I recently passed a highway billboard offering "A cure for your addiction to oil." It was another example of my tax dollars hard at work: an oversized ad for Madison Metro, the Wisconsin's city bus company. Yes, where once fuel conservation was the moral equivalent of war, it now seems to require a 12-Step program. With the price of sweet, light crude flirting with a $100 a barrel price tag, we're all supposed to get "on the wagon." I mean bus. So, off we got to Auto Owners Anonymous.
I find my group crowded into the bus dispatcher's office of the Madison Metro central garage. Metaphorically speaking, think Louis De Palma's cage from Taxi where the drivers line up to be the butt of insult jokes. The dispatcher's office is where the Q&A session goes down, before we're introduced to rows of engines and transmissions and then meet some two hundred city buses.
A hand goes up. "What kind of gas mileage does a bus get?" It's a patently ridiculous question. Although fuel prices are high, the go-juice needed to run a fleet of buses is only a small fraction of their total operating costs. Tax revenues account for the lion's share of Madison's Metro budget, not fares. But I suppose the high cost of gas is on everyone's mind. Maybe that's because there's a big sign on the back of our local buses asking traffic-trapped motorists if they're "Feeling the pinch at the pump?"
"Oh, about six miles per gallon. The new hybrid buses coming in this year should get about eight or nine."
Discretion being the better part of withstanding politically correct peer pressure, I thought, "Six MPG for a bus in city traffic? Get outta here!" Rivet counting research engineer that I am, I couldn't keep quiet.
"Are you sure? One of your publications spoke of a system average of 30 passenger-miles per gallon. Assuming a load factor of seven to ten passengers, you are likely in the three to four mpg range."
Madison Metro's CEO directed me to the National Transit Database. Transit districts getting government support are required to report their fuel usage, ridership and budget to this central clearing-house. The data is freely available to those willing to spend a chunk of their precious life paging through it. My counselor suggested that I look at Indianapolis, Indiana for comparison.
I looked up the 2003 figures for Madison Metro and Indianapolis along with PACE, the suburban Chicago bus network. The diesel-powered bus mpgs were 3.8, 4.5, and 3.9. The average numbers of passengers per bus were 7.4, 8.1, and 9.6. Taking into account that gasoline has less energy than diesel, the gasoline-equivalent passenger mpgs were 25.3, 32.9, and 33.3. The average trip length was 3.1 miles in Madison, 5.0 miles in Indy, and 6.4 miles for PACE.
Only seven passengers on an average bus? On what planet? Every time I get on the bus, it's standing-room only. Heck, there must be 60 people fighting for my oxygen. And if a bus gets three mpg, I reckon I'm getting 180 mpg on the ride home. What kind of car gets fuel efficiency like that?
But you can't fight the numbers. Car drivers get chastised for driving alone, but buses operate with empty seats too.
I know this for a fact because my employer offers a driving cessation program called "Transportation Demand Management." In other words, I get a free bus pass (discounting taxes). And I've actually used the pass for the five-mile trip home when my wife borrows my car. It's standing room only when I get on. But by the time I get off, I'm the only passenger left, and the bus has a good part of its route yet to finish.
When that bus returns to make another rush-hour outbound trip, either "Out of Service" or running its route, it's probably carrying few to none passengers. Figuring-in off-peak service… I guess the seven passengers per bus average isn't so incredible after all.
Anyway, the Madison Metro bus' estimated 25 mpg ain't bad. It's probably better than a lot of people get from their ride, especially on a three-mile trip. That said, it's not out of reach for a Civic or Corolla driver, and you don't have to pay for the bus driver's pension. Oh wait, you do, either way. Never mind.
The signs on the sides of Madison Metro buses show people enjoying expensive warm-weather vacations, asking "What would you do with the $7k a year you could save by taking Madison Metro?" Even after therapy, I'd take that $7000 and make lease payments on a nice, roomy SUV so I won't have to park my backside in a too-narrow transit seat and travel to work in bodily contact with a stranger. Clearly, I need more help.