Thursday, November 13, 2008

Canadian Nonsense, and it could happen here

"Canada Has Spent Billions On Carpool Lanes, But The Courts Are Now Forbidding Their Use By An Online Ridesharing Website." is the article headline that explains the situation well.

In Ontario there has been a long running lawsuit by a bus company against a ridesharing website for going against that province's definition of ridesharing/carpooling which was made back in the '70s. The court just ruled in favor of the bus company, and has given the ridesharing company fines and restrictions on its service.

So what is the right answer?

We demand that government establish safety and environmental standards that protect the people, as well as provide a level playing field for businesses to thrive. In this particular case, companies that transport people for a fee have safety, vehicle, insurance, and environmental standards they have to adhere to, all of which come at a cost which effects the price of the service to consumers. Yet individuals who share their own cars for a fee aren't required to comply with all those laws, and therefore can offer up a cheaper service. And theoretically, this leaves passengers at risk and the environment unprotected.

One likes to imagine that governments serve "the people" as a whole, and not particular interest groups. So where should they stand on this issue?

We typically give small businesses exceptions to all sorts of regulations because it just too much time and money involved for their small revenue stream and small volumes to comply. Michael Pollan has argued this same point in his book, An Omnivore's Dilemma when it comes to slaughterhouses (it is impossible to raise livestock on small local farms anymore because of these restrictions). For consumers, it is buyer beware when dealing with small local providers. And as Pollan points out, this is acceptable because we can know, see, and complain about the actual provider in a very direct way, that we can't do with big business. And therefore small businesses need to maintain high quality services if they want to remain in business.

From an environmental perspective, I really believe that we have to start enabling every resource to be used to its maximum capacity and efficiency. (See my personal blog entry on this.) Filling up cars that are making the trip anyway can only be a good thing. And if I had to predict the effect of this on bigger formal transportation services, I say that this can increase demand, not diminish it. As ridesharing becomes more popular, more people will feel that they can actually get to where they need to go without the need to own a personal car. Once you get rid of your personal car, your consumption of and reliance on public transportation in all its incarnations will rise dramatically.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rock Band Tours by Bike

Great music, great idea, and great execution. Check out this 4 minute video. As Kipchoge Spence, the person behind this idea, wrote me:

"In 2007, the Ginger Ninjas became the first band in the history of rock and roll to tour by bicycle, unsupported by automobile. On a 5000 mile odyssey from their home in Northern California to the pyramids of Southern Mexico, they promoted transportation cycling while also exploring the frontiers of pedal-generated electricity, using their own bikes to power a hyper-efficient sound system. The audience took turns getting on stage to pedal the bikes to make the sound, taking crowd participation to a new level. Originally conceived as a one-time adventure/statement/experiment, the band became addicted to low-impact touring, and now does so exclusively.

The Ginger Ninjas' mobile human-power stage is the first of its kind in history. Coupling super efficient digital amplifiers, lightweight components, and generators attached to working bicycles (as opposed to purpose-built stationary bikes), the system allows a band to play off-grid anywhere, wall outlet or no, and to also carry the system to a gig on the same bicycles (Xtracycle sport utility bicycles). This enables a new kind of completely self-sufficient bicycle touring, sans automobile support. On the band's most recent tour, the system and touring style enabled them to avoid generating close to 60,000 pounds of CO2, or 95% of what a similar sized band creates in a similar tour."

We're hoping GoLoco can partner with them on their next tour in the U.S.
great 4 minute video describing 2007 tour

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

10 Things to Like about $4/gallon Gas

Wow. I am so impressed with Amanda Ripley, who wrote this story for Time magazine. She offers sympathy about the suffering and expands on this list:

1. Globalized jobs return home
2. Sprawl stalls
3. Four day workweeks
4. Less pollution
5. More frugality
6. Fewer traffic deaths
"If gas remains at $4 per gal. for a year or more, expect as many as 1,000 fewer fatalities a month, according to professor Michael Morrisey at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associate professor David Grabowski at Harvard Medical School, who calculated that estimate for TIME. That means annual deaths could be cut by almost one-third — a public-health triumph."

7. Cheaper Insurance
8. Less Traffic
9. More Cops on the Beat
10.Less obesity
"A permanent $1 hike in prices may cut obesity 10%, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars a year, estimates Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro."

To read it yourself, see the full article.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Should Brave Men Die So We Can Drive?

