Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

US, Mass Transit & Gas Prices.

  1. Jul 21, 2008 #1
    With gas at $4 or higher some people are starting to ask:

    Why on earth did we buy a car like this?

    Well, a lot of people once did. In fact, until late 2004, a lot of people went out of their way to buy precisely these monsters because -– if you can believe it -– the government actually offered a tax break for buying a car that weighed over 6,000 pounds if you were self-employed and needed it to transport heavy work machinery. Like farm equipment. Or a laptop.
    Futility Vehicle, New York Times Blog, July 10, 2008

    Government policies can shape people's choices. They are not the only factor of course, but clearly it's time to rethink the kinds of energy usage we're encouraging. Some of the time things go in the right direction despite government intervention and inaction. For example, ridership on mass transit is increasing because of high gas prices, but many cities are having trouble keeping up with demand. Mass transit is a pragmatic and effective response to our oil dilemma and to concerns about global warming. The US is far behind other rich countries in terms of mass transit infrastructure. This is, in part, due to the inexpensive and abundant energy we've had for much of this century. Over the past half century, we have used energy, especially oil, in a wasteful manner and now, with world wide demand surging and production leveling off, the cost is going through the roof. We need to expand and fund less energy intensive forms of transportation so that our economy, and our cities can continue to function. We need to find new ways of producing energy and use the energy we produce in more effective ways. Mass transit is one part of the solution here.

    Unless you live in NYC or perhaps San Francisco, your experiences with mass transit have probably been rather negative. There is no reason why this needs to be the case. There is some new legislation out that is addressing this very issue.

    The legislation provides emergency federal aid for transit systems and promotes the use of alternative fuels. No Senate version of the bill has emerged, but Hanley, a former Staten Island bus driver, remains optimistic. "This legislation moved quickly through the House because members of Congress recognize that this is a crisis."

    Hanley believes the benefits of federal support for mass transit are wide-ranging and more effective than alternatives currently being discussed. "Congress can cut a 'fiscal stimulus' check so Americans can go to Wal-Mart and buy products made in China or we can 'Drill, Drill, Drill,' for six months-worth of oil," Hanley said. But, if the federal government really wants "to stimulate local economies, help the environment and strengthen national defense by reducing oil dependence, it's hard to find a better public investment than mass transit."
    Rising Fuel Costs and Ridership Strain Local Transit Systems Nationwide, StreetsBlog.com

    We face a lot of daunting challenges in transportation over the next few years. But, I know we'll be able to rise up and meet the challenges. Ridership is visibly up on the subway and commuter lines here in NYC. You can see it happening. So, the only questions is: Will we be able to adjust fast enough to meet people's needs and keep our cities and our economy functioning?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 21, 2008 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    And the result will be billions of $ voted for massive new construction schemes that will take 10years to do the permits for and then they will build monorails to places nobody wants to go.

    Alternate plan, remove the tax from gas used on buses and allow anyone with a commercial driving licence to start a bus company, in 24hours you will have a service optomised for where/when people want to travel.
  4. Jul 21, 2008 #3
    It's very hard to let private companies run mass transit.

    1. It is hard to turn a profit, look at the airlines, amtrak, etc. The capital costs are very high and the profits are slim and fickle.
    2. Private companies do not provide enough coverage, they concentrate on a few routes and fail to build ridership. We need transportation system not just disjoint routes. This requires regional planning-- regional planning in NYC is the reason why the entire city is connected, and why one may transfer between services with relative ease. Private companies tend to discourage the kind of transit use that allows people to do away with cars altogether.
    3. You are right, it costs a lot and takes time, but the same is true for private companies. Public agencies hold open bidding for these projects and the costs to build is pretty much the same.
  5. Jul 21, 2008 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Most US airlines don't make a profit because of 'Holywood accounting' - it's actually more profitable to be in chapter11 than not. It's easy to turn a profit running commercial transit systems if the infrastructure is there - ever seen a state taxi?

    Good - they will concentrate on routes/times when people want to use them.
    Goverment run systems are based on either politics or soviet style 5years plans
    Local goverments can offer subsidies to enable rural routes etc.
    Where I grew up in the UK in the 70s we had very cheap subsidised buses (fares were 10c for adults and 2c for children, the only reason they weren't free was the fare collectors union!)
    But the system was highly political, so frequent routes to serve social housing estates (voters) but no buses to shopping centres (businesses are bad M'kay)

    When I lived in LA there was a light rail to the airport, but it stopped several miles short so as not to be unfair competition to the taxi/car hire companies.
    This is usually the trickiest part - when I lived in London the Rail/Underground/Buses where all run by the goverment. Unfortunately they were all run by different levels of goverment and so the times didn't match and the tickets didnt' transfer.

