Friday, April 30, 2010

Oil Spills: Disastrous - and Not the Only Reason for Change

The oil spill now devastating the Gulf of Mexico reminds us yet again how urgently we need to reform our transportation system. The huge damage caused by extracting, refining and using oil might be our automotive love affair's biggest black eye, but as bad as it is, it's not even the only reason for change.

Last month I hosted a chat about some of these issues with the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives, the latest book to critique our automotive transportation system. I've excerpted portions of this conversation with Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez below. You can find the full chat at the Book Salon, a great spot for discussions of cutting-edge social and political literature.

Right now, Firedoglake is also calling for a cancellation of all offshore drilling plans. You can access a petition to send this message to President Obama when you visit the full chat about Carjacked.

In our conversation last month, we found plenty of ways that car culture costs us, without even getting into the whole messy topic of drilling for oil. We were joined by several visitors identified by their user names. The excerpts below are edited for clarity.

Katie Alvord: Welcome, Anne and Catherine. I’m delighted to be here to chat about your book. So — we’ve been Carjacked. What are the biggest costs of this to American families?

Catherine Lutz: American families lose out in terms of their finances, their health and safety, and their quality of life. The average family spends $14,000 a year on owning and operating the two cars typically owned, for one thing. A pretty amazing number. And traffic deaths are way down with the recent drop in driving, but they remain the leading killer of people between the ages of 3 and 34 in the US.

Katie: One of the things you write in your book is: “If every family in America that owns multiple cars owned one less, as a nation we could reduce household debt by $1.4 trillion.” That’s huge! Why so much?

Anne Lutz Fernandez:
The number is so staggeringly large because so few people buy their cars with cash these days and thus we are carrying an incredibly heavy debt load to own the cars that we own. We’ve become payment shoppers who think about the monthly payment and don’t look at the overall automotive debt load, so our financing costs associated with car ownership are significant. And over recent years we’ve been spending more on each car, until the recession trading in earlier and earlier for each new model, and piling on options and accessories and looking for luxury and even the most humble models.

Catherine: The average amount people paid for a new car this year was over $28,000 with near 90% financed. We also spend an incredible amount of time in our cars. 18 1/2 hours a week is the average there, and some of the drivers we interviewed for our book had even higher numbers.

Katie: All the time in our cars probably is one reason people use them as mobile living rooms, dressing rooms, and more! You write of your own driving lives, “If this were a job, each of us would have been at it … for more than six years of our lives.” How aware do you think people are of the time they spend in and lavish on cars?

Anne: Katie, most adults we talked to were shocked by the national average. Some agreed to keep trip diaries for us and were surprised to see how much time they spend in their cars–for those of us in the suburbs, the time spent has crept up often without us noticing, unless we suddenly took on a new commute. But interestingly, the teens and young adults, particularly in suburban or exurban areas, were less surprised–they as a generation have spent so much time being driven here and there.

Katie: That’s so interesting. I think the trip diaries are a great idea. It probably helps people see something else you point out, that commuting is not the main thing contributing to our trips. Are people surprised by this?

Anne: Yes! In our interviews with drivers many felt helpless about how much driving they do and they often blamed it on their commutes. But the numbers tell a different story. While we may travel more miles for our commutes, we’re spending a lot of time stuck in traffic and taking more trips to run errands and go shopping than we are to get to work. So this means that much of the driving that we’re doing is discretionary. And we can cut back on it by trip chaining, walking in some cases to shop, by shopping on the Internet – and of course by shopping less. We were surprised to find out how effective radio advertising is in encouraging drivers to shop more than they intended when they hopped in the car.

Phoenix Woman: Another method: The bicycle. If at all possible, try to use a bike when shopping for anything less than five miles from where you live. It’s faster than walking, you can carry more (bike panniers and racks are lovely), and you have the same freedom of movement, with a good fraction of the speed (at least on city streets where cars are limited to 30 mph for safety reasons) of the automobile.

Anne: Yes, and for that reason and others in the past few years, bicycling has grown dramatically as a mode of everyday transportation, even among those who must drive to work.

dakine01: I guess I’m not a good car loving ‘Murican as I drive a ‘92 Ford Escort that even as it falls apart still gets roughly 30 MPH. Fortunately, I never let my car be my status symbol and statement of self worth.

Anne: We did talk to some like you who hold onto their cars for a good long time–and it is the route to wealth as we found when we talked to personal finance experts.

Katie: On traffic deaths, I know some play down the number of car deaths and injuries in this country, but Carjacked points out that certain other countries have much lower vehicle death rates than in the U.S. What accounts for this?

Catherine: 1.2 million people died in vehicle crashes around the world last year, according to the World Health Organization, so the story is bad all around, but some countries, Sweden, for example, have much lower rates achieved via a more regulated car industry and a concerted government campaign to lower deaths in other ways. One other solution is more public transit — a much safer mode of travel — and simply less time on the road.

Katie: I agree with you about transit as a safer means of travel that could really help cut the vehicle death rate, and you advocate a shift to using more of it. Your book says, “Now is the ripest moment in the history of the car system to retool the auto industry into a transit industry.” What if any signs have you seen that this might be happening?

Catherine: There was a great move to use public transit with the gas price spike of 2008, and many have continued riding. Billions in stimulus funds were also spent on mass transit, so the direction of change is positive.

bmaz: I am going to take a guess that Catherine and Anne are sisters and are NOT related to Bob Lutz.

Anne: No relation. If we were family, we obviously would have been cut out of the will by now!