Thursday, July 31, 2008

... And More Oil on the Brain

Here's another quote from Oil on the Brain (and keep in mind this excellent book from Lisa Margonelli came out a few years ago):

If we bought gasoline the way people buy widgets in Economics 101, we'd stop consuming gasoline when prices spike, reducing demand ... But that's not what's happening .... Drivers either can't cut back or they don't know how to...

Now that gas prices have hovered just over $4 a gallon for several weeks, we're seeing that just begin to change. Higher prices have, in fact, shocked some of us out of the mindset that taking any trip means driving a car. Car miles traveled have dropped. Transit and Amtrak ridership are up. I'm seeing a lot more bicycles most places I go.

Higher gas prices do create some economic hardship, but there's a big silver lining to those costs going up. They inspire us to seek the dozens of other ways there are to travel.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oil on the Brain

I just started reading Lisa Margonelli's book, Oil on the Brain. Margonelli's quest for deeper meaning in the oil economy begins at a San Francisco gas station in the summer of 2003. At the time, unleaded regular was $1.61.9 a gallon.

Barely five years later, gas prices have more than doubled. The average per-gallon cost has reached $3.73 in the U.S., and recently topped $4 in San Francisco. The good news is -- to the surprise of some -- American travel behavior is starting to change.

Two shifts demonstrating this have made news recently. First: More Americans now ride mass transit. From last year to this, ridership on regional rail lines is up 8% in southern California, 11% in Philadelphia, and 28% in the Miami area, USA Today reports. In Seattle, interest in vanpools has climbed by 17% over 2007.

Second: The New York Times reports that Americans bought more small, fuel-efficient cars in April 2008 than ever before. One in five cars sold that month were compact or sub-compact models, up from one in eight ten years ago. And for the first time, four-cylinder engines proved more popular than larger six-cylinder models.

When Leonard Doyle of The Independent interviewed me for a story about this, I told him I thought the trend toward smaller cars was great (even though four out of five vehicles sold in the U.S. are still medium to large). But, I added, what would really excite me is a shift to more walking and cycling. It would not surprise me if this were happening already, although I haven't seen statistics showing such a trend as yet.

Back to Lisa Margonelli's book: the gas station where she begins her story is not far from where I was born and is, I guesstimate, about two miles -- a brisk half-hour walk -- from the apartment where I spent the first few months of my life. Gas prices notwithstanding, that's a distance that most Americans, these days, would probably still drive. But more of us, now, would go in smaller cars, or take the bus.

It's a start.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Higher oil prices: good news or bad?

As I write this, oil prices sit at just over $105 a barrel, in record territory even when adjusted for inflation. Gasoline futures are up, with prices at the pump expected to rise above the current national average, $3.18 a gallon. Later this year, they're also forecast to beat last May's record of $3.23 a gallon.

It's a definite hardship for cash-strapped workers who feel forced to commute by car, and has ripple effects on the economy as prices rise generally, reflecting higher transport costs. But does it have a more positive flip side?

With higher oil prices, U.S. gas consumption has trended lower for the past year, the Wall Street Journal reports, and for the past six weeks, it has steadily dropped. Ignore the economic doom and gloom for a moment and consider some of the positive side effects when gas consumption goes down:

• Air pollution drops, which means fewer asthma attacks, less hardening of the arteries, reduced lung damage in growing children, and lower cancer rates, just to name a few.

• Globe-warming CO2 emissions go down, which means -- probably -- a slower rate of increase in sea level, species range shifts and extinctions, natural disasters, insurance costs, and global average temperature itself.

• Tanker traffic diminishes, bringing a lower risk of oil spills. So does non-point source pollution into waterways.

• In the U.S., oil imports lessen, bringing greater energy independence (every little bit ought to help) and a better balance of payments for the ailing economy.

If lower gas consumption also means people are walking and/or bicycling more instead of driving, it's even better news. A little more exercise helps people whittle waistlines, mitigate chronic illness, and live longer, too.

Look past short-term analyses, and you can find further economic benefits. Higher oil prices can spur the development and competitiveness of renewables, helping us break the addiction to fossil fuels -- something we desperately need to do, both for environmental and foreign policy reasons.

If we can help the folks who find themselves in hardship situations due to rising gas costs -- providing better transit, ridesharing opportunities, walking and bicycling facilities, and telecommuting are just a few ways of doing this -- then rising oil and gas prices might be good news all around.