This is one of the headlines used on public service announcement posters during World War II to encourage conservation of fossil fuel. This 2 minute compilation shows how times and values have changed. While we look back at old tobacco ads with horror "Doctors agree that smoking BRAND NAME is the healthiest choice," these ads generate some nostalgia for doing the right thing.

Other headlines include:
"oil is ammunition"
"all fuel is scarce...plan for winter now"
"have you really tried to save gas by getting in a car club?"
"Is your trip necessary?"

This group of ads shows how energy conservation is patriotic. In this election year, and in the next administration, we would do well to encourage Americans to think about their most deeply held values -- a safe, secure, and sustainable future for us and our children. It is high time to push out a new round of PSAs to complement policy at the state and national levels.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How much does it cost to drive?

The IRS formally increased the number it uses for cost per mile car travel, from 50.5 cents per mile, to 58.5 cents per mile. The question for drivers is -- are you sharing that cost or sucking it up all by yourself?

I recently did an analysis of AAA 2007 cost data for driving. I wanted to understand how much the rising cost of gas is actually changing the real costs of driving. [These aren't quite real costs since they don't include any of the externalities associated with driving like global warming, protection of oil resources, asthma, car accidents, among others.] AAA numbers are averaged over five years, assuming you own the car for the first five years of its life.

Today, with gas at $4 a gallon, looking at the two extremes of car types, it costs

$18.60/day for a small sedan ($6,795/year)
$31.00/day for an SUV or pickup truck ($11,309/year)

This covers travel of 41 miles per day (15,000 miles per year), average for Americans.

When -- not if -- gas goes to $5 a gallon, it'll be

$21.66/day for a small sedan ($7,906/year)
$33.32/day for an SUV or pickup truck ($12,161/year)

What was particularly interesting to me is how the rising price of gas has transformed the variable costs of driving. When gas was $1/gallon, it was only 9% of the total cost of owning and operating a small sedan. Today, at $4/gallon, gas ranges between 28 and 30% of the cost of operating a car. When it is at $5/gallon, that'll be 32-35%. With such high variable costs, people are really having to think twice and three times about when and how they drive. [see blog entry on changed driving behaviors]

This is so much money!!!

Back in 2006, 17% of household income went toward cars. I ask myself: if the median household income in the US is $48,000/year, what percent of income is going to car transportation today? A recent study found that in households with cars, they own on average 2.28 cars per household. Now comes some very murky and suspect assumptions, just to get it into the ballpark. Those households are unlikely to have 2.28 new cars, so what if we just round down and say 2 cars that are 0-5 years old are going to stand in for 2.28 cars of unknown age. And that households will have one big car and one little car, which is kind of like saying they have 2 average-sized cars.

OK, if we accept these bad assumptions, the answer to the question:

What percent of household income is going today to car transportation when gas is $4/gallon?




Another way to look at this is to use a a report written in September 2005 by Mark Singer of the Consumer Federation of America. His estimates of gas prices for 2005 were about $1.80/gallon. For prices found between 1995-2003 (his baseline) he found little elasticity in demand. Here is his table:

We know that $4/gallon seems to have been a tipping point for demand. And $4 is more than double $1.80. But what if we imagine that people today are spending about double on gas, taking into account some reductions in demand? That would put low income groups spending 20% of their incomes just on the gas.

Washington, I think we have a problem.

Americans need options to traveling around by car all by themselves. Some of those options can happen fast (GoLoco! and for those lucky enough to live in cities feet, bike, transit, train); some will take longer (changing where we choose to live, work, shop, creating dense mixed use communities, adding more transit of all kinds, reducing fossil fuel dependence on all motorized modes).

Next Mr. President: are you listening?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Most Important Thing to Read on Global Warming

James Hansen, the US’s leading climate scientist, to whom I turn for climate science, spoke to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, and the National Press Club on June 23 2008. His entire talk is only 4 pages. Read it. If you don’t think you'll get to it -- or maybe to inspire you to do the reading -- I’ve excerpted some of the high points.

These are Jim Hansen’s words:

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year…Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years….

Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation…

Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly… If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They yield continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy source….

Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits.

We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public. A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend3 is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry.
The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our
products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly…

We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and
dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success…

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.”

