A Profile in Mass Stupidity Transit--Increasing CO2 Emissions One Bus at a Time

Written by Paul Zannucci on 2:45 PM

These days getting lectured by a talking head about taking mass transit is nearly a constant punishment. With implied finger wagging, we are told that our refusal to hop on the train or bus is adding to anthropogenic global warming and leading to our eventual destruction. Of course, these television versions of the village idiot always have New York, Chicago or some other major city in the background. It matters little to them where the viewers live. We are supposed to find a train or a bus somewhere and hop on. So let me give them a little lesson in midsized town mass stupidity transit.

I live in Knoxville, TN. The county has a bit more than 400,000 people and the CSA has a bit over 1 million. We are often held up as an example of an area that desperately needs public transportation. Our residential and business districts are spread out in a sort of hyperbolic demonstration of the principles of urban sprawl, and we consistently show up in lists of the Top 10 Most Polluted Cities in America. This has more to do with geography than anything, as we border the Smoky Mountains–and not on the lee side. In any event, air quality is an issue here, so our good ole boy network of politicians has seen fit to take a series of steps to address it.

First we have our “Bike to Work” week, which usually takes place in the middle of May. By then, our temperatures are usually in the 80’s and that 40 minute commute in the car (see urban sprawl above) turns into a 4 hour ride/walk/push (see mountains above) that no one with any sense is willing to undertake. Much better is the “Park and Ride” lots where you can leave your car behind and either commute with your buddies or catch a bus. But as far as good ideas go, that’s as good as our mass stupidity transit gets.

A few years ago we started getting daily air quality alerts. If the day was going to be particularly bad for your health, it was announced publicly. The response of our mass transit folks was to offer incentives based on this. If it was a dangerous air day, you got to ride the bus for free (or at a deep discount–I honestly can’t remember). Think about it for a moment. The air is so foul that people are going to emergency rooms with respiratory problems and KAT (Knoxville Area Transit) is encouraging you to stand around outside at a bus stop for 20 minutes.

But that was only stupid. It turns out that there is mass insanity behind the scenes that usually doesn’t see the light of day.

With ridership up this year by over 10% due to rising gas prices, KAT is preparing to sharply reduce the number of routes it serves. Why? Of course it’s the rising cost of diesel and the resulting financial crisis. I wondered, can’t we just pass this rising cost of fuel to the rider like every other business does these days? Like many others, I was baffled. Unlike most, I decided to look into it.

According to a report by NBC affiliate WBIR, “The city pays about half of KAT’s $16,000,000 annual operating budget. State and federal grants cover a quarter. The rest comes from revenue partners like the University of Tennessee and fares from riders.”

Stop and read that sentence again. Less than 25% of the costs to run the program comes from fares. Naturally, this got me to thinking, what are the fares (no, I’ve never ridden the bus)? From another story on WBIR, I discover that the Farragut to Knoxville Express, which is one route under discussion to be cut, costs $1.25. The average distance from Farragut to Knoxville is, according to Mapquest, 15.68 miles. So let’s do some math.

Getting an idea of the mpg that the average KAT bus gets is a rather tricky undertaking and likely for good reasons. The only study I found on the subject showed that a few hybrid electric buses KAT uses get 3.22 mpg. Most of the fleet, however, is just plain diesel. From various sites I read that the average American car gets about 20 mpg. So let’s say I hop in my average car and drive from my home in Farragut to my job in downtown Knoxville. With $4 per gallon gas, it’s going to cost me $6.27 for the day to get to work and back.

According to readily available figures 17,500 people ride the Farragut express every year and there are approximately 2200 trips. This averages out to 7.95, or 8, passengers per bus trip. That means that if you say the average automobile is carrying 1.5 passengers (another readily available figure) then you will end up with these figures:

The car carrying 1.5 passengers is getting essentially an adjusted 30 mpg because of the added half passenger. The bus carrying 8 passengers (the driver doesn’t count because he wouldn’t necessarily be taking the trip if he weren’t employed to do so) at 3.22 mpg is getting essentially 25.76 mpg. Even counting a full extra rider for this year’s ten percent increase (My figures were based on last year), the addition only gets you to 28.98 mpg. And this is assuming that the Farragut line is using one of the hybrid electric buses, which is not at all likely given that most of the buses are not hybrid electric. If the Farragut Express bus is getting, for instance, only 2.5 mpg, then the numbers get ridiculous, with the bus wasting 7.5 mpg over automobile transportation.

Let’s not even get into the fact that the 8 passengers are paying $11.20 for the $19.48 worth of gas (on the hybrid model) it takes to get them downtown. Then you have the driver’s salary. The mechanics. The managers. The marketing department. The accountants. No wonder citizens are up in arms over the idea of ending the route. It’s the best darn deal in town.
Built up into an irrational, global warming frenzy, we in Knoxville are practically ready to take to the streets in order to save the Farragut Express. The reality is something different entirely. KAT is so subsidized that it is virtually an entitlement program, and the CO2 savings are imaginary.

Though I didn’t do the math behind the other proposed route cuts, I’m betting it would come out much the same or worse. And given where KAT’s money comes from, one has to wonder whether some marginal savings in CO2 emissions (given that most buses are not hybrids, I seriously doubt there are any CO2 savings at all) is worth $12 million in federal and state money–and the University of Tennessee, which provides a portion of the funds not counted in the $12 million is also partly funded by state and federal money.

What I thought was going to be an article pointing out the stupidity of cutting bus routes as gas prices go up, became an article questioning whether we needed most bus services at all. These hulking road dinosaurs are a useless money drain. And while I don’t buy into the nonsense surrounding anthropogenic global warming, if I did it would be an even greater reason to question the service. I’m not completely against the idea of public transportation, but I’m definitely of the mind that it needs to be reexamined and retooled or just trashed altogether in mid-sized towns–at least in this one.

Meanwhile, if you are really wanting to save the planet, Superman, consider carpooling. Janet in her 10 mpg Hummer with 6 passengers is blowing that KAT bus away.

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