A streetcar awaits a green light in Vancouver. Photo by Page Graham.

In a recent op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, Randal O’Toole asserted that, on a per passenger-mile basis, a sport utility vehicle (SUV) is more energy efficient and emits less greenhouse gases than a streetcar.  After doing some fact checking, I’d say without hesitation that O’Toole is wrong.

Greenhouse gases attributable to electric vehicles depend on the local sources of electric power.  For example, O’Toole “cherry picks” some light rail lines – he avoids Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle which rely on hydro-electric power – to claim that a theoretical streetcar emits more greenhouse gas emissions than an SUV on a passenger-mile basis.

Unfortunately, he conveniently ignores that fact that a light rail vehicle is not the same as streetcar.  A light rail vehicle consumes more energy than a streetcar because it is heavier and faster.

If you actually look at streetcars (not light rail) powered by CPS Energy’s clean (and getting cleaner) power sources, O’Toole’s assessment is flawed.  On a per passenger-mile basis, a streetcar in San Antonio will, in fact, be more energy efficient and produce less greenhouse gas emissions than an SUV, or a bus for that matter.

Further, O’Toole’s SUV is powered by increasingly expensive, largely imported, and limited oil, as opposed to relatively clean and increasingly renewable CPS Energy electric power which would be used to propel a streetcar.

O’Toole’s emissions assessment doesn’t even address ozone, San Antonio’s top air pollution issueThe American Lung Association gave Bexar County air a grade of “F” because of ozone.  It is clear why he left it out: a passenger-mile on O’Toole’s SUV will produce five time the ozone-generating emissions of a passenger-mile on a San Antonio streetcar.  If the SUV operates in the same stop-and-go conditions that the streetcar will operate in the central business district, the SUV emissions will be even worse.

O’Toole also fails to mention that mobile air toxics, e.g., benzene, that impact nearby pedestrians, cyclists, employees, students, and residents are not an issue with electric vehicles (like a streetcar), but they are for his SUV. Air toxins from fossil-fuel-powered motor vehicles are the reason that at least six states protect children’s health by prohibiting the construction of schools near busy roads.

If the streetcar stimulates more compact development – and it probably will – then the pollution reduction benefits of the streetcar will be even greater.

VIA released a statement Tuesday, outlining its concerns with the streetcar petition:

“We have our concerns, though, that some of the backers of the petition drive to alter the San Antonio City charter are misrepresenting the purpose and effect of the petition. We think they are misinforming the public regarding the modern streetcar project, but we will continue to share the facts and provide accurate information on the streetcar project, and we will stay focused on making sure the transportation needs of this great city are met.”

It is clear that O’Toole – founder and president of the American Dream Coalition,  Heartland Institute report author, Cato Institute senior fellow, Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, etc. – doesn’t like streetcars.  However, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once noted, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

*Featured/top image: A streetcar awaits a green light in Toronto. Photo by Page Graham.

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Bill Barker

Bill Barker, FAICP, is the only professional in San Antonio that is recognized as a Fellow by both the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Institute of Certified Planners.