Fuels and schools

During his State of the Union speech, President Bush and I both got a bit lost in the details of his domestic policy initiatives. Fortunately, WhiteHouse.gov offers a handy summary in language so simple that even a president can understand. So let's look at that "Twenty in Ten" energy proposal.

The purported goal is to reduce America's gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years. That sounds ambitious until you realize that Blade Runner is set in 2019, which is only 12 years from now, and hybrid SUVs don't sound quite as impressive when compared with replicants and flying billboards advertising the off-world colonies.

Bush's primary proposal for accomplishing this reduction in gasoline consumption is to substitute the consumption of ethanol and other next-generation biofuels. This, he says, will account for a 15-percent reduction in gasoline use. Add to that another 5-percent reduction due to changes in Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards and, voila, 20 in 10.

The bit about CAFE standards was one of the parts in the speech that startled me. Was this failed Texas wildcatter really suggesting a raise in fuel economy standards? Bush had spent his first six years in office fighting against such a raise, had he changed his mind?

Well, no. Here's what that White House fact sheet says:

Reforming And Modernizing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards For Cars And Extending The Current Light Truck Rule.

"Reforming and modernizing" standards is not the same thing as "raising" them. It's hard to know exactly what "reforming and modernizing" means — which is why they chose such language. It's probably a strong hint, though, that this was the same language Bush used about his attempt to abolish Social Security. I suppose you could say that Bush is also "reforming and modernizing" Iraq.

The "light truck rule" referred to there mandates a fleetwide average of 24 mpg by the year 2011, which would be almost as fuel efficient as Henry Ford's fleetwide average of 25 mpg back in 1908. If that's the rate of technological progress we're shooting for, we probably won't see those off-world colonies any time soon. (The Japanese automakers are way ahead of Detroit, but still, Honda's replicant doesn't yet look anything like Sean Young.)

Bush's Gore-ish enthusiasm for biofuels seems more promising, although again it's difficult to see what's "ambitious" about what is essentially a methadone clinic for gasoline addicts:

Increasing The Supply Of Renewable And Alternative Fuels By Setting A Mandatory Fuels Standard To Require 35 Billion Gallons Of Renewable And Alternative Fuels In 2017 – Nearly Five Times The 2012 Target Now In Law. In 2017, this will displace 15 percent of projected annual gasoline use.

The only way that Bush can imagine reducing gasoline consumption is by massively increasing our consumption of something else. America currently produces just over 5 billion gallons of ethanol. Bush's goal is for America to consume seven times that amount 10 years from now. So hey, Road trip!

Despite his stated goal — consuming less gasoline — the president can't seem to imagine the more obvious, more direct approach to this goal, i.e. driving less. Which makes this whole proposal sound like one of those weight-loss pill ads that promises results without diet or exercise.

If Bush really wanted to achieve a "20 in 10" reduction in gasoline consumption, he should recommit to fixing our urban schools. The dismal reality of these schools — and the even more dismal perception of them — is one of the biggest obstacles to reducing America's massive gasoline consumption habit.

Let me step back and explain. To reduce consumption, we need to reduce the demand for consumption. That means changing the conditions that contribute to that demand. That means things like:

• investing in rail transport

• investing in mass transit

• restraining suburban sprawl

• promoting walkable communities.

Only one of these is mentioned even in passing in the president's proposal — a $175 million demonstration project on "curbing [traffic] congestion." Noting that "In 2003, drivers in America's 85 most congested urban areas experienced 3.7 billion hours of travel delay and wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel," the demonstration project calls for "innovative ideas":

These ideas include congestion pricing, commuter transit services, commitments from employers to expand work schedule flexibility, and faster deployment of real-time traffic information.

Good ideas, but on a dismissively inadequate scale. If we really want to reduce gasoline consumption — not just the 2.3 billion gallons wasted during travel delays, but the billions more consumed during even our rare delay-free commutes — then we need to eliminate those commutes, not just streamline them. (Adding lanes to our main traffic arteries is not the most promising way to reduce gasoline consumption over 10 years.)

That means living closer to where we work. For that to happen, we need to address the things that prevent many families from choosing to live closer to where the jobs are, the things that are causing both families and employers to relocate further out in automobile-shaped, unwalkable exurbia. One of the primary causes of this is the dismal perception of our urban schools. And the best way to change that perception is to change the reality — to make those schools attractive to families.

