January 30, 2007

Decreasing Fuel Consumption

Gregg Easterbrook has fallen for a disingenuous proposal by the Bush Administration to decrease fuel consumption. Of course, nobody here would do that. Anyway, the comments to that story are filled with opinions about how to best decrease fuel consumption. Not one to be left out of some good old fashioned bloviating, here's what I posted*:

As I understand it there's really no short term solution that's very palatable. Increasing CAFE standards affects new cars, but in order for that to affect the nation's fuel consumption those new cars need to trickle down to a sizable number of consumers, which takes years. Additionally, the cars which are the worst offenders for pollution, older cars, are more often driven by people who can't afford to buy a fancy new fuel efficient vehicle, meaning the cars most needing to be replaced will be the last cars replaced. Still, it's not a bad medium term tool to reduce consumption, particularly if the government offers tax incentives to purchasing fuel efficient/hybrid cars.

Increasing the gas tax would be a good short term method if fuel consumption were elastic. Because the US has such crap mass transit infrastructure ,which would give people an option other than driving if the prices got too high, fuel consumption isn't elastic. Additionally, increasing the price of a tank of gas by $5 isn't going to be prohibitively expensive to people who can afford an expensive SUV so it won't deter them from driving. People with higher incomes are also more likely to drive for nonessential trips, say, to soccer practices or on vacations. Increasing the gas tax will, however, increase costs for people who can't need to drive to work and who don't have lots of disposable income to begin with.
The other options (investing in alternate fuels and investing in mass transit systems) will take enormous investments from the government and will take years to pay off. Obviously, those are options we need to do, but it seems to me that increasing CAFE standards is the best medium term solution.

*Admittedly, this comment was a bit off the cuff and as I reread it here it's not phrased as well as it could be. I don't have time to fix it, however, so I suppose we'll all have to live with a bit of mediocrity.


Noumena said...

I have to disagree. CAFE standards are the easiest and most big-business friendly medium-term way to address fuel consumption, but far from the best.

Following your reasoning, let's say increased CAFE standards will take 9-11 years to have a serious impact. (That's 3-4 years for the standards to kick in, and then 6-7 years for them to replace the relatively inefficient used cars us poor folks are stuck with.)

Now, remember that many (if not most) medium-sized communities already have some kind of public transit infrastructure in place, usually a bus system. The problem is that the buses are expensive and have inconvenient routes and schedules. Even when taking the bus is a feasible option, it's more cost- and time-efficient to just drive everywhere.

So I'd like to propose federal and state subsidies to improve bus systems -- reduce emissions from buses, expand services, reduce fares. These subsidies could be paid for, at least in part, using sales taxes on gas. The best part of this plan is that the decreases in fuel consumption trickle up, rather than down: with an improved bus system, gas consumption becomes more elastic (meaning the gas taxes we're using to pay for this are less regressive than they might seem), and poorer folks will be more likely than wealthier folks to take the bus and leave their inefficient cars parked at home. I also suspect we'd start to see significant decreases in total fuel consumption in about 5 years, about half as long as our estimate for increasing CAFE standards.

Of course, there's no reason why we can't do all three.

Drew said...

Buses are also extremely unpleasant. There's something of a stigma attached to taking the bus, because it generally means that you're either too poor to drive a car, or you you're an asshole drunk driver who lost his license. I was the latter. Because of the inconvenience and the stigma of taking the bus, it would have to be a lot cheaper than driving. If buses were free and gas was $5 a gallon, it could work, but I think it would have to be that radical a difference to be feasible, at least in the 'burbs.

I think requiring a moderate increase in CAFE standards every year is actually a very good plan. Unlike what Bush is talking about, these increases would be mandatory and set by statute. Yes, it does take a little while for this to trickle down, but it means the overall fuel efficiency of all American cars on the road would get better and better year after year.

It's the same argument as with the minimum wage, in a way. CAFE standards, like the minimum wage, should be constantly increasing, not just once every few years when the Democrats happen to have a majority.

Noumena said...

During the three years I lived in Chicago, I only met a handful of people who owned a car, and most of them didn't bother to use it unless they were going someplace the Chicago Transit Authority buses didn't go. Maybe this is just my experience, but the stigma attached to riding a bus seems to be like the aversion to touching a homeless person, a reflection of classism on the part of upper middle class folks -- as though poverty were a highly infectious disease.

MosBen said...

I think the usefullness of bus systems are much greater in larger cities than suburban or rural communities. Busses are also not the most efficient way to move people through high traffic corridors (say, from a larger suburb into a city). The better, more permanent solution, I think we can agree, is to invest in trains and other mass transit, but as I said this sort of thing takes massive amounts of money and time.

Whatever the reasons for the stigmas against riding busses, the stigma does exist. As Drew said, this just means driving will have to be that much more expensive than riding the bus to force people on.

Like Noumena said though, there's no reason we can't do all of this, outside of political will, of course. Subsidies of bus systems, assuming you could pass such a thing, do have a nice trickle up effect that combined with higher CAFE standards comes at the issue from both sides of the economic spectrum.

Drew said...

There are reasons why mass transit works in the cities and doesn't hardly exist in the suburbs. No matter how many bus route you create in my home town, and no matter how frequently buses arrive, it will always be easier for me to just drive to the mall.

In cities, driving is a huge pain in the ass. In suburbs, taking a bus is a huge pain in the ass. Trust me. A massive increase in public investment could improve busing a great deal, but it could never ever make buses more convenient than driving. It would have to be much, much cheaper.

Or, maybe I just hate poor people because they're gross.

MosBen said...

None of this will matter when we finally have matter transport technology. Beam me to the Mall!

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