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Investing in Sustainable Development: Mass Transit or Increasing the CAFE

Updated on March 28, 2012

Mass Transit vs. CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy)

Mass transit and raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy are two very good things. If we could improve both at the same time, that would be amazing. The problem is that we have a scarce amount of resources to allocate towards each endeavor, and different problems such as ability to use and safety issues keep us from excelling to our fullest potential in both. The decision now is to decide which one is worth more resources: mass transit or the Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Mass transit is more efficient for densely packed cities because they are expensive and time consuming to develop, and better fuel economy is more efficient for the rural communities with less advanced infrastructure.

When it is used consistently, forms of mass transit are extremely efficient because they carry much more people for less and also because they encourage densely packed communities. Fouracoure, Chrisian, and Geoff point out that the maximum amount of riders for buses, trams, light rapid transit, and Metros are 90, 180, 240, and 400 respectively (301). Even though miles per gallon of these forms of transportation are very low, this extremely high capacity more than makes up for it. Another major advantage to increasing mass transit is the long term migration towards more densely packed communities. Low density areas use more energy per capita because they have longer distances to travel in their daily commute (Palmer 1). In high density areas, people will be more apt to either use mass transit rather than personal cars or just walk.

With all that being said, there are some clear disadvantages to investing in mass transit. First of all, the results are only long term. This is because creating the infrastructure to support forms of mass transit is very expensive and time consuming. Proof of this is the productivity index from 1920-1970, which showed that the average of every industry other than mass transit improved 281% , whereas mass transit only improved 60% (McDermott 31). Secondly, the results are very centralized. That is, it would only be useful to those who live in the big cities where mass transit was available; it would not help the rural areas very much at all. Likewise, the efficiency of rail transit is low because of the higher speeds, lighting, air conditioning and heating, energy loss from braking, and the heavy weight of train cars, which is, on average, over twice the per seat weight of an automobile (Lawyer 1). Mass transit was more efficient than automobiles a while ago, but the improvements in technology of automobiles over the past 30 years has changed that.

Raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, otherwise known as CAFE, is efficient because it will ultimately lower fuel consumption. This is true because everyone’s driving habits are pretty consistent from week to week. A person does not decide to go to work in an office in Houston one day and Dallas the next. People, for the most part, have similar travel patterns throughout the week. There is no infrastructure to be built in order for this to happen; however, the older cars that are not fuel efficient are outsourced by newer, more efficient cars (“Cars, Light Trucks and CAFE Standards 1”). Raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy would just give drivers more fuel for their dollar. It would also affect a broad range of people. The scope is not limited to large cities or tight knit communities. Small, rural towns are not left out of the equation. Likewise, raising the CAFE would lead to greater technological advancements in car design, engine performance, and overall efficiency.

The downsides related to increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy include safety issues, the rebound effect, and the negligible affect on the environment. Safety is the biggest reason keeping the CAFE from skyrocketing. If it continues to rise, then car manufacturer look to lessen the weight of the car as a way to increase fuel economy (DeGaspari 25-26). This causes them to use lighter, less strong materials in the cars, which lead to more traffic fatalities. Even if safety was not an issue, a “rebound effect” would theoretically happen. Essentially, the idea is that since the cars are more fuel efficient, drivers will drive more, thus canceling out the benefits of increased gas mileage. Although it does not completely cancel out, there is still another thing to consider. Only 1.5% of the global manmade greenhouse emissions are from cars and light trucks (Coon 1). So even though it is socially acceptable because it saves the consumers money, the environmental impact is negligible.

When dealing with the question of whether or not to increase spending for mass transit or the CAFE, regions and externalities need to be taking into consideration before a definitive answer can be given. It can clearly be argued both ways that both mass transit and increasing the CAFE are good in some areas and bad in others. The basic idea is that improvements in mass transportation would be beneficial for large, urban cities where the population is dense and improvements in the CAFE would be beneficial for rural areas where the population is scattered and the main transportation are cars. In every issue like this, you cannot just fully support one side because the diversity of the population and location makes it unfair to single people out. Mass transit should exist in densely populated cities and should also connect large cities so that business people will not have to fly there on airplanes, which is the most inefficient form of transportation. The stats show that the long term benefits of mass transit outweigh those of increased fuel economy. Therefore, although not all, most resources should be used on mass transit.


"Cars, Light Trucks and CAFE Standards." CSA. Aug. 2003. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

Coon, Charlie. "Why the Government's CAFE Standards for Fuel Efficiency Should Be Repealed, Not Increased." The Heritage Foundation: Leadership for America. The Heritage Foundation, 11 July 2001. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

DeGaspari, John. "Retooling CAFE." Mechanical Engineering 126.4 (2004): 24-27. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Mar. 2012.

Fischer, Carolyn, Winston Harrington, and Ian Parry. "Should Automobile Fuel Economy Standards Be Tightened?" The Energy Journal 28.4 (2007): 1-26. Print.

Fouracre, Phil, Christian Dunkerley, and Geoff Gardner. "Mass Rapid Transit Systems For Cities In The Developing World." Transport Reviews 23.3 (2003): 299. Web. 4 Mar. 2012.

Lawyer, David S. "Does Mass Transit Save Energy?" 1996. Web. 06 Mar. 2012. <>.

McDermott, Dennis R. "Mass Transit Issues from a Marketing Perspective." Transportation Journal (1976): 28-35. Print.

Palmer, Frank. "The Contributions of Mass Transit to Energy Efficiency, and Their Limits." Daily Koss. Koss Media, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <>.

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