Who's Afraid of the Electric Car?

» Does the $25,000 fully electric Nissan Leaf muddle environmental arguments in favor of transit?

Nissan’s new Leaf, expected to reach American shores this December, represents nothing less than a revolution in thinking about automobile propulsion: it is the first modern, reasonably priced, four-door car powered completely by electricity. It is the opening slide in what is likely to be an avalanche of such vehicles coming to market over the next decade — Chevrolet’s electric-for-40-miles Volt is arriving later this fall as well at a higher price point. The significance of their collective potential environmental benefits cannot be dismissed.

The immediate consequences of the replacement of at least a segment of the American vehicle fleet with electric cars will be positive: an immediate elimination of local point-source pollution, lessened street noise in the urban environment, and of course a reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, at least by individual consumers. These are advances that must be applauded.

The widespread availability of electric cars will make one argument made by transit proponents harder to advance: that riding trains and buses is better for the environment. In cities where the electric grid is powered by renewable or nuclear energy, these vehicles will produce zero carbon — also true of electric trains, but not of diesel or even hybrid buses, which will continue spewing pollutants into the atmosphere.

But transit must continue to compete from an environmental perspective, or it will lose some of its appeal; the arrival of the electric car is a direct challenge to the claim that public transportation is greener. But it’s not too late to make that argument — there are significant ecological advantages of mass transit even if they share their propulsion technologies with some automobiles. The contention that transit is the more sustainable answer to questions of mobility has not suddenly expired.

The clearest flaw in the argument for electric cars is that the majority of electricity produced in the United States — almost 75% — comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels. This means that “clean” cars like the Nissan Leaf are simply shuffling pollution production elsewhere, not actually getting rid of it. This would not be true if American power were produced like it is in France, where about 90% of power is carbon-free, and where a switch to electric cars would mean a vast reduction in air pollution overall. At least for now, though, the widespread adoption of electric cars in the U.S. will require a large ramping-up of power generating capacity and therefore increase pollution from power plants, not necessarily generating a net benefit, even as there is a significant decrease in air pollution in congested urban areas.

If all transit vehicles switched to electric propulsion and public transportation absorbed a much larger percentage of the commute market, on the other hand, they would require less overall electricity because they’re more energy efficient per passenger. So even if everything were electrically powered, transit would still have some advantages.

Second, electric cars may be environmentally responsible in operation, but their manufacturing and disposal require a significant energy expenditure: between 10 and 20% of overall lifetime energy use. Transit vehicles last longer and are used more intensely than automobiles, meaning that their per-rider-mile manufacturing and disposal costs are significantly lower than those of cars.

But all of the discussion about the relative ecological advantages of cars and public transportation vehicles ignores their greater effects on the human environment, and that is the basis of the primary argument transit proponents must use to defend the environmental credibility of buses and trains. Transit nurtures the creation of dense urban environments in which the majority of trips are made by carbon-free walking and in which people live and work in energy-efficient multi-story buildings. A society dependent on automobiles cannot establish such sustainable communities and will ultimately always depend on energy-heavy single-family homes and private vehicles. There’s no getting around that fact, Nissan Leaf or not.

Electric vehicles could play an auxiliary role as the basis for new car-sharing efforts, but the implementation of electric chargers on the street for private users seems far off. Nissan and other auto companies are expecting most of their customers to refill their vehicles in their private garages overnight, not exactly an urban-friendly scheme.

Nevertheless, transit agencies still have an obligation to increase the efficiencies of their vehicle fleets — primarily by increasing ridership and maximizing the number of riders per bus or train. There’s nothing wrong with finding as many ways as possible to reduce energy consumption.

Image above: Nissan Leaf, from Nissan

60 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Charles D

    With the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, as with the much-touted hydrogen fuel-cell technology, we are witnessing private industry – those who have benefited most from our fossil-fuel dependent transportation system – attempting to salvage their place in our future. Leaving transportation decisions in private hands is a recipe for waste, and a good way to guarantee that the problems we have today will be with us tomorrow.

    We have been this way before. The government let the railroad barons on the 19th century build without planning and our countryside is littered with unused rail beds and we still don’t have a single high-speed rail line. Our transportation policy is fixated on roads and airports – the two most inefficient modalities possible, but the ones that develop the most private profit. We can’t improve until we make the tough decision to set a national transportation policy, declare a moratorium on spending for new highway and airport expansion and focus on what’s best for America rather than what’s good for GM, Ford, Exxon, and Goodyear.

    • The abandoned railbeds are due to the fact that the government allowed “private hands” to build railroads and then subsidized a redundant, competing system of automobile roads. The problem was the public decisions, not the private ones.

  • I think the biggest environmental argument against cars (regardless of their power source) is the land use argument – auto-centric land use and sprawl isn’t environmentally friendly or efficient. Changing the car’s power supply does nothing to ameliorate the car’s spatial limitations or relatively low capacity.