    It's not a question of who builds new lines, it's that goverment tends to like megaprojects over pragmatic solutions.

    Here in Vancouver we have buses every 10mins to the airport, but they stop about 5km short of the airport where you have to transfer to the parking shuttle. The bus then continues to a major suburb so is always busy.
    Obvious solution make one bus/hour to be direct to airport, goverment solution spend $1B on a monorail and dig up the main shopping street for 5years to build it. Then charge 3x as much as the bus.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2008
  6. Jul 21, 2008 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    In summary
    Things that work:
    HOV lanes + free car parks at on-ramps to encourage car pooling
    Make it easier for small minibus/shared taxi operators.

    Things that don't help:
    Light rail systems that take 10years to plan and another 10 to build and are then too expensive to use.

    Things that make it worse:
    New freeways ( M25 anyone? )
  7. Jul 21, 2008 #6
    Just because YOUR light rail didn't work won't mean it's a bad idea for other places. NYC could use about 99 new light rail lines in Queens and Brooklyn. Cleveland's line needs expanding. That's off of the top of my head.

    Meh. Better planning can fix these things.
  8. Jul 21, 2008 #7
    The light rail in the Bay Area in California works well. The one they are planning to make in Seattle is a bad idea because it's like billions of dollars over budget and useless stuff like that. Pretty ridiculous.

    But in the long run light rails might be a good idea.

    More buses, too.
  9. Jul 21, 2008 #8
    Taxis? How do they solve anything? They are expensive and just as bad as regular cars, probably worse because if you call for on it has to come to you first.
  10. Jul 21, 2008 #9


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    My point was that small business generally meet a demand, taxis are the ultimate in small scale transport (with the possible exception of rickshaws)
    If the same companies ran mini-buses they would be optomised to run where/when customers wanted them, instead of buss routes being planned 5 years in advance by transit authorities. This works pretty well in most of the 3rd world.

    Light rail systems are almost always built where a bus service would be better, due to:
    Busses are assocaited with poor people.
    Spending $B is more fun than buying a few extra busses.
    Big projects attract publicity, publicity = votes
    You can do fact finding visits to exotic locations to look at their monorail.
    Construction companies give kick-backs.

    Occaisonally someone builds a light rail where it really needed an underground but the light rail was quicker and cheaper and a way of being seen to do something. eg Docklands Ligth Railway -> Jubilee line extention in London.
  11. Jul 22, 2008 #10
    We need a long term mass transit infrastructure regardless of fuel prices.

    Those who have jobs that do not require them to be at a location in person should be able to work from home. I don't believe it should be mandated but there should be incentives to encourage this.

    There is going to be a certain level of congestion that people will tolerate. Maybe a line should be drawn that requires a mass transit infrastructure of a particular sophistication when that level is exceeded.
  12. Jul 22, 2008 #11
    Is there any way to create a working 3D freeway? With like layers and stuff? Or maybe a tube that cars could stick to and say drive on the walls or something? We're stuck with 2D roads and that's what's killing us.
  13. Jul 22, 2008 #12
    Someday possibly. There are 3-D parking garages. You pull into a compartment and your car is lifted out of the way revealing another compartment for the next car.
  14. Jul 22, 2008 #13
    My experiences with mass transit in New York and San Francisco have been rather negative, it just happens that my experiences with driving have been even worse.
  15. Jul 22, 2008 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Buses are lousy mass transport w/ regards to energy. Best: vanpool, worst: demand response like taxis.

    DoE Transportation Energy Data Book
    Chapter 2, Energy
    Table 2.12, pg 2-14

    Energy used (BTUs) per passenger per mile
    Rail, commuter: 2996 (15% better than cars)
    Cars: 3512, Personal Trucks: 3944
    Buses: 4235 (20% worse than cars)
    Demand Response, i.e. dispatched vehicles: 13925
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2008
  16. Jul 22, 2008 #15


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Don't forget mass transit won't work in many American cities because the traffic is not going from the suburbs into a centralized "downtown" area.

    Where I live we don't have any mass transit because most business have sprung up in little clumps in the suburbs. The problem is that just because there is a large business complex in your area, you might work in the business complex 60 miles away. And the traffic is all over the place.

