A free solution to Halifax’s transportation woes? That’ll never happen

A curmudgeonly friend writes:

Do you live in a mid-sized city with poor public transit, a taxi fleet choked with vested interests, and a risible bicycle system? Do you fear there will never be a day when folks can get around your city efficiently, emitting a minimum of greenhouse gases?

If so, then the family sedan may be the answer.

That’s crazy talk, of course. Buses are far more efficient, right? But how many times have you driven behind a bus containing two, one or zero passengers. Do you really believe the greenhouse gas emissions from your trusty Corolla are more than those of the empty behemoth belching diesel fumes in front of you?

A report [pdf] published inn 2011 by the U.S. Department of Transportation says that, on average, a city bus emits 0.65 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile, much better than the 0.96 emitted by a sedan occupied only by the driver. But throw passenger in your Corolla and suddenly it clocks in at 0.48, much better than the bus. Pop in 3 passengers and you’re at a planet-saving 0.24 (approximately).

So what we really mean is full buses. If you fill every seat, in every bus, on every trip, the bus wins the climate change sweepstakes at 0.16. But if you believe that can happen, I’ve got a 6/49 ticket for you.

What we need is more full passenger cars and vans. This already exists in other parts of the world, notably Latin America, where it’s known as the colectivo.

At its most basic and unregulated, a colectivo is a sedan that follows an established route. You hop in, pay your full fare and get off when the mood strikes. By economic necessity, colectivos are almost always full and, for the same reason, you don’t have to wait long for one.

Could a large fleet of sensibly regulated colectivos be the way forward in Halifax? Figuring out good bus routes has eluded local public transit for decades, but it won’t take long for colectivo drivers to master it. Think of them as water running down a rocky slope. They’ll find hundreds of independent routes around obstacles. Some will be little used; others will be rushing streams by comparison. But, in the end, like water moving downhill, they will add up to getting the most people from A to B in the shortest time. Or think of it as public transit design by crowd-sourcing.

Crazy-talk? Could be – certainly a single report doesn’t prove otherwise. But it would be interesting to get two simple numbers from Halifax’s Metro Transit: the total of GHGs the agency generates each year, and the number of passenger-miles it actually delivers. Then we do the math.

You say crazy; I say brilliant. But it’ll never happen in a city where you can’t put up a wooden utility pole without a public hearing.