April 19, 2006
Sims Gets On The Bus
I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)
I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.
So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)
Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region's density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit--with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.
This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express--a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver--I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn't on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I'll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn't fill triple the buses.
So I'm all for Sims' bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn't get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I'm hoping that local leaders--and local voters--remember that bus service works and it's a bargain.
Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That's a problem, I think, in a county that's struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn't a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *
* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it's progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it's nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it's deductible from federal income taxes. It's also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don't see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that's just about to expire.
April 11, 2006
Driving With Alcohol
Alcohol can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences, but who knew it could lead to energy independence? Apparently, the Brazilians did. Processing sugar cane into ethanol is expected to help Brazil meet its rising energy demands in a big way. According to an article in the New York Times, officials expect that within a year the country will become fully energy self-sufficient thanks largely to putting sugar in gas tanks.
Brazil's story is encouraging, but it's hard to know precisely what conclusions to draw for North Americans.
We can't buy Brazil's success by importing cane-based ethanol because our current policy regime all but disallows it. The US (and Europe too) slaps stiff duties on sugar imports--to the tune of 54 cents a gallon on cane-based ethanol imports, enough to render Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage.
We can't copy Brazil's success because our colder latitudes don't support sugar cane. Even Florida is considered only marginally productive for sugar cane and it comes at a horrific cost to ecological treasures like the Everglades. Hawaii produces sugar too, but its land base is far too small to meet American demand.
We can't imitate Brazil's success with northern crops like corn because producing corn-based ethanol is far too energy intensive.
Under the best conditions, corn ethanol yields only about 1.3 times as much energy as is required to produce it. Brazilian sugar cane, on the other hand, can yield 8 times as much energy; and producers think that efficiency can go to 10 times.
And even if we did somehow have access to Brazil's ethanol, our vehicle fleet couldn't take full advantage of it. But Brazil's can: more than 70 percent of cars sold in Brazil are "flex fuel" allowing drivers to alternate between ethanol and petroleum as price (or conscience) directs. Even better for Brazilian drivers, the flex fuel engines don't cost any more than conventional motors.
Sugar cane production is proving to be a boon to Brazil's economy, not to mention to its ecological footprint. (Nowadays, even the cane waste products are getting recycled back into various manufacturing processes.) But cane is not a free ride either: it's often grown on former pasture land and many fear that this will push livestock owners to clear more Amazon rainforest to make room. And cane growers are now pushing for genetically modified versions that will boost energy output and also resist disease and droughts. But GMO sugar cane may pose other unforeseen ecological problems down the road.
For me, the lesson from Brazil is two-fold. First, solving our biggest environmental problems (e.g. fossil fuel addiction and climate change) often forces us into other environmental compromises like deforestation and genetic crop modification. It's frustrating, of course, but real-world problems like energy consumption rarely offer no-downside solutions.
Second, there is not going to be any one-size-fits-all solution to the world's energy demands. Brazil can use sugar cane, but North Americans will have to figure out something else--something homegrown if independence is important. Conservation surely must be part of our effort to ratchet down reliance on oil, but we also must find local technologies and local resources for our energy needs.
February 14, 2006
Hybrid Hype: Incentives Gone Wild
Well, not so fast, says a great article in today's Washington Post. [Free registration req'd.] There's growing reason to believe that those incentives for hybrids will make things worse--actually generating more gasoline use, not less. That's because many of the incentives confuse the means for the end.
Reducing fuel use (and attendant ghg emissions, air pollution, etc.) is the goal; getting drivers into hybrids is simply one instrument in pursuit of that goal.
But one of the more popular incentives to boost fuel efficiency has been to encourage hybrid ownership by offering hybrid drivers access to HOV lanes, even when the drivers are alone. And as the article rightly points out:
An incentive -- whether it's access to a carpool lane or cut-rate financing -- still aims to put another car on the road, and that undermines efforts to encourage carpooling.
