Utilizing data provided by the National Transit Database, a new study by transportation policy expert Randal O’Toole shows that public transit has been consuming more energy per passenger mile than the average light truck or SUV since 2016.

Passenger vehicles, planes and transit have all been steadily improving in energy efficiency over the last decade.  Yet of the three modes of transportation, only public transit has seen a decrease in energy efficiency per passenger mile.  This is because public transit is the only mode of transportation to see a steady decline in overall ridership that has wiped out any gains made through  energy efficiency.  Transit continues to move fewer and fewer people while transit agencies continue to pour billions into systems to maintain the same miles of service. 

In other words, transit’s decline in ridership is outpacing its increase in energy efficiency.

The only exception to this rule is New York City, whose commuter rail by far moves the most amount of people than any transit system in the country.  Even the second most used commuter rail line, Maryland’s DC Metro, uses 25 percent more energy per passenger mile than the average light truck in 2017. 

Being such an energy hog also means that transit is less greenhouse-efficient in 93 out of the largest 100 urban areas across the country – including Phoenix.  Even more astonishing is the fact in 90 out of the 100 largest urban areas in the nation, it is more greenhouse-friendly to drive a light truck than take public transit. 

Although many politicians, construction interests, and transit agencies continue to peddle the narrative that transit is good for the environment and a worthwhile public investment, the data just doesn’t support this position.

As personal vehicles become more fuel efficient and transportation technology continues to be revolutionized through ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles, outdated modes of pubic transit such as light rail will continue to decline.  Policymakers should see this writing on the wall and discontinue dumping billions into obsolete transit systems that poorly serve the community.