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Part II: Making Transportation More Efficient



To reduce our dependence on increasingly costly fossil fuels, we must make transportation more efficient, not only through higher automobile mileage standards, but by shifting from individual cars and trucks to mass transit.  We can minimize future transportation requirements by making smart planning decisions today.  Neither biofuels nor unconventional fossil fuels can fill the gap. We must increasingly power transportation with electricity generated with renewable sources.

Recommended transportation initiatives for New York City:

  • implement congestion pricing

  • remove hidden subsidies for driving and parking cars

  • increase regular and express bus services

  • increase alternative fuel and electric vehicle fleets

  • implement electric streetcar and light rail systems, as in Vision 42

  • implement Auto Free NY plan to maximize use of subway and rail

  • build more intercity passenger and freight train capacity

  • restrict suburban sprawl

  • encourage urban infill development around existing mass transit access points

  • support and expand use of bicycles and pedicabs

The U.S. consumes 20.6 mbd of crude oil and petroleum products, 24% of the world total.  We produce 6.9 mbd domestically, and import 12.3 mbd (60%);  68% of those fuels go towards transportation. [1] Some of the widely discussed alternatives to oil are, on closer examination, deeply flawed.  Alternative liquid fossil fuels can partly replace gasoline demand, but will accelerate global warming.  Corn ethanol requires more energy to produce than it yields; [2] large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol is not yet commercially feasible; and biodiesel replaces most of the nation’s agricultural capacity for a fraction of gasoline substitution.  (Limited, local biodiesel production is more promising.)  Although profitable to special interests, these strategies waste limited time and investment capital that should be directed to more promising approaches.

The conventional wisdom that our transportation needs can only be met by our present system of cars and trucks just isn’t so.  Other technologies and energy sources, along with changes in consumer behavior and government planning, can create functional transportation systems.  While increasing vehicle efficiency, we should also expand use of mass transit and rail and make sound planning decisions to begin switching to a post-petroleum transportation system.

1. Changing fuels and vehicles 

Alternative liquid fossil fuels.  Even promoters of producing liquid fuels from coal and oil shale admit that any realistic implementation will barely start to address future fuel demand. The National Energy Technology Laboratory found that lessening US dependence on foreign oil by simultaneous national crash programs of increased vehicle fuel efficiency, coal liquefication (also known as coal to liquids or CTL), oil shale and enhanced oil recovery would take over 20 years and more than $2.6 trillion investment to achieve full results. [3] 

Biofuels.  Biofuels include ethanol made from corn and other plants, biodiesel made from soybeans and other oil seeds, and biodiesel processed from used cooking oil.  Efforts to reprocess waste vegetable oil in New York City and to produce biofuel feedstock in upstate New York are underway. [4] 

But how far can biofuels take us?  To make sustainable biofuels with a net gain of energy, soy, switchgrass or other inedible woody plants are better than corn. Mixtures of native perennial prairie grasses may be better than soy. [5] To replace only 5% of U.S. gasoline consumption with corn ethanol would require the corn production from 117 million acres (roughly the size of Oregon and Idaho combined), and cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass is not yet commercially available. [6] The 2007 energy bill calls for doubling production of corn ethanol from the current 7 billion gallons a year, with still more from cellulosic ethanol.  Even ethanol industry leaders are unsure if they can meet those goals. [7] According to U.N. officials, rising demand for biofuels is a factor behind dwindling world food supplies and historic high prices. [8] Biofuels cannot replace gasoline as used today. [9]

High-efficiency vehicles.  While increasing vehicle efficiency is an obvious way to reduce fuel dependence, it has been staunchly resisted. In December 2007, the Senate passed an increase in fuel economy standards - for the first time since 1975 – from about 25 miles per gallon now to 35 mpg by 2020.  By comparison, other nations have established much stricter fuel economy standards including the European Union and Japan (41 mpg in 2006), Canada (34 mpg in 2010), and even China (36 mpg in 2010). [10] In what the New York Times calls a political payoff to the auto industry, EPA is blocking California’s law to reduce automobile carbon emissions with a 43 mpg standard, to be phased in by 2016. [11] 

