An interesting new Cato study from Randal O’Toole says no:
Rail transit may use less energy, per passenger mile, than buses. But the introduction of rail transit rarely leads to a reduction in bus operations. Instead, buses that once followed the rail corridors are converted to feeder bus routes. So the incremental effect of rail transit on a transit system’s overall energy use can often be to increase consumption per passenger mile.
Most light-rail systems use as much or more energy per passenger mile as the average passenger car, several are worse than the average light truck, and none is as efficient as a Prius. Three emit less greenhouse gases than a Prius, but several emit more greenhouse gases than light trucks.
Since auto efficiency will continue to improve as fuel prices rise and since rail lines have a working life of several decades, the difference is only likely to become greater. O’Toole suggests that improvements in fuels, vehicles, road innovations, and relatively inexpensive bus transit would be much more cost-effective for reducing greenhouse gas emissions than expanded rail service. Some of these improvements would be surprisingly cheap:
San Jose coordinated 223 traffic signals on the city’s most-congested streets at a cost of about $500,000. Engineers estimate that this saves 471,000 gallons of gasoline each year, which translates to a 9.2 million pound reduction in CO2 emissions. That works out to a cost of just 5.4 cents per pound.
At the margin, of course, if your city already has a rail line you’ll reduce your personal carbon footprint by using it. But if it doesn’t, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is probably not a good reason to spend millions of dollars building one.
Consider this my obligatory Earth Day post.