Is it Quantity, Not Quality, that Counts?

A reminder that it's not just taking the road less traveled, but literally traveling the road less, that makes the difference...

Next Phase of Energy, Climate Debate Will Be About How Much We Drive

From the Wall Street Journal

By Joseph B. White

February 4, 2008

I lead a double life.


Monday through Wednesday, I get to work by walking a block and a half from a high-rise apartment building to a stop on Washington, D.C.'s Metro subway. I emerge three stops later a half block from my office. My commute is pretty close to a zero petroleum experience (never mind how the Metro gets its electricity.)


The rest of the week, I am back in Detroit, where I return to the 20th century. I drive about 20 miles to my office, which is located by the side of a freeway in a suburban "edge city." I sometimes walk to a sub shop for lunch, but it's an arduous slog along busy four lane streets that sometimes have sidewalks, and sometimes don't. To get just about anywhere from my office requires another car trip.


It turns out I am straddling the frontier of the next big debate over the role of the automobile in America. Congress and President Bush late last year agreed to order car makers to boost the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.


Last year's energy debate centered around CAFE, the acronym for Corporate Average Fuel Economy. The next phase of the energy/climate change debate over cars will force us to learn another piece of technical jargon: VMT, or vehicle miles traveled.


Car makers and consumers will bear considerable costs to switch to a fleet of cars that meets the 35 mgp CAFE goal. But that might not result in a significant reduction in U.S. petroleum consumption or cut the CO2 we add to the atmosphere if we keep driving more and more miles.


From 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151% -- about five times faster than the growth in population, according to data compiled for a 2006 report to the U.S. Department of Transportation written by Stephen Polzin, a transportation researcher at the University of South Florida in Tampa.


The reasons for the big growth in miles traveled are pretty obvious if you don't live in the center of a big city endowed with functioning public transport. To make space for ever larger suburban homes, housing developers pushed further and further from city centers and shopping areas. New neighborhoods often had street layouts cluttered with cul de sacs that forced people to drive farther to get to main roads or stores. Local zoning laws -- reflecting the preferences of residents -- tended to separate commercial and residential uses, and single family from multi-family dwellings.


Meanwhile, the bulk of the money spent on transportation infrastructure was directed to building more and bigger highways. We could have subsidized bullet trains and more light rail systems, but we didn't.


Now, many of the environmentalists, politicians and scientists who made the case for boosting vehicle fuel efficiency are turning their attention to the problem of how much we drive -- and the legacy of 20th century land use and transportation choices.


Just how much more driving Americans will do is a matter of some debate. Higher gas prices, changes in demographics, and a recent upturn in urban redevelopment aimed at luring empty nesters back to city neighborhoods all could result in vehicle miles traveled growing more slowly in the future than it did during the past 30 or so years.


Still, the U.S. Department of Energy projects that miles driven will keep increasing in coming years, and by 2030 could grow by 59% compared with 2005 levels -- still outpacing population growth, though not by as much in the last three decades of the past century. That means even though we'll be driving vehicles that slurp less petroleum per mile, carbon dioxide emissions could grow by as much as 41%, according to a report titled "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change," published by the Urban Land Institute.


Deron Lovaas, a transportation researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, predicts that the debate over how to curb driving will come to the fore next year, when Congress is scheduled to debate a massive bill to fund transportation projects using federal gasoline tax revenue. The NRDC and other environmental groups, fresh from their victory in the fuel-efficiency debate, are turning their attention to issues such as reforming land use rules to promote denser development and concentrating more public spending on better mass transit systems for metro areas, he says.


Meanwhile, the Energy Department, in response to a 2005 congressional mandate, has enlisted an arm of the National Academy of Sciences to study how travel behavior will change as people live in communities that are designed to have different services closer to their homes, and more homes closer together.


How all this will affect the experience of driving and what we want to drive is a problem that's starting to keep executives of big car companies up at night. If you live the way I do in Washington, you don't really need a $35,000, all-wheel drive luxury wagon. On the other hand, the challenge of dictating to Americans where and how they should live is a problem that will likely keep politicians up at night. There's a reason why so many of us live in big single-family houses, and it's not because living in a small apartment wasn't available as an alternative.


As for me, I think it's time for a pair of new shoes.


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