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Planning for Reality: SMART Train Actually Increases Greenhouse Gas Emissions

SMART actually increases greenhouse gas emissions
SMART actually increases greenhouse gas emissions
I used to buy into all the green marketing - around transit and the SMART train. Fifteen years ago I was a regular rider of London Transport and proudly felt I was doing my bit to save the planet. However what I discovered when I started to probe is that the SMART train actually increases greenhouse gases. 

Overlooking SMARTs Other Justification: 101 Congestion

Let's leave aside that the train's other justification that it reduces 101 congestion - now that the station area plans to help "prepare for " and "justify" the train with their additional housing have been made public it's clear to any realistic, or one might say smart, observer that adding 620 housing units at Civic Center and 900 in Larkspur (removing 100 ferry terminal parking spots) is going to significantly add to 101 congestion. Presuming that these new residents will all take transit is not just naive, it ignores recent history as demonstrated by transit oriented development next to Portland's Maxx light rail  where 90% of residents drive their cars to work and shops.

Comparing Train Emissions to Car Emissions

I've learned fast about greenhouse gas emissions. Two key facts:

- CO2 emissions are near directly proportional to miles per gallon (mpg). CO2 is the easiest greenhouse gas emission to quantify.

- The key figure is emissions per passenger mile. While a car may achieve 22mpg, if it has 4 occupants then to truly consider emissions you must calculate emissions per passenger mile. Likewise a train may get 1.1 mpg but if it's full emissions may be remarkably low per passenger). On average cars have 1.6 occupants.

SMART'S Emissions Figures

I finally found SMART's emissions here after a great deal of digging. To ensure Federal Railroad Administration safety compliance American trains, unlike lighter European trains, are built to withstand a collision. European trains are designed for accident avoidance. On page 15, table 3 SMART shows that it's train will get 1.1 miles per gallon.

I'm giving the train an unfair advantage here as this does not account for "deadhead miles" when the train goes to or from the depot or maintenance facility when there are no riders. Car drivers go direct from A to B so they do not have "deadhead miles". I'm also completely overlooking the CO2 required by all the heavy earth moving machinery and suchlike involved in the massive undertaking of building the line and the stations. (To be realistic one should apply a factor such as 1.5x to account for this, which I have not done, so I am being *very* generous to the train).

I am also being especially generous as constructing the train, the tracks, station platforms etc... requires copious CO2 emissions not even covered by these figures. Cars by comparison, even considering their construction costs, require much lower CO2 emissions when factored to passenger miles.

Car Emissions Figures

A locomotive that starts running in 2017 with a lifespan of 30 years will have an operational midpoint at the year 2032. So a fair comparison needs to consider the emissions of cars at that date.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency have proposed newly enacted legislation mandating that by model year 2025 all new cars and light trucks will meet an average fuel consumption target of 54.5 mpg. The average car is replaced once every 9 years and is occupied by 1.6 passengers. Assuming a conversion factor of 8,874 to convert mpg to CO2 emissions we arrive at 87.2 mpg cars and light trucks which translates to 102g of CO2 emitted per passenger mile. It must also be noted that Marin residents typically drive later model and more fuel efficient models (just look at the number of Priuses on 101). So my assumption again gives the train an unfair advantage.

The SMART train does 1.1 mpg, this translates to 8,067g of CO2 per vehicle mile, but then trains have multiple passengers so a fair comparison must translate mpg to a per passenger figure.

Working from this we can ascertain that the SMART train will need an average load of 79 passengers to reduce emissions. Anything under this and it will effectively be spending public money to increase greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate climate change.

Now lets move onto SMART's ridership projections. I have already posted about the questionable credibility of these numbers which Novato Mayor Eklund in June 2011 (jump to 1h 51m) found remarkable as the projections somehow more than quadrupled ridership despite the line being shortened from 70 to 38 miles and excluding reaching the Larkspur ferry allowing riders to easily get to SF with only a single mode change with waiting time.

SMART seems to have intentionally obfuscated these numbers by concealing actual boardings and exits at each station. However in 2035 we see that there will only be 82 riders within Sonoma county. If we assume these are spread across 6 trains (which is generous - SMART will run more often than that) then we arrive at a figure showing that SMARTs emissions will be 510% of an equivalent car (and light truck) at it's lifespan midpoint of about 2032.

I conducted some additional estimates using the Downling figures and based on these I estimate that average ridership for the entire line length will be somewhere between 20 and 25 (the reason for my spread is that the Dowling projections have more people riding south than north, which further sheds questionable light on these figures).

Now it is possible that the my analysis of the projections may be wrong. But the question to the reader is this - do you think that the train will carry at least an average of 79 passengers at all times the entire line length? If the answer is no and you are an advocate for saving the planet, reducing greenhouse gas emissions then only logical conclusion is that YOU SHOULD OPPOSE THE SMART TRAIN.

A comparable commuter train in Portland carries an average of 21.7 passengers. New Jersey has one that carries 33; Austin one that carries 36. SMART will likely be closer to the Portland average.

Downlings highly questionable figures seem to point at an average of 25 riders at best, so based on these SMART would appear to create 3 times more greenhouse gas emissions than had the riders taken cars.

So What Went Wrong?

What seems to have happened is that sustainability and transit oriented development special interest groups have developed a cosy relationship with our elected representatives over the years. 

Wearing rose-tinted spectacles they believe they can convince joe-public to switch from an A to B commute in a car, dropping off kids along the way at school, that might take 45 minutes to taking a train and then a ferry taking double the time. If they can fill the trains in this vision then emissions per passenger mile drop. They presume trains will be nearly full.

But this is where the Utopian reality breaks down. Even though an increasing amount has been spent per capita on transit since 1980 in the Bay Area ridership has actually dropped per capita (illustrated by the green line on this chart). Employment isn't all in the center of cities or adjacent  to transit - more and more it is highly decentralized.

So I repeat, the one best thing Marin and Sonoma can do to help combat climate change and greenhouse gases, and save $1.1bn and increasing sales taxes is to scrap this train. If SMART come back asking for money and claim that it's to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the game is up.

Note: The author is not a professional transportation consultant. He is using figures published by SMART that are incomplete. He would welcome corrections of these figures, updates to projections, and ultimately is open to supporting the train if indeed it does reduce CO2 and freeway congestion.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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