Here’s Top 10 list you don’t want your city to be on, but it could have a silver lining if you’re looking at a zero emissions or near-zero emissions car. The researchers at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) compiled their annual ranking of the worst cities in the U.S. in which to try to drive somewhere. This study year (2011) they also added another metric to those of extra time expended, added cost and wasted fuel – CO2 emissions added by congestion. Their list of the worst major cities in which to drive contains most of the usual suspects:
1. Washington D.C.
2. Los Angeles (tie)
2. San Francisco-Oakland (tie)
4. New York-Newark
The “good” news, if you can call it that, is that this year’s congestion measurements found about the same level of traffic frustration as last year, although the improving economy is expected to put that in the rear view mirror when 2012’s numbers come out. The other bad news is the statistical significance of the difference in time spent idling in these cities is relatively little. And quite a few cities are just bubbling under the Top 10, including Miami, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, Denver, Las Vegas and Portland. In other words, it’s slow-going out there. As TTI said in their press release announcing the report, “As traffic congestion continues to worsen, the time required for a given trip becomes more unpredictable.” Some cities are likely to seize on this report as a rationale to attempt to mitigate congestion and the attendant human and financial cost by introducing special zones designed to limit congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. London did so several years ago and several other cities have followed suit. In London, since 2003, extra fees have been charged to drive into the downtown area, with exemptions for low or zero-emission vehicles. The charge has resulted in lighter traffic and reduced pollution while it has also raised revenue for the city. These “Top 10” cities are the most likely to attempt similar measures with similar goals, which could put owners of zero or near-zero emission vehicles at an advantage. Typically, they would escape any fees and/or be allowed to drive in zones that would otherwise limit traffic. It’s a logical extension of the perks extended to plug-in vehicles – some cities and states allow free parking, solo driver access to carpool lanes as well as financial incentives. Published Feb. 23, 2013
Gas taxes will reduce fuel consumption
The best way to get more MPG out of cars is to tax fuel, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They published a study in the journal Energy Economics (Volume 36, March 2013, Pages 322–333) that showed that fuel economy standards (such as the ones now in force in the U.S. ) cost at least six times as much (and up to 14 times as much) to reduce gasoline use as would a tax on the fuel. They added that a fuel economy standard is an expensive mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and raises the cost of a cap-and-trade policy, such as the one just starting in California.
The MIT researchers (from the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change) used their own model to test different policy impacts on fuel use and came to some clear-cut conclusions – “this analysis underscores the potentially large costs of a fuel economy standard relative to alternative policies aiming at reducing petroleum use and GHG emissions. It further emphasizes the need to consider sensitivity to vehicle technology and alternative fuel availability and costs as well as economy-wide responses when forecasting the energy, environmental, and economic outcomes of policy combinations.” The goal was to generate a 20% reduction in gasoline use using different policies.
The study also found that with a cap-and-trade policy, the key to its effectiveness is the availability of cost-competitive, low-carbon biofuels that would help deliver GHG reductions.
While many in the environmental community have lauded the fuel economy standards passed by EPA to reduce GHG and increase fuel efficiency through 2025, the MIT researchers found that the broader costs to the economy were not taken into consideration. Of course, the political fallout from a rise in the gas tax remains to be seen. Conventional wisdom says that a gas tax hike, however small, is the third rail of politics – attempt it only at the risk of your career as a politician. The logic behind that is that this is a tax that hits almost every voter and voters will be reminded of it every time they fill up.
With increased fuel economy standards, consumers get positive reinforcement as their new vehicles deliver better MPG than their old ones. But that requires a substantial financial outlay to purchase the latest technology and the vehicle in which it is encapsulated, which keeps many in the economy out of the range of fuel economy that fits their budget.
The researchers found that with their model it took longer to reduce GHG emission with vehicle efficiency standards. One logical finding they had: with more efficient vehicles, it costs less to drive, so Americans tend to drive more. This is born out in the ever-increasing VMT (vehicle miles traveled) numbers recording by the Department of Transportation.
Prius hybrid – now one of the Top 10 best-selling vehicles
My view is that is a classic case of political reality out of sync with changing reality. While taxes in general and gasoline taxes in particular may be a hot topic of discussion, this is a country that has dealt with rapid and extreme price fluctuations during the past decade. Check out this graph from the government Energy Information Administration. I believe the experience of the past decade had created a different type of consumers; the ones who now value fuel efficiency more than other factors when purchasing a car. The ones that have changed the landscape of automobile size and shape during the past decade. The ones that have made the Toyota Prius hybrid one of the top 10 best-selling cars in the country. These are consumers buying hybrids, clean diesel, plug-in cars and high-mileage gasoline cars in ever-increasing numbers. These are consumers choosing to “right-size” their fleet to maximize efficiency and fuel economy. Consumers that see 10 to 50 cent daily fluctuations in gasoline prices are beyond knee-jerk reactions to a nickel- or dime-a-year taxes on fuel. That’s not to say it couldn’t become a potent political issue, but properly presented, with a clean explanation of where and how the money raised will be used (for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades and support for those struggling to afford new, higher-mileage vehicles, for example) should make it more palatable.
