Sierra Club Transportation Report Unsurprisingly Trashes (Some Bad) Road Projects, Praises Transit And Bike Waste

by Marc Scribner on December 11, 2012

in Environment, Features, Mobility

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The Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil Campaign recently released a report [PDF] highlighting what the environmentalist group claims to be the 50 best and worst transportation projects in the country. Take their claims with a grain of salt for obvious reasons, but there were a few interesting aspects of the report.

To start with the good, the Sierra Club picks on some projects that deserve it. The St. Croix River crossing between Minnesota and Wisconsin is awful, as is Seattle’s Alaska Way Viaduct replacement tunnel project — which I predict will be known as Big Dig-West.

That about does it for the good. The rest of the report is “bikes and trains, good; cars and roads, bad.” For instance, they praise D.C.’s red menace, Capital Bikeshare. This is despite the fact that Capital Bikeshare may be the least equitable government transportation program in existence (thanks to the retirement of the France/U.K. government-funded Concorde?).

A report published by Capital Bikeshare that the Sierra Club cites favorably makes this quite clear: heavily subsidized Capital Bikeshare caters to a mostly white (81% when the employed regional workforce is only 53% white), male (55% when the employed regional workforce is only 44% male), young (66% of users were under 35, compared to 17% of regional workers in that age group), highly educated customer base (an astonishing 95% of users were at least earning an undergraduate degree). Note that these demographic characteristics are pretty much the opposite of the average truly transit dependent individual (who is far more likely to be non-white, female, older, and less educated). Isn’t modal diversity wonderful?

The Sierra Club really likes train monument projects. Getting the greens’ seal of approval were the useless Midwest medium-speed Amtrak upgrades, a light rail line to some of the wealthiest outer-ring suburban Minneapolis communities, and folksy streetcars in Cincinnati. While I oppose government subsidies, I’d be willing to make one exception: buy model train sets for the Sierra Club and other rail fanboys and girls. Really nice ones. This could greatly reduce the social costs of their train obsessions by giving them less costly mainline fixes for their destructive rail addictions.

But perhaps the most obnoxious part of the report is the section that briefly attempts to explain the concept of “induced demand.” (For a brief free intro, see this document [PDF].) The theory and evidence suggest that expanding road capacity will merely be filled with new cars — meaning you can’t build your way out of congestion. Attacking the “if you build it, they will come” phenomenon has become second nature to critics of automobility. There are a couple of problems, though. First, this is primarily an issue of pricing (or lack thereof). But the Sierra Club report attacks eight toll road projects that just happen to destroy “critical” eco-features. How convenient.

Second, transportation economists have long known the latent demand features of the highway realm also exist in the transit realm. For example, Alistair Sherret found in 1975 that the opening of the BART line between Oakland and San Francisco led to a diversion to rail transit of 8,750 car trips from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — which was shortly followed by the generation of 7,000 new automobile trips in the same corridor. More comprehensive analysis by Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner that appeared in the October 2011 issue of the American Economic Review arrived at the same conclusion: building more transit is not a solution to U.S. congestion problems. But don’t tell that to transit boosters. They’ve been regurgitating these falsehoods to ignorant metropolitan politicians and planners for 20 years now.

All in all, there isn’t much to learn from the Sierra Club report. We already knew they hated cars and loved bikes and choo-choos. This report just lets them put their fingerprints on more specific facilities.

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