All City taxis must use gas/electric hybrid engines by 2012, doubling their mileage, and many are already switching over. [12] The City operates over 400 compressed natural gas buses and 550 hybrid-electric buses. [13] MTA has ordered 850 hybrid buses for delivery in 2009. [14] The NYPD is now testing all-electric scooters. [15] 

Plug-in hybrids can run partly on biodiesel, and could serve as storage batteries for electricity produced by solar or wind power systems.  A study produced by the Department of Energy found that off-peak electricity from renewable sources could power 84% of the country’s 220 million vehicles if they had plug-in hybrid technology. [16] Using lightweight steels or carbon composite parts in future vehicles could raise mileage to as much as 66 miles per gallon for light trucks and 92 miles per gallon for cars.  The massive investment to re-tool US car, truck and plane industries would be paid back in fuel savings. [17] 

Bicycles and pedicabs should be strongly encouraged.  Bicycle initiatives include expansion of bicycle lanes, indoor and outdoor parking, bridge and mass transit access, and safety improvements, including increased enforcement of car bans in bicycle lanes. [18] The current artificial cap on the number of pedicabs in NYC should be removed to let the market allow for industry expansion.  Bans on pedicab travel between boroughs and on electric motor-assisted pedicabs should be lifted. [19] 

2. Making transportation more efficient

Congestion pricing.  Traffic congestion continues to worsen in American cities of all sizes, costing the U.S. economy $78 billion annually, in 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. [20] NYC metro area costs are estimated at over $13 billion annually. [21] Congestion pricing, in which an E-ZPass system automatically bills daytime drivers in certain areas, has been implemented in London, Singapore, Toronto, and San Diego. [22] 

Bringing this system to NYC is the centerpiece of PlaNYC’s transportation agenda.  Contrary to opponent claims that it hurts working class outer-borough commuters, the City’s Independent Budget Office found that drivers most affected come from outside the City and have substantially higher incomes than other motorists. [23] 

Neither side of the debate acknowledges that rising gasoline prices will lead to increased mass transit demand, and that congestion pricing will fund service expansions vital to the functioning of the City.  Proponents should look to next steps in transportation as well.


Ride Sharing.  Several ride sharing systems already allow New York area residents to share cars and find carpool and van pool partners.  The proposedSmart Jitney program would create a new nationwide transport system, using cell phones to match drivers with riders via a tracking and scheduling database to be modeled after the nation’s airline and automobile reservation systems. [24]

3. Out of cars and onto mass transit 

Although many New York do not own cars, and the City has one of the world’s best public transit systems, “New York’s approach to transportation – like most cities – … first mak[es] sure that ‘all the cars are happy.’  That should change.” [25] 

Support is growing for getting people out of cars by improving pedestrian and bicycle routes, calming traffic, and pricing congestion. [26] The 90% of driving commuters choosing not to use public transportation and the midtown traffic composition of 14% trucks and 60% cars might shift if hidden car parking subsidies were removed. [27] 

Buses.  Getting commuters onto high-occupancy buses reaps much more conservation per dollar than shifts to different fuels or the like, and bus service improvements are the low-hanging fruit. [28] NYC buses average only 7.5 miles per hour, spending only 54% of their time in motion. When dedicated lanes for express buses were introduced in Los Angeles, bus service sped up by about 30%.  Now, 28 Bus Rapid Transit corridors are being set up in Los Angeles, and NYC is studying where to set up routes. [29]

A four-year plan to maximize use of subway and rail.  Light rail, subway and trains are much more energy efficient than cars and buses, so making the best use of existing rail assets can do a lot to reduce our fuel use. [30] 

Auto-Free NY lists 15 transit strategies that could be implemented in four years to lower car use 20% in Manhattan and 5% citywide, including: [31]

  • lower transit fares

  • upgrade bus service in neighborhoods far from subway stations

  • increase service and integrate fares among Metro North, NJ Transit, LIRR and NYC subway systems, using Penn Station as a regional hub

  • replace existing toll booths with automated nonstop tolling systems

  • price congestion

  • raise parking prices and reduce amount of street parking

  • designate a network of streets for walking and cycling only

  • close Manhattan’s busiest pedestrian streets to motor vehicles and supply with streetcars (5% of borough’s mileage, about 30 miles of streets), including Broadway, 42nd Street, and a grid in Lower Manhattan

The risk of truck dependence. 

