The New York Times headline (in its paper edition), “State-by-State Assault on Electric Cars,” presents an image of people smashing windshields, throwing stones, or overturning vehicles. Instead, the article is about the debate over tax breaks to purchasers of electric cars.
According to the Times, electric cars couldn’t exist without tax breaks. Georgia had a $5,000 tax break on electric vehicles and in its last month 1,300 such cars were sold. In the month after it was repealed, sales declined to less than 100. (The paper doesn’t say so, but knowing that the tax break was disappearing probably led more people to buy in the last month.) The article makes it clear that supporters of electric cars, and the Times itself, believe that they are entitled to such tax breaks.
The Antiplanner has encountered similar attitudes during discussions of mileage-based user fees. Oregon, which is experimenting with such fees, says that, “Unlike semi-trucks, the impact on roads created by regular cars and light trucks–from small compacts to large pickups—is practically the same across the board.” (Oregon already has a mileage-based fee for all heavy trucks.) Some people are outraged by this, taking it for granted that cars that get better gas mileage or run off of electricity should get a break.
It looks like 2015 will be another record year for driving in America. Of course, that’s not saying much as the total amount of driving has been pretty flat since 2007.
Transit advocates will be quick to point out that transit ridership has grown faster than driving. But actually, it depends entirely on which years you pick. Preliminary information suggests that urban driving grew faster than transit in 2014. Since 2004, transit grew faster than driving in about half the years, and overall transit ridership grew by 12 percent while miles of urban driving grew by only 6 percent.
Per capita driving in the United States grew from 1 mile per year in 1900 to more than 10,000 miles per year in 2006. During that time, it grew in almost every year except for a few recession years (1932, 1933, 1938, 1974, 1979, and 1980) and two years of World War II (1942 and 1943).
In 2007, however, growth flattened and after that per capita driving fell below 9,400 miles per year. Some have argued that this is evidence that Americans are turning away from cars and to transit, cycling, and walking. Others say that the decline can be completely explained by the recession; although the financial crisis took place in 2008, the housing bubble that led to that crisis actually began collapsing in 2006.
The latest traffic data from the Federal Highway Administration suggests that people are picking up where they left off in 2006. Total miles of driving in the first quarter of 2015 set a new record and was nearly 4 percent greater than the same period in 2014. The Census Bureau estimates that the population is growing at less than 1 percent per year, so per capita driving is once again growing.
Americans drove more than three trillion miles in 2014, exceeding this number for the first time since 2007 and for only the third time in history. Actually, this isn’t quite a record, as the Department of Transportation estimates Americans drove 3.016 trillion miles in 2014 vs. 3.031 trillion in 2007. But if the American Public Transportation Association can get away with calling 2014 ridership levels a “record” even though it is only the 45th highest level of transit ridership in the past 103 years, then we can call 2014 driving a record when it is the second-highest level of driving in history.
Low gas prices may be responsible for the surge in driving in December–a 5 percent increase over December 2013. But the chart above shows that driving began to accelerate in April, while the chart below shows that gas prices didn’t begin falling until August, so improvements in the economy must be responsible for much of the increase.
In 2008, the Washington legislature passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. California and Oregon have similar but somewhat less draconian laws or regulations.
The Obama administration wants to mandate that all new cars come equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, so the car can send signals to and receive messages from street lights and other infrastructure.
Now the California Air Resources Board is considering regulations requiring that all new cars monitor their owners’ driving habits, including, among other things, how many miles they drive, how much fuel they use, and how much pollution or greenhouse gases they emit.
Put these all together and you have a system in which the government will not only know where your vehicle is at all times, but can turn off your vehicle if it decides you are driving too much or driving in a way that emits too many grams of carbon dioxide or is otherwise offensive to some bureaucratic imperative.
An anti-auto urbanist named Brad Meacham wrote a blog post that offers a typical “we-have-to-get-people-out-of-their-cars” diatribe. When Meacham’s post was picked up by a San Antonio on-line magazine, someone asked the Antiplanner to comment. While my response speaks for itself, I’d like to add a few comments here where I don’t have to worry so much about word limits.
