Monday, February 4, 2008

Achieved: 17% reduction in CO2 emissions in 6 years

Who’d a thunk it? Boston’s Logan airport is as an example of good transportation practice.

Last year, Logan served virtually the same number of passengers as in 2000 (28.5 million) with an incredible 16.7 percent fewer total flights (95,000 fewer). That meant 16.7% fewer trips (miles flown and CO2 emitted), 16.7% fewer landings and take-offs bothering neighbors, and a heck of a reduction in capital assets and costs for the same amount of mobility. All that achieved within 6 years.

What happened? Could we replicate it on the roads?

After September 11, 2001, demand for air travel plummeted. Airlines had to weigh the variable costs (fuel, incremental staffing, landing fees) against the benefits (revenue from passengers) of every flight. To reduce costs, first they cut flights, and then over time, they cut and chose new planes that had better fuel/passenger load efficiencies.

Basically, variable costs were high enough to trigger behavior change, and it was someone’s job to make sure that benefits (revenues) exceeded costs. I would guess (but don’t know) that airport infrastructure enjoys dramatically lower subsidies than road infrastructure. The cost to land and park a plane at Logan, as well as counter real estate, is probably very close to the real cost of building and operating the airport. [In fact I think Massport runs cash positive.]

The environment for the average car driver is quite different. His user fees (gas taxes, tolls, and parking) are an insignificant percent of the true costs (my google search produced numbers all over, putting the gas tax at between 50 and 5% of the real costs). His benefits aren’t easily quantified, and his real variable costs are hidden by the cloud of time. His perception is that the cost of driving is primarily gas, with the occasional toll or parking fee thrown in.

If we charged the real costs of driving – preferably per mile – our driving behavior would be dramatically different. We’d see trip reductions of 17% or better, and probably in a much shorter time period than 6 years. No doubt many more people – like the airlines – would combine trips benefits (many errands accomplished on the same trip!), would choose alternative modes where available, and would make the effort to rideshare a larger fraction of their trips (using GoLoco, of course).

Logan has another practice in place that intrigues me. They are the only airport in the country to have a congestion pricing rule in place. When flights exceed 120 planes an hour (in fair weather), a congestion pricing premium is applied. Interestingly, the airport has agreed to make this congestion tax result in reduced landing fees in off-peak hours, for a promise of revenue neutrality. This is really intriguing. Does this promise of revenue neutrality make congestion pricing more acceptable while still achieving the desired behavioral changes?

[BTW, Logan has yet to hit a traffic load that would trigger the congestion tax.]

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