The Melbourne Urbanist, Alan Davies, commented on my commentary about rail cost benefit analysis:
I don’t fully get your argument about the relative impact of high energy prices on transit agencies and drivers, maybe you could expand on that one day?
Of course higher energy costs will affect drivers–we see it all it the time as gasoline prices change. If we can get our transit vehicles full of people, there’s no doubt that we can use less energy per person than if every person uses a car.
So the “relative impact” here in Alan’s question has more than one dimension. On the one hand, many transit advocates believe that higher energy prices are good for transit companies because it changes the relative prices between transit and cars. And transit companies sometimes do very clever things, too, to help reinforce that point: LA Metro, for example, is lowering its fares and doing a bunch of other promotions over the summer to try to get more gas-shocked drivers to jump on board. For transit companies operating half-empty vehicles, the marginal cost of serving another person is very small. If you are operating the vehicle anyway, it’s better for you if it’s full. For advocates, increasing the demand for the service is where they begin and end thinking about transit operations (and this has been a pressing issue, but it’s not the only issue.)
However, transit companies will also feel a pinch in higher energy costs in their operating expenses. Transit companies have a lot of energy-related costs, not just costs associated with powering their service. Even if all their own employees take rail transit (which they don’t, which means that transit companies will have to compensate labor differently than in low-cost energy contexts), they have maintenance and construction obligations, and all of those inputs rely in turn on energy inputs that are unrelated to the relative efficiency of transit itself as a mode.
While we can be happy about the energy efficiency of rail transit, high energy prices will hit transit companies every time they deploy service vehicles (a lot in big systems) and with every construction and maintenance project that requires materials (all of them).
The transit company’s service, then, may be cheap relative to driving, but the agency’s fixed and operating costs are going to go up vis-a-vis higher energy costs.
Transit companies are therefore going to be an environment where they are facing higher demand and higher costs. Because transit companies are not recovering a full share of the operating costs from passengers, the question for how well they fare under increasing cost and demand scenarios depends a lot on policy. Either they will raise fares (decreasing their price advantage over cars), find a stable and sustainable source of operating subsidy (my favorite), or they will cut service (or cut service and raise fares).
Finally, I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to understand that buses matter to operations. In all the rock throwing between bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail, the very important role that buses have in supporting rail networks has gotten lost.
Even if people like me to stop objecting to every money-gobbling light rail project in every little podunk Portland-wannabe mid-size city that has been losing population since 1940, we still need good-quality bus services to support train operations, even in cities where the subways are king. Ever notice how many buses there are all over high-transit usage towns, even though there are a lot of trains?
Good quality transit requires both trains and buses, and buses require fuel. When fuel gets expensive, transit companies will feel that, too. Atlanta cut down its bus service after it invested in its light rail, and it lost riders instead of gaining them. That’s the sort of thing that could easily happen to places that cut their buses hoping that people will be able to make do with the rail service alone: in many, many systems, they can’t.