Transportation Energy Use – Is a Paradigm Shift Occurring?


How much of our immense energy use, especially in North America, is related to transportation?  Is it so much that, as our current energy sources become increasingly expensive, a major paradigm shift in how we work, travel, and interact will come about?  This has been discussed in depth since the rise of the big North American cities in the early 20th century, and much predictive thought and research has been recorded, with many visions and creative plans developed.  Unfortunately, the economics of commerce and developments in popular culture have driven us away from increased efficiency and in quite the opposite direction: housing development trends, ever widening superhighways, and the immense popularity of sophisticated individual transportation (cars, trucks, etc.) have created amazing and far flung urban and suburban sprawl, and infrastructure specialized to handle the heavy traffic.  Unfortunately, the infrastructure and sprawl specifically discourage more efficient alternatives.  Now we are stuck with the need to have extremely expensive and inefficient vehicles, mostly of which rarely carry more than a single person, in order to work or obtain the products we need.   What will change when energy costs are twice, three times, or ten times what they are today?

I believe I am fairly average for North American residents.  Currently I work about 35 miles from where I live.  I can’t exist without a car and keep my current job, my fuel bills are now about $255/month, and my monthly car payment is about $230.  My car is a fairly inexpensive ($16k) econobox that gets 28-32 mpg average, and I put about 2500 miles per month on it.  I don’t drive for a living, though.  I spend my time in a single office building all day, five days a week, and rarely go out for lunch.   I am not unusual among my coworkers and friends, either.  Some drive farther than I do, and some drive less.  I don’t expect to ever be able to travel this much for less, and know that many people drive significantly less efficient vehicles and/or drive considerably farther than I.  (I wonder how they afford it.)  So how will things most likely change?

Problem: The Infrastructure AND CULTURE Don’t Support Most Alternatives

I would love to bicycle or bus to work, but it would be too arduous, dangerous, and time consuming as things are now.  In fact, just getting out of my town on a bicycle is difficult unless one is brave enough to cross one of the freeway overpasses, which have no safe option for cycling or walking due to on and off-ramps that connect directly to the bridge.  Drivers don’t expect walkers or cyclists, either, making such a trip an exercise for only the most stout of heart, especially in the short days of winter when one must travel in the dark.  In effect, the freeways in populated areas such as where I live are like steel walls of death, which nothing can cross safely without a lot of expensive armor and power, even using the bridges provided.  To the city planners’ credit, there _are_ dedicated pedestrian/bicycle bridges in places, but to use them can often take one miles out of anything like a direct route – significant extra time and effort for a bicycle and prohibitive for a walker.  Worse yet, the extra time and effort are in direct opposition to our cultural expectations of convenience and (relatively) instant gratification.

Urban sprawl works directly against public transportation by reducing the potential economies in the system.  Most people who take public transportation farther than a few miles now have to drive themselves, in their car or truck, to an access point.  While this may save 90% of the distance they would otherwise drive, each must still own a vehicle, with all the attendant costs and hassles, greatly limiting systemic (and individual) efficiency.   Bus service often doesn’t start early enough to be practical, and work is often so far from home that a bus ride would be prohibitively long.  Is this a culturally-derived judgment, and is spending three or more hours per day on a bus, just to get to work and back, too much to expect?  Perhaps not, as in the developing world some people walk five miles to work, probably requiring about the same amount of time.  (They do get a lot more exercise than we in North America do, to their benefit.)

The railroads in North America, which are extremely efficient and might offer a significant savings, have suffered from decades of lobbying by personal transportation makers and others, and are a shadow of what they were 70 years ago.  Decades ago legislators came upon the mistaken idea that railroads should be profit centers, and did not deserve public support, ignoring the fact that the infrastructure for personal transportation (predominantly roads) is provided to the public almost entirely for free, and at huge cost to the taxpayer.  In effect, we subsidize the least efficient and most expensive type of transportation available to the public, at tremendous cost, design our infrastructure (and culture) around it, and continually reduce the capabilities of the most efficient and low-cost transportation system we have. 

I realize this is a description of a typical American urban/suburban situation, and that other parts of the world are not structured to require (or support) this sort of a lifestyle, but that only suggests that North America may suffer disproportionate negative impact as energy costs increase.  Demand for energy will certainly increase both as poorer areas of the world achieve economic ascendancy, travel more, use more energy in general, and buy more cars.  As population increases worldwide energy costs will be driven up inexorably, and probably in spurts.  So where are we headed?

