Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

American Idle

In my latest Slate column, I consider the drive-through.

One thing that struck me was the historical novelty of the form; McDonald’s didn’t begin to unroll them until the mid-1970s, and they now, rather shockingly, account for the majority of their restaurant business. It’s a subtle, yet indicative, symbol of how much American society has changed, driving-wise, in a few decades. At one moment, most children, like me, were walking to school, and while we may have driven to McDonald’s, we actually got out of the car to eat our meal (and something like McDonald’s, pre-drive-through, was then an occasional novelty, at least for me).

Posted on Saturday, December 12th, 2009 at 1:26 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Mode Shift

Via the Sydney Morning Herald:

With the advent of high-speed trains, rail travel in Europe has become so popular that some intercity flight routes are being cancelled.

Why would you fly from London to Paris, for example, and tackle Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airport check ins plus security when you can catch a high-speed train that lands you right in the centre of town?

Now about 90 per cent of people travel by Eurostar between these two cities.

And there’s no longer any flights on the Paris-Brussels route. Many now also go by train between London and Brussels.

Posted on Saturday, October 10th, 2009 at 9:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Century of Progress

The above chart, which shows the negligible gains in fuel economy cars have seen over the last century (what efficiency gains there were have been plowed into horsepower and more weight), is from “Fuel efficiency of vehicles on US roads: 1923–2006,” by Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhoni, published in the most recent issue of Energy Policy.

The authors note:

After the 1973 oil embargo, vehicle manufacturers achieved major improvements in the on-road fuel economy of vehicles. However, the slope of the improvement has decreased substantially since 1991. Specifically, from 1973 to 1991, the efficiency of the total fleet of vehicles has improved by 42% (from 11.9 to 16.9 mpg). This represents a compound rate of improvement of 2.0% per year. On the other hand, from 1991 to 2006, the efficiency has improved by only 1.8% (from 16.9 to 17.2 mpg), representing a compound rate of improvement of 0.1% per year.

The curve will begin to look dramatically different by the end of the second Obama administration.

Posted on Friday, May 29th, 2009 at 2:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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New DOT Boss Touts “Per Mile Pricing”

Ray La Hood points to what is becoming, in light of the flagging and insufficient system of fuel taxes, an increasingly likely (and good) future scenario:  Rather than gas taxes, drivers will be charged for the miles they drive.

[Update: Political damage-control moves faster than mere bloggers:  Obama says no to VMT tax, via Ryan Avent]

Posted on Friday, February 20th, 2009 at 3:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Giving ‘Spare Tire’ a Whole New Meaning

If greater car dependency is linked to higher obesity rates, as some studies have suggested, a Los Angeles doctor seemed to offer a self-sustaining remedy to the problem.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Dr. Bittner defended his use of discarded body fat from his patients to fuel his car and said he received signed consents from patients who were told of the intended use. Still, “the medical board went ballistic” about this practice, he said.

Using medical waste obtained from liposuction as a biofuel “is not currently an approved alternative treatment technology,” according to the California Department of Public Health. To seek approval, an individual would have to submit an application to the department for this alternative use. There is no record of Dr. Bittner filing such an application, a department spokesman said.

The practice spurred “death threats against me and my staff,” Dr. Bittner said. “I thought it was a great thing to demonstrate to the world how many ways there are to solve the energy crisis.”

Shades of Soylent Green

Posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 8:48 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Jack Martin on Hypermiling

Interesting road-trip with 2008 hyper-miling champion Jack Martin, particularly for his comments about trucks and bikes.

(Thanks Ed!)

Posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 at 3:36 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Welfare Cadillacs

No, I’m not talking about the mythical drivers of the 1970s, riding their luxe mobiles down to the benefits office to collect their check.

I’m talking about Detroit. Congress seems intent on handing yet another short-sighted free ride to the automakers. As reports the Wall Street Journal, Congress has come up with the following piece of “policy”: “The $11.5 billion auto amendment, adopted 71-26, would give an income-tax deduction to car buyers for both sales taxes and interest payments on auto loans.” This even as the newspapers are filled with stories of transit systems with expanding riderships nevertheless having to cut back for lack of funding.