    Also, the relatively short range (though improving) for electric cars plays into the land use argument, if in a subconscious way.

    • simple

      We should add “space consumption” to our vocabulary of resource management, just as we talk about fuel/energy consumption.

  • Erin

    “dense urban environments… in which people live… in… multi-story buildings.”

    Unfortunately, without a big cultural shift, I think you just lost 2/3 of the US with that one point.

  • Rockfish

    It’s a bit premature to write the obituary of transit, don’t you think? There are presently zero plug in electric cars for sale to the general public in America (I don’t count Tesla, its just a rich-guy toy), test fleets have been problematic (Mini-E) and affordability currently depends heavily on subsidies. There has been no acceptance of these vehicles in the marketplace yet.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate of electric vehicles and plan to buy one myself someday for my 4 mile commute to the train station. But it will be a very long time before they constitute even 1% of the vehicles on US roads, so let’s wait until at least that milestone before lamenting the death of public transit at the hands of the EV, shall we?

  • JackRussell

    I agree with Alex here. If you go out to the suburbs, you can see that everything was designed with cars in mind. So you have huge strip malls with huge parking lots – the only way to reasonably get there is to drive.

    You have the cul-de-sac neighborhoods, designed to minimize cut-through traffic, which are far enough from all amenities that people need to get in the car to drive there.

    And then you have the wide arterial roads that are commonly choked with traffic. Mainly because nobody can walk, and the design of the roads is such that people have to drive miles out of their way to get any place at all.

    All of that being said however, there are a lot of people who live in rural areas where none of the land-use questions really apply.

    In the end, declining oil production will force people to change in one form or another, and I suspect that a lot of people will choose the electric car as a way of trying to maintain BAU.

  • There are concerns about just how much electricity these cars will use. In a NY Times article from February: “A single car could consume three times as much electricity as a typical San Francisco home.” I’ve had trouble confirming this from another source, though.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/15/business/15electric.html

    • Brent

      Fortunately, the three-times figure is easy to figure out. Take the battery storage size (in the Tesla, it’s about 55 kWh) and compare it to the daily usage of a typical home (about 30kWh). If you drove down the Tesla battery in a day, you’d use nearly twice the electricity of a house. Alternately, you can take the car’s watt-hours-per-mile figure to calculate usage. The Tesla does around 250 WhPM, which means you can either drive a mile or power two-and-a-half 100W lightbulbs for an hour. Your choice.

      For comparison purposes, keep in mind that a gallon of gasoline contains roughly 33 kWh of energy, or about a day’s usage of electricity for a home. A 300-mile, 10-gallon trip would use ten times what a home uses in a day.

  • And continuing the thread, only provision of effective dedicated transport corridors can allow the establishment of sustainable suburban villages in suburbia.

    And note that the Volt provides an additional argument in favor of regional rail, since it is only all-electric within a fixed radius. Availability of charging facilities at stations extends that gasoline-free range of trips to everywhere along the rail corridor.

  • Daniel

    Electric vehicles also do not address traffic or parking issues. In a traffic jam, a million electric vehicles will move just as slowly as a million conventional vehicles.

  • Joe

    I think Daniel’s point is the best one. Ultimately, if the case for transit comes down to environmental grounds it will, and should, fail. I think that is why, above and beyond socioeconomic class perception, there is much higher enthusiasm for rail over buses. Buses are just too slow regardless of whether they are electric run off LNG or any other low emission fuel.

    What transit allows for is greater opportunity. Job density follows land use and while Erin is right most people fall somewhere between dislike and hate on the idea of high density multistory living, there are plenty of people who prefer it. Having those people there creates opportunity. Having transit to the suburbs makes it feasible with only mild extra density to make a painless commute.

    –Joe

  • Kancamagus

    You forget that making the argument that transit has a much lower environmental impact will resonate more strongly with liberals than conservatives. And often times, the liberals are already biased towards supporting transit for other reasons.

    I’m not saying that conservatives don’t care about the environment, but anytime it gets brought up (especially if global warming comes into the conversation), the argument is dead as they usually just believe you’re an agent of “Al Gore’s lies” or something like that.

    The main argument for building transit systems should be efficiency. When highways are jammed, the city is stagnating. Adding more lanes to the highway, especially in major cities, is impossible either due to the lack of available right of way or if land was available it’d be prohibitively expensive. So transit is chosen because it allows people to get from point A to point B more efficiently (often times on existing current or former railroad rights of ways), and thus improves the economic effectiveness of the city.

    This is an argument that resonates with conservatives (and liberals alike), and will be true regardless of what powers our cars.

    // Disclaimer: I’m an independent moderate who supports rail transit.

