By on February 12, 2008

tulipbus.jpegI 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.

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55 Comments on “Do Buses Save Gas?...”

  • avatar

    The big confounding factor here is that buses can (and sometimes do) help support greater population densities, by eliminating some of the need for cars and parking — somewhat at the residential end, often a bit more at the destination end. With greater densities, trip distances can go down. So the effective comparison becomes something like this — Option 1: A three mile bus trip, at 25 passenger miles per gallon; Option 2: A six mile car trip, at 25 passenger miles per gallon. Option 1 consumes half the fuel, even though the passenger mpg number is the same, due to reduced trip distances.

    You also have to figure that, practically speaking, the bus systems in most cities are in place and are not going to vanish. Thus, their fuel consumption is largely fixed even if ridership goes up — subject to minor increases for carrying extra weight, making a few more stops, and possibly adding a few extra peak-hour trips. Each additional commuter who’s convinced to switch is therefore not bumping up consumption by a gallon for gas for each 25 miles he rides. Rather, he is enjoying the benefit of gas that’s already going to be burned anyway, and pushing up the passenger-mpg numbers by his presence.

    This is not to say the buses are all that good. You are right that they are often crowded at rush hour, and lack personal space or amenity. They are subject to the same traffic delays on the streets as everyone else is (except when there are dedicated busways), plus they also have to make stops for passengers to board and disembark. They often take local roads for their whole journey, never using expressways (except some express and suburban routes), and it is often the case that even a trafficky expressway is faster than local roads. They tie riders to a fixed schedule and an effective “curfew” if the system shuts down at night. Older buses run on diesel and often create a big stink — not good for urban air quality.

    A bus system with halfway reasonable ridership saves gas, by returning an acceptable (not spectacular) passenger-mpg number, and by shortening trip distance. Given an existing system that won’t go away, making the personal choice to switch definitely does save gas. But given the way buses operate, making the switch will likely cost you. In my experience, buses are most heavily utilized when they serve areas with severe parking limitations (either low availability or high price), even if they don’t make for fast trips, and, in a virtuous/vicious cycle, help sustain such low-parking areas. Dedicated busways can help with speed and make buses more time-competitive, but can be very costly if designed to adequately get around all the major urban bottlenecks one is likely to encounter. A busway system that economizes by not bypassing the bottlenecks is a waste of time.

  • avatar

    I read several years ago a study RTD in denver did. They concluded that some of their routes had such low ridership it would save RTD money to cancel the routes and just pick up the tab for a taxi to go pickup the few riders out there. I would love to see the MPG equivalent numbers for the light rail there.

  • avatar

    The only fair way to compare mpg equivalents is to review an bus system’s entire passenger per mile count. A bus can dead-head out in the morning (carry no fares) and return with 38 passengers, head out again with five, return again with 38 and so on. The results vary with each route and region’s population density. Once you factor in the reduced congestion on the road, as all these people aren’t driving themselves – the mpg an individual person can achieve can climb above 40 mpg in average American cities. Way above in New York or LA, especially if the system uses hybrid buses.

  • avatar


    I live in Madison as well and find those numbers interesting. My 2006 325i gets 22-23 mpg around town … the bus only gets 2 more? Thanks, but I’ll pass.

  • avatar

    I heard that municipal bus operators would be better off not getting hybrid technology. The argument is that the extra money should be spent getting more of the older diesel buses off the road, which yields lower fleet fuel costs and less overall maintenance costs.

    Many transit systems like to sell flashy stuff like “Hybrid” to claim the higher moral ground.

    Buses are a poor mans transit system anyway. Light rail and subways combined with land use zoning that encourages density is the only long term solution.

    Also, North America has a love affair with noisy buses. They don’t need to be that way, but why are people not complaining about noise pollution with these things?

  • avatar

    PA is trying to lay tolls on I-80 to pay for the costs of the “people movers”, SEPTA raised fares last fall yet was sitting on a 81.3 million dollar nest egg left over from a government stimulus package. Nice.

  • avatar

    Another factor to consider is routing efficiency. One is rarely able to travel directly from point A to point B on a bus system. Normally the passenger is traveling a further distance in bus-miles to get where they are going than they would if they drove a personal car. Thus, not all miles are created equal.

    I also wonder about pollution. Buses are held to much lower pollution standards than are personal automobiles.

  • avatar

    Buses do not compete with cars, in gas mileage alone, but……
    If you include the cost of gas for your car, the payments on the car, insuring your car and parking your car.
    Do the math. If you suppose a minimum 1 gallon per day usage in the commute. The cost is approximately and a $30.00 parking fee. $1000 insurance and $3,500 in payments, you are talking $12,500 / year to drive into the city everyday. This of course assumes that you have a car just to drive into work. I know several city dwellers who rent cars when they need them. They, of course, do not live in the suburbs

    Oh but I forget, this is a site for car owners, not bus riders. Oh well, the argument still stands.

    jthorner. Most cities I have travelled in run routes that are like spokes on a wheel, from the center of the city, because that is how most commuters used to travel. I know that is changing, but the majority run that way

  • avatar

    Rail is more comfortable and often faster, but buses follow the street and thus provide better access to homes and businesses. IMO street trolleys would be better than buses or light rail. We used to have lots of electric trolleys, but GM sabotaged them a long time ago.

