August 30, 2005

More Gas

John Tierney has an editorial in the Times today that relates to the gas consumption issue I touched on yesterday. I'm not going to address the sarcastic tone of the editorial because, let's be honest, editorials live on sarcasm like Cheney lives on tiny human babies. Let's get into it:

I rented a Toyota Prius for the pleasure of cruising the car pool lanes and parking free at meters, another perk available here in Los Angeles...But even if these new privileges put more fuel-efficient cars on the road, I'm afraid the net effect will be dirtier air and more gasoline consumption...In Virginia, where they've been allowed for years in the car pool lanes, the lanes have become so clogged that an advisory committee has repeatedly recommended their banishment. The same problem will occur in California, where some of the car pool lanes were congested even without hybrids....As traffic slows down, there will be more idling cars burning more gas and emitting more pollution, but politicians will be reluctant to offend hybrid owners by revoking their privilege.

Ok, Tierney's main argument here seems to be that by allowing hybrids into carpool lanes traffic will slow down and more pollution will be created. To address the latter part first, let's look at how hybrids work. Firstly, many hybrids, including the Prius he rented, are what are know as "parallel hybrids", meaning that the gas and electric systems can separately power the vehicle. In parallel hybrids like the Prius, the electric system runs the car during times when gas systems are least efficient, low speeds and idling, but then the gas system takes over the brunt of the work as the car reaches higher speeds in which the gas system is more efficient. When the gas system takes over it also recharges the electrical system, which is why you don't need to plug hybrids into an outlet at the end of the day. So even if people make the sudden switch from honkin' big SUV to hybrid and traffic is slow, which Tierney admits it already is, the hybrids will be at their peak efficiency while SUVs are at their peak inefficiency, so I don't see how this is going to result in a net gain in pollution.

As to the traffic argument, I don't see how this could be the case. Presumably we're talking about rush hour as the time when traffic gets clogged up, therefore most of the cars on the road are people commuting, so there shouldn't be any influx of new drivers because of this; the number of drivers will remain constant or decrease if more people carpool. That being the case, I can't see how opening up the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes to more drivers slows traffic down. Certainly, it will slow down the pace of the HOV lane, but on the whole road efficiency is increased because more drivers are spread to more lanes. If traffic is already slow across the board, even in the carpool lanes, then what that tells me is that the roads simply don't have the capacity needed. Whatever incentive the the HOV lane represented to carpooling is largely negated because of this and any impact opening up the lanes to hybrids has seems to be minimal.

With HOT lanes, everyone would come out ahead, drivers as well as environmentalists. As more drivers paid for a guaranteed speedy commute in the left lane, they would leave the regular lanes less clogged, so there would be fewer cars stuck in traffic jams, wasting gas and spewing fumes.

Again, the only two ways I can see to actually reduce traffice here are to increase the number of people carpooling and/or build a mass transit system that takes people off the road. Since it seems like HOV lanes were already busy enough already that they likely weren't serving as much of an incentive for people to carpool, opening them up shouldn't really impact that much. Tierney's solution, if I'm reading him right, would actually make things worse from his perspective. If the problem with allowing hybrids into the HOV lane is that it slows down the HOV lane, how is it going to help to allow single SUV drivers to buy their way into that lane also? If more cars moving over to the HOV lane "leave(s) the regular lanes less clogged", how is that different from what allowing hybrids into the HOV lanes in anything other than scope? And does he really think that toll booths don't cause traffic backups?

Instead of arbitrarily rewarding a few cars for having a certain kind of engine, set tolls for all vehicles according to their weight.

It seems to me that this is going to lead to a situation where reletively light sports cars with bigger engines reletive to their size, and which are generally not made with economy in mind, might be paying less than a larger car with a more efficient engine, but which weighs more. Now, I'm not an engineer, so I can't claim to know if that sort of thing would actually happen, so it's not a major point, but still. On the other hand, going by weight is indeed likely to produce mostly the incentive we want, which is for smaller, more efficient cars, and it's also probably a lot easier to administer than pricing by engine type or any other specific trait.

Ultimately, however, the problem remains that there are just too many cars on the road, and there *is* going to be an upper limit on the ratio of carpool cars to individual drivers. Once that limit is reached most cities with similar traffic problems, I'm intimitely familiar with Seattle's, you're not going to be able to simply build more roads to accomodate the increased traffic. American cities are loathe to admit it, because these projects are always more expensive than initially projected, take forever to get up and running, and cost a lot in upkeep, but mass transit is the only long term solution.

As I've long believed, everyone should be required to play Sim City for an extended period of time when they're growing up. Try making a city without public transit and have it continue to grow. Sim City would also help us prepare for alien attacks, which I will cover in a subsequent piece.

"Sole survivor/ witness to the crime/ I must act fast to cover up/ I think that there's still time."


Noumena said...

Maybe LA just has an even worse commute than the Bay Area, but in my experience the carpool lanes are mostly pretty empty. I-680 runs between Cordelia and San Jose, right through a long series of suburbs, and the carpool lanes never seem to move less than 40 mph unless there's a bad accident or construction. Traffic in the other lanes, meanwhile, will often involve a fair amount of sitting.

Carpool LA said...

Hey, I just read your post, and I thought you might be interested in a blog I just made to try to encourage carpooling all over the LA area, in an effort to make use of those beautifully empty carpool lanes. It's at, if you're interested, sign on up! :)