Better cars are not the answer
Wise Bread is an optimistic place. There are some people who can't see the congruence between optimism and frugality. I'm talking about the sort of people who point to our progress from 360 square foot houses to 2400 square foot houses and say that, if your vision of the future doesn't have us all in 16,000 square foot houses pretty soon now, it's a pessimistic one. This article, though, isn't about houses. It's about cars.
Posted as part of blog action day.
Why do we care about cars? Because they use energy. Energy which, for the past hundred years has been fantastically cheap, but which over the next hundred years will become much, much more expensive. Energy use which has always produced pollution, but which we can see ever more clearly is a threat not only to our way of life, but our very lives.
Do cars matter?
In the United States, 28.5% of our energy consumption goes for transportation, and most of that (about two-thirds) goes to move people from where they are to where they want to be--mostly in cars and so-called light trucks (a legal category of vehicle designed for light cargo hauling but used for personal transportation because of unwise tax and regulatory policies). (Data from the U.S. Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book.)
Hand-in-hand with its fraction of energy consumption, transportation contributes a comparable share to carbon emissions as well (33%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration).
So, transportation is a big deal, and personal transportation (i.e. cars and things we use like cars) is the biggest chunk of transportation.
A lot of people look at that and say, "Ah ha! What we need are much better cars! Cars that use less fuel, and cars that use different fuels--renewable fuels!" Those people are wrong. What we need--and what we're going to have whether we like it or not--is much less driving.
Of course, we will get better cars. Cars will become more efficient and there'll be new fuels and new technologies--hybrid, hydrogen, and plug-in electric cars; cars burning ethanol, bio-diesel, coal-to-liquid, and other even more exotic fuels. But none of that will preserve our car-driving way of life. There are many reasons. Two big ones are:
- We can't solve the climate change problems with a few little--or even big--tweaks to the way we run our cars. It's going to take major changes.
- The energy needed to run around in your own car is going to get too expensive. The total world quantity of crude oil produced has been flat for about three years, despite record high prices. If these prices can't draw more fuel out of the ground, farms, and laboratories.... Well, then we'll get higher prices.
Cars could be made a lot more efficient, simply by making them smaller and lighter. That'll happen automatically, once energy gets a lot more expensive. The average car got 22.4 mpg in 2004 (the average light truck considerably less). Among cars currently being sold in the U.S. fuel efficiency tops out at about 60 mpg. Much better is possible--we'll see 120 mpg in the short term, as gasoline prices continue to rise. Making the shift as higher and higher prices force it, though is a slow, painful way to change, with the bulk of the pain falling on poor people, because the higher prices hit them first, and because they don't have the capital to invest in fuel-efficient cars.
Because there are so many things that will help--new car technology and new fuel technology--and so many good ideas and bits of good news being reported--we see a perverse result: People to look at the long list and imagine that surely one (or a few) of these ideas will pan out, and that our car culture will go on in the future much the same as it has in the past. The ideas will pan out (or many of them will), but it won't be enough to preserve our car-driving way of life. The climate change problems are too pressing and the energy supplies are no longer growing--which means that prices will have to rise to balance the still-growing demand.
We face a world with less driving.
If we accept that soon enough, there's a lot we can do--restore the failing railroad infrastructure, for one thing. Quit wasting money on airports and widening roads and putting up multi-level parking structures. Those aren't things that an individual can have much impact on (although at a local level it's possible, and worth trying).
As an individual, start arranging your life so you don't have to drive so much. Walk more. Bicycle more. Take the bus more. If you live too far from work, think about moving, or changing jobs, or both.
In the short term, also do all the things other articles on saving fuel recommend: Make sure your tire pressure is right. Combine trips. Drive conservatively. If you need a new car, buy a fuel efficient one. But none of that's going to be enough.
Soon--sooner than you think, unless you've been paying attention to the oil production figures--you're going to have to drive less. Plan for that. Arrange your life now, so that driving less won't be a burden.
The sooner you do it, the better off you'll be. It will give you more time to work out the kinks in your personal strategy for driving less. Also, it's frugal to drive less and it's incredibly frugal to live car-free. The money you're no longer spending to buy, fuel, insure, and maintain a car can give you a huge boost to your standard of living and your savings.
Why so optimistic?
This may not sound like an optimistic vision of the future. It is, though.
I look at the future and see cars becoming less common and less important. They'll become smaller and more fuel-efficient as well, but the dominate trend will be fewer of them on the road making fewer trips.
I view that change with great optimism. I see a future where communities are walkable--where housing, jobs, and shopping are close together. I see a future where people bicycle to work and to run errands. I see a future where light rail links bedroom communities with city centers and industrial centers, so that people who don't want to live in cities can still work in them and so that heavy industries that people don't want next door can still exist and still have workers. I see a future where high-speed rail links my town with the nearby cities--Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis.
I'm optimistic, because that's the future where I want to live.