Mobility Goes to the Back of the Bus

On Tuesday, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) released a major report on transportation policy and ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions titled “Moving Cooler: An Analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Given that most current transportation technologies rely on burning oil, a fossil fuel, to move people, goods and services from Point A to Point B, the most effective formulaic way to reduce carbon emissions is simply to stop moving. Not surprisingly, that’s a big part of the ULI report.

The “strategies” that do the most to reduce green house gas emissions are those that dramatically increase the cost of driving a personal vehicle (car) and get us out of our cars and onto transit. In short, reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and get people onto buses and trains, even if they still have to travel further and see vast more amounts of time consumed in everyday travel.

The report is not without its critics. Alan Pisarksi writes today at New Geography, this reports leaves out a lot.

“Maybe the saddest part of it all, the authors appear not to take global warming or energy security very seriously at all. Rather these public concerns are just a convenient hook, the cause du jour, on which to hang their favorite solutions. If global warming matters — and it does; if energy security matters — and it does; then early action is clearly called for, particularly given the cumulative nature of GHG gases. But somehow the things easily done and carrying with them little in the way of disruption or public costs — carpooling, telecommuting, dispersed work — are largely written off. Such immediate, low-cost actions as highway operations strategies including better traffic signalization, improved traveler information and accident response systems receive little emphasis.

“Overall, the treatment of costs and benefits will leave readers gasping:

  • Travel times don’t get counted — so shifting from a 15 minute car trip to an hour on transit or walking has no penalty.
  • Transit subsidies don’t get counted — so doubling subsidies to increase ridership has only benefits.
  • Every possible pricing strategy is invoked — congestion pricing, cordon pricing, on-street parking fees, extreme fuel prices — in order to get people out of cars, and then the loss of their cars is counted as a benefit.

“At the same time the benefits and the costs involved are so corrupted to be meaningless. It will take weeks for analysts to tease out what really was done in the way of assumptions to create winners and losers. And there is no effort to tally all the costs exacted on the average household, or the typical business or even governments for that matter. The costs would add up to a permanent recession.”

Unfortunately, this report will likely be widely embraced in the current Administration, which has decided that mobility is a social cost, not a social benefit. The Administration has made a big deal of subverting transportation policy to environmental policy (and increasingly) housing policy objectives.

While reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be considered a legitimate policy goal, these goals need to be balanced with the tremendous social costs and upheavel that would result from the aggressive implementation of the transit, land use, and car reduction strategies outlines in this report.