Of course, skeptics might look at the same data and say that fluctuating prices have dulled consumers to the real impact of what the proposed tax increases might have. The same attitude that would lead drivers to ignore small increases might lead them to not change behavior, whether it’s buying more fuel efficient vehicles or driving less.
What do you think?
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Save Gas, Save the Planet: John Addison’s book about hybrid and electric cars, pathways to low carbon driving, and the future of sustainable transportation. © 2009 John Addison. All rights reserved.
Smiles Per Gallon
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.”
-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
The Eubank family was interested in replacing one of their SUVs with a fuel-efficient car. In their energy-efficient home, they reduced their carbon footprint and were rewarded with big savings in their electricity bill. Now it was time to take on the vehicles.
They considered everything from vehicles running on biofuel, to turbodiesels, to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, to plug-in hybrid conversion, to electric vehicles. Many of these vehicles had good fuel economy and range because they were lighter four- door sedans.
Safety and storage were major concerns in their decision. Like many families, the Eubanks wanted to do their part to help with energy independence from foreign oil. They also wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A typical SUV in the United States produces about 12 tons of CO2 emissions per year; a fuel-efficient hybrid only one-third that amount. The family saw a major opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint.
Bob liked the safety of their two SUVs. His safety concerns were increasing as his daughter, Meili, approached driving age. As a protective father, his first instinct was to get a Hummer, or at least an armored-plated Volvo station wagon. Meili, an “A” student who had written papers about the environment, liked the idea of an electric car. Her brother Tai, who also cared about the environment, said his favorite vehicle was his bicycle.
Weihong, as a busy mother and business owner, weighed practical issues such as having room for several people, school stuff, sports equipment, storage boxes for the business and more. Everything had to fit in a trunk to meet their demanding schedule of school drop-offs, pick-ups, business meetings, golf, and swim lessons. Because the family liked their hybrid Toyota Highlander SUV, they were interested in the Toyota Prius. They had talked to Prius owners who loved the hybrid car and achieved over 50 miles per gallon, but they were concerned about safety and storage.
The Eubanks realized they could use the larger Highlander for longer trips to carry more people and large items like skis, surfboards, or bicycles. The Prius would meet their normal daily needs, including carrying up to five people. Weihong carefully measured the space needed for two backpacks loaded with school books, a storage box, two sets of golf clubs, two sets of sports bags, and a normal load of groceries. Yes, they would all fit in the Prius’ trunk.
Bob and Weihong reviewed safety evaluations from sources such as Consumer Reports. Sedans, such as the Prius, scored high on safety due to dual front and side airbags, and high-scores in crash tests. Yes, you can find adaptive air-bag systems, anti-lock breaks, adjustable seat belts and other safety features in big and heavy SUVs. You can also find them in fuel saving four-door sedans.
But aren’t SUVs safer? “In stop and go commuter traffic, you’re more likely to get in a rear-end collision than any other crash type,” says David Zuby, Senior Vice President, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Vehicle Research Center. The Institute determined that the designs of seats and head restraints in 21 current SUV, pickup, and minivan models are rated good for protecting people in rear impacts, but those in 54 other models are rated marginal or poor. Big vehicles are not necessarily safe, and some of the safest vehicles are cars with better maneuverability.
The Eubanks’ research and test drive of a Prius resolved their safety concerns. The car scored well on air bags and crash tests. They liked optional safety features such as cruise control for driving at a safe speed, GPS for eyes-on-the road navigation, and a backup camera. They decided that the Prius was as safe as their SUV. In fact, when Meili starts driving, she may find it easier to maneuver than a large SUV.
The Eubanks now happily drive the Prius. In fact, they make every effort to put most of their miles on the hybrid car and leave their remaining SUV parked. Some weeks, this approach cuts their gas costs in half compared to their two-SUV approach. In two years, this family may replace their other SUV. As you will learn in the following chapters, their alternatives will be more exciting than ever.
Bob and Weihong are parents who want their children to have a great education, a childhood rich in opportunity, and positive experiences. They also want their children to have a secure future. Without sacrificing safety or vehicle needs, the Eubanks now live in better harmony with their values about energy security and being environmentally friendly.
The Eubanks have doubled their miles per gallon and tripled their smiles per gallon.
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© 2009 John Addison. All rights reserved.