Nearly 99% of good shipped to the City arrive by truck, and the Federal Highway Administration expects regional truck traffic to rise 50% by 2020. [32] Anything interfering with the stream of trucks carrying food and other goods into the City would cause major problems.  Diverting some of this transportation load to freight trains would not only reduce pollution and congestion, but would reduce vulnerability to fuel shocks.

Implications for air travel. 

While rising fuel costs affect aviation directly, the greater impact may be indirect, as those costs lower gross domestic product, hence lowering demand. Projected growth in air travel, air freight, airport and airline infrastructure, and tourism industries do not take into account either direct or indirect effects of fuel depletion. [33]


The future of transport: electric trains, streetcars and light rail. 

In 2002 two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption was used for transportation.  Railroads are perhaps 8 times more energy efficient than heavy trucks.  Electric trains are cheaper to operate than liquid fuel-powered vehicles and can carry more freight because they can accelerate and break faster and have no delays for refueling.  The switch from railroad to trucking, facilitated by cheap oil prices, will probably reverse as oil becomes more expensive.  Electric streetcar systems have been launched in many U.S. cities. [34] Grid-powered rail may replace internal combustion-powered individual cars and trucks as our main form of transportation – if we begin building those systems now. [35] 

Centering urban design around transit, not cars. 

Sprawling suburbs have a built-in dependence on cars.  The alternative is transit-oriented development which encourages growth of compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented communities near public transportation access. [36] Sprawl is discouraged; cities and towns are surrounded by green space and agricultural areas. [37] Instead of building more highways, Federal and State transportation funds should be re-directed to build and enhance more fuel-efficient bus, light rail, and inter-city rail networks. [38] 




1. "Energy INFOcard," US EIA, Oct. 2007,

2. “Biomass for biofuel isn’t worth it,” Cornell University News Service, July 5, 2005,

3 . “Economic Impacts of Liquid Fuel Mitigation Options,” Roger Bedzek, et al., National Energy Technology Laboratory, May 2006,

4. “Biodiesel – Petroleum with Vegetable Oil,” Gotham Gazette, Dec. 2005,; “Turning Grease into Green Gas: Red Hook Refinery to Make Fuel from Fries,” Metro NY, Sept. 28, 2006,; 
“Statewide Feasibility Study for a Potential New York State Biodiesel Industry,” June 2003,NYSERDA,

5. “Corn dog,” Slate, July 19, 2005,; “Study finds mixed prairie grasses better source of biofuel," Renewable Energy Access, Dec. 13, 2006,

6. "Bio-hope, bio-hype,” biofuel comparison chart, Sierra Magazine, Sept. 2007, 

7. "As ethanol takes its first steps, Congress proposes a giant leap," NY Times, Dec. 18, 2007,

8. "World food stocks dwindling rapidly," International Herald Tribune, Dec. 17, 2007,

9. “Ethanol won’t solve energy problems,” Associated Press, July 10, 2006; 
Energy Farms Network,; “Biodiesel beats ethanol in biofuel battle,”New Scientist, July 10, 2006,; “Can’t see the future for the trees,” Adam Fenderson, Energy Bulletin, August 2, 2006, 

10. “A new day for CAFÉ in Congress,” Center for American Progress,  Dec. 4, 2007,; “In energy bill compromise, oil firms will keep tax breaks,” Dallas Morning News, December 14, 2007,; “Can Detroit live with the new fuel rules?”, TIME magazine, Dec. 19, 2007,,8599,1696382,00.html

11."Arrogance and warming," NY Times editorial, Dec. 21, 2007,

12. “Mayor Bloomberg orders taxis to be hybrid by 2012,” Bloomberg, May 22, 2007,; 
“Soaring gasoline prices inflict pain on cabbies, drivers, city budget,” New York Sun, August 16, 2005,; Toyota,; “Hybrid vehicles,” Gotham Gazette, July 2005,

13. "DOT's Alternative Fuels Program," NYC Dept. of Transportation,; "The Clean Fuel Bus Program,"MTA, 

14. "New greener city buses en route to boro in '09," Times Ledger, Nov. 15, 2007. 

