in Baltimore and Denver carries less than 15 people, while San Jose’s carries 16. For that we need to spend $40 million a mile on track and $3 million per railcar (vs. $300,000 for a bus)?

If we really wanted to save energy, we would privatize transit, privatize Amtrak, and sell highways to private entrepreneurs who would have an incentive to reduce the congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year (p. 1). But of course, the real goal of the rail people is not to save energy but to reshape American lifestyles. They just can’t stand to see people enjoying the freedom of being able to go where they want, when they want to get there.

Denying ‘Terrorists’ the Label

The killing of abortion docter George Tiller is an interesting microcosm of how terrorism works – and how it can be suppressed. I wrote here the other day denying that Tiller’s killer is a terrorist. Refusing to call him a terrorist will deny him strategic gains and reduce violence in the future.

Now the AP reports the killer’s claim from jail that similar violence is planned across the nation. This kind of statement is not likely prediction, but rather an appeal to like-minded people to join him. Like terrorists, he has a strong ideological commitment but almost no way to advance his cause other than by inducing missteps on the part of his opponents.

Letting Dr. Tiller’s killer wear the mantle of terrorism would enthuse people who might be inclined to join his cause and carry out future attacks on abortion providers. The best strategic response is to downplay his claims, refuse to call him a terrorist, and let the criminal process run its course.

The Cost of Health Care

From a patient’s point of view, the ideal health insurance policy would offer unlimited access to medical services at no charge. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to offer this to everyone.

The key to sustainable health care reform is restraining the use of services that have high costs and low benefits, says Cato adjunct scholar Arnold Kling.  In the video below, Kling examines the challenges facing health reformers and the feasibility of alternative proposals.

Good Reporting Requires a Critical Eye

Preschool access and attendance is often presented as an unalloyed good that will bring a huge return on investment. It’s not, and there’s little evidence that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Yet the Washington Post brings us a story about the push for state preschool expansion with nothing but supporters of government finance and controlled preschool and no critical treatment of the supposed evidence offered by those proponents.

I strongly urge the media to talk to some folks who have a critical take of the push for universal preschool when they write an article. What they write might then read like a news story rather than a press release from Pew.

Global Taxes and More Foreign Aid

The U.K.-based Guardian reports that the United Nations and other international bureaucracies dealing with so-called climate change are scheming to impose global taxes. That’s not too surprising, but it is discouraging to read that the Obama Administration appears to be acquiescing to these attacks on U.S. fiscal sovereignty. The Administration also has indicated it wants to squander an additional $400 billion on foreign aid, adding injury to injury:

…rich countries will be asked to accept a compulsory levy on international flight tickets and shipping fuel to raise billions of dollars to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to combat climate change. The suggestions come at the start of the second week in the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn, where 192 countries are starting to negotiate a global agreement to limit and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The issue of funding for adaptation is critical to success but the hardest to agree. …It has been proposed by the world’s 50 least developed countries. It could be matched by a compulsory surcharge on all international shipping fuel, said Connie Hedegaard, the Danish environment and energy minister who will host the final UN climate summit in December. …In Bonn last week, a separate Mexican proposal to raise billions of dollars was gaining ground. The idea, known as the “green fund” plan, would oblige all countries to pay amounts according to a formula reflecting the size of their economy, their greenhouse gas emissions and the country’s population. That could ensure that rich countries, which have the longest history of using of fossil fuels, pay the most to the fund. Recently, the proposal won praise from 17 major-economy countries meeting in Paris as a possible mechanism to help finance a UN pact. The US special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, called it “highly constructive”. …Last week, a US negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, said that the US had budgeted $400m to help poor countries adapt to climate change as an interim measure. But that amount was dismissed as inadequate by Bernarditas Muller of the Philippines, who is the co-ordinator of the G77 and China group of countries.

Should You Vote on Keeping Your Local Car Dealership?