  • Gordy

    According to Nissan, the energy efficiency of the Leaf is the equivalent of 367 mpg. This isn’t just a slight improvement over conventional cars, it is an order of magnitude improvement. And Nissan is just a first-generation electric car. Later generations will presumably be even more efficient. If you think you can show that transit is cleaner than the Nissan Leaf in terms of GHG emissions and other pollutants per passenger-mile, I invite you to do so. It does not seem remotely plausible to me.

    • Of course, it would be nice to have an energy efficiency for the Leaf from an independent third party analysis, rather than from Nissan marketing … but irrespective of that, the majority of the time, the Leaf has similar impact to a Hummer … the 90%+ of the time that they are parked.

      • Gordy

        the majority of the time, the Leaf has similar impact to a Hummer … the 90%+ of the time that they are parked

        Unless the engine is running, that would be zero. Unless the “impact” you’re talking about is simply occupying land. In which case….what percentage of the time, on average, is a bus or train seat occupied by a passenger instead of just being hauled around as empty deadweight or sitting parked at a storage facility?

      • Unless the engine is running, that would be zero.

        You are forgetting not only the impact of the four to five parking spaces required per car, but also the impact of the construction of the car. Since a car is parked providing no service roughly 95% of the time, while a bus or train is parked providing no service somewhere between 25% and 75% of the time, the relative material cost per passenger mile of the car is much higher than a per-seat material cost comparison will reveal.

        Of course, the material cost of a highway speed electric car is higher than for an equivalent class gasoline car, because of the battery.

        Trains and buses do not require as much parking space per average occupied seat as the equivalent occupancy of cars required … trains and buses do not require any parking at trip destinations, so they do not need to take property from of private property owners via parking place zoning regulations of the form that automobiles require as an in-kind subsidy … and, indeed, only need one parking place per vehicle, rather than four to five.

        Streetside parking is 140ft^2, so over 90ft^2 per passenger at a normal load factor for a four seat vehicle of under 37.5%. Off street parking, including aisle width, is over 300ft^2 each car, so with 1.5x occupancy (load factor under 37.5%), that is over 200ft^2 per passenger. In normal sprawl suburban conditions, the majority of off-residence parking is off-street parking, so over 690ft^2 of parking space per automobile passenger. In normal inner urban conditions, the majority of parking is on-street, so if it is one off-street place per car that can be reduced to 470ft^2 per automobile passenger.

      • aw

        trains and buses do not require any parking at trip destinations

        Not exactly true. Trains and buses commonly need a layover space, but only for trip recovery time in case of the bus. For a peak-time only commuter train, it would be morning to afternoon and overnight. Even if a train is parked at a platform while being turned, it can put limits on service that can be accomodated.

  • Gordy

    Transit nurtures the creation of dense urban environments in which the majority of trips are made by carbon-free walking and in which people live and work in energy-efficient multi-story buildings.

    I’d like to see your evidence for these claims. This study found that adding rail transit produces little if any increase in density. This study found that even a large increase in density would produce only a small environmental benefit from reduced driving. And this study found that detached houses have lower average GHG emissions per person than all multi-story residential buildings with 3 or more stories.

    • Mix-ryG-son-dy, you’re very good at quoting any shoddy study that supports your paymasters at Reason. If I were your boss, I’d offer you a bonus.

      But since I’m not your boss and I’m not paid to get people to log on transit blogs on various pseudonyms and spread FUD, I’m instead going to ask the question I ask you everywhere else: do you ever read those studies? They don’t say what you think they say.

      In order: your “rail doesn’t increase density” study looks at very minimalistic systems, from a service perspective. Don’t measure input, measure output. And then the correlation between perceived density and public transit usage is very strong.

      The “large increase in density” study studies modest increases: it assumes 25% less driving, even though just cutting VMT/capita to French levels implies a nearly 50% reduction. The part about “twice the current average density” seems like a large increase, but it’s not; if you think in terms of perceived density, then

      And the “detached houses have lower GHG emissions per person” study really shows that detached houses emit the same amount of GHG per unit than high-rise buildings (i.e. condos for the rich), though still more than multistory buildings in the 3-6 story range. The per capita numbers only show that detached houses cram more people in than apartment buildings.

      I understand the position you’re in, and I sympathize. Tobacco Institute people defended every tobacco health claim well into the 1990s, and were capable of mangling studies, trumpeting cigarettes that in controlled studies, comparing the right kind of apple to the right kind of orange, seemed to be healthy. (Seriously. They might as well have an ad saying that if you can actually get 367 mpg-CO2-equivalent out of the car, you win a bridge. The original ratings didn’t last long for the Insight, and won’t last long for the Leaf.)