Giving over HOV lanes to hybrids is probably counterproductive. In Virginia, where allowing hybrids in HOV lanes was pioneered, officials are worried that solo drivers in hybrids are clogging the high-capacity lanes and thereby discouraging carpools (because carpooling is no longer any faster than driving alone). In fact, 25 percent of all Virginia HOV lane users are hybrid drivers. And despite their hype, hybrids are not so fuel efficient that they can offset the fuel efficiency of an ordinary car with two or three riders. So the fuel efficiency of Virginia hybrids may become illusory as the vehicle fleet actually consumes more gas because drivers give up carpooling.
Same goes for other popular incentives: tax breaks and free or reduced-price parking. These incentives encourage people to drive by making it cheaper.
And if some incentives are wrong-headed, it's because they seem to miss the reason why hybrids are good in the first place. If we want to reduce fuel use, it's hard to see why hybrids deserve special tax breaks that are not afforded to buyers of other fuel efficient gas-powered cars (some of which are actually more efficient than certain hybrids). What's so special about hybrids?
But wait! Incentives catalyze the market. That's the basic argument for hybrid-centric policies. The idea is that by encouraging people to get into hybrids now, we'll reduce fossil fuel consumption down the road, when hybrid cars become cost-competitive.
There's some merit to this line of reasoning, but it's starting to seem outdated. The market for hybrids is scorching hot and growing--it probably doesn't need to an additional catalyst. Hybrid sales in 2005 were 10 times higher than in 2001 (and 20 times higher than 2000) and the growth looks set to continue. Incentives are probably a contributing factor, but high fuel prices are probably a much bigger reason.
What's more, the incentives may actually be counter-productive to the real goal. As we've seen, HOV lane access encourages solo driving; free parking and tax breaks make driving cheaper. (Plus, there may be weird counter-intuitive problems that arise from buying certain kinds of hybrids.)
The bottom line is that there's nothing especially laudatory about hybrid cars in and of themselves. The only thing special about them is that--generally speaking--they burn less gas per mile than internal combustion cars. But as the hybrid market diversifies into SUV and Lexus flavors, there's increasingly less reason to lionize hybrids per se. What really matters is fuel efficiency--plain old unsexy fuel efficiency, whether the car runs on gas, electricity, LNG, switch grass, or tiny elves.
I'm not saying that all incentives should disappear, but the incentives should be for fuel efficiency, plain and simple. It doesn't do much good to encourage buying a hybrid Ford Escape when a vanilla Civic is far more eco-credible. Efficient hybrids will still benefit, as will other fuel-sipping cars--just the kind we want on the road.
And there's an asterisk here too: the incentives shouldn't conflict with other instruments to reduce fuel use. Allowing solo drivers into carpool lanes makes about as much sense as slapping a surcharge on bus fare or bicycles to fund rebates for hybrids.
So what kind of incentives would work to increase the fleet's fuel efficiency? Feebates. Gas (or carbon) taxes. Pay-As-You-Drive insurance. Blah, blah, blah. Plus, lots of other stuff that would help make driving a choice, not a necessity.
January 03, 2006
The Year that States Took a Stand
Here's something to celebrate as we begin a new year: With Oregon's decision to adopt clean-car standards late in December, all three West Coast states will be implementing this landmark program for reducing global warming pollution simultaneously, beginning with the 2009 model year. Six other states--including Massachusetts, which signed on last week--have also adopted the stronger standards.
This is a great example of the groundswell of state and local action that stood in stark contrast to the posture of federal negotiators during the recent UN Climate Conference in Montreal. While the negotiators walked out, a new America walked in for the world to see: States, cities, businesses, and citizens from all over the United States who are committed to this urgent campaign for solutions. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was an especially strong ambassador for this new US engagement.
As 2006 begins, I remember what Frances Moore Lappe said: "Hope is a stance, not a calculation." But here's my calculation anyway: Across a very wide spectrum of our society, a consensus is emerging that we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate the clean energy transition, and it's our generation's job to do it. You can see it in Olympia and Salem and Boise and D.C., with electeds from both sides of the aisle clamoring to support new energy security initiatives. This issue will feature prominently in midterm elections. This is the beginning.
