SEATTLE – When stuck in the often nightmarish, 2019 traffic of this Pacific Northwest city, it is hard to avoid wondering if U.S. federal highway vehicle emission standards didn’t actually help move the country away from the goal of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Admittedly this observation sounds a little nuts, but let’s consider a few points of fact, the most important being American driving habits.
As gas and diesel prices started going up in the mid-2000s, Americans began driving less. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the more than 3 trillion miles people drove in 2007 fell below that bar in 2008 and dropped again in 2009.
This was a major behavioral change, a massive behavior change. Americans love their cars as much as they love their food, and their food has led them to eat their way into what has been described as an obesity epidemic.
Rising fuel prices, however, turned them off on driving for a while. Miles driven did rise slightly from 2009 to 2010, but remained below the 3-trillion mark and then dropped significantly to 2.95 trillion miles in 2011. That is the lowest number in the past 15 years.
As this was happening, experts who’d thought motor-fuel purchases wholly inelastic found instead that they do respond to the laws of supply and demand. As price went up, putting a limit on supply, demand went down.
“Estimates of long-run consumer demand elasticity suggest that a 10
percent price increase will result in only a 6 percent decrease in consumption,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported in 2005.
Gas remained relatively inelastic compared to other goods. People who’d moved to the suburbs and yet worked in town still had to get there, but they modified their behaviors to save money and as a result, miles driven started falling for various reasons.
Some suburbanites moved back to the city and closer to work. People began to work remotely. Carpooling became more common. Zoning changes in some communities put local grocery stores within walking distance of people’s homes.
There were even Americans who started cycling or walking to save gas.
These are the kinds of fundamental, behavioral changes necessary to make real inroads on national output of CO2, the so-called “greenhouse gas” blamed for global warming.
Losing the war
These budding behavioral changes now appear to have in large part disappeared.
Higher prices for gas and diesel inspired oil companies to amp up exploration. They found more crude oil and as a result, motor fuel prices began to fall. Meanwhile, those federal energy standards were ensuring cars got better mileage.
When the lines crossed, the annual mileage driven started increasing:
- 3.03 trillion in 2014
- 3.1 trillion in 2015
- 3.17 trillion in 2016
- And a record 3.21 trillion in 2017, the last year for which full figures are available
A trillion, for those unfamiliar with crazily large numbers, is a thousand times 1 billion. So in talking about a decrease from 2.95 trillion miles in 2011 and the 3.17 in 2017, we’re talking about 220 billion miles – the equivalent of about 786 trips to the planet Mars and back.
Or, in simple language, one hell of a lot of miles. Americans showed they can conserve if they have to, but the monetary incentive to conserve has now gone away.
Looking around at the drivers in the flow of traffic here in the new California, you can’t avoid noticing that almost everyone is alone even though Washington is one of those states with so-called high vehicle occupancy (HOV) lanes on its freeways.
These carpool lanes are limited to use by passenger vehicles with two or more passengers. The lanes appear minimally used. There is no readily available data tracking use year by year, but a 2018 study of HOV lanes in general concluded that the lanes aren’t very effective at moving traffic and might actually be adding to air quality problems.
Sharon Shewmake, a resource economist now at Western Washington University, noted CO2 is largely a factor of how much people drive and reported there is “very little evidence showing HOV lanes deliver on their promise to reduce vehicle miles
The obvious reason for this would be that not enough people are carpooling. Americans like to have control of their mode of transportation even if all of us alone in our oversize motor vehicles jam up urban roadways so bad even 55 mph speed limits become a joke.
When you’re bumper to bumper doing 10 or 15 mph because that’s all the faster the traffic is moving, speed limits become irrelevant.
Cars crawling along in traffic because roads are overloaded don’t produce all that much more CO2 than cars speeding down the road, but there are other problems.
“Air pollution from traffic congestion in 83 of the nation’s largest urban areas contributes to more than 2,200 premature deaths annually, costing the health system at least $18 billion, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reported in a 2011, peer-reviewed study in Environmental Health.
