Energy and cost efficiency of different forms of transportation

“Lesson From The A380 And California HSR: Smaller Is Better In Transportation” (Forbes), by Brad Templeton, contains a lot of interesting numbers:

In the Department of Energy Transport Energy Data Book you will see some surprising numbers. For example, for transit buses you’ll see that the average American bus uses 4,102 BTUs per passenger-mile, while the average car uses 2,939. (A gallon of gasoline is around 115,000 BTUs.) Yes, US bus ridership is so poor that it would use less energy to move all bus riders in cars, at the national average of 3 people for 2 cars. You don’t even need to fill all the seats, and the cars are just average efficiency. The Toyota Prius is twice as efficient as that average car. People driving around alone in hybrid cars out-green the bus system.

You can compare what you would guess is an efficient electric train, the New York MTA subway. The DoE reports it uses 503 BTUS (of electricity, not heat) per passenger-mile. Even measuring the heat, that’s better than those cars and buses, but about the same as that Prius.

Looking at the MTA again, it spends about $16B to for 13B passenger miles, or $1.23 per passenger mile. Typical car ownership costs in the USA for late model cars is 50-60 cents per vehicle-mile, plus parking. Drivers get subsidies (though they pay gas taxes and other taxes for the roads) but the MTA isn’t paying for its tunnels either.

This is consistent with what I’ve heard from other sources: The idea of building and maintaining rails is obsolete for passenger transportation.

Separately, the article covers the demise of the Airbus A380, which saddens me because I’ve heard that it had the lowest level of cabin noise of any airliner ever produced (the A350 is a close second) and I never got to experience it (there have been some A380 flights in and out of Boston, but they are not common).

Maybe the countries that say they are morally obligated to assist refugees will snap up all of the A380s and send them out daily to pick up 1,000 refugees at a time from the world’s poorest and most troubled regions. If you are sincere about wanting to help people, why demand that they walk 1,000 miles to get that help?

7 thoughts on “Energy and cost efficiency of different forms of transportation

  1. Very! interesting article. Having lived in a big city (actually two, and the suburbs of a third) I never ran the numbers but I always had the feeling that the subway system was less efficient in terms of raw dollars per mile. Great, but any cars I owned always wound up being more expensive overall because of parking, insurance, garage fees, damage, tickets, boot fees, impound fees, smash/grab break ins (I had one) and so forth. Once you’ve been booted a few times and fully appreciated the power of -ex mayor Daley’s ARMY of tow trucks and boot vehicles, you get the message. Also, Lake Shore Drive in Chicago was an atrocious parking lot in the morning and evening, even moreso when the weather was bad.

    If there had been comfortable, reliable and safe 8 passenger autonomous vans and a smart way to dispatch them, I’d have loved it, I definitely would have used it. I made the same trip almost every day for years and so did most of the people who lived in my building. In an earlier post I talked about how I guesstimated that if you could cut the number of passenger cars and SUVs on LSD by 1/3rd, you could save everyone enough time+money+heartache that people would do it. People could then drive on Lake Shore Drive because they wanted to, not because they hated to, but felt they had to.

    Three things about the article: First, I appreciate how he uses the word “desires” instead of “needs” when it comes to talking about the future of transportation. I’m getting altogether tired of people who want to tell me what my “needs” are, try to figure them out in advance for me, then force me to live with what they figure I “need”. I hope his employer really feels the same way.

    Second thing: The MTA may run a subway system in New York that compares favorably in terms of BTUs per passenger mile with Japanese trains, but whew, it needs a Lot of work and I’ll bet that cost is going to go up.

    Third thing: The author is truly a blast from the past who has seen the future and come back to tell us about it. It’s nice to see him again.
    — The bulk of VisiPlot for the IBM-PC from Mitch Kapor’s design — (!!!) I remember! I remember!

    Fourth thing: Yeah, it’s sad to see the A380 go as a piece of aviation history and technology. I always wondered whether the economics would hold up over time. Now we know.

  2. Sad news about A380, great plane – I traveled on it once Vancouver-London. It’s so huge inside that from the middle isle in business class (there are partitions on the side of the seats) you don’t see outside at all, it feels like being on the train in the tunnel – you know it travels, but there is no frame of reference. Is it really the quietest? I though Dreamliner claimed to be the quietest, which I haven’t traveled on yet, funny enough there are very few Dreamliner flights from Seattle 🙂

    747 seems to be doing fine. Over the years second deck on 747 grew in size, one thing which puzzles me is why they haven’t extend it to full length of the plane effectively making first full two-decker. Sutter’s excellent book claims that they were not going to put in second deck initially and in the first version of the plane it was really small to enable front-loading of the cargo version. But then, once they started to get it extended, why not go all the way. 🙂

    Anyway, the point of mass transit subsidized by our taxes is not to be more effective than car, the point is to get other people off the road so people who can afford it can drive around and not be in the permanent traffic jam.

    • is my source for the A380 being super quiet. The journal article cited gives some numbers that aren’t consistent with what I’ve measured using $200 meters. The B737 number is about 5 dBA higher, for example. It is surprising how tough it is to get real numbers! There is a fair amount of variation within each airplane, as well, e.g., window versus aisle, front versus back, near doors, etc.

  3. Sorry couldn’t help myself.. another tangent for your curiosity:

    A Texas Mystery: Small Town Has 1,000 Registered Aircraft But No Airport

    WFAA, an ABC-affiliated television station, has revealed a secret in a small East Texas town called Onalaska, which has more than 1,000 registered aircraft – and no airport. The investigation found planes were registered to two standard post office boxes in Onalaska.

    According to the most recent government data, the town had a population of 2,755, indicating that there were enough registered aircraft for nearly 37% of its residents.

  4. A few qualifiers on the NYC comparisons:

    1. The $16B MTA budget (actually, $17B) includes huge capital expenses ( and, so it really shouldn’t be compared with car ownership costs.

    2. That budget also includes bus and commuter rail operations, which are especially inefficient.

    3. All that said, even the subway doesn’t even come close to recouping its operating costs. But a large part of that is not intrinsic to rail operations, but is instead a result of political power of the labor unions; e.g., NYC is one of the very few subways in the world that still has a two-person crew on each train because conductors “need” to open/close the doors. And then of course, there’s the whole matter of paying above-market wages to almost all of its 74,000 system-wide employees (to say nothing of contractors). The queues for conductor job vacancies are comparable to the queues for New Yorkers who want to live in subsidized “affordable housing”.

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