Meacham’s case against cars stands on four legs:
- Congestion is only going to get worse
- The cost of driving is increasing
- Fiscal reality will force cuts to highway budgets
- People are hungry for community
The first claim is almost certainly false. As the Reason Foundation recently showed in the case of Denver, if an urban area truly wants to reduce congestion, it can do it and do it in a cost-effective manner. Reason’s plan for Denver would cost less than half as much as Denver planners are already planning to spend on transport, but because Reason’s spending is targeted on congestion-reduction rather than social engineering, it actually can relieve congestion.
“Automobiles tend to be ignored in [sustainability] planning efforts,” says a new study. Yet “automobiles are important to achieving many elements of the sustainability agenda because they are associated with improved access to high-opportunity and more livable neighborhoods,” especially for low-income families.
This isn’t really news. Back in 1997, researchers at UCLA wrote, “Car ownership is a significant factor in improving the employment status of welfare recipients.” In 1998, Yale economist Katherine O’Regan and UC Berkeley economist John Quigley wrote that helping the poor means “promoting the mass transit system that works so well for the nonpoor–the private auto” (see pp. 20-25). In 2003, a Harvard researcher found that, for low-income people, owning a car was more important to gaining a steady income than having a high school diploma.
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has kept track of the EPA mileage ratings of all new cars and light trucks (pick ups, SUVs, full-sized vans) sold in the United States since October, 2007. Between that month and February, 2014, the average fuel economy of autos sold grew from 20.1 mpg to 25.2 mpg. While your mileage may vary, this is an incredible record of improvement in fuel economy.
Though we are accustomed to measure fuel economy in miles per gallon, a more appropriate way to compare vehicles is the other way around: gallons (or some other unit of energy) per mile. As Green Car Reports observes, when asked, “Which saves more gasoline, going from 10 to 20 mpg, or going from 33 to 50 mpg?” most people answer the latter but in fact the former is true. In any case, when measured in gallons per mile, new-car fuel economy improved by 30 percent between October 2007 and February 2014.
The Department of Energy hasn’t posted data for 2012 or 2013, but its Transportation Energy Data Book, table 2.13, say that over the seven years from 2005 through 2011, the average BTUs per vehicle mile of all autos on the road declined by 7 percent, from 5,600 to 5,200. Since new cars replace the old fleet at the rate of around 6 percent per year, the 30 percent increase in new-car fuel economy is not immediately seen in the entire fleet, but it will be eventually.
USA Today asks, “Is USA’s love affair with the automobile over?” The Antiplanner is always irked when someone calls people’s use of cars a “love affair,” because it implies that driving is irrational. In fact, people’s use of cars is entirely rational, as they are the fastest, most-convenient, least-expensive of getting between most places inside of an urban area as well as for journeys up to a few hundred miles.
Ironically, USA Today quotes a study from the Department of Transportation (previously cited here) that pretty much concluded that the very slight (2.4%) decline in driving since its 2007 peak was almost entirely due to the economy, and not a change in tastes. USA Today pretty much ignores that conclusion so they can underscore opinions by car-haters from US PIRG who want to divert even more highway user fees to transit and other modes of transportation.
If there is any reason for a decline in driving other than the economy, it is demographics. Baby boomers are retiring and retired people don’t drive as much, especially during rush hour. The ratio of workers to non-workers is declining, so rush-hour traffic might be a little better. That doesn’t mean there is no reason to try to fix congested roads; roads that are congested today are bound to remain congested in the future unless something is done such as implementing congestion pricing.
When the Antiplanner travels around the country, I often meet people critical of their local transit systems. “The buses/trains are empty most of the time,” they say. “I saw a bus this morning with only one passenger on board.” “They put advertising over the windows so we can’t see in to see how empty they really are.”
Socially beneficial transit? Flickr photo by David Wilson.
People shouldn’t complain about empty transit vehicles, says transit expert Jarrett Walker. People “make it sound like because transit systems run empty buses that means they’re failing,” says Walker. In fact, those empty buses are serving a socially beneficial function: they “are valued for the lifeline access they provide for the isolated senior,” disabled person, or other people who lack access to an automobile.