Thursday, April 22, 2021

It's Dry, Fire Season Will be Bad Again, and We Drive too Much: Earth Day 2021

Because they were metal and left the "best" ruins, and because they are also at the center of our autoist era and self-understanding, burned out cars were the dominant visual trope in the coverage of last year's catastrophic fires.

Front page, September 10th, 2020

A few days later last September

You may also recall this image of a drive-thru coffee shack soliciting business by donating to wildfire and smoke relief last year.

There was no sense of any irony that the prospect of donation induced more carbon pollution - that it would drive, and not mitigate, the indirect cause and intensifier of the fires. 

We are blind to so many dimensions of our autoism.

At the center of it all is underpriced gas.

via St. Louis Federal Reserve
(comments added)

Our chapter pointed out a recent City Observatory piece, "Why cheap gas is our real climate and transportation policy."

During the bulk of the debate over the SRC, there had been a plateau in driving. You can see it from about 2005 to 2015. (Maybe you want to define it a little differently with different end-points, but the general contours of a plateau are clear.)

But then driving took off again, and it's clearly in response to the fall in gas prices.

City Observatory concludes:

This inflection point [in 2014] is strong evidence of the importance of harnessing prices to shape travel behavior and achieve policy objectives. And here’s the critical point: all of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases with vehicle electrification and more efficient cars, all of our investments in public transit, and all of our “Vision Zero” plans are dwarfed by the impact of changing fuel prices. Cheap gasoline dramatically undermines public policies to promote public health and safety, to support accessible urban places, and to save the planet.

A big beauty spread in the Sunday paper

All our talk about Earth Day is empty until we decide we want to make real changes in our transportation and use of fossil fuels.

If the City wanted to honor Earth Day, things like a local gas tax and ending new drive-thrus would be substantive gestures. We have to align our policies and subsidies with our goals, and not keep prying them apart in misaligned incentives that result in appeals to personal virtue, which require constant paddling upstream and against the increasingly smoky wind.


Anonymous said...

In the graph there are two rapid drops in gas price, in 2008/2009 and then again in 2014 (dates approximate). The 2008/2009 drop is not accompanied by an increase in VMT.

The increase (or decrease) in VMT is better explained by what is happening in the overall economy. Low fuel prices won't motivate many people to drive if they do not have a job. This is the decrease in VMT in 2007/2008 accompanied by the steep increase and then decrease in fuel price (with the recession shown on the graph). But by 2014/2015 the economy had recovered, was 'firing on all cylinders' as the pundits would say, and unemployment was dropping. Thus, more people going to jobs and more stuff getting delivered to stores and homes.

The low fuel prices from 2015 onward likely contribute to the decrease in transit ridership across the US from 2015, but are likely not the main driver for the increase in VMT. This is shown by the increase in VMT even with higher gas prices in 2014 (or so).

(sorry for all the vehicle-oriented puns/turns-of-phrase)

Anonymous said...

Did you read the City Observatory piece? It's written by an economist, and he said,

"The abrupt decline in fuel prices in the third quarter of 2014 is a powerful natural experiment illustrating the price elasticity of demand, and its straightforward effects on driving, pollution, safety, and transit. The magnitude of the increase in driving coincides closely to academic estimates of the price elasticity of demand; a 30 percent decrease in fuel prices was associated with an 8 percent increase in miles driven."

Do you know of empirical studies that actually show that a 30% decrease in gas price is not in fact correlated with an 8% increase in VMT?

What is your competing analysis of the elasticity of demand? That "low fuel prices won't motivate people to drive [more]"?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...'s a common thing for SRC apologists and propagandists to push the idea that a healthy economy depends on lots of driving. If we don't build more roads and widen more roads, we will wither and decline, they say. We are skeptical of that here.

One critical difference is you, Ray, seem to resolve VMT to a function of employment, a simple binary of lots of driving for the employed, little or no driving for the unemployed. But isn't it more incremental, on the margins with cheap gas adding that one more trip or +1 stop to lengthen a trip? And expensive gas eliminating a trip or stop?

There are also overlapping effects, and from here it looks more like there is an initial response to gas pricing, and then a second effect from the general state of the economy.

These are difficult variables for amateurs to tease out, and even the professionals interpret the evidence differently.

But as anon asks, what is your theory of the elasticity of demand with gas pricing? Are you saying that VMT doesn't depend on gas price at all? That would be good to know.