      • Thad

        For once Alon I agree with you, the first study has to do with transit ridership period, and never once mention density and land usage. It even showed in one table that the percentage of land area and workers with in the two kilometer radius of the rail line increased each decade in just about every city. Plus as someone who lives in Miami I can tell you that the Metrorail did promote density as more transit oriented development and high occupancy residences built up adjacent to the stations over the last decade, which was not included in the study that only focused on 1970-2000. Also the fact that the study fails to take into consideration the size of the metropolitan area both land and population wise, and development patterns. You can’t make a comparison between Boston, a denser, smaller and more centralized city with a transit system predating the height of the automobile with Los Angeles, a larger, more sprawling, decentralized area with a then smaller system that was developed with the automobile in mind. So that’s a fail for you Gordy.

    • Thad

      Also, the second study you cited encourages densification and talks about it’s benefits, so it doesn’t support your argument. Your detatched homes thing (if you really believe that crock) may save on energy, but continued sprawl at the rate of growth of the U.S. population has a greater environmental implication than carbn emissions. We’re taking about habitat destruction, deforestation, and the loss of biodiversity. Energy savings won’t matter if there aren’t enough trees to absorb the carbon that is still produced from fossil fuel powered plants and biological processes. Sure people can plant some trees and flowers in their yard, but they won’t replace the hundreds of trees plants, and other living organisms that help our earth survive that were there before you plopped some cookie-cutter McMansion there. So really from an environmental sandpoint, your argument has no credibility.

      • Gordy

        For once Alon I agree with you, the first study has to do with transit ridership period, and never once mention density and land usage.

        Er, the authors discuss the relationship between transit and density extensively. See the section on page 22 titled “Travel Demand,” for example. As I said, they concluded that adding transit has had little or no effect on density.

        You can’t make a comparison between Boston, a denser, smaller and more centralized city with a transit system predating the height of the automobile with Los Angeles, a larger, more sprawling, decentralized area with a then smaller system that was developed with the automobile in mind.

        Why not?

        Also, the second study you cited encourages densification and talks about it’s benefits,

        As I said, the study found that it would take a huge and unprecedented increase in density to produce just a small benefit from reduced GHG emissions. I very strongly doubt that voters and consumers will consider the small benefit to be worth the large cost.

      • Thad

        The first study does not take into account the dozen other confounding variables that would have an influence over the results observed such as loss of population, real estate values, the state of the local economy, cutting of budgets and services, etc. An increase in density really translates to an increase in development which if you actually look into the cities, you wil see has happened in the years after the study. For example, there has been tremendous development around the Dadeland stations of the Miami Metrorail with 4 high-rise condo towers and several mid-rise condo towers and offices and hotels being built up around them. The same goes for every other city on the list. Whether people move in or not has nothing to do with the rail but moreso the price and state of the market.

        “I very strongly doubt that voters and consumers will consider the small benefit to be worth the large cost.”

        What cost do voters pay when it comes to development? Last time I checked, condos, offices, and reatail space was built with tax payer dollars, it’s funded by private development firms.

    • Nathanael

      Your housing study *says* it’s not statistically valid and attributes the results to badly constructed high-rises with high vacancy rates in Sydney (in other words, high density living doesn’t produce moreGHGs; badly built half-empty apartment buildings do).

    • Nathanael

      The Brown study says the exact opposite of what you claimed.

      I’m not even going to check the other one; you’re clearly dishonest, Gordy.

  • AndyDuncan

    “At least for now, though, the widespread adoption of electric cars in the U.S. will require a large ramping-up of power generating capacity and therefore increase pollution from power plants”

    That’s not true. Talking to friends at various power companies, they have the generation capacity to handle charging cars, especially at night when most of the cars will be charging, the problem is distributing that power to homes. Significant investment in the last-mile of power distribution is needed and already being planned, but generation capacity impacts should be minimal.

    “The clearest flaw in the argument for electric cars is that the majority of electricity produced in the United States — almost 75% — comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels.”

    That is true, but it’s not the whole picture. Those plants are predominantly more efficient than your average car, so switching generation to centralized power plants has immediate advantages. Over the long run, replacing the power needed to drive your car with other fuel sources is transparent to the end user once you’re on electric power, and doesn’t need to happen all at once.

    The biggest problem I have with electric cars is that while they will be beneficial for emissions, they will increase sprawl, which has other environmental effects not limited to the fuel costs of transportation, and the low incremental cost of driving will make traffic much, much worse than it is now.

  • D. R.

    Andy has hit the nail on the head: we have the ability to charge all of these cars. Further, having them on the grid allows them to smooth out spikes and supply-demand imbalances. Would I take a credit from the local ISO for allowing them to drain my car a little to meet peak demand? Sure; I can then drive the (short) distance home and buy back that charge at cheaper nighttime rates.

    Even a coal plant charging electric cars produces less pollution than if those cars were powered by gasoline or diesel engines. The economies of scale for pollution control should not be trivialized. Nuclear generation should not be ignored either: some very large metro areas are predominantly nuclear-powered (e.g. Chicago).