December 23, 2005
A year-end piece of good news about the Northwest's successful push in 2005 for cleaner cars, via a note yesterday from the Oregon Environmental Council:
"This afternoon, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission adopted the clean car standards by temporary rule. By acting before the end of the year, EQC has alerted automakers that they must provide cleaner, more climate-friendly cars to Oregonians starting with model year 2009. These new cars will consume less fuel and produce less pollution. They’ll cost less to operate. And they’ll reduce our dependence on oil."
The one hitch is that the EQC needs to make the rule permanent within 180 days, or it will expire. See more at www.cleancarsoregon.org.
December 09, 2005
Prius, Oil, and Time
Gristmill's ur-pundit David Roberts makes a good point concerning this post, discussing whether buying a Prius or other super-efficient vehicle really reduces climate-warming emissions. What Dave is wrestling with is whether the oil "saved" by driving a Prius is really just bought by someone else -- leading to no net reduction in overall emissions.
A few things to say here. First, as astute commenter Patrick Niemeyer notes, the Prius has other benefits besides using less fuel -- it's also a phenomenally clean car. Driving a Prius reduces your overall emissions of smog-forming compounds, particulate matter, and volatile organics. For cars, cleanliness is, quite obviously, a good thing.
But that doesn't really get to the heart of Dave's point -- which is that super-efficient cars may ultimately be irrelevant if all the oil gets burned sooner or later. I still think that's not quite right. By reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels in any given year, cars like the Prius offer a couple of clear, tangible benefits to the climate.
Let's say that for every 10 gallons of gas you save by driving a Prius, demand for gasoline from the global transportation system falls by six gallons -- that is, six gallons of gas aren't used in a given year, and are either placed in storage or not pumped out of the ground. Now, of course, that gasoline may be burned next year, or the year after that. But the pace at which carbon is emitted to the atmosphere does matter: the longer the GHGs are in the atmosphere, the more heat they trap. Delaying carbon emissions may reduce the pace of climate forcing, and buy a little time to deal with the consequences.
Which suggests reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels can slow, however slightly, the pace of climate change. Which is a good thing.
The second benefit stems from this fact: all else being equal, reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels will reduce the price of oil. And lower prices reduce the incentive to pull more oil out of the ground.
For the "easy oil" -- the stuff that gushes from the ground, or can be coaxed out without too much trouble -- this probably doesn't matter. (If you can produce a barrel of oil for under $10 with current technology, it's a pretty sure bet that it will get used up sooner or later.) But for the hard oil -- stuff that takes a lot of technology, effort, and energy to produce -- price matters a lot. Oil from, say, Alberta's tar sands might be extremely profitable to extract when oil's at $60 per barrel, but a money sink if oil prices fall below $40 per barrel. Producing the really difficult oil is an especially big climate problem, since it often takes a lot of energy (and climate-warming emissions) to do so.
Now, if prices rise and people think they'll stay high, a lot of the relatively hard oil will get produced -- and sooner rather than later. And there's a huge supply of "hard" oil in the world. By reducing demand, you make it less economically feasible to extract the really costly oil -- which reduces, or at least delays, the climate impacts of the transportation system.
Of course, it could be that, super-efficient cars or no, the world's "easy" oil will be used up eventually; and following that, prices will rise, and we'll start extracting the stuff that's harder to get at. And it's even feasible to argue that it's better to face that day of reckoning sooner rather than later -- we'll have to face the music sometime.
Nevertheless, a world of hybrid cars will probably come to that juncture, with all of the world's easy oil already tapped, a little bit later than it otherwise would; and it might--just might--prevent some of the really difficult oil from being produced at all -- especially if renewable energy technologies get more cost- and energy-efficient in the interim.
To me, either result -- slowing the pace of global warming emissions, and/or keeping some hard-to-extract oil in the ground -- would be a boon for the climate. Whether it's a cost-effective way to get to that benefit is a question for another time.