    This link compares emissions by travel type:

    and this link explains the methodology:

  • avatar

    GSP –
    Getting rid of an old diesel is great for the environment, but many agencies can’t simply let them go. Federal and state funds frequently come with use mandates, for buses it’s usually around ten years.

    Hybrids are pretty flashy. A typical diesel bus is around $250,000. A diesel-electric hybrid averages $350,000. The premium is fat. A 20% increase in mileage, for a vehicle that puts on 30,000 miles a year, saves a company around $4,000 a year. Many claim some additional savings in maintenance, believe it or not. Still, that’s the kind of investment only a not-for-profit can make.

  • avatar

    They concluded that some of their routes had such low ridership it would save RTD money to cancel the routes and just pick up the tab for a taxi to go pickup the few riders out there.

    That’ll never happen – taxi drivers aren’t politically protected unionized civil servants. In NY, transit unionists make UAW workers look like U of Chicago Economics grads.

    The sad thing is that the technology exists to increase efficiencies in bus and other types of mass transit. Flex-sized fleets / GPS / cellular registration of pending trips (for a discount) come to mind. But many of the luddites running transit systems would rather melt the ice caps than change.

  • avatar

    Don’t forget Ethanol will save the day and cure our ill gotten reliance on Oil well at least according to our President (why question him on anything?) and GM (they’ve never steered us wrong in their own best interests). Oh wait those buses would get only 2 mpg if it was E85. What a paradox.

  • avatar

    Very interesting editorial! Thanks for doing the legwork.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Atlanta has a very interesting transit system.

    Unlike most other statewide systems, EVERY SINGLE METRO COUNTY, has their very own unique one. There were actually a few benefits to this arrangement believe it or not.

    The first is that unlike the City of Atlanta, most of the buses are situated towards commuting centers and main strips. You aren’t going to see buses go to the boondocks, and you won’t have to endure an hour plus commute period to get to where you want to go.

    I’ve actually used the bus system to pick up a vehicle at auctions in the Airport area and even as far away as Union City. If I buy one at the sales and don’t want to pay $60 to get the vehicle hauled, this is actually a decent alternative. The total cost of the 30+ to 40+ mile commute has been about $1.25. It’s been $1.50 starting this year but I’ve had other dealers and friends pick up vehicles for me instead. In fact, I haven’t done that trip in well over six months.

    It is quite possible that you can live in certain parts of rural/metro Atlanta without a car. I have a Yamaha Riva that I use during the warmer parts of the year to go through the winding one lane roads around my neck of the woods. It gets close to 90 mpg and can go 60 mph. With a removable plastic container in back (secured in the developing world style with two bungee cords) I can get a weeks worth of groceries for the family without worrying about bags. There’s also a bus that goes directly to Atlanta (no stops other than the one rail system) only seven miles away from my home.

    To be honest, taking the bus all the time would suck. But give me a good web connection and a cup of coffee, and I’d deal with it. Or, I can take the 98 Jetta TDI with three passengers in tow, get three vehicles picked up ($0 – $20 per drive), and save an awful lot more money and time.

    The scooter is fun. The bus is fine for a worldwide oil crisis. The Jetta is the best… even if it’s made by Volkswagen.

  • avatar

    Have mercy indeed. I can barely stand to carpool with friends to work; forget riding the bus. Adds way too much time to the work day. In fact when I was a student with no car I walked/biked to class and work rather than ride the bus. Maybe there’s a utopian city out there with happy bus rides, but most places I’ve been the bus is an often stinky sometimes dangerous place to be.

  • avatar

    Steven Lang
    The first is that unlike the City of Atlanta, most of the buses are situated towards commuting centers and main strips. You aren’t going to see buses go to the boondocks, and you won’t have to endure an hour plus commute period to get to where you want to go.

    I have to disagree with you there, Steven. When I was taking the bus into downtown Atlanta every day (it seems like a lot longer than just a month ago that I was doing that), it took an average of an hour and a half to make the trip home (21 miles away) in the afternoons. The buses are great in that they save money for regular commuters but they’re still susceptible to traffic snarls just like anyone else on the road here at rush hour.

    But give me a good web connection and a cup of coffee, and I’d deal with it.

    And no eating or drinking allowed on the commuter buses – at least the CCT ones.

  • avatar

    PACE? They’re comparing against PACE!? Population density may be comparable, but Madison is a Metro area with a sizeable University. PACE operates nearly exclusively in a suburban area. When I see a PACE bus, I am surprised if there are any riders at all.

  • avatar
    Paul Milenkovic


    Actually, PACE beats Madison Metro in passenger load and hence passenger miles per gallon. The trip lengths are longer, in line with the lower population density of Suburban Chicago, but in that sense PACE is more productive.

  • avatar

    Only seven passengers on an average bus? On what planet? Every time I get on the bus, it’s standing-room only.
    Of course it’s most crowded when you’re using it. That’s almost a tautology.

    The biggest issue with using public transportation to get from my home to point X is that I have to use public transportation to get back home. Even small issues with reliability become major when they strand me away from home.

    I’ve spent the majority of my adult life without a car, so I know exactly how public transportation works, and how it doesn’t. A lot of it sucks, and needs to be redesigned.

  • avatar

    I think one way to increase bus ridership would be to serve cocktails and hors d’œuvres en route.

