No Leadership on Energy II
As noted in my prior post, we are facing a slowly building economic crisis on energy, and we are facing it without leadership. But what would leadership on energy look like? And do I have a proposal? As it so happens, I do. The unfortunate fact about the demand for energy in the United States is that it is “inelastic” in the short run. Since we cannot start living in compact cities or throw away our energy-intensive homes and vehicles overnight (doing so would take a lot of energy), we consume nearly as much no matter how much it costs, desperately bidding against the rest of the world for the limited supply, sacrificing other aspects of our standard of living. In the long run, if we had had leadership, we would have made different choices over the past 20 years. In the long run, if we had leadership, we might make different choices over the next 20 years. In the short run, however, there is only one thing that suburban, auto-oriented America can do to substantially reduce its energy consumption – carpool on a large scale.
The bad news is that the evolving American lifestyle -- varying work start and end times, varying non-work destinations, etc. make a traditional carpool with the same people every day impractical. The good news is that improving information and communication technology -- including cellphones, PDAs and GIS systems – could make dynamic carpooling, with a separate carpool formed for every trip, feasible -- but only if it takes hold on a large scale. Otherwise, the odds of connecting with an ad hoc carpool for one’s trip would be too low.
Back in 1994, while working at the NYC Department of City Planning, I was asked to come up with a transportation program for Staten Island New York, a low (for New York City) density borough of 500,000 people that is most like the rest of the United States. A large share of Staten Island residents are government employees and/or work in places other than Manhattan, the borough most accessible by transit. So most drive, and providing mass transit from their dispersed households to their dispersed workplaces would not only have required deep subsidies but also have used more energy use per passenger mile than individuals driving alone.
The Staten Island Railroad covers less that 10 percent of its costs, and Staten Island buses carry a fraction of the riders per day that buses in the other boroughs carry. (In much of the United States, in fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that transit buses use as much energy per passenger mile as SUVs, since they are mostly empty most of the time, though their estimate of an average of 1.6 passengers in private motor vehicles seems a little high to me). Moreover, you have heard that the cost per ride in New York City Transit’s “demand response” system of the handicapped, which also must match dispersed origins and destinations, soared to $27.00 per ride despite using private companies with lower paid labor. I knew I had to find another solution.
So I proposed a dynamic carpooling system. Under the proposal, members would offer membership in a "carpool club," and club members would be divided into "drivers" and "riders." Some time before beginning a trip, members would contact the club's computer, and using the internet, a PDA, or touch tone responses via a cell-phone, would indicate the location where they were, the location where they wanted to go, and when they were leaving. The computer would compare these trip requests. When it found a match, it would telephone the driver and riders into a conference call to arrange their trip, while providing directions for an optimum pick up and drop-off route for the driver. A GPS system, provided to each driver in the club, would guide them to these locations.
Each rider would pay the driver a fixed cash fee determined by the club. Drivers would be able to earn some money while making trips they would have made anyway. Riders would save money -- the cost of riding in the carpools would be far less than the cost of owning, insuring, maintaining, repairing, and fueling an additional automobile – the cost of my 9+ year-old Saturn has been $464 per month in today’s dollars, and we drive it less than 7,000 miles per year since we use transit for most trips. And fewer cars on the road would mean less pollution, traffic congestion, and use of non-renewable resources. Moreover, the ability to dial in and get a lift from someone going in roughly the same direction would provide mobility to those who lack it, including the working poor with homes in the city and jobs in the suburbs, and the frail elderly living in disbursed suburban locations. The latter is going to be a big issue in the next 20 years. The club would make money by charging riders a fee small for each trip arranged. The total fee in the New York area might be $3.00 per trip -- $2.50 to the rider and 50 cents to the club – per trip for door-to-door service.
The proposal differed from existing dynamic carpooling experiments in two important ways – the matching service would be run as a for-profit or non-profit business rather than a government program, and the riders would be expected to pay the equivalent of a transit fare for each trip, saving money by not owning their own automobile, or by owning one automobile per family rather than two or more. The reason for this is described in the proposal. With concerns about global warming increasing, with automobile use spreading to countries such as India and China, with oil and gasoline supplies tight and subject to price shocks and political disruption, and with communications technology improving all over the world, the concept I developed a decade ago makes more sense to me than ever. You can read it if you want. Just e-mail me at vampire-state (a) att.net.
Twelve years later, however, having descended further in to cynicism/advanced further into knowledge, I understand that I was an idiot to even suggest that the City and State of New York and (go ahead and mock me I deserve it) public employees, who I envisioned as the initial group that generate the scale economies for this to work, might be willing or even capable of doing something like this. In particular, the idea the unions would agree to something that benefited their members first and most of all, but also involved giving up a perk that disadvantaged the rest of the city (see the proposal) while providing benefits to the rest of the city, is absurd. Unions haven’t been anything like this for decades. And you imagine our politicians, at this moment of economic danger, urging those who cannot use transit to carpool, and doing so themselves to set an example, rather than parking wherever they pleased using their permits? Forget it!
The energy issue is much like the debt issue, the pension issue, and others with immediate gains for some and long term losses for all. We are about to have a national scale personal finance disaster associated with the housing bubble and the extraction of home equity to finance unsustainable consumption. This will, among other things, lead to terrible fiscal consequences for the public sector and big job losses. Examining the choices so many Americans are making in their personal lives, perhaps the lack of leadership here is understandable if regrettable.
So, when I’ve had the time, I’ve tried to circulate the proposal to those in more progressive places, and have had some traction. But, if you read the proposal, you’ll see how many challenges would be involved, and how much leadership would be required. That kind of leadership simply doesn’t exist in the State of New York, and in some ways, doesn’t exist in the United States. To suggest that people modify their behavior even slightly, even for a substantial benefit to themselves, is simply beyond the pale for our pandering, deal cutting, future destroying pols.
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