There are lots of reasons Washington should not bail out the automakers.  Whatever the justification for saving financial institutions – the “lifeblood” of the economy, etc., etc. – saving selected industrial enterprises is lemon socialism at its worst.  The idea that the federal government will be able to engineer an economic turnaround is, well, the sort of economic fantasy that unfortunately dominates Capitol Hill these days.

One obvious problem is that legislators now have a great excuse to micromanage the automakers.  And they have already started.  After all, if the taxpayers are providing subsidies, don’t they deserve to have dealerships, lots of dealerships, just down the street?  That’s what our Congresscritters seem to think.

Observes Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune:

The Edsel was one of the biggest flops in the history of car making. Introduced with great fanfare by Ford in 1958, it had terrible sales and was junked after only three years. But if Congress had been running Ford, the Edsel would still be on the market.

That became clear last week, when Democrats as well as Republicans expressed horror at the notion that bankrupt companies with plummeting sales would need fewer retail sales outlets. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., led the way, asserting, “I honestly don’t believe that companies should be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave it to local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves.”

Supporters of free markets can be grateful to Rockefeller for showing one more reason government shouldn’t rescue unsuccessful companies. As it happens, taxpayers are less likely to get their money back if the automakers are barred from paring dealerships. Protecting those dealers merely means putting someone else at risk, and that someone has been sleeping in your bed.

The Constitution guarantees West Virginia two senators, and Rockefeller seems to think it also guarantees the state a fixed supply of car sellers. “Chrysler is eliminating 40 percent of its dealerships in my state,” he fumed, “and I have heard that GM will eliminate more than 30 percent.” This development raises the ghastly prospect that “some consumers in West Virginia will have to travel much farther distances to get their cars serviced under warranty.”

Dealers were on hand to join the chorus. “To be arbitrarily closed with no compensation is wasteful and devastating,” said Russell Whatley, owner of a Chrysler outlet in Mineral Wells, Texas.

Lemon socialism mixed with pork barrel politics!  Could it get any worse?  Don’t ask: after all, this is Washington, D.C.

Echoes of Smoot-Hawley

President Barack Obama appears to have learned something compared to candidate Obama: protectionism isn’t to America’s advantage.  Unfortunately, it is not clear that Congress has learned the same lesson.  Three free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration remain in limbo, while no one is pushing to reinstate the president’s so-called fast track negotiating authority.

And past protectionist actions are now bearing ill fruit.  The “stimulus” bill required that construction money be spent in the U.S.  Although the provision was amended in response to foreign criticism, some Canadian firms have been adversely affected.  So Canadian cities have begun boycotting American products.

Reports Reuters:

Canadian municipal leaders threatened to retaliate against the “Buy America” movement in the United States on Saturday, warning trade restrictions will hurt both countries’ economies.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities endorsed a controversial proposal to support communities that refuse to buy products from countries that put trade restrictions on products and services from Canada.

The measure is a response to a provision in the U.S. economic stimulus package passed by Congress in February that says public works projects should use iron, steel and other goods made in the United States.

The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and Canadians have complained the restrictions will bar their companies from billions of dollars in business that they have previously had access to.

“This U.S. protectionist policy is hurting Canadian firms, costing Canadian jobs and damaging Canadian efforts to grow our economy in the midst of a worldwide recession,” said Sherbrooke, Quebec, Mayor Jean Perrault, also president of the federation that represents cities and towns across Canada.

The municipal officials meeting at the federation’s convention in Whistler, British Columbia, endorsed the measure despite complaints by Canadian trade officials.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day told the group on Friday that Ottawa was actively negotiating with Washington to get the “Buy American” restrictions removed.

Thankfully, this bilateral spat isn’t likely to spark another Great Depression.  However, it illustrates how protectionism is self-defeating.  Other countries will not stand by silently as American legislators attempt to bar their products from the American market.  And U.S. workers will be the ultimate victims as the cycle of retaliation spreads.