Earth Day Bombshell: The Rapid is a Massive Polluter

In honor of Earth Day 2011, ITP Watch is releasing the results of our analysis of The Rapid’s environmental impact. The Rapid and its supporters have long justified repeated tax increase requests by pointing to The Rapid’s environmental benefit. For example, The Rapid’s web site, under the “The Rapid & the Environment” page, says the following:

For every passenger mile traveled, public transportation produces only a fraction of the harmful pollution of private vehicles; only 5 percent as much carbon monoxide, less than 8 percent as many volatile organic compounds, and nearly half as much carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Using data that The Rapid reports to the federal government, we can now demonstrate that this is categorically false. In fact, we have calculated that The Rapid contributed 40% more carbon dioxide to the environment than if every single Rapid bus passenger had been transported in a car – to the tune of seven million extra pounds of carbon dioxide. Even more shockingly, The Rapid pollutes more than if every single Rapid bus passenger were transported in an SUV!

How can this be?

According to The Rapid, its average bus only gets 4.45 miles to the gallon.  The Rapid’s buses carry an average of only 7.3 passengers at any given time (about 90% empty, based on the Rapid’s average bus capacity of 74 people).

Using data The Rapid reports to the federal government each year, we can calculate that The Rapid’s buses emit 0.76 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile.  As a comparison, the average SUV emits 0.56 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile and the average passenger car emits 0.54 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile.  (For an explanation of why passenger miles are the preferred method of fairly comparing modes of transportation, please see our full Myths vs. Facts report).

The Rapid: not so green.

This means that The Rapid is in no way reducing pollution. Because of The Rapid’s low capacity utilization and its buses being larger than needed, a lot of fuel is being used to move around a comparatively low number of people. The buses are so empty that they are less efficient than if SUVs were used to transport every single Rapid passenger. The Rapid’s buses are a net adder of pollution to the environment. In fact, we were shocked to calculate that The Rapid’s buses added over seven million pounds of carbon dioxide to the environment, compared to the amount that would have been emitted if every single Rapid bus passenger had been transported in an average midsized car.   The reality is that The Rapid’s passengers produced 40% more CO2 emissions than if they had ridden or been transported in cars. The Rapid’s web site falsely claims that its services reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50%.

This result, admittedly somewhat counter-intuitive, is due to several factors. The largest factor is that The Rapid is buying bigger buses over time, yet the number of passengers filling those buses is low. A second factor is that autos are getting more efficient over time. According to data released by the US Department of Energy, transit buses have gotten 75% less energy efficient since 1970.  Conversely, passenger autos have gotten 30% more energy efficient in the same period. The chart below demonstrates this trend.

It should be noted that the above chart actually overstates the efficiency of The Rapid’s buses. The Rapid’s buses are carrying fewer passengers than the national average, making the pollution and energy efficiency picture worse. Between 2005 and 2009, The Rapid’s average bus capacity has grown from 70 to 74.  For some reason, despite low capacity utilization, The Rapid is scrapping older, smaller buses for even larger ones.

The Rapid has purchased five hybrid-electric buses and falsely claimed that these would double the gas mileage of a regular bus.  However, as The Rapid now admits, these buses only get 0.68 miles per gallon more than a regular bus – all for the additional cost of at least $200,000 per bus.  The hybrid-electric buses are still less energy efficient than SUVs.

Strangely, The Rapid claims that saving $4,000 per year in fuel costs by using these hybrid buses is worth spending more than $200,000 extra for each of these buses.  At that rate, it would take more than 50 years for the hybrid-electric buses to break even.

The bottom line is that The Rapid can’t reduce pollution in its current state because it keeps running very large buses with very low utilization. To make matters worse, the upcoming 31% tax hike on May 3 will add even more buses, many of them at non-peak times, compounding the problem.

You’ll also notice that a service called “Rapid Van” is referenced in the above chart. This is the Rapid’s van pool ride share service. This type of service, also known as a “jitney,” is far more successful at providing cost-effective mass transit. The Rapid Van service is dramatically better at reducing pollution than The Rapid’s fixed-route bus services, yet The Rapid only spends 0.5% of its annual budget on this service.  For more information on jitneys, please see the section of our Myths vs. Facts report titled “MYTH: Using the Rapid is the only way for many people to get to work.”

For citations and links to the documentation used in this report, please see the pollution entry on The Rapid Wiki.