There are, seemingly, no further requirements on this latest gift to the industry — e.g. no stricture that it be used only for high-mileage or hybrid vehicles, nothing that might make Detroit (or American consumers, for that matter) wake up and face reality.

Do you see a pattern here? Let’s review. There was the time Congress eviscerated the tax credit for hybrid vehicles — the more that are sold, the more the credit erodes (how’s that for incentives?). In Europe, the tax credits for lower-emitting vehicles don’t erode. Then there was the time Congress enacted tax breaks for “light duty” vehicles (the ones family farmers used to use back in the days such a creature existed), encouraging an entire generation to move away from higher-mileage vehicles into unsustainable suburban trucks. And then, as Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon note in their new book Two Billion Cars (which I’ve reviewed in the next Wilson Quarterly), there was the old “two fleet rule” for imports and domestics, “added at the request of the UAW, which hoped Detroit would be forced to keep building small cars to offset sales of gas guzzlers. This worked for a short time, but the share of imported parts rose in Detroit’s ‘domestically built’ cars defined as having at least 75 percent domestic content).”

The pattern seems to be: Detroit, caught in its oligopolistic slumber, runs ashore on the shoals of global socio-economic reality; Congress finds some short-term way to help them that leaves them precariously ill-prepared for the future. Repeat.

Posted on Wednesday, February 4th, 2009 at 4:28 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘It Was Just a Habit’

By simply installing feedback devices that alerted them to bad driving practices that diminished fuel efficiency, the city of Denver was able to improve MPG by 10% (remember, how you drive can be as influential as what you drive), reports the Los Angeles Times.

“Our fast starts and hard braking were virtually eliminated in the last six months,” he said. “This is about driver education and self-awareness — to make people more thoughtful.”

Juan Marsh, a field supervisor with Denver’s parks and recreation department, said he was surprised to learn about his driving habits — for example, how often he left his engine running while he visited a job site and spoke to a crew.

“It was just a habit,” Marsh said.

The feedback from his accelerometer “instantly made me conscious of those issues,” he said. “I just flat-out didn’t realize I was wasting fuel that way.”

I’m not sure if this was studied, but work by Green Road has found that, among drivers of fleet vehicles, those who had the best fuel economy in their driving also had the safest driving record.

(Horn honk to Planetizen)

Posted on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009 at 4:54 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Black Budget

I sometimes suspect that China, for all the hue and cry of this being the “Chinese century” and how cities like Shanghai represent the future, is actually going to look obsolete and untenable in a number of decades (in a sort of Kunstlerian way, and the future really belongs to places like Denmark.

Via City Fix comes this interesting number:

“Last Thursday, the Danish government agreed to invest 94 billion kroner ($16 billion) to improve the nation’s roads, railways and bike lanes by 2020.

Traffic Minister Lars Barfoed was quoted by The Copenhagen Post as saying, “The shape of the agreement is clear: two-thirds green, one-third black,” meaning that most of the budget will go towards public transit infrastructure and the rest will be spent on asphalt road projects.

The U.S., by contrast, does things a little differently:

Government regulations and spending priorities have favored driving as the means of moving people and products since the Eisenhower administration and the advent of the Interstate Highway System. More than 80 percent of transit money from gas taxes supports highways and bridges, with the remainder, less than 20 percent, allocated for mass transit. Moreover, federal contributions to highway projects often cover more than 80 percent of the total construction costs, compared with only 50 percent of the typical cost for a transit system. Rail freight, which uses one-third as much energy per mile as trucking to ship a pound of cargo, has no federal funding at all.

In other news, Amsterdam residents on two-wheels have now eclipsed those on four.

People are using their bikes just a bit more than their cars, the figures from 2005-2007 show. Inhabitants of Amsterdam used their bikes .87 times per day during that time, while they used their cars .84 times a day. Amsterdam measured the traffic on its inner-city ring road, and found car trips falling nearly 15 percent since 1990, while bike trips during that same time period rose 36 percent.