  • avatar

    I used to use the bus all the time in Boulder (serviced by Denver’s RTD mentioned above) and it was great. On the routes I used, they ran small buses (less than 2/3 the size of a standard bus) but ran them every 10 minutes. It was much faster to take the bus anywhere than it was to drive because the bus system was well designed and you only had to wait at most 10 minutes for a bus. Then they switched to full size hybrid buses and moved the schedule back to 30 minutes. Now the bus is completely useless for me and I haven’t ridden it in 3 years. Transportation planners need to think about convenience because I bet the system with more smaller buses had a much higher ridership than the new way.

  • avatar

    The ferry system out here in the Seattle area offers the same peak ridership experience that metro buses do. The early morning and late afternoon “Cattle Car” ferries offer standing room only (thanks, guy laying down and sleeping on the bench), while the other non-peak runs would have trouble getting enough players for a pick-up game of baseball.

  • avatar

    As someone who currently completely relies on public transport, in a city where the public transport is pretty darn good (Frankfurt am Main), I can say without any doubt, I hate it.

    For most people, it is probably fine, but having a car pretty much cuts your traveling time in half, and even moreso the longer distance you travel. Also, even though there are U-Bahn stations littering the city, its about a 10 minute walk from my apartment to the nearest one. Add on a 25 minute journey that should only take 15, and you have yourself a frustrated passenger. Oh and if you happen to find yourself out past 1 am on the weekend (’cause who does that, right?) be prepared to take the night bus, i.e. a bus full of drunks that will drop you off a mile from your apartment. Not a fun walk.

    Mostly for me though, its the freedom of being able to go where I want, when I want. That’s why I’ve been scouring the neat for a cheap E30…

  • avatar

    I’m very willing to sacrifice quicker travel times if you can make the bus ride convenient and comfortable.

    Instead of driving for 30 minutes, if I could walk 2 minutes to sit in a pod that is picked up and dropped with 2 minutes of my work place, with a total time of 1 hour, I’d do it gladly. I could read or sleep during that time.

    Switching busses or trains sucks big time. It means that a breakdown in either line leaves me stranded.

  • avatar

    Why do we have to remap the entire suburban landscape, sit on a crowded bus with disease ridden, smelly passengers, and give up our ability to get lunch where and when we want just to get to work and sit in a cubicle emailing and calling people all day????? Why can we not work from home and not change a damn thing about the car we drive, where we live, or any other facet of our lives?

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Yep Frank, You’re right. But the trick is that you did it in rush hour where long commute times are a given. I typically did it right afterwards which made it a lot easier to deal with.

    The drink issue with the CCT buses really ticks me off. Sorry, but those damn buses are already spartan enough. I need either an escape or a coping mechanism.

  • avatar

    I used to ride the bus around here when I was a kid. What would have been a 10 minute, 6 mile, drive by car, became a 1 hour, 15 mile, bus ride, and that was one of the more direct routes. I occasionally used the bus in College when the weather made riding a bike less than desireable. That bus trip was 45 minutes to college and 10 minutes home from college. College was 2.6 miles away, but I had to ride the return route to the central terminal and then back out to the college. Coming home was a straight shot. And, then there was the 1/2 mile walk to the bus stop; not exactly convenient. Now, the nearest bus stop is 1/2 mile form my current house (other side of town) and the ride to and from work would be around 50 minutes with a transfer at the central terminal. Not even close to practical. Then there is the fact (slap in the face?) that 50% of the bus authority’s budget comes from my taxes. Finally, when the city first decided to start a bus system, a private individual bid for the job. He wasn’t asking for a government subsidy, just the exclusive right to provide bus service within the city. Needless to say, the City Council turned him down and erected their own white elephant that has cost the taxpayers 10’s of millions of dollars over the past 25 years while providing poor service. What a deal!

  • avatar

    Time = money. You have to have pretty bad traffic for cars to be nearly as slow as buses.

    Even subway systems can lose their time efficiency when you have to transfer. I lived about 4-5 miles from downtown DC. The subway was 5 blocks from my house. I could get to my doctor’s office downtown in 40 minutes by subway door to door, or 20 minutes by bicycle or car.

    The bicycle was my only transportation for about the first 7 years I lived in DC. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I rode the bus, and on two the number of times I road the subway.

    Now I live about 6 miles from Harvard Sq. in Lexington. I’d rather bicycle than take the bus, even if it were 10 degrees out.

  • avatar

    Having lived in Boston and New York for periods of time I see the viability of mass transit.

    I agree however, that these things are crowded and uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe.

    You guys should check out the hybrid busses in Ann Arbor, MI (I know I know, college hippie town). But those busses are clean, frequent, comfortable and safe. Way better than the busses in Boston and New York as you can imagine due to the lower population.

    I own a car, a gas guzzler actually, but I use the busses too and that cuts down on me having to drive everywhere. Public transportation, if implemented correctly is quite viable.

  • avatar

    miked :
    February 12th, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    I used to use the bus all the time in Boulder (serviced by Denver’s RTD mentioned above) and it was great. On the routes I used, they ran small buses (less than 2/3 the size of a standard bus) but ran them every 10 minutes. It was much faster to take the bus anywhere than it was to drive because the bus system was well designed and you only had to wait at most 10 minutes for a bus. Then they switched to full size hybrid buses and moved the schedule back to 30 minutes. Now the bus is completely useless for me and I haven’t ridden it in 3 years. Transportation planners need to think about convenience because I bet the system with more smaller buses had a much higher ridership than the new way.