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  • SV

    I can’t really add too much to what’s been already said, except this comment: I recently moved into Chicago proper after living in the Western burbs for three years. (Downers Grove, for anyone familiar with the area.) For three years, to get ANYWHERE I had to drive.
    When I decided to move back into the city, I worried about how much parking would cost, and friends told me that many people just give up their cars. I really resisted it – I couldn’t imagine not having a car. I thought it would be so limiting, that I’d be stuck in one tiny area, dependent on other people. I compromised, and got a spot in a (relatively) inexpensive parking lot three El stops away.
    I shouldn’t have bothered, because I find that I prefer to get around the city without it. In the first month, I think I used it once. After three months, maybe four times. Since then – nada.
    My car doesn’t represent freedom anymore. It represents parking lot fees, finding a parking space, paying parking tickets, paying insurance costs, worrying about registration paperwork, worrying about maintenance, worrying about car locks…
    Environmental benefits aside, living without a car is incredibly freeing, taking a huge burden off of the Things You Have To Constantly Worry About. I can’t wait to get rid of mine. And to those who say I can only afford to say that because I live in a city that has rational public transit – yeah, that’s the point.

  • Amanda

    Damn would I love to be able to walk around the community. As I said, the buses were hard enough on me…
    I just had to walk to work Wednesday — maybe a mile one way — and it damn near killed me… back in central California, where everything is flat, it wouldn’t have been as much of a problem. But here in SW PA, where I had to take a fairly steep hill up half the way… well, uphills are very, very difficult for me. And I’m working in a restaurant, not an office, so I didn’t get any time to rest during my shift.
    I was in agony most of that night and the next day. I’ve been taking far more painkillers than I should ever have to take for my activity level in the past two days (i.e. laying around doing nothing). Just, gah.
    Personal ramble over.

  • rob

    The Wikipedia entry suggests that people moved to the suburbs because they had cars, not got cars because they moved to the suburbs for better schools and then got cars. If rich white people wanted to live in city centers, then they’d do something about the schools. Rich white people want to live where rich white people have always wanted to live: where there’s plenty of space, privacy, and amenities. Fixing the schools will not fix our addiction to gasoline, for many of the reasons already pointed out. The general response to these has been “well, we’re not saying nobody would have a car,” or “well, what I do in that situation is . . .”
    I lived in a suburb growing up, and many of my classmates thought it beyond belief that I walked a whole mile to school. I lived in L.A. without a car, and it was a nightmare getting around, but I stuck it through. I’ve lived in New York City, San Francisco, and Boston, all cities with great public transportation systems, and in all three I worked alongside people who would drive their cars to work and park in the parking garage across the street rather than walk two blocks to the subway stop.
    Fixing inner city schools – which, by the way, is not exactly a one-step solution, and not exactly something nobody has ever tried before – in order to fix our addiction to cars seems like vacuuming a heroin addict’s carpet and expecting it to cure his heroin addiction.
    Suburbs have better schools because rich white people (and rich people in general) value education, so they put money into the school system. They live alongside other rich white people so they know they can expect the same thing from their neighbors. Rich white people also like having and driving in their very own huge-ass cars.
    I have never owned a car and I can come up with solutions to the weather problem, the kid problem, the groceries problem, the running late problem, the unpredictability problem, and many other problems that come with relying exclusively on public transportation, ingenuity, and your own two legs. But it doesn’t matter. Because people who like cars will not stop driving.
    We should fix inner city schools because we should fix inner city schools, because a decent education is something every person should have the right to. And maybe that would help the next generation to not be so reliant on gasoline. But all of those people who live in suburbs converging on the city because of its great school system and leaving their cars to gather moss? In the next ten years? Enough to reduce emissions by twenty percent in ten years?
    That will not happen.

  • Jeff

    I’m sorry to hear about DC. I’ve lived in Silver Springs and Arlington (the north and south ends of the city) and could commute into the city fairly easily (from Arlington I took what I referred to as The Pentagonia Express). A bus to the subway and WMATA to work — simple.

  • Cactus Wren

    I live in Mesa, Arizona, an edge-city of Phoenix. Until a few years ago, I lived in an area where the nearest place to shop for groceries was a mile of unlighted sidewalkless street away. A mile doesn’t sound like much, until you realize temperatures here rise to or above 105°F (40°C) every day for three months straight in the summer. It was seven miles to the nearest bus stop. “Automobile-shaped, unwalkable exurbia”, as Fred says, and mine was by no means the most distant development from the city — but in a climate like this one, for much of the year even an area designed to be “walkable” wouldn’t be. I was working from my home, but to shop for groceries in the summer I’d either set out at five-thirty in the morning or wait until after eight o’clock at night — on, as I said, an unlighted five-lane street with no sidewalks.