    But traffic remains a problem. So does parking and wear and tear on the vehicle. And so on with other issues (drivers who are intoxicated, texting, etc.). I’m not worried about transit going away: the environmental argument was always the most tenuous one in favor of transit.

    • AndyDuncan

      “Further, having them on the grid allows them to smooth out spikes and supply-demand imbalances.”

      I don’t see that happening. The wear and tear cost to you as the battery owner would far exceed any electricity arbitrage profits you might receive, and if it was profitable, the electric companies would just buy batteries and drop them at the local distribution box. In the highly likely scenario where you lease your battery from the car company, the lease will likely prohibit V2G situations to protect the residual value of the battery at lease end.

      • D.R.

        I wouldn’t see them being used for daily smoothing — more like emergency smoothing. Sort of like EDR and curtailable calls that are currently used to cut someone off the grid in times of stress. So maybe once a month or maybe a few times a year. Sure there would be wear and tear even once a month; but, for the right price, that might be worthwhile.

      • AndyDuncan

        @D.R.

        “for the right price, that might be worthwhile.”

        Exactly, but if it only happens once in a while, and not much electricity is pulled out of the batteries, then the price you’re going to receive is a couple cents every couple months. The power companies are going to ask people “can we pull some juice out of your car every couple weeks when we need it? We’ll give you 38 cents”. The response is going to be “Don’t touch my car”. The only way that’s going to happen is if people don’t know it’s happening. So unless the power companies are able to trick people, it’s not going to work.

        Plus, from a practical standpoint, most of a power company’s peaking and load-balancing needs are during the day, when electric cars are likely to be sitting in a parking lot unplugged after charging all night. I still think V2G is a silly idea that somehow caught on. But I guess we’ll have to see how it plays out. I certainly don’t think it presents any kind of barrier to the adoption of electric cars, which I think will be wildly successful after a long, slow ramp up.

      • AndyDuncan

        @D.R.

        I forgot one other thing, turning something that’s drawing power off is half as effective as pulling power out of it, and much simpler. Power companies already are giving incentives for people to install remote kill-switches on their AC units in exchange for reduced rates. That allows power companies to cycle off AC units in a particular distribution area to reduce load and allow the company to prevent having to do rolling blackouts. Since AC units don’t run 100% of the time even when they’re on (thermostat kicked off), the switches are as much to prevent the AC unit from cycling back on as they are to turn off ones that are already running. They can prevent an AC unit from turning on for a few minutes, and prevent a brownout while the temperature in the house only goes up a degree or two.

        Far more likely than V2G would be some kind of similar kill-switch on the charging stations, allowing the power company to cycle off that charging station for a minute or two. If I can cycle off two charging stations, that’s as good as pulling full load from a single battery (better actually, due to charging efficiency), and nobody gets pissed off and no additional wear is put on the battery.

      • FG

        Speaking of blackouts… What if we have more large scale blackouts, wouldn’t electric cars be essentially useless after driving (I have no idea how long they hold their charge) since there’s no way of recharging them? ‘Course this would hold true for much rail transit as well – it would be particularly bad for rural residents with no alternative to driving though, such as walking to a local store, etc.

      • Actually, for the “parking/charging station”, the charger can stabilize the grid when charging as well, intrinsically if there are capacitors smoothing supply fluctuations, and the even more substantially if it is a smart grid charger that allows the power company to tailer demand from the car chargers to compensate for sudden shifts in load.

        And when moving from surges to unexpectedly large power demands, a certain amount of car charging to accomplish over a period of time allows ample opportunities to bring lower ramp-up back up supplies on line, economizing on both hydro capacity and thermal plants kept online but not under load.

        A contract to recharge the car by a certain amount over a certain period of time would offer electricity at a substantial discount compared to simply plugging in and charging to capacity.

        The potential use of batteries as a emergency back up supply is just the tip of the iceberg, though one would expect that power contracted under those terms would be at an even steeper discount.

  • Jason

    Both the Volt and the Leaf highway vehicles, with performance similar to today’s “cars.”

    I think there is a potential for low speed vehicles, such as the GEM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Electric_Motorcars) to be even more compatible with transit and non motorized transportation, in addition to be much cheaper and much more energy efficient. These cars are similar in performance to the Model T, which was designed to work in the dense-transit oriented cities of its day.

    I think there will always be a need for highway vehicles, and electric or plug in hybrid versions are great, but how many car share, taxi, and local trips could be made with low speed vehicles? Probably a lot.