    The Problem is “transportation planners.” Try business planners, people who are in pursuit of a profit ratehr than a social agenda, and you would probably still have the small effecient busses rather than full size hybrid busses, because they would want to make a profit not show how wonderfully progressive and environmentally friendly they are.

  • avatar

    A government run bus system has several purposes. One of which is to reduce pollution, fuel usage, and traffic, but that’s not the only one. They also exist to give people who don’t own a car or can’t drive one (that is, minors, the poor, old and handicapped people, etc.) the ability to get around town. For that to work, you have to run service into areas with minimal usage. Now, if a bus system is well run, they run smaller buses (that are cheaper and use less fuel) on the less heavily traveled routes. But if you don’t do that, you only serve commuters, and even not all of them (since some of them live in areas with minimal bus riders as well).

    Buses will always be slower than driving, usually significantly so (with the minimal exception of buses that are allowed to use their own dedicated lanes, and even then they will still be slower in most cases when you factor in transfers and waiting). Rail, on the other hand, easily can be faster than driving (although not always).

  • avatar

    David Holtzman:

    I should point out that you have the Minuteman bike trail that runs from your town straight to Cambridge — and at Alewife Station you can switch for the Linear Park and take that as far as Davis Square — which makes your seven mile bike commute one of the nicest I could imagine. Very little time spent dodging traffic on busy steets. Some of us are not so lucky!

    For a personal anecdote, I’ll admit that I used to live near Harvard Square, and had friends who lived in Allston, near the big Commonwealth Ave. / Harvard St. intersection. Now, the venerable 66 bus line would take you from Harvard Square through that part of Allston with no transfers — using a route which is almost identical to the one suggested by google maps if you asked for directions — about 2.5 miles distance. We’re talking the best possible situation when it comes to buses. It usually took between 25 and 30 minutes for the ride alone (more if the traffic was bad), and the thin schedule late at night meant that waiting around at the bus stop usually added significantly to that. By contrast, when I started driving the route, it was usually no more than 15 minutes door to door. For time, you pretty much can’t win with a bus, and you’re likely to lose by a good margin.

    Despite being so slow, the 66 is completely packed during rush hour, because if you work in Harvard Square and don’t earn a princely wage you can’t afford the parking, so you trade time for money by taking the bus and avoiding that expense. Also, service is more frequent during rush hour, so while the buses are crowded, at least the time penalty is reduced since don’t have to waste extra time sitting around and waiting for one to show up.

    Without question, more frequent service with smaller vehicles is definitely the way to go to increase rider utility (by decreasing wait times and the “missed your bus” penalty), but to do that you need a bigger fleet and more drivers, and an even bigger fleet if you want to use big buses during rush hour and small ones at odd hours.


    While buses do serve to give these immobile groups some mobility, the fact that they attract such riders has been cited here as an additional reason why average commuters avoid the bus — savory reason or not. This “problem” (along with more objective problems of time and crowding) is sometimes solved when bus operators run express or commuter lines from suburbs (usually nicer ones) to the downtown core, making few if any stops once they leave the suburb, often taking an interstate at that point. To this is added the discouragement of a higher fare or the need for an upgraded monthly pass for boarding. The New York metro areas, as well has Boston, has a number of such lines, and the ones I have seen are very well used by the middle class for commuting.

  • avatar


    Thanks for the article. I have always been curious about this issue.

    A related topic that always comes to mind is how much fuel is wasted by all the cars that do the start stop cycle because of the bus in front of them?

  • avatar

    The average numbers of passengers per bus is actually not a good indicator. The peak hour passengers per bus, IMO, is more important. Let’s assume that number is 30 for peak hours, then during your typical peak hour:

    1 bus carries the same number of passengers as 10 Camries + 10 F150s. (I assumed 1.5 passengers/car, and used the best selling car and truck as examples.)

    For each 10 miles, the bus would use 3 gallons of gas (assuming a 3.33mpg), which is 0.1 gallon/passenger.

    For that same 10 miles, the 10 Camries + 10 F150s probably use 12 gallon of gas, if there is no traffic delay.

    However, the story doesn’t end here. The length of a city bus is about 40 feet. The length of 10 Camries and 10 F150s and the 19 gaps between each adjacent two cars would be about 800 feet. That’s about 20 times of road construction cost, or 20 times traveling time needed. Or, in another way, the traffic congestion will be practically be gone if there are more buses that replace regular cars.

    In short, buses don’t save much gas when it’s off peak hour and empty. But, they save mpg’s for every car on road, when it is peak hour, by being short.

  • avatar

    That bike ride from Alewife to Davis, and then on the bike path into Somerville, is very nice. I used to take it semi-regularly.

    I usually took the subway. When I got a car it was faster and pretty direct.

    The bus was horrible. I’d have to take it to the bank.

    With cell phones, I should be able to quickly text message some central number and get real-time bus schedule information.

  • avatar

    I used to ride the bus in Honolulu. Standing at a bus stop in Michigan in February has much less appeal.