  • ako

    The general response to these has been “well, we’re not saying nobody would have a car,” or “well, what I do in that situation is . . .”
    Yes, people find it difficult to switch from driving to not driving. People find it difficult to manage without driving in places built entirely for the convenience of cars, with little or no concer for pedestrians. People find a gradual switch or a cutting down easier to contemplate than everybody just stopping.
    That doesn’t mean it’s unfixable. That means that it’s not going to be completely fixed in one stroke. It also means that any productive solution will have to get past bemoaning human limitations and start coming up with solutions for people who have certain demands in their lives, and certain expectations, and a limited tolerance for increased difficulty, and don’t have standardized needs and abilities, and won’t all be fixed with one single solution. Probably a lot of different adjustments and remedies put together.
    I have never owned a car and I can come up with solutions to the weather problem, the kid problem, the groceries problem, the running late problem, the unpredictability problem, and many other problems that come with relying exclusively on public transportation, ingenuity, and your own two legs. But it doesn’t matter. Because people who like cars will not stop driving.
    If you’re talking about persuading everyone, you’re right. Nothing posted here will, by itself, persuade everyone or even get to the twenty percent. However, there’s a lot of people on here who’d love to at least reduce how much driving they do, thereby reducing pollution and fossil fuel consumption. So if it matters to see some progress, then the solutions you offer can matter a lot. There are people who would willingly switch to driving less or not driving if they saw a practical way, so sharing your ideas of how to make it work can help.

  • Jim

    Before I start, let me say that I totally agree that one of the aspects I like least about our society is our dependence upon privately owned, fossil fuel powered vehicles. I think that our land use policies are insane, and our cultural conditioning to accept the current status quo as being even remotely desirable is absurd. However…
    There is an essential point that most of the comments here seem to be missing. There is an inherent and deep bias against any sort of community planning in this country. Planning is seen as a form of “government taking” in that a property holder’s right to decide about the disposition of his property is “taken” by some level of government. It would not be at all difficult to set up a master plan for a region, and then to implement that plan over 50-100 years by slowly changing where we live and work. However, doing that would involve telling property owners that their property may not be able to be sold to the person who will pay them the most money: ie. zoning an area for rural/agricultural would mean that developers would not be able to purchase said property.
    Sure, there are plenty of other trends in our society, from economic trends to social trends, which also effect our ability to plan rationally. And, when looking at Europe, we do have to remember that most of Europe was developed long before the advent of mechanically powered transportation. The primary reason many (if not most) European cities are easier to get around on foot is because, when they were first built, foot was the only means of transportation for about 90% of the population.
    Finally, there is the problem of mindset to get past. I live in an eminently walkable town here in Central Joisey. My work is about 800 yards away as the crow flies, and even the local Mall is accessible by foot. However, I still drive most of the places I go. I could walk to work, but that would mean crossing a very busy highway which is not set up for pedestrians to get across. It would take me about 10-15 minutes to walk there, but I can drive to work in 3 minutes. That means I don’t have to get my ass in gear until 3 minutes (MOL) before I have to be at work. Likewise, I can walk downtown in 10 minutes or so, but it is still easier to drive there rather than walk. I do walk…I have an exercise program which will have me walking an hour a day at the end of 13 weeks, but that is “exercise” which is entirely different that walking to do some shopping or to go to dinner. Like I said: mindset.
    None of the above are amenable to a “quick fix”. Changing deeply ingrained cultural values, which most of these are, takes longer rather than shorter amounts of time, if they can be changed at all. Because, remember that there are going to be a very substantial portion of our population who will see absolutely no reason to “attack” private ownership of property or the private ownership of automobiles. Besides, the last time I looked, about 1/4 of our economy was, in one way or another, tied to our ownership and use of automobiles. I am not saying that change can’t be done, or that it is undesirable. What I am saying is that this change will be very hard and will take a very long time (probably multiple human lifetimes.)

  • the opoponax

    “It would not be at all difficult to set up a master plan for a region, and then to implement that plan over 50-100 years by slowly changing where we live and work.”
    this is what 99% of all major american cities have done. and 100% of those who have developed successfully and to the benefit of their human occupants.
    the manhattan grid layout was settled upon and voted in during the first quarter of the 19th century, when New York itself was confined to the very southern tip of manhattan — places now considered “downtown” like Greenwich Village, the Bowery, Canal St., etc. were actually the far northern reaches of the city then. and yet they were able to put into place a city plan that expanded sustainably and effectively all the way to the northern tip of the island, none of which would be developed or settled until over 100 years later.

  • Jesurgislac

    Jim: Planning is seen as a form of “government taking” in that a property holder’s right to decide about the disposition of his property is “taken” by some level of government
    Well, it is, of course. But only a very tiny minority of citizens will ever own enough property to be negatively affected by community planning, yet community planning done rightly benefits all levels of the community. The most likely and the most frequent means by which community planning goes wrong is when the influence of large landowners is immoderate.

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