Combating Climate Change With Free Busing

Ideas worth trying to tackle the extremely relevant problem of climate change.

We are clearly going to have to change much about our lives if we are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by enough to save the planet. We can and should look for technical fixes like more fuel efficient cars and increased used of solar and wind energy, but it is not likely that these fixes can be adopted quickly enough to prevent lasting damage to the environment. We will also have to change the way we do lots of things.

One obvious target is commuting. We burn an enormous amount of oil in the process of getting to and from work. Part of this story is rush hour traffic, which causes people to burn fuel sitting in their idling cars, especially in the summer months when they have their air conditioners running.

There are some fairly simple ways to combat this congestion. For example, we could have congestion pricing, which would charge people for driving into city centers in the middle day. This is a Milton Friedman idea that was put into practice by London’s left-wing mayor, Ken Livingston.

A second way to reduce congestion is to try to smooth out the flow of traffic over the work day, by encouraging employers to have flexible work hours. A modest tax credit may go a long way in this regards. After all, a 9 to 5 work day is a norm, not a matter of religious conviction.

The same story would apply to four-day work weeks. Suppose companies switched to four-day work weeks, with workers putting in 9 or 10 hour days, instead of the current standard five-day work week. This would reduce commuting by 20 percent, with the reduction in gas use being even larger since it would also reduce congestion.

But in addition to these actions, we should look to more mechanisms to get people out of their cars and to instead take advantage of more efficient modes of transportation. Most progressives will quickly sign on to mass transit, but this generally means subways or light rails. These modes of transportation have the serious disadvantage that, they tend to be both very expensive and that they take a long time to get up and running. The light rail approved in 2019 is likely to still be under construction in 2029. That is not a good story if the goal is a near-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a simple, quick, and cheap alternative. It’s called a “bus.” For some reasons, busses don’t seem to feature prominently on the mass transit agenda. I have never been quite able to figure that one out. Perhaps it’s one of the many cases where the answer is too simple to be taken seriously.

It wouldn’t cost a lot of money or take very much time to get more busses on the road. Currently, we manufacture around 5,000 passenger busses a year. I suspect that number could be increased rapidly, if there was demand. We could also import busses from foreign manufacturers.

Of course many city busses now travel half empty. This both makes the cost per trip expensive and raises the obvious question as to what good having more busses would do if they are already hugely underutilized?

This is where having free bus transportation would make a big difference. If people had the option of taking a free bus, as opposed to driving to work and paying for gas, insurance, and parking, many more would opt to take the bus. We could even try to make busses more attractive by doing things like having more bus only lanes, that would allow them to pass other traffic. We could even follow an example used in other countries, where traffic lights are set to adjust so that busses will have green lights when they approach.

But even if these measures sound too expensive and/or exotic, simply making bus rides free should hasten their rate of travel considerably. We would no longer have to wait for people to fumble with their money or transit cards, or deal with card readers that don’t want to read. They would just hop on and off the bus.

Would free busses break the bank? To take one example, the Chicago Transit Authority, which serves the whole metropolitan area of 9.5 million, gets a bit less than $300 million a year from its bus fares. This means that replacing current passenger revenue would require annual tax revenue of a bit more than $30 per person.

Of course this would go up if we envisioned ridership doubling or even tripling. But there would also be savings if the bus system no longer had to deal with cash or issuing and reading fare cards. And, the cost increase would be nowhere near proportionate to the increase in ridership, since it costs little more to operate a full passenger bus than one that is nearly empty.

When comparing policies to deal with global warming, free bus fares has to rank near the top in yield per dollar. It would also have the great advantage of reducing other pollutants in the air in major cities. Gasoline is much cleaner than it was five decades ago, but the less we burn of it the better.

In addition, taking cars off the road is also going to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in car accidents. Yeah, driverless cars will do this too, but that is not going to be next year. In fact, with average insurance cost per car close to $1,000 a year, the typical driver may save enough on their insurance to more than compensate for the taxes needed to pay for free bus fare. (We could also start pushing pay by the mile auto insurance, but that is another story.)

And, free bus travel can be phased in, just to see how people respond. We can have free travel days where the city announces that Tuesdays or some other day of the week will be free. We can also do it by route, where some bus routes are free, while people still have to pay regular fare on others.

Free bus travel is only one part of what we will have to do to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but it is a simple step that could in principle be quickly implemented. It should rank high on the agenda for folks who care about saving the planet.

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