  • avatar
    Paul Milenkovic


    The system average passengers per bus may be a simplisit benchmark as you indicate. Even in rush-hour, however, the bus (or commuter trains for that matter) operates far from 100 percent load factor on account of the shared-ride pattern.

    When I get on the bus it is packed. By the time I get to my house, I am the only person left. The bus hasn’t finished its route. And it may need to make a quick return trip to get another bus load of rush-hour commuters. So even leaving out late evening service, the bus is far from 100 percent load factor, even if it is well patronized. And the low load factor doesn’t mean that the bus is not used; it has to do with the route and commute patterns.

    The NYC style of suburban commuter motor coach may get around that problem. Suppose a bus serves Summit, NJ, everyone boards that bus in Summit, and the bus goes nonstop to lower Manhatten via Jersey Turnpike and tunnels. Then you can have a high rush-hour load factor — if you don’t make return trips for another batch of passengers.

    Car pooling can have a similar problem — how much gas do you use in the pick-up and drop-off process?

    The congestion relief is another advantage of the bus, but that also needs to be carefully quantified given the disruptive effect of buses on traffic.

    The point of the editorial is not that buses are without merit. My concern is that the energy-saving aspect of the bus is overestimated, and overstating the benefits of anything, especially something touted as something the car commuter needs to do on account of the oil situation, can lead to cynicism and a backlash.

  • avatar


    You bring up an excellent point. More buses are needed during peak, while only smaller buses, more efficient buses are needed during off-peak times. Why this is so difficult for metro folks to figure out is beyond me.

    I used to take the bus into downtown Sacramento during normal commute times, and I hated every damn minute of it. They ran every 15 minutes if we were lucky. Nothing is worse than being crammed into a bus with double the passengers because the last bus either broke down or didn’t bother to show up (seriously … Sacramento RT is a peach).

    And yes, they ran every 15 minutes during daytime off-commute times. Talk about a misallocation of resources.

    My old place of residence (Contra Costa) had a para-transit service that helped alleviate the difficulties associated with elderly and disabled riders. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but every time a wheelchaired person attempted to get on the bus in Sacramento, I sighed or rolled my eyes. Every entry and exit added a solid minute or two. The lifts broke, the person had difficulty maneuvering, etc. Certainly not my finest moments as a human being, but I dreaded the multi-wheelchair bus ride.


    Light rail and subways combined with land use zoning that encourages density is the only long term solution.

    I can’t disagree more. Unless the subway or lightrail was completed half a century ago, either system is incredibly cost prohibitive for a local government. The right-of-way costs/legality is one pain. Then you factor in the cost-per-mile for these systems, and it’s usually into the several-million-per-mile range. Operating costs are also pretty high. These millions in tax dollars are better spent on road improvements and, I begrudgingly admit, better bus service.

    BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is a nice solution, but not nearly as appealing for politicians and the public.

  • avatar

    Paul Milenkovic, I think you missed my main point:

    When you calculate MPG, you should consider the savings from all the passenger cars on road that benefited from the buses being short. As I mentioned above, one bus is about 1/20 the length of 10 Camries and 10 F150s combined. A 800 feet traffic queue reduced to 40 feet will benefit everyone’s travel time and thus MPG.

    Of course, that’s for peak hour only. When it’s not peak hour, we won’t have a congestion anyway.

  • avatar

    Paul Milenkovic,

    A similar problem occurs with airplanes.
    Flying uses a lot of fuel, about half the fuel per passenger-mile as driving a car.

    So, if I drive my car from San Francisco to New York and take my wife along, I use about the same amount of fuel as flying there.
    If I take my 2 kids along as well, I would use half the fuel as the airplane.
    If I switch to a Prius I would cut it further by half to a quarter of the airplane.

    Pretty stunning statistics.

  • avatar


    I am not yet ready to buy the big benefits of “short”. As far as road construction goes, I would say that buses are actually a cause of increased cost rather than the otherway round.

    It is precisely the WIDTH of the bus which is being used to justify a land grab and road expansion near my home.

    Also, the HOV system has been a HUGE cost which was justified by park and rides. I suspect that is a net gain in many ways, but also a loss because the HOV lane is surely a land loss. One lane each way would take less land, and result in a much higher trip count.

    The length of the bus doesn’t matter in construction because the road must be no longer or shorter than the distance from departure to arrival.

    Yes, because of the reduced cars on the road, there will be less start/stop cycles due to stop lights, but there will also be more of those same cycles because of bus stops, the busses’ lack of acceleration, the incentive to get around the bus at any cost, and the many places where the bus backs up traffic for an entire light cycle to make a turn it should not have to make.

    Furthermore, the only mileage figure that is really good to use is the total system use. There is no way to predict how much of the rush hour use will fall off when you drop less used routes and times. Simply the idea that it is hard to catch a bus outside of a rush hour would discourage many from using it during rush hour.

    Lastly, the creation of the bus system and regulation by the government has destroyed what used to be a good business in poor neighborhoods where we historically had individually owned buses and vans that operated as shared taxi services. Many of our local activists have tried to get the services legalized again because they believe that they gave better service to those neighborhoods while being a thriving business for those in the neighborhoods.

  • avatar

    Landcrusher said:
    The length of the bus doesn’t matter in construction because the road must be no longer or shorter than the distance from departure to arrival.