    I presented this essay at TRB in January, follow the link for a deeper look:

    http://people.clemson.edu/~MYERS8/10-1315.pdf

  • Ben

    Clearly the argument shouldn’t be either transit or electric vehicles. If we want to reduce our consumption of foreign oil and reduce emissions, we need both. The argument that transit encourages better, more efficient land-use is strong but there are still tens of millions of Americans who live in low-density areas where there is limited or no transit. Additionally, there are times (offpeak hours, carrying numerous items, etc…) when transit will be impractical. The most energy-efficient vehicles should be available for these trips.

    I thought the NYT article yesterday about the Mini E was very interesting. Clearly it isn’t a vehicle for everyone at this point but if you had a home with rooftop solar panels (http://www.empowerces.com/) and energy efficient appliances and compact light bulbs, perhaps it would be possible to generate enough excess power to recharge your own vehicle. It might even be possible never to buy a gallon of gas again for these cars, with the vehicles being powered completely with renewable energy.

  • Gordy

    Alon Levy,

    your “rail doesn’t increase density” study looks at very minimalistic systems, from a service perspective.

    No, the study looks at the rail transit expansions in 16 major American cities over a period of 30 years. If you think there is a more comprehensive study that challenges the conclusions of the study I cited, produce it.

    And then the correlation between perceived density and public transit usage is very strong

    This is irrelevant. First, I’m not sure why you think “perceived” density is what matters rather than actual density. And second, a mere correlation between density and transit usage doesn’t tell us anything about causation. Transit tends to be built in locations of high density. That doesn’t mean transit causes high density. Again, the study I cited found no evidence that building transit tends to cause higher density.

    The “large increase in density” study studies modest increases: it assumes 25% less driving, even though just cutting VMT/capita to French levels implies a nearly 50% reduction.

    Wrong again. The study’s most optimistic densification scenario assumed a doubling of average density for 75% of new and replacement construction between now and 2050. Yet even under this most optimistic scenario, total carbon emissions would be reduced by only about 2-4% after 40 years. Under the study’s “moderate” densification scenario, total emissions would be reduced by less than one percentage point. So it would take a huge and unprecedented increase in average density to produce just a trivial reduction in emissions.

    • No, the study looks at the rail transit expansions in 16 major American cities over a period of 30 years.

      The keyword is “American.” American transit investment hasn’t increased transit mode share. If you want to see local examples of higher transit use, go to Calgary and Vancouver, both of which have densified after building rail lines.

      First, I’m not sure why you think “perceived” density is what matters rather than actual density.

      Imagine two regions. One has 5 million people distributed uniformly across 20,000 km^2. Another has 20 million people distributed across 200,000 km^2, but 90% of its territory is a natural preserve. Which is denser in practice?

      The relevant number is emissions per person, not per unit. Detached houses tend to be larger than units in multi-story condo and apartment buildings and hence tend to have more occupants.

      You’re thinking about American practice. But the study is Australian, where practices are different: richer people live closer in.

      • Gordy

        The keyword is “American.” American transit investment hasn’t increased transit mode share.

        Right. It doesn’t seem to have increased density, either. Hence my statement that “This study found that adding rail transit produces little if any increase in density.” Again, if you think there is a more comprehensive study that challenges the conclusions of the study I cited, produce it.

        Imagine two regions. One has 5 million people distributed uniformly across 20,000 km^2. Another has 20 million people distributed across 200,000 km^2, but 90% of its territory is a natural preserve. Which is denser in practice?

        I don’t understand how you think this question explains why you think “perceived” density is what matters rather than actual density. Do you have an explanation or don’t you?

        You’re thinking about American practice. But the study is Australian, where practices are different: richer people live closer in.

        No, I’m not thinking about any country’s “practises.” I’m talking about emissions per person for different types of residential building. The study found that detached houses have lower emissions per person than any form of multi-story, multi-unit residential building.

      • Everything you say, Mix-ryG-son-dy, boils down to,

        I don’t understand

        Because as Upton Sinclair noted, it’s impossible to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Your Tobacco Institute-grade number massaging on construction emissions, your jumping to conclusions all while pretending to be a skeptic when the results don’t match what you want… it’s shoddy.

    • DBX

      All too often, in the United States, you have anti-density zoning laws in the way. But where those zoning laws have been changed, sure you have increased ridership with transit. I don’t care how Reason wants to rig it. Arlington, Virginia removed low-rise limits around Ballston, Clarendon, Rosslyn, Crystal City, and look at what ridership is like at those stations. It’s very simple. Many more people in a small area. Mayor Daley — senior, that is — removed meaningful building height limits in River North in the 1970s and made many other zoning changes that have revived neighborhoods and turned L stations that were barely used (Chicago, Brown Line) or worse yet, closed evening, nights and weekends (North/Clybourn, Red Line) into bustling stops. Gentrification — with its attendant densification — has increased ridership on the #66 Chicago Avenue bus route tenfold over the past 15 years, a route that links the densified River North with Bucktown and Wicker Park.