They blamed the deaths on increases of particulate matter, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. And then there is this from National Public Radio (NPR) as driving miles were going up in 2017:
“The increase in driving has also increased gasoline consumption, which hit a record high back in June….Another downside to more traffic is more crashes. The National Safety Council says traffic fatalities increased 6 percent last year and topped 40,000 for the first time since 2007, but only part of that sharp increase can be attributed to the less than 3 percent growth in vehicle miles traveled. What’s even more troubling is that the rate of fatal crashes is increasing at a time when vehicles mechanically are becoming safer.”
Americans, unfortunately, are driving more and driving worse in large part because they are distracted by technology.
“Each day in the United States, approximately nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only a week ago.
Whatever improvements the country might have been making in shifting Americans away from cars to environmentally friendlier means of transportation can’t be blamed on federal fuel-economy standards alone, but it is hard to ignore the fact that fuel-efficient cars make people think differently about lengthy commutes than did 12 mpg pickup trucks.
There are reasons the suburbs here have sprawled far back into the foothills of the Cascades to the east, and the traffic regularly jams up for dozens of miles north and south from the city center.
“It’s impossible to look at American commuting habits and not report the obvious: Americans are still largely dependent on the automobile,” Brookings, a research institute reported in 2016. “Over 76 percent of Americans drive alone to work every day, while another 9 percent carpool with someone else. Considering that American Community Service counted 150 million workers in 2016, that’s at least 115 million cars and trucks hitting American streets every day. It’s no wonder congestion is so pervasive during morning and afternoon rush hours.
“Even with all the roads widened, transit lines built, ride-hailing services launched, and bike share systems introduced, we’re still looking at the same fundamental distribution of commuter choice.”
The “drove alone” trendline that took a nosedive in 2008 is once again going steadily upward. The walking, cycling, carpool, mass transit and work-from-home lines, which were showing some signs of improvement have been falling since 2015.
U.S. emissions of CO2 which began falling in the mid-2000s appear to have stalled, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. U.S. waistlines, an indicator of their spending too much time sitting behind the wheel or sitting elsewhere, continue to grow.
There is a case to be made that good intentions in this case made the problem worse not better. But what are the odds anyone will notice and think things through better next time?
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska – long the scourage of national environmental groups for his advocacy of 49th state development – in 2007 called for a significant increase in the federal gas tax. Keeping gas prices high might have been the best thing the country could have done to reduce driving and encourage the slowly starting shift to other means of transportation and work-from-home programs.
Young’s proposal ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. There were complaints it would hurt business or the poor, and environmentalists were backing another horse.
“In late December 2007, greenies were almost willing to give famously anti-environmental George W. Bush a bear hug for signing into law the first revision of vehicle fuel-efficiency standards since leisure suits were the rage,” the Sierra Club reported. “Committing the U.S. car and truck fleet to a 35-mile-per-gallon average by 2020 is considered the biggest single step the climate-challenged United States has ever taken to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions.”
As NPR noted, this hasn’t led to a decrease in gasoline consumption; it has lead to an increase in gasoline consumption.
It has worked so well that American businesses, led by Amazon, have been able to go back to the future to provide the sort of fuel-inefficient, home-delivery of once offered by the now-extinct milkman.
The University of Washington last year specifically singled out as an environmental problem Amazon Prime with its free shipping that comes “with a hidden environmental cost that doesn’t show up on the checkout page….Expedited shipping means your packages may not be as consolidated as they could be, leading to more cars and trucks required to deliver them, and an increase in packaging waste, which researchers have found is adding more congestion to our cities, pollutants to our air, and cardboard to our landfills.”
“‘With Amazon, it’s hard to be disciplined,’ said (Don) MacKenzie, a Prime member himself. ‘You’ve [got] an all-you-can-eat buffet as far as shipping goes. We don’t see that price signal telling us, maybe you wait and combine shipments.”’
MacKenzie leads the university’s Sustainable Transportation Lab. He and others observed that Amazon’s latest effort to provide two-hour delivery service has only exacerbated the emissions problem.
“Drivers are going from their home base to a warehouse to your house, and back to their home base. And warehouses are farther than the store you would have gone to,” said Anne Goodchild, director of the university’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center.
This works as a business model only because cheap fuel and fuel-efficient cars hold down the cost of delivery. The law of unintended consequences doesn’t seem to care about good intentions.