    I don’t agree. Here, you got to consider the size of each city block. Currently, most city blocks are roughly 5 acres. Assuming it’s a square, that would be about 500 feet to each side, or 2000 feet of road needed.

    This 5 acre magic number didn’t come out of thin air. If a city block is smaller, then the road construction cost would be too huge. If it’s any larger, the congestion could be unbearable.

    If there are far fewer cars on the street, we can make the blocks larger. Say, 1000 feet per side and thus a total of 4000 feet of road for 20 acres. A 50% reduction in road construction.

    Essentially, we cannot reduce the distance of each trip, but we can make the roads more sparse.

    Finally, when you used the term “total system use”, please consider the large system that includes all vehicles on road, not just buses. By replacing 20 cars on road during peak hours, what kind of fuel saving is achieved by all the cars around the bus?

    Some may choose to “get around the bus at any cost”, but the fuel cost of that maneuver is definitely not greater than getting around 10 Camries and 10 F150s.

  • avatar

    We don’t need MORE zoning, we need LESS. Preferably almost none, actually. What cities in the US are nice and compact? The ones built before zoning (and cars too, usually)! The car is part of our problem but I don’t think that it’s the sole cause of it.

    I think most people would rather be near their work than far away. Let the market work and it will work – lower zoning restrictions to those that are absolutely necessary and we will see compact urban areas rebuild themselves.

    Of course, the mass transit problem is a pretty deep one, because it’s part of the infrastructure that the government has long taken over (our taxes pay to widen and maintain roads as well, so don’t complain that buses cost you money!). In order to get ANYTHING done, it goes through layers and layers of government that generally doesn’t have a clue as to what it’s doing.

    Of course, the best option is walking or biking. I used to live in Boston, and I walked to work (it was about 30 minutes away, and the same as taking public transport). If I went to the edges of Boston, I took the subway (which is half above ground anyway, actually). I live within walking distance of my college now, and walk every day. Even if everyone had a car, if they lived within walking distance of their work then cars would not be an issue.

  • avatar

    I recently spent about a month in DC. I don’t live there now, but I did when the subway was being built. I don’t think I can describe the disruption and I know I can’t estimate the cost, either in $ or energy. Large parts of downtown were dug up and dug up deep. Main avenues like Conn. Ave. downtown had large 1″ (or so) steel plates laid over what looked like a grid if I-beams. Under this were all kinds of concrete structures for the tunnels and stations. Areas where just the tunnels would go were excavated by some kind of mole as I understood it with concrete poured after the mole did it’s job. IIRC, one of these moles got stuck in soft earth around Lafayette Park. When this happens, they first inject some concrete or some other firm stuff around the mole and try to remove it. If that fails, they abandon it and bring in another mole to dig around the stuck one.

    The point of all this is how long does it take to recoup the energy spent on construction. But beyond the energy cost, I don’t think there’s an alternative to avoid gridlock. And they don’t have to repave it every few years. And of course building a street/road isn’t so cheap either.

  • avatar


    What you are saying may be a good point.

    So what you are saying, is that the number of “side” streets could potentially be reduced if we have less traffic? We could then turn those into pedestrian malls, or bike trails, instead of streets so that would save construction?

    I don’t know. Sounds a bit far fetched. Before automobiles we actually had smaller blocks. Try walking around an ancient city.

    Really, you might be right, but I can’t see that the potential savings in construction would ever really be all that great. It may never be realized in most cases because of many other reasons. Plus, less roads can mean farther trips when you have to go farther north before you can head east or west or vice versa.

    Yes, the cost of stop and start cycles, as well as accelerating around the bus might be small, but your counter is only a part of the argument and is misleading.

    We know the average passenger mile per gallon of the bus. We then need to compare the average passenger mile per gallon of other vehicles and somehow make a comparison between routes with and without bus service. That would tell us if the bus is really saving gas.

    I bet if you add in all the gas used due to the operation of the bus service, the savings would begin to disappear. That’s the commutes of the workers and managers, all the department’s trucks and cars, etc. Wouldn’t you need to add that to the fuel actually used by the buses before figuring their mileage to get a better number?

  • avatar


    I don’t dispute your numbers. It does cost more to drive a car than take the bus. But –BUT– after having had to take the bus for 2.5 months while I was without wheels… I gladly, willingly pay the price.

    I don’t think I’m alone here. Despite billions and billions of dollars spent on mass transit and government’s not-so-secret war against the car, no bus alive can deliver what the car can: Freedom of movement — when, where and how you like.

    If only the socialists in and out of government would understand this.

  • avatar

    What “not so secret war against the car?”

    We have financed the world’s largest military to protect our oil supply lines. We have cozied up to dictators. We have practically given away the oil that lies beneath our own soil to support the driving habit. We tolerate hazardous levels of pollution. None of this is reflected in the gas tax.

    There is no war on the car. There is, however and at long last, a war on congestion and pollution. If we aren’t building roads fast enough and wide enough to accomodate daily traffic flows, that’s not a war on cars, that’s a resource allocation issue and/or the law of diminishing returns or, ultimately, fundamental limits. Most states don’t have the money to get the best maintenance for what has already been built, let alone add more paving.

    And when we do want more paving, what will we do to get it? Kill more neighborhoods? force more people from their homes? Blight their surroundings with more noise and disruption? That’s what we’ve done in the past. Is it a war on cars to fail to accomodate them by refusing to kill yet more neighborhoods?