    American cities, particularly the ones that have had a lot of recent growth, were planned for cars to be driven from many to many locations. In other words there was no planning.
  17. Jul 23, 2008 #16


    Staff: Mentor

    You are absolutely right about this. The current suburb/commuter lifestyle that is so common in the US is almost a direct result of decades of cheap oil and lots of land. It is not trivial to adapt this result to a new reality of expensive oil. Also, European and metropolitan solutions are not appropriate either, the geography and population density are different and require different solutions. Here are my two ideas:

    Telecommuting: I think that high gas prices will cause an very rapid expansion of the number of people doing telecommuting. Most businesses already have conference line services, desktop sharing software, and even video conferencing. There is very little that really needs to be done in person at a typical commuter's workplace. Plus, most people who do it like it, and quickly learn to be effective and productive without always being physically in the office.

    Personal rapid transit: PRT is the only mass transit system that has any chance of significantly replacing the automobile in America, imo.

    First, it is the only system that is cheap enough to build that it could cover suburban sprawl. It is cheap to build because the vehicles are small (e.g. 2 people) and lightweight so the guideways can also be light. For the price of a single light-rail line you could potentially build a whole network of PRT transit. This solves the main problem of light rail that it only goes from A to B. Also, PRT systems are typically elevated so that they can be built on existing rights-of-way, further reducing the cost of the system.

    Second, Americans are getting very risk-averse in almost every aspect of their lives. The one exception is their automobiles. We seem to love them more than life itself! With typical elevated guideways and automatic computer control PRT is inherently safe. Also, most designs are inherently weather-proof which reduces one large source of danger.

    Third, it is the most environmentally-friendly mass transit that I know about. As shown above busses are even worse than cars, and light-rail simply is not going to be able to service a typical American suburb. With such light-weight vehicles PRT will put a much larger portion of its energy budget into moving people rather than into moving vehicles.

    Finally, it is the only mass transit system that is likely to appeal to Americans who, frankly, are in love with their cars. The major reason that people love their cars is the personal freedom that it gives: they can go wherever they want to go whenever they want. PRT allows this same freedom (on the network), whereas busses and light rail require you to regiment your life around someone else's timetable. Americans have been spoiled and are unlikely to give up their whenever-wherever freedom easily.
  18. Jul 24, 2008 #17
    In California there is a government project dedicated to studying and promoting telecommuting.
    The busses around here run on natural gas. I'm sure it still uses alot of energy but I'd imagine it is more 'environmentally friendly' yes?
    It's not exactly being spoilt. For some maybe. I used the bus system for quite some time. I was generally able to get where ever I wanted to go unless it was quite a ways away. The only major issue with getting places for running errands, grocery shopping, and such was that I necessarily had to keep my purchases to a minimum. I often had to seperate errands and shopping into multiple trips and on different days, especially for additional shopping/errands outside of my normal route and schedule.
    The major issue I had though was scheduling. At my last job by the time I got off work almost all of the busses had stopped running. I had to walk a half hour to the one running bus route, wait about forty five minutes for the bus to get there, then after it took me halfway home I had to spend another hour walking.
    At my current job I work in different locations some of which I am only able to work at now because I have a car to take me there. I work graveyard at this job and scheduling was almost worse an issue than at my last job. There were nights that I got off work and had to wait hours for the busses to start running so I could get home. On some weekend nights when I was scheduled earlier and the busses run on a shorter schedule I resorted to taking taxis home so I didn't have to sit at a bus stop for four or five hours waiting for them to start running. Between having to be sure to catch busses on time, sitting around for hours waiting for busses, getting less sleep, and worrying about whether or not I would be able to get all of my errands done it was an incredibly stressful time for me. It was also depressing since I had little time for anything else but going to work and doing errands.
  19. Jul 24, 2008 #18


    Staff: Mentor

    That's good to hear. I hope that telecommuting takes off in a big way. Even an ideal transportation system isn't going to beat the internet in terms of speed or energy. I work from home about 50% and really love it.

    I'm sorry to hear that, that sounds really difficult. I'm telling you, one of the biggest advantages of PRT is the "whenever wherever" service. No other mass transit system has that. I really think that getting rid of schedules is the key to significantly reducing commuter traffic with mass transit. Imagine how much better your life would have been if you could have essentially paid mass transit fares for taxi service.
  20. Jul 24, 2008 #19


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Frankly, that is hand waving.
    Please note that Canadians use more transportation energy per capita than US citizens (or than anyone else) I suggest that is because Canada, just like America, is geographically huge, with people spread out over the country, and not because they are 'spoiled'.
  21. Jul 24, 2008 #20


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yes, much more friendly in terms of CO2 and other traditional pollutants (sulfates, NOx), and its a much more domestic source.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: US, Mass Transit & Gas Prices.
  1. The Price of Freedom (Replies: 1)

  2. The Price of Victory (Replies: 37)

  3. Oil price (Replies: 1)

  4. Oil Prices (Replies: 2)