Last Friday I took the Green Line to Faneuil Hall to listen to five gubernatorial candidates talk about energy and the environment. They were unanimous in their enthusiasm for transit-oriented development, subways, buses, and other policies to get us out of our cars, cut energy consumption, and save the world from global climate change.
Turns out, they had all arrived by automobile.
Oh, they were appropriately sheepish about it. And defensive too: Staffers rode with them, some explained, so really it was a car pool. Others made sure we knew they weren’t in SUVs or that they were driving particularly fuel-efficient models.
A good “gotcha” moment you might think, but not really. I rode the T because it was convenient, not because of some high-minded scruples. And as my ride illustrated, there were good reasons the candidates drove automobiles. Including waiting time, my trip from Kenmore Square to Government Center took almost 45 minutes. The return was slightly longer. But I wasn’t as pressed for time as the candidates. They were all coming from events scattered about the region, and afterwards they’d be going to other events. To keep to their schedules, traveling by car was a necessity.
All of which underscores a key point. The automobile is a great way to get around, perhaps the best and most convenient form of transportation ever invented. Most of us have one. So why are we so embarrassed about it? Cars speak to freedom and independence; we can go wherever we want. Mass transit, on the other hand, speaks to, well, the masses: We’re all in the same boat — or bus or train — together. Metaphors for politics and life? You bet. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the animus toward the automobile is rooted in a left-wing preoccupation with the collective and the community, just as right-wing rhapsodies over the open road have a libertarian bent.
Metaphors notwithstanding, though, there are real problems with automobiles. The big one, of course, is that they consume energy. But that is not a problem mass transit solves.
According to the US Department of Energy, for instance, a car consumes on average 3,364 BTUs per passenger mile traveled. A bus — the most common form of public transit available — consumes more: 4,240 BTUs. As the DOE notes, these figures can be tricky. Energy consumption per passenger mile traveled varies depending on how full a bus is. The same with a car. If two or three people are in your automobile, then the energy consumption numbers improve dramatically. So too if you’re driving a plug-in Toyota Prius (50 miles per gallon) instead of a Honda Odyssey (22 miles per gallon).
My point isn’t that we should stop investing in public transit. But the purpose of subways and buses is to reduce congestion on crowded city streets. If we want to solve the energy issues posed by cars, we won’t get there by berating people for getting behind the wheel. Rather, we need to make it easier and greener to drive.
A few examples. Crowded roads should be widened and on- and off-ramps improved. Clogged highways with stopped cars just waste energy. We should get rid of archaic laws, such as the automobile dealership system, that discourage innovative carmakers like Tesla from selling their wares. Rather than defending the old taxi medallion system, we should promote ride-sharing applications. The state could help build an electric vehicle charging infrastructure around the Commonwealth. And we should consider incentives for people to buy or lease newer, more energy-efficient vehicles.
None of this will appease the anti-automobile crowd. But most of us — including gubernatorial candidates — need, use, and enjoy our cars. Good public policy should help us continue to do so.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org