    People move to the outer ring suburbs, exurbs and even farm country and expect a 70mph shot straight downtown at rush hour. What makes them think they’re entitled to this?

    We recently added another lane to a nearby Interstate. A friend who’s a State Trooper said, “watch… the improvement won’t last a year.” He was just about right. “We told ’em, add lanes and it will just get worse… any improvement is temporary. You could pave the entire side of town and traffic will still back up.”

  • avatar

    We don’t need MORE zoning, we need LESS. Preferably almost none, actually. What cities in the US are nice and compact? The ones built before zoning (and cars too, usually)!

    These compact cities are those that were designed around foot traffic and maintain relatively small populations. A lack of zoning had nothing to do with it.

    In the age of the car, without zoning, you end up with trailers on cinder blocks propped up next to single-family homes that are nestled between auto repair shops and convenience stores. What prevails are nasty aesthetics, combined with all the traffic congestion that everyone else in the country gets to enjoy.

    The definitive example of a major US city without zoning regulations is Houston, a city noteworthy for having some of the worst air quality in the country. Average commute times in Houston are ranked seventh longest in the country, slotted between Detroit and Dallas. And you don’t find many people extolling it for its beauty.

    New Urbanism has failed to take hold in much of the country because many Americans don’t want what it has to offer. The “American Dream” idealizes what is quintessentially a suburban lifestyle, centered around single-family homeownership and private automobile ownership. Middle-class climbers with kids particularly don’t want it, in part because schools in urban areas are often bad enough to encourage concerned parents to live in areas where the schools are perceived to serve their needs.

    New Urbanism will sweep the country if fuel becomes so expensive that they can no longer afford Dreamland in the ‘burbs, which will force them to gentrify areas and find a way to build their piece of the American Dream in a higher density environment free of backyards and lawns. I haven’t broken out my abacus to figure out how high that price would be, but I’m willing to take a SWAG and guess that we would need $10+ gas before the society makes drastic changes en masse.

  • avatar


    Let me set the record straight on Houston.

    Our air quality is pretty good considering that we have the largest refining and chemical capacity of any metropolitan area that I know of. We were blasted for our ozone for years without anyone asking why. The reason was environmental. Our weather systems here simply trap ozone, just like LA traps smog.

    Our commute times are actually excellent. We are the fourth biggest city by population, but by distance we are HUGE. It takes 45 minutes from downtown to the suburbs WIHOUT TRAFFIC.

    Having lived all over, I can tell you that lack of zoning is not a problem here. The trade offs are just fine. Over all the city is laid out much the same as any other. The slightly greater mishmash is a bargain to go without the insane corruption and draconian rule making that many zoning boards create. One of our little municipalities inside of Houston recently announced settlement of a dispute with a home owner. They spent over a half million to beat him, he spent a quarter million to try to defend his rights. The argument was over the definition of an “attic”, and the cities decision to revoke approval for plans they had already approved AFTER he started construction.

    As for being beautiful, well, we didn’t spoil one of earth’s great scenes when we built our city on the bayou to begin with. It’s not zoning that causes the lack of aesthetic beauty, it’s a combination of lack of historic buildings (we are a really young city) and lack of anything but swamp to build on.

    And while I know you are no fan of the market, the market has spoken. Our little town attracts more people than most. The city may not be beautiful, but the people are. (We placed second behind Nashville years ago in a Cal State Fresno study of the nicest people. WAY ahead of anyone near our size). Overall, we have a pretty nice town, and since I was born several million more people have decided to make this their home.

    Ya’ll come try the BBQ. You might want to stay.

    PS, your abacus is correct. I think it will take $10 fuel in today’s dollars to start the change you talk of. OTOH, education reform with vouchers and expulsions could likely get that done without $10 gas.

  • avatar

    Our air quality is pretty good considering that we have the largest refining and chemical capacity of any metropolitan area that I know of.

    It is ranked fifth worst in the nation. Whether or not there are mitigating factors, the air is still bad.

    Our commute times are actually excellent.

    Compared to the other 12 large metro areas in the country, Houston commute times are slightly longer than average (although the figure is close enough to the average to be arguably equivalent to the average.) As noted above, they are the 7th longest in the country. A 45-minute one-way commute is more than 15 minutes longer than the national average.

    Having lived all over, I can tell you that lack of zoning is not a problem here.

    Adamatari above claims that a lack of zoning regulations will lead to increased population density, and the Houston example shows his assertion is absolutely false.

    As of the 2000 Census, the city of Houston had the 10th largest population in the US. Yet in terms of population density, Houston ranked 68th, and its population density is actually below that of cities such as Fargo, North Dakota and San Antonio. Clearly, the lack of zoning has not encouraged increased population density. In the case of Houston, it has done the opposite and encouraged more sprawl.

  • avatar


    All I have to say is that the pollution is not because of anything we are doing, or not doing in particular. The combination of wind from Mexico, the coastal weather patterns, humidity, heat, and size of the city make it tough. The rankings that placed Houston so highly overly weight ozone. This is not a good place to live if your asthma is aggravated by ozone. OTOH, if you don’t like the cold, or you need the humidity…

    Our traffic is really good for a city our size. We have good years and bad depending on construction, but if you think the traffic is bad you are no better off in any comparable size city. I have lived no place over a million people with better mobility. If you don’t want to commute for 45 minutes, don’t live 30 plus miles from work. My wife used to commute 40 miles in less than 45 minutes in Houston. That is not because of bad traffic. Try that in any other large city.