October 25, 2005
Canada Questions Feebates
We're a little late on this bit of depressing news. A report issued last week by Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy recommended against implementing feebates, one of the most promising market tools around for encouraging the purchase of energy-efficient products and for tugging the entire car and truck market toward better fuel efficiency. (The NRTEE was charged with studying feebate options after the idea was proposed last spring.)
Here's their reasoning:
"Instead of using one economic instrument, such as a feebate, the government should develop an integrated and coherent sustainable transportation strategy for Canada focused on all aspects of the transportation sector," the agency said. . . A further study of feebates could be part of that strategy, it added.
Well, sure, nothing wrong with an integrated approach, but feebates could be an important piece of that. They're a much broader solution than NRTEE gives them credit for (and far more far-reaching than tax credits for hybrids, which, strangely, NRTEE does promote).
You can read a whole piece about their promise here, but in short, feebates are what's called a systemic solution--a solution that fixes a bunch of problems at once. They're a plus for the economy, because they help make vehicle price tags tell the truth about the productivity costs of economywide overconsumption of fuel. Because of their structure, they keep the entire market shifting toward fuel savings. They're also a big plus for clean air and a secure climate. And they benefit communities, because inefficient vehicles hemorrhage dollars from local economies.
Finally, with feebates, buyers get paid to choose vehicles that save them money anyway.
The backstory, not surprisingly, is that Canadian automakers are putting the pressure on, citing in this Vancouver Sun story (registration required) that "consumers don't want to be forced into buying vehicles that don't suit their needs."
We'd be willing to bet that these days a wider range of ultra-energy-efficient vehicles--which tools such as feebates will drive the market toward--would suit consumers' needs very well.
October 03, 2005
VOCs Populi, or that New Car Smell
Love that new car smell? You may not get that smell from the next new car you buy, and for good reason. Japanese auto makers are planning to reduce the new car smell that comes from fresh glue, paint, plastics because it contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Short-term exposure to VOCs like benzene and formaldehyde can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness, while long-term exposure can cause cancer. Studies (pdf) show that most people get their most concentrated dose of VOCs in cars of all ages when caught in traffic or refueling, and the new car smell just adds to the problem. Because the smell generally dissipates after 6 months, it probably won't give you cancer. But, still, kudos to Japan for tackling another air quality problem.
September 28, 2005
Light as a Feather; Stiff as a Board; Safe as an SUV?
Is a heavy SUV always safer than a light passenger car? Maybe not.
Recent research is challenging the long-standing belief that cars must be heavy to be safe. It turns out that the quality of the car may be just as important as the quantity of its bulk. Several studies show that design, safety features, and vehicle size (for crumple zones) can offset safety losses from reducing weight. And in addition to better fuel efficiency, lighter cars are also safer for other vehicles involved in an collision.
Carmakers have long argued that fuel economy standards compromise passenger safety because efficiency usually means lighter weights. And until recently government studies seemed to support the weight-safety tradeoff. But now it appears that other factors are as important as weight. There goes one more argument against improving vehicle fuel efficiency.
September 27, 2005
Hidden in the flurry of transit-related news hitting Seattle these days--everything from the closure of the bus tunnel to the bizarre death-gasps of the monorail--a minor success for sane transit was scored this week.
Word has quietly leaked out that Sound Transit's 545 bus began its new route through Capitol Hill over the weekend, the result of a long and intensive effort by Anirudh Sahni and other transit activists. "90% of the difficulty involved overcoming pre-conceived notions, the prejudices and biases of Sound Transit," Anirudh observed, "and getting them to undertake an objective examination of the trade-offs of changing the route. We'll see how it does."
It's reasonable to expect that this small step for the 545 represents a giant leap for Microsoft employees and others who live on the Hill but work on the Eastside. By making the bus far more convenient than a single-occupancy vehicle, a lot more commuters are likely to be on the bus and not adding to the already-clogged Evergreen Point Bridge.