      If Reason wants to cherry pick outer suburbs with exclusionary, low density zoning that refuse to change that zoning when commuter rail arrives, it’s their right. It’s also our right to show up their shoddy methodology.

  • Gordy

    Alon Levy,

    And the “detached houses have lower GHG emissions per person” study really shows that detached houses emit the same amount of GHG per unit than high-rise buildings (i.e. condos for the rich), though still more than multistory buildings in the 3-6 story range.

    More irrelevance. The relevant number is emissions per person, not per unit. Detached houses tend to be larger than units in multi-story condo and apartment buildings and hence tend to have more occupants. According to the study, even low-rise multi-story buildings produce more emissions per person than detached houses. And high-rise buildings produce almost twice as much emissions per capita as detached houses.

  • Eric G.

    “Does the $25,000 fully electric Nissan Leaf muddle environmental arguments in favor of transit?”

    Yes.

    For a decade now transit has emphasized it’s enviro credentials vis-a-vis the automobile. That will no longer work. Transit agencies are going to have to look seriously at thier own emissions. And that will be a good thing. It will be good for the environment to reduce the significant pollution we cause (disclosure – I work for a transit provider). Secondly, if transit can also make the shift to electric propulsion, it will give us independence from fossil fuel price volatility. We saw in 07-08 the conundrum caused in a price spike when people flock to transit but agencies are forced into service cutbacks because of expanding fuel costs.

    More rail systems need to look at electrification like Caltrain. Tri-Rail in Florida and some older lines around dense eastern cities might be good candidates. Several demonstration projects are underway to test fully electric buses with rapid recharging stations and I think all transit admin and policy people should be watching closely to see how they work. We need to know what impact that might have on route planning (length, grid vs. hub…..) and operations characteristics like layovers. We need to figure out if battery and recharge is better than trolleybus in what circumstance. We need better data

  • Adirondacker12800

    These cars are similar in performance to the Model T, which was designed to work in the dense-transit oriented cities of its day.

    The Model T was designed to replace farmer’s horses. Process the feed grain into ethanol and use that for the automobile. Uses much less grain than feeding a horse 365 days of the year.

    • Process the corn stover into charcoal and use that to provide back up electrical generating capacity for the use-it-or-lose-it types of sustainable power.

  • Ocean Railroader

    These new eletric cars will not hurt transit in that most transit systems are in areas where parking is very expenssive to park at such as $5 on the cheap side and up. The traffic laws are very messy where if you make one mistake in where you park they will tow you for $125 bucks a ticket. In donwtown Richmond VA it is becoming popular to sell off surface parking lots and turn them into Condos or apartments or stores slowly making the number of parking spaces in the city less and less. There are at least over 300 millon gas powered cars in the US it is going to take at least five years to at least get a million of them on the road. If we could get at least a millon cars on the road that would save two to five millon barels of oil a year if not more which would cut the need to drill in Alaska Wild Life Perseve. In the long run we must switch to eletric if we are to avoid the deadly effects of the Oil running out suddenly or getting to expessive to keep running.

  • Gordy

    Yonah Freemark,

    If all transit vehicles switched to electric propulsion and public transportation absorbed a much larger percentage of the commute market, on the other hand, they would require less overall electricity because they’re more energy efficient per passenger.

    How do you know this? Show us your analysis. And how do you propose to make public transportation absorb a much larger percentage of the commute market, anyway? I’m not talking about pie-in-the-key wishful thinking. I mean how do you propose to do this in a way that is politically and economically realistic?

    Second, electric cars may be environmentally responsible in operation, but their manufacturing and disposal require a significant energy expenditure: between 10 and 20% of overall lifetime energy use. Transit vehicles last longer and are used more intensely than automobiles, meaning that their per-rider-mile manufacturing and disposal costs are significantly lower than those of cars.

    Again, where is your evidence? This study found that when total lifecycle energy inputs and GHG emissions are compared, rather than just operational energy and emissions, rail transit does even worse compared to road vehicles. Including non-operational energy and emissions increases the value for road vehicles by 63%, and for rail by a whopping 155%.

    • Again, where is your evidence? This study found that when total lifecycle energy inputs and GHG emissions are compared, rather than just operational energy and emissions, rail transit does even worse compared to road vehicles. Including non-operational energy and emissions increases the value for road vehicles by 63%, and for rail by a whopping 155%.

      The study you’re quoting says that constructing highways causes more emissions than constructing transit lines, but that the difference is smaller than in operating emissions. Those ratios you cite don’t matter; if you make cars more fuel-efficient, you don’t suddenly reduce the emissions of the highway.

      What this shows is that even if cars were zero-emissions, construction infrastructure for them would make them worse than rail transit. I wouldn’t quote this study if I were you.