The Transportation Future May Be Mostly Here Now – Is the Problem in the Culture? 

I can currently get to anywhere in my town within an hour by taking the bus that stops every half hour at the end of the block, for a dollar or so, but I almost never take it because I am ingrained with the idea of personal, on-demand transportation and the will to avoid even the slightest inconvenience (the cultural expectations factor).  My town, I should mention, is a college town, a center of progressive thinking, and usually in the lead as far as environmentally responsible policies and programs.  In many towns of similar or smaller size in North America public transportation is nonexistent, and if you don’t drive and have a car you are severely disadvantaged and isolated.  While much thought and talk about more efficient transportation systems and ways of living have been made public, cultural norms and commercially-driven development has been in the opposite direction.

What Will We Be Doing in 20-30 Years? 

When I look out of my window at home and see the traffic roaring by on the freeway, I have often wondered if someday that wide, concrete road will be a bit less traveled, and be shared by huge, ultra-efficient freight-hauling vehicles, streamlined and light-weight buses, and bicycles.  I also wonder if people won’t be spending a lot more time at home or within walking distance of their homes. 

I can envision doing a lot more of my work from home, wearing a multimedia headset and attending virtual meetings.  I would take a bus and/or train to a central office perhaps once a week, requiring an hour each way on the freeway and/or tracks, just to attend to the few things I couldn’t do from home.  More than twenty years ago IBM and other major corporations tried various work systems that would support this: office buildings with few dedicated cubicles and offices, where on arrival one checks out one’s cart of office supplies, equipment, and files from a storeroom near the door of the building and then wheels it to any available cubicle or office, where connecting a few plugs into power and communication wall plates will complete the setup of the personal workspace.  Then, at the end of the day, the cart is unplugged and returned to the storeroom as part of one’s exit from the building.  Today this concept is being slowly made obsolete, though, as data and information storage is increasingly placed on internet servers and one’s work can be done from any computer with an internet connection.  Today more and more often one can sit in bed at home, place one’s laptop computer on one’s lap, and start working without leaving one’s bed.  (I kind of like that idea … but that’s how I write a lot of these blog entries.)

I would love to just take a bus to the store a couple of times a week instead of fighting it out with the traffic, and return with my (reusable cloth) shopping bags full of food and supplies.  I will undoubtedly be doing this in the future, but right now I really don’t know what’s stopping me, except the ingrained assumption that I don’t have time for that, that waiting for the bus with my shopping bags would be uncomfortable or embarrassing (being looked at by the vast numbers of people zipping past in their comfortable cars), or that the weather would make it inconvenient or uncomfortable.  Some people worry about their safety on buses, that they are exposed to “the underbelly of society”, or just that some overweight guy with halitosis or an annoying cell phone habit will sit next to them.  I contend that, since they never take the bus, they really have no basis for such expectations. 

Instead of dinner out, perhaps more delivery food options would be available.  Here again, urban/suburban sprawl decreases the economic efficiency, as the distances involved place sometimes-prohibitive costs on food purveyors.  In my progressive town, beyond restaurants that deliver, there is actually still a dairy that delivers milk, cheese, and similar products to your door, and, while I am sure it is noticeably more costly than going out to shop, few people really consider objectively which alternative is more economical, and studies and data for decision making aren’t prevalent.

While in many of the more populous and developed places in the world, Italy, for example, people walk, take public transportation, or ride small efficient scooters and bicycles to where they need to go, and only rent a car or truck for the day when they need it, North America has already developed away from a infrastructure that would allow easy emulation of that model, except in the central cities, many of which have little good and affordable living space near their centers.  (Some rental companies in the U.S. will bring the vehicle to you, though.)  Instead, it is possible that North America will leapfrog the European example and become far more a society of virtual interaction over the internet.  So, while North America may be the most inefficient and personally convenient now, and suffer an ecological disadvantage to places like Italy, our infrastructure may force us to take the lead in the implementation of virtual technology, resulting in a transportation efficiency advantage in 20 or 30 years. 

In all matters, I believe face-to-face encounters will be reduced because people will travel a lot less.  I won’t try to discuss here the health impacts of our current or future transportation infrastructure, but note that sitting in a virtual reality system at home is potentially even worse for us than the walk to the car most of us take now.  But maybe we’ll all be playing tennis and other active games with each other using advanced versions of systems like the Wii video game, now gaining popularity in retirement homes because it involves real physical activity.  Is this game providing a glimpse of the future?  It does occur to me that staying home more means less exposure to germs like the flu, and that’s a good side to it.  I will still get my exercise with some weight lifting and a nice walk or bike ride.