Robin’s words: We can’t get sidetracked by cap and trade agreements. They may be "politically acceptable" but won’t produce the results in the time frame required or redirect the economy as needed. We need carbon taxes “incentives” as fast as is politically possible. We should all do everything we can to make sure our next president understands this clearly. See for ways to make your voice heard and see what others are doing.

$4/gallon gas may be a magic number

After years of not caring, Americans are changing their ways, and quickly.

1. Changed driving habits. From the New York Times:

“In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease — the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.”

2. Shopping closer to home. Consumers are beginning to question the "savings" gained from driving long distance to malls.

3.When buying cars, shirking the worst offenders. GM sales of SUV and trucks were down 25% in April, and down 37% in May over the previous year.

3. Buying houses where driving can be reduced. David Stiff, an economist who analyses housing prices nationally found that "even as overall sales volume drops, relatively stronger demand for housing will limit price declines in neighborhoods with shorter work commutes, better schools, and easier access to parks, recreation, and retail centers...Prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover." This effect can be seen in New York, metro Washington, Detroit.

4. And finally, choose jobs that are as close to home as possible, accessible by public transit, or can be walked, biked, or telecommuted to. These trends might be harder to spot in such a short period of time.

Employers, retailers, developers, planners, governments take notice. Lifestyles that reduce dependence on costly gas – producing even more costly CO2 emissions – are in demand. Those who have been able to make changes quickly, have done so, and more and more people will make these changes as the opportunities present themselves.

If you think you can't afford to make these changes, do the math. It'll cost more to not be energy efficient when gas prices reach $5, $8 and $10/gallon. We all - individuals, companies, and governments -- have a huge budget to work with: the impending increases in fossil fuel prices that they will have to suck up, if we don't reduce demand for it now.

Thanks to Keith Collins who made this case beautifully clear in his presentation at the MassImpact symposium.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Which cars get the best mileage?

We all use the Prius (45 mpg highway) as the short-cut reference for a fuel efficient car. The folks at Honda must be ripping their hair out at the relative silence yet equal performance of the Civic (also 45 mpg). And the Mini Cooper, with its award winning ad campaigns, should surely be taking advantage of its incredible mileage (36-40 mpg). And for me, the fact that the Pontiac Vibe, a car I know little about, is in the top ten was a revelation.

Note to policy makers and car buyers, as I've said before, don't give special treatment to "hybrids." More than half the cars on this list have regular engines. Fuel efficiency is the key, and even more relevant is passenger miles per gallon. More than seventy-five percent of car trips carry only one driver. The most expedient way to improve fuel efficiency is to move more people per gallon consumed. [I have to reference GoLoco here, our best-in-class ridesharing site.] It takes 25 years to turn over the US fleet of passenger vehicles to get the full benefits of the new CAFE standards. But we could get those benefits this week if more people would share rides.

Here is the top 10 list link from AutobyTel.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to reduce US CO2 emissions by 10% this month

There was an article in the Boston Globe today about Gas costs forcing drivers to cut back.

"Until then, Stone said, she hadn't thought much about gas prices or filling the tank of her Acura, which she did a least twice a week. Now Stone, 55, a teacher, limits her gas budget to one fill-up or no more than $25 a week. She carefully plans her travel, sticking to the shortest route and avoiding spur-of-the-moment side trips.

When she fills a prescription, she shops for food at a supermarket around the corner. Other times, rather than driving across town, she walks to the small grocery store near her home. When she needed light bulbs and other items recently, she stopped at a hardware store along her route and spent a little more, rather than driving farther to a supermarket where prices were lower."

In just a matter of weeks, not only has Ms. Stone got her household budget under control, she has also halved her CO2 emissions. If everyone in America followed her example, we would reduce US CO2 emissions by a whopping 10% ! This month. We would also reduce the trade deficit, dramatically improve our “energy security,” and eliminate the endless debate over drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.

What I found interesting in the article was that there was no talk about how cutting back had required difficult sacrifice. Rather, those interviewed talked about adjusting their habits to take efficient travel into account.

"Towle, 44, now limits herself to one fill-up a week. She puts off buying more milk until she needs a bigger shopping trip. She used to drop her 13-year-old daughter off at basketball practice, make the 15-minute drive back home, then return to pick her up at the end of the 90-minute session. Now, she waits at the school."

Ridesharing, going loco, is another tool for the adjustment, and a pleasant one at that. I know my 14-year-old finds the carpool to and from her rock-climbing practices a valued part of her social life.