One of the reasons: “restrictive parking practices enacted since the 1990’s.” Who says you need congestion pricing?

Posted on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009 at 4:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Subway Reading

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ new 2009 “Pocket Guide to Transportation” is out and available here (as a pdf or a free hard-copy, that they’ll mail to you, courtesy of your tax dollars!).

It’s chock full of information, much of it rather depressing, like the attached chart, which is titled, “Transportation’s Share of U.S. Petroleum Use: 1975-2007.”

Note how the jump begins right around 1980, when Detroit really began to starting cranking up in earnest on the ‘light truck’ loophole (wiping out all the efficiency gains of the previous decades) the one that helped kill any impetus for innovation in Detroit and thus brings us to our current sorry state of affairs…

Posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 4:06 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Frappuccino Effect

A librarian (the world would be a better place if there were more of them) waxes reflective on her hybrid car. Among other things, she notes:

Every car needs a MPG gauge. MPG gauges should be mandatory in vehicles. I think of this as the Frappuchino Effect, from the time my father called me to say he had learned that Frappuchinos had hundreds of calories. My dad has a bad heart, and to keep the load on his body light he’s watched his weight as long as I can remember. What seemed like a simple treat turned radioactive to him (and for that matter, to me). In the same vein, a MPG gauge in every car could get everyone driving smarter.

Posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 at 7:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The word of the year, according to the New American Oxford Dictionary. I see the word more often than I actually see people doing it.

And, going against a recent grain of thought, Car and Driver says leaving the windows down is better for mileage than A/C.

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 6:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Driving Barefoot

There’s an interesting Q&A in New Scientist with hypermiler Jack Martin that hints at some of the reasons why, as studies have suggested, people who drive with fuel economy in mind are less likely to be involved in a crash.

How does the way you drive differ from how everyone else drives?

I have difficulty multitasking while driving. I can’t talk on the phone while driving. It’s about awareness and “hyperconsciousness”, which takes a lot of practice. You have to look far down the road and be aware of everything going on in front and around you. I first learned that while driving the bus. My eyes were constantly moving to the mirrors, the speed dial, the road, to anticipate conditions and stop in time.

That was well in line with what I’ve read before. But then I was struck by this odd detail:

“Most hypermilers also like to drive barefoot to feel the resistance on the accelerator. The connection between that resistance and the numbers on the scan gauge tells you what behaviours improve your mileage. By following my techniques, a friend improved her mpg by 70 per cent.”

Posted on Monday, November 3rd, 2008 at 3:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Trouble with Off-Peak Buses

Via Berkeley’s Center for Future Urban Transport is a new study that I imagine will be generating some discussion. The work, by Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath, is meant to: “develop comprehensive life-cycle assessment (LCA) models to quantify the energy inputs and emissions from autos, buses, heavy rail, light rail and air transportation in the U.S. associated with the entire life cycle (design, raw materials extraction, manufacturing, construction, operation, maintenance, end-of-life) of the vehicles, infrastructures, and fuels involved in these systems. Energy inputs are quantified as well as greenhouse gas and criteria air pollutant outputs. Inventory results are normalized to effects per vehicle-lifetime, VMT, and PMT.”

Among the more eye-raising findings noted:

• Roadway construction particulate matter emissions are as large as tail-pipe emissions for the automobile per passenger-mile-traveled.

• Urban buses with peak-hour occupancies have the best energy and greenhouse gas performance, followed by rail and then air systems, and trailed by automobiles. But off-peak bus travel is the worst performer.

• Air travel is environmentally competitive with rail travel and can outperform rail modes when the aircraft is about 80 percent utilized.

• The use of ground support equipment at airports contributes roughly one-third of the total carbon monoxide lifecycle emissions for aircraft.

• While rail systems are the best energy and greenhouse gas performers, they exhibit the largest shares from infrastructure effects in the lifecycle. This results from environmentally much larger infrastructure requirements per passenger-mile served.

Posted on Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 at 3:23 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

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Traffic UK
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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



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