New Report Tracks Urban Transit Emissions — Where Does Your City Rank?

chartyy.pngComparing the average emissions per passenger mile of various transport modes. (Chart: FTA)

While state DOTs marked Earth Day by depicting roads as unsung heroes of livability, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the transit industry celebrated in their own ways by releasing reports on local rail and bus systems’ roles in reducing U.S. transport emissions.

The FTA’s updated report [PDF] on transit’s value in combating climate change includes average emissions for various modes of transportation (see above chart), calculated using the government’s National Transit Database. The emissions totals, which reflect average ridership estimates, show that transit averages about half the CO2 poundage per passenger mile of a single-occupancy vehicle.

But the FTA also breaks down individual transit systems’ average emissions, illustrating how much of a difference high ridership — and cleaner-burning sources of electricity — can make when it comes to the energy efficiency of local rail.

Take the San Francisco metro area’s heavy rail system, known as BART, which achieves average emissions of just 0.085 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile. That rock-bottom total is made possible by electricity generated largely through hydropower. Washington D.C.’s Metrorail, meanwhile, comes in at an average of 0.347 pounds of CO2, making it four times less efficient than BART.

The emissions numbers get worse in less trafficked rail networks, such as the Baltimore Metro (0.919 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile, an average comparable to a car) and Cleveland’s rapid rail transit (0.805 pounds of CO2/passenger mile).

Fortunately, the average emissions-cutting power of heavy rail is skewed by New York City, where nearly 60 percent of the mode’s U.S. passenger miles are traveled. New York’s subway gets an average of 0.147 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile, bolstering the local transit authority’s new estimate that it saves 17.4 million metric tons of emissions every year.

The FTA report found similar variability in the average emissions of local light rail, which ranged from uber-efficient in Los Angeles (0.219 pounds of CO2/passenger mile) and San Francisco (0.299 pounds of CO2/passenger mile) to middling in Dallas (0.534 pounds of CO2/passenger mile) and higher than the average single-occupancy auto in Pittsburgh (1.371 pounds of CO2/passenger mile). The weighted average for all American light rail, however, came in at 0.36 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile.

On the transit industry’s end, Earth Day brought a statement of support from President Obama that was echoed by American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chief William Millar. "Everyone who cares about the environment should care about public transportation," Millar said in a statement that accompanied a lengthy list of efficiency improvements underway at transit agencies across the country.

  • This report obviously leaves out one important component of private automobile travel’s ability to reduce green house gas emissions: eCars! Once we’re all running on batteries, won’t this graph change?

    Once we’ve got the right fuel blend of stir fry oil, algae farts, and subsidized corn husk hooch, I believe we can drop that number of CO2 right down to 2010 levels accounting for the constantly expanding nature of modern American economic growth.

  • Alan

    1. Damn, Pittsburgh is doing horribly. I guess it’s because the T is presumably coal-powered (by wire), which will be way worse than oil-powered cars.

    2. Elana, please prefix the link to the report with “http://”. It doesn’t work for now.

  • Should be working now, Alan. Thanks for the heads-up.

  • The study acknowledges that BART gets its electricity from hydroelectric, but then assumes San Francisco’s MUNI system buys its electricity from the regional electricity provider. (PG&E?) I don’t believe this is correct since MUNI gets hydroelectric power from the Hetch Hetchy dam.

    From the SFPUC website:

    “Generation from the Hetch Hetchy power system is used first to provide power to the City. Among the City agencies that receive electricity from the SFPUC are the San Francisco Municipal Railway, San Francisco General Hospital, Laguna Honda Hospital, the San Francisco Unified School District, and the SFPUC’s regional and local water and clean water systems.”

  • Nick

    Funny that MUNI’s light rail system just broke down and they had to run heavily polluting busses between downtown and West Portal Station. They’re probably so glad they didn’t arrange a PR event for Earth Day.

  • Joseph E

    I’ve never been as interested in the direct CO2 emissions of transit versus cars. The effect of each mode on development patterns is much more important to total energy use, since transit allows and encourages higher density and more walking, even when passenger trips look as bad as cars.

    However, electrically-powered transit will look much better once oil runs out, while electricity will remain relatively plentiful. And if coal is replaced by renewable energy or nuclear, all rail and bus trolley systems could quickly reach zero-emissions without any changes. That will be much cheaper than buying everyone a $50,000 electric car, with $10,000 batteries that only last 50,000 miles.

    Even people who are not worried about climate change should see the benefit in transit to protect us from the high costs of imported oil, a limited supply of fossil fuels, and rising energy costs.

  • archie

    Joseph E, I want to hug you. The effect on land use is where the real benefit of non-car transit lies. All this in addition to the fact that they’re already cleaner! A true win-win and also the reason why electric cars will never fully solve all our emissions/energy issues.

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