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The Straight Dope: Crooked on Transit

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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I've long been an avid reader of the Chicago Reader's Straight Dope.  Cecil Adams and his minions generally do an admirable job of laying out the facts of the matter on issues large and small.  However, unless it was some kind of extended April Fool's joke whose punch line I missed, he (they?) really punted on the issue of transit vs. car efficiency.  It started back in January when Cecil was asked about mass transit energy consumption.  He started his response with two seemingly contradicting quotes--one from the American Public Transportation Association, and one from Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute--and argues toward an unsatisfying middle by focusing on BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measure of energy) per passenger mile.  His straightforward argument is "true" as far as the numbers go, but completely ignores the problem with point source pollution (i.e. we can achieve economies of scale today via electrification of rapid transit and reduce pollution generally by powering transit with renewable sources, while the infrastructure necessary to do the same with private automobiles is still several years away at best.)

The Straight Dope barely redeems himself by mentioning that the pro-transit argument includes the idea that "transit promotes densely built-up cities, which we know will work from a transportation standpoint. (If all else fails, you can just walk or ride your bike.)" But he ultimately lets his "inner Ayn Rand" effectively side with O'Toole while ignoring the fact that there is no such thing as a free market when it comes to land use.

The ignorance continued on April 1, when he compared the L's energy usage to other mass transit systems around the nation, and then broke down the system by individual line.  First, the comparisons to several of the other systems are unfair and misleading.  New Jersey's PATH system, Boston's T, Philadelphia's SETPA, and LA's LACMTA have a combined 94.2 miles of track, while the L alone has 107.5 miles--this is an order of magnitude difference that wildly overestimates the efficiency of cities that have limited, (albeit high-ridership) transit options at the expense of the CTA's wider coverage area.  DC's Metro Rail numbers are also inflated for a reason I can't quite discern--its single-day ridership record of 1.12 million rides the day of Obama's Inauguration is the only day that system has ever had above their alleged "weekday average ridership" of 935,200.  Plus, all five of Metro's lines run to some pretty-far flung suburbs, so they should all work to drag the system down in the same way Cecil alleges the Purple Line does.  And yet, Metro survives--and at least by ridership metrics, it's thriving.

Finally, I'll be the first to admit that the L does not match the efficiency of New York's Subway--few systems in the world do.  But if we're trying to make the L more efficient, isn't the Chicago-New York disparity an argument for building out the system and encouraging density near stations to reach levels approaching the Big Apple's, not giving everyone a car to commute in by themselves as O'Toole would suggest?

Even more generally, Cecil makes a common and fatal flaw in his argument: he assumes the raison d'ĂȘtre for transit is the environmental advantage it yields over private motorized commuting.  The point of transit--and the entire concept of urbansim/livability/whatever you want to call it--is about fundamentally changing the geometry of how we live our lives.*  If we only take into account travel on an average weekday, we fail to appreciate transit for how it improves our lives 7 days a week, 365 days a year, throughout our lives.  It lets kids who can't yet drive get around without relying on their parents to drive them.  It lets seniors maintain a high standard of living even after they lose the ability to drive themselves around.  Transit lets the rest of us leave the car snugly snowed into a parking spot when the lake effect snow piles up--if we own a car at all.  It keeps drunk drivers from tragically taking lives on the weekends.   And as smart phones and other devices make us more productive during transit, transit gives parents more time to spend with their kids.

If Cecil Adams and Randal O'Toole won't think of the kids, I certainly will (mostly because I still think of myself as one, and I'm selfish that way.)

* Through all this, I haven't even gotten into the fact that paving over all of god's creation just so we can drive and park anywhere at any time is not a sustainable idea.



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