To sum up, the transition to less energy-intensive travel and more virtual types of work is already under way, and doesn’t represent a radical paradigm shift compared with other changes we will need to make to achieve a more sustainable, survivable future.  I will address those more challenging matters in other entries.  While this entry isn’t organized as well as I’d like, I will submit it and move on, as there are “bigger fish to be fried” in this blog.  Thanks for reading, as always, and please feel free to submit your comments.

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Added June 10, 2008

The Paradigm Shift is Accelerating

Having just re-read this entry, I still feel the same, but the events of the past 16 weeks have been quite noteworthy and deserve mention here.  Oil has now surged to a spot price that peaked a few days ago at $139/barrel, leading to a national average gasoline price of over $4/gallon, from $3/gallon back in February.  My monthly fuel cost are now well in excess of $310 – an increase of 22% – and that doesn’t include the fact that, through slower and more careful driving (now around 62 mph on the 70 mph-limited freeways), I have brought my car’s average fuel economy from 28-30 miles per gallon to about 35 miles per gallon, an improvement of between 16 and 25%. 

Unfortunately, the rapid run-up of oil prices has done more than just make driving more expensive.  Diesel fuel has risen to around $4.70 in my area, and truckers are struggling to pay over a thousand dollars for a fill-up.  Stores and restaurants have increased food prices noticeably to reflect the increased shipping costs, further putting a pinch on the average person.  In the big cities, public transit ridership has been reported up 15% in some places, and transit authority boards are planning to add vehicles and rail cars to their fleets to handle the expected future increases.

The automotive industry has been hit hard by falling sales of the larger and more profitable vehicles, and everyone’s sales have fallen except Honda, which makes few large vehicles.  Even though the economy is in poor shape, and buying power is significantly reduced due to recent inflation and tough economic conditions, small car and (surprise!) scooter sales are surging.  The auto makers are still hurting, however.  GM is closing four assembly plants and taking other cost-saving actions, and Ford is cutting production and laying off 10-12% of its salaried workforce (only 16 months after letting go of 30% of the same group).  Automakers are also suffering from a near-doubling of steel prices at the same time, said to be because of burgeoning demand mostly in China.

The increasing hunger for energy and raw materials in the developing world, predominantly China and India, is blamed for most of the changes, and I see no reason to expect the trend to change.  While oil prices may bounce around a bit over time, the general trend can only logically be upward.  The result of the rapid change has been a significant consciousness-raising for many people.  The energy crunch is one of the most talked about subjects, from what I hear everywhere I go. 

There is still room for more change, however.  Traffic on the freeway still passes me constantly as I roll along, usually behind a tractor-trailer so I won’t impede the speedsters and “gassholes” (a term I devised to label those huge pickup trucks and SUVs that blast angrily up from behind and then zoom around me, wasting enough gas to take me half way to work in the process).  I expect to see more changes, but it will take time.  The past 16 weeks has been a shock for a lot of people, and they need time to react.  I can only hope that fuel price increases will be more stable in the future, so people, corporations, and governments will have more time to adjust.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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2 responses to “Transportation Energy Use – Is a Paradigm Shift Occurring?

  1. Great article. You have obviously given this a lot of thought.

    I went without a car from the age of 18 to 36, it was totally impractical.

    I don’t think we will be able to “solve” this one by trying to get people to drive less, because for most people, having a car is considered an absolute necessity.

    It’s a controversial opinion but I think advanced new technology is what is going to save us.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I, too, was without a car until I was 25 (I was spending my money on guitar amplifiers, etc. see http://www.martianentropyband.com for a sample of one of the wackiest bands I was in – great fun).

    But, even today, I could do a lot more than I do _without_ driving my car, but sense a powerful cultural stigma in North America AGAINST using public transportation, and FOR going everywhere by car (unless the trip is specifically for the exercise). It is this cultural expectation and conditioning that strikes me as odd, as a change in it could reap huge rewards without anything more than changing our attitudes.

    I think that change will come, driven by cost and economics more than anything else. As for the solution, technology is certainly a big part of it, but will not, by itself, be sufficient. The attitude change will also be a part. There are other components to the total solution, too, but … what are they? I’d like to read more of people’s ideas. Thanks to all.

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