      I’m going to go out and say this: whoever you are, you’re a hack. You make up numbers to support your “cars are the best thing in the universe” mentality. On Streetsblog, as GaryG, you tried to wiggle out of it by inventing a 1.6 factor in favor of cars that doesn’t exist. On Human Transit, as <a href="“>Watson, you kept going with those idiotic ratios even when rail transit did better in absolute numbers on both operating and construction emissions.

      (P.S. Note to the gallery: follow the links in this comment if you want to understand why I don’t think there’s any doubt that a) Mix-ryG-son-dy is sock puppeting, and b) he engages in math so fuzzy it has to be deliberate. And for the record, no, I’m not Mixner Spotter, and I have no idea who is.)

      • Gordy

        The study you’re quoting says that constructing highways causes more emissions than constructing transit lines, but that the difference is smaller than in operating emissions. Those ratios you cite don’t matter; if you make cars more fuel-efficient, you don’t suddenly reduce the emissions of the highway.

        You seem to have missed the point. Yonah Freemark pointed out that the total energy consumption and emissions attributable to cars includes more than just emissions from operation. I pointed out in the response that the evidence indicates that when total emissions are compared, cars become more favorable relative to rail transit. Non-operational emissions from rail transit are 155% of operational emissions. Non-operational emissions from cars are only 63% of operational emissions.

        What this shows is that even if cars were zero-emissions, construction infrastructure for them would make them worse than rail transit.

        Nonsense. It doesn’t show any such thing.

  • Mixner Spotter

    Please leave, Gordy.

  • Nick G.

    My biggest fear with electric vehicles is that they indeed will contribute even more to suburban sprawl. Studying the nature of the electric car itself, it doesn’t take one much to realize that the electric car is optimized for urban driving. A cursory evaluation would lead one to conclude that an electric car is better adapted for those LIVING in an urban environment as well. However, the big issue is that where every suburban garage has a power outlet, there is no current infrastructure to support charging on a typical dense urban street often where a person may not even be able to park on the same BLOCK as their living quarters.

    Hybrid-electric vehicles may be the only viable option in the foreseeable future for those who not only DRIVE in the city, but live there as well.

    • If the ideal use of an electric car in an urban setting is in a car share, that disadvantage turns into an advantage for those car shares that can gain a privileged space including their outlet as a consequence of being a car share and thus economizing on scarce parking space.

  • I for one am not afraid of the electric car. I view it as a positive: bus systems are going to adopt this technology, which will reduce pollution near bus depots. This is an important environmental justice issue, as such depots have high pollution levels, and are located in minority neighborhoods.

    Bus agencies don’t care too much about vehicle costs; they often get federal grants, and labor’s a much bigger cost anyway. So they tend to adopt such technologies relatively fast.

    Let’s say people drive more because of this (which I think is unlikely – see the penetration of hybrid technology). So what? Global warming is an imminent crisis; American cities’ sprawl problem isn’t. The world is going to have to adopt zero-carbon electricity generation in the coming decades, and there’s no circumstance under which higher use of electric cars will make achieving this goal more difficult. I takes a very callous person to think that getting Americans stuck in traffic less is a more important than keeping Bangladesh above water.

  • Chris

    I think the electric cars themselves are an obvious benefit, but the problem will be political. I can see politicians saying, oh well cars are now environmentally friendly, so we’ll build more roads (and continue to ignore the alternatives). And so the problems get worse all over again.

    The best argument against big roads/ excessive car use is always going to be congestion, it’s the one problem everyone hates and no can ignore.

  • Ocean Railroader

    There are always going to be areas where cars will never work out. Those are the areas where transit will be needed even in really heavly car dependent areas the traffic is getting so bad that there is simply no room to build anymore roads. So light rail and streetcars will always be needed

    • FG

      There are also people who can’t drive for various reasons, medical (epilepsy for instance), age or criminal convictions, or simply those who don’t want to drive. Transit gives them freedom to go places (and gives an additional choice to car owners as well).

  • Allen

    “trains and buses do not require any parking at trip destinations, ” – Bruce McF

    In practice in the real world, that is not true. All sorts of trips in the US that involve trains also involve cars. For some systems such as Denver’s RTD, that’s the predominant experience for riders. Others like Washington’s Metro have more of a mix.

  • allen

    ” Secondly, if transit can also make the shift to electric propulsion, it will give us independence from fossil fuel price volatility” – Eric G.

    Commodities tend to fluxuate in price more or less in unison. How is burning LG or Coal for electricity going to be anymore or less volatile in pricing than oil/gas?

    And if volatility in pricing is causing problems, why not invest some money into futures to give certainty to pricing rather than spending billions for new fleets of electric vehicles?

    • Nathanael

      Electricity can be produced from hydro, solar, geothermal, wind, tidal, etc. That’s why electric prices are resistant to oil price spikes.

      What sort of bogus irrelevance are you on about?

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