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Chart of the Day: Energy Intensity of Transportation Modes

I am a sucker for energy use and intensity charts. Looking at CO2 emissions is one thing, but total energy use is an even broader way to think about how our society gets around. That’s why I think energy charts are fascinating, and you should too. Just check out this one or this one or this one and tell me you don’t get hooked…

Anyway, Citylab’s Andraes Hoffrichter had a good article the other day looking at energy use for different transportatio modes in the US, especially comparing freight vs. transportation energy uses.

Check out this chart:

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Hoffrichter writes about how US transportation efficiency compares to Europe, and for transportation energy inputs there’s a big difference in emphasis. Here’s how he sums it up:

The primary difference between Europe and North America could be summarized like this: In America there is a freight rail system with some passenger, while in Europe there is a passenger rail system with some freight—the emphasis is different.

A further difference is that the rail network is private in the U.S. and operated to yield a profit, while in most other countries the rail infrastructure is owned by the government (similar to the freeway system in the U.S.) and heavily subsidized.

The conclusion centers on ways we could begin to reduce our energy inputs for passenger transportation without sacrificing our efficient freight system. (See below.)

In other words, US passenger rail is currently abysmal:

When journey times are less than four hours, people usually prefer to travel by train instead of alternative options, such as air or road. For many corridors in the U.S. it would be necessary to upgrade existing lines or to build new infrastructure to achieve competitive journey times.

For the high-speed rail projects in California, which the state recently decided to scale back, and Texas, where trains would be able to travel at speeds of 200 miles per hour or more, those states are building new infrastructure. Higher-speed options often allow existing rail tracks to be upgraded to accommodate speeds of around 110 miles per hour to around 125 miles per hour, and such projects are being implemented in Florida and the Midwest.

Fun chart, regardless! Big cars are bad.

PS. Hoffrichter has another chart in there worth a glance, too.

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7 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Energy Intensity of Transportation Modes

    1. Jake N

      I think a sensible gas tax could help.

      Also In Minnesota we need to kill the myth that AWD is a requirement to drive in winter. A compact sedan with decent tires works just fine in ice and snow.

      1. Brian

        I don’t have AWD and have been stuck in the unplowed street half a dozen times with my mini-van in the past four years. I got all weather tires with the snowflake symbol on them around Feb 1st, but not really sure how much they helped.

      2. Monte Castleman

        We need to get rid of the myth that you need a hammer to pound in a nail too. Just hitting a nail with the side of a pipe wrench works just fine.

      3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        With increasing sales of electric cars a gas tax will have limited and declining benefit?

        Personally I think a wheelage fee based on vehicle weight, speed and size per mile travelled would be a much better option. Most (or all?) new cars already have the tech built in to do it so it could be implemented quickly – perhaps for all cars sold after 30 June 2020.

  1. Julia

    This chart is missing my transportation efficiency, which is, I believe, 0.0036 TOE/million passenger-km. I think that would improve 20-25% with biking rather than walking, or if I slowed my roll.

    Also, I’m entirely powered by plant-based renewables.

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