15. "NYPD to road test electric scooters," CNN, Dec. 26, 2007; 

16. “The plug in hybrid for sustainability without oil,” Andrew Frank, ASPO-USA, October 2006,; “Mileage from megawatts,” Science Daily, Dec. 14, 2006,

17. “Securing America:  Solving Our Oil Dependence through Innovation,” NRDC, Feb. 2007,; “How to live without oil,” Amory Lovins, Newsweek, August 8, 2005,;

18. "Growing Bicycling," Transportation Alternatives, 

19. Pedicab News, 

20. "2007 Urban Mobility Report," Texas Transportation Institute,

21. “Growth or Gridlock:  The Economic Case for Traffic Relief and Transit Improvement for a Greater New York,” Partnership for NYC, Dec. 2006,

22. “An Exploration of Motor Vehicle Congestion Pricing in New York,” Jeffrey Zupan & Alexis Perotta, Regional Plan Association, Nov. 2003,

23. “New report fuels congestion pricing debate,” NY Times, Dec. 11, 2007,

24. Zipcar,; CommuterLink,; Long Island Transportation Management,; Smart Jitney,

25. “How New York (and other big cities) should solve the traffic problem,” Carolyn Curiel, NY Times, Sept. 13, 2006,

26. “Putting Cars Behind,” Enrique Peñalosa, Gotham Gazette, Oct. 16, 2006,; Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief,

27. “East River Bridge Tolls:  Revenue, Traffic, Mobility & Equity Impacts,” Shaller Consulting, for Transportation Alternatives, Sept. 17, 2003,; “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Ryan McGreal, April 14, 2005, 

28. “Bus Systems for the Future,” International Energy Agency, 2000,; “Mode Shift in the 1990s,” Schaller Consulting, August 2001,

29. “Riders, pols, call for more express service,” Dec. 14, 2006, Queens Chronicle; NYC Bus Rapid Transit Study ( in process), MTA,;
“Faster Buses?” Bruce Schaller, Gotham Gazette, June 2006,

30. Richard Heinberg, The Oil Depletion Protocol, New Society Publishers, 2006, pp. 46-47. 

31. “Livable City Plan,” Auto-Free NY,; Vision 42: an auto-free light rail boulevard for 42nd Street,

32. “Truck Route Management and Community Impact Reduction Study,” executive summary,NYC Dept. of Transportation, May, 2006, p. 1,; “Green freight,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign,

33. “Aviation and Peak Oil,” Roger Bedzek, Ph.D., Oct. 2007, ASPO-USA Conference; 
“Welcome to Fantasy Air,” Kurt Cobb, Energy Bulletin, Dec. 16, 2007,; SAVIA Associates International: Sustainable AVIAtion,;

34. “Streetcars: Getting the most bang for the buck,” Rail-Volution Conference 2006,; “This is Light Rail Transit,”Reconnecting America,

35. Transport Revolutions: Moving People & Freight Without Oil, Richard Gilbert & Anthony Perl, Dec. 2007,; “A 10% reduction in America’s Oil Use in Ten to Twelve Years,” Alan Drake, Light Rail Now, May 2006,

36. “Transit Resource Guide,” American Public Transportation Association,; Congress for the New Urbanism,; “Governor Spitzer creates smart growth cabinet,” December 10, 2007,Office of the Governor,

37. Ecocity Builders,; “Cities can save the earth,” Richard Register, Energy Bulletin, Sept., 2006,

38. Rail-Volution: Building Livable Cities with Transit, 

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