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In Depth

Policy
| 01/08/15

Quantifying the benefits of public transit

TCE

Public transit is a big part of many climate policies, but what exactly are the benefits of a good transit system? For one, it’s safer than a car: A new study from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute finds that better transit equals fewer traffic fatalities. Transit-oriented cities (such as Vancouver) with multi-modal transportation and high-density housing close to major routes have about one fifth the traffic fatality rate per capita as car-oriented cities with less effective transit (such as Houston, Texas). With transportation making up 24 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributions, riders can feel good knowing they’re staying safe while helping the climate. That is, of course, so long as it actually does. Interestingly, public transit may not actually reduce the number of cars on the road. Other research finds that latent demand for space on roads means that when more people take transit, others who had been dissuaded from driving by congestion will begin to drive until the road is again at capacity (although there is some evidence from a 2003 transit strike in Los Angeles that transit reduces congestion along roads that parallel major transit corridors). But how can we know the effectiveness of transit at reducing GHGs if there seem to be just as many cars on the road? One strategy measures emissions per passenger-mile, or a person’s emissions when traveling a mile by car versus public transit. Heavy rail such as subways and trains produce 76 per cent fewer emissions per passenger mile than a car; buses produced 33 per cent fewer.

Metro Vancouver has long been touted as ‘green’ district, but spurred by increasing traffic congestion problems, it is tackling the transit question head on. A Translink fare hike and reduction of some services left passengers disgruntled last year and plans for future transit are in limbo. The Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council has proposed a tax increase in order to fund future transit plans, and will hold a public referendum in March. The proposed plans include a new SkyTrain line down Broadway, more buses, and light rail in Surrey. Proponents say the changes are needed to solve the problem of congestion. The evidence suggests it may or may not help that issue – but strategic planning and fuel-efficient transit will definitely help the climate.

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