    I would agree with you that lack of zoning did not increase density here. I never said otherwise. Our city grew up during the period in our country AFTER everyone was leaving the inner city. Houston was never really dense to start with. It is now getting more dense, but we have some land use restrictions that help that, and others that prevent that. Mostly, we have deed restricted neighborhoods. I live in one of Houston’s original suburbs that many people now call downtown. Average lot size is about 7500 square feet in my hood. Anything less than 5000 square feet around here is considered small.

    Land is cheap here because it is not otherwise very useful. Combined with a low cost of living and cheap labor, we have built more and more suburbs at a fast rate for thirty plus years.

    Houston is getting more dense though. The inner city has been in a cycle of regentrification for over 10 years. Small bungalows and other older homes have been being replaced with townhomes and midrises more than doubling the density on land inside the loop.

    The market is working better than any zoning board could keep up. Some residents complain that they are getting taxed out of their homes, but that is a mathematical impossibility at the present tax rate and life expectancy.

  • avatar

    Time matters to me and I bet it does to most people. There was a time when my car was broken and I was broke, and thus rode the bus to work for a month or so. My previous 25 minute commute spiked to 1.5 hours each way and I could no longer work overtime when it was available because the last bus was at 6:30PM.

    Needless to say, I got my car running again!

  • avatar

    We recently added another lane to a nearby Interstate. A friend who’s a State Trooper said, “watch… the improvement won’t last a year.” He was just about right. “We told ‘em, add lanes and it will just get worse… any improvement is temporary. You could pave the entire side of town and traffic will still back up.”

    The point isn’t to reduce congestion, although that’s what most people think it is.

    The point is to move as many people through as fast as possible.

    Congestion is an enemy of this, because above a certain capacity throughput falls.

    Building more lanes does indeed help, because it gets more people through. Provided you just haven’t made it quicker for them to get to the next bottleneck that hasn’t been widened yet.

    As for zoning, I love mixed residential and storefront. I currently have to drive through 2 miles of housing streets to get to the grocery store. It would be nice if it were mixed a bit more. And in the city, high-rise apartment buildings near the jobs are an excellent way to strip lots of people out of the commute.

  • avatar

    I used to own a transit bus. No kidding. A normal diesel bus such as mine, a 330hp Detroit Diesel equipped RTS, carries some 48 passengers full at a maximum efficiency of 8 mpg @ 55 mph. At the bus’ top speed of 62 mph, it gets 6 mpg. At the average operating speed and mode of the bus, ie, stop and go traffic, it gets 3 mpg. Modern hybrid systems get better, but are not widely deployed. If anything, CNG buses do worse on fuel mileage.

    Now, if you compare my normal car, a 2002 Chevrolet Suburban, to a transit bus, it looks bad on first blush. However, my truck normally has five people in it. I work from home so the only time it goes out is family outings, shopping and such. It travels the same sort of traffic mode as the transit bus, local start and stop traffic, and gets around 11 mpg doing it, I’d guess. That means it gets around 55 mpg/person, blowing away the bus.

    Then there’s the convenience. I rode the bus once or twice going to work in Boulder, CO, when my car at the time, a v6 Camaro, was on the fritz. The bus took an average of an hour and a half to get to work and over two hours to get home, with two transfers each way. Three and a half hours compares poorly with the Camaro’s hour and a half total commute, forty-five minutes each way. The reason for this is pretty simple: the bus went a lot of places I didn’t need or want to go on its way to my home. I’d estimate the route to be about 50% longer, and the stops making up the rest of the wasted time.

    So, not only do you have to beat the efficiency of a Camaro (the commute then was mostly interstate for me, around 28 mpg in a v6 Camaro), you have to beat it by 33% because you are going 50% farther. That means you have to get at least 35mpg/passenger.

    Then, there’s the bus driver and the support mechanics and the fleet of towtrucks and service vehicles, all of which consume fuel. The bus drivers and mechanics all drive to work or take the bus. I don’t know what the numbers are on that.

    However, I do know that our society and economy is based almost entirely on energy. Energy use is such a high percentage of our cost that I assume a 90% proxy, meaning 90% of a given paycheck is expected to go to buy energy. Food is energy intensive. Manufacturing is energy intensive. Most of the energy in food is from Diesel, due to farming and transportation, although a lot comes from coal in the form of fertilizer and processing. Manufacturing is coal-intensive except in the cases of TVA and nuclear equipped areas. Transport is almost entirely diesel these days, with the trucks, trains and ships all running diesel.

    That being what it is, you can assume the payment of each individual as a proxy for energy, at least 70% of which is carbon-based in some form in the US. Now, consider that I drove in an hour and a half in my Camaro while the bus tied up that driver for three hours, spending his percentage of the energy he got paid transporting me, and you begin to understand the assertion that the fuel cost is really not an issue even now in terms of total energy consumption by a bus company.

    I bought a motorcycle. 65 mpg. Cut ten minutes or so on average off my commute due to easier traffic handling. End of discussion.

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