Cars, Suburbia, and Conspiscous Consumption

America is dangerously dependent on foreign oil.

In 2007, the United States imported around 13.44 mbd (million barrels daily) from other countries. This represents an almost 2% reduction over the preceding year. Nonetheless, oil represents a huge economic Achilles Heel for the US.

At the current $145.29/barrel
price for crude on the spot market, a year's worth of oil imports would cost the US $713 billion. Or 5.2% of 2007 US nominal GDP. Or almost three times our trade deficit with the People's Republic of China. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is bound to impact the US economy.

I'm going to be lazy today, and err to the use of graphics to make my point. Much of the current energy debate in the US centers on how inefficient our motor vehicles are compared to the rest of the planet. Look they say at the following graph that shows just how inefficient our vehicles are. This is the average fuel economy for various national fleets.

Information released from the 2001 National Household Travel Survey shows that there is a great deal of truth to this.

First, while the oil shock of the late 70s produced a noticeable increase in fuel efficiency, since the early 1980s increases in engine efficiency have been channeled into greater horsepower.

So we've been buying more powerful cars, and it's not only that. We've been building larger vehicles.

America's automotive proclivities demonstrate perhaps better than any other single area the extent to which our country has become inclined to conspicuous consumption, the waste of economic resources by individuals so as to convey their social standing to others. I'm convinced that much of modern American society is better understood through a careful reading of Thorsten Veblen than an exaggeration of what was said by Adam Smith.

After all, Smith himself famously said that defense is superior to opulence.

The irony of this though is that just as SUVs have become an object of conspicuous consumption, environmentally friendly vehicles like the Prius have arguably become the same. Yet much as our latter day leisure class finds merit in the supposed social superiority of their little hybrid, Jonathan Tasini reminds us that merely because an object is environmentally friendly does not mean that it is socially beneficial. Who know that the Prius came out of sweatshops?

Back to the main point. While the Prius people have managed to convert what is ostensibly a socially beneficial act into yet another manner in which to demonstrate the intellectual (and hence social) deficiency of those who haven't the money to engage in this type of conspicuous consumption, the single largest component behind increasing oil consumption is an increase in vehicle miles traveled.

From the Energy Information Administration:

So lets take a look. I'm going to convert some of the numbers here for ease of use. In 1983, energy intensity was 66.2 per 1000 miles, by 2001, that number had decreased to 49.5.

Converting this to miles per gallon.

In 1983, vehicles received on average 15.1 miles per gallon. In 2001, that had increased to about 20.2 miles per gallon.

Yet between 1983 and 2002, gasoline consumption increased more than 40% from 80.3 billion gallons in 1983 to 113.1 billion gallons in 2001.

But you say. In 1983 there were only 233.8 million Americans while in 2001 there were 285.1 million Americans. So that means that in 1983, each American consumed 281.6 gallons of gasoline annually. While in 2003, each American consumed on average 396.7 gallons of gasoline.

So clearly it wasn't that the increase in population that made America consume more gas, so what did?

Math isn't my forte, but I'll give it a try.

Gas = Population (Miles traveled/Miles per gal.)

So, yes rapid increases in population can outweigh any increases in engine efficiency. However, there's a component we've overlooked: Miles traveled.

In order to avoid double counting, I'm going to use vehicle miles traveled rather than passenger miles traveled Some times more than 1 person is in a car, so you have twice number of passenger miles that you have of vehicle miles even though the same amount of gas is used.

So in 1983, 1215 billion gallons were consumed, while in 2001, 2287 billion gallons were consumed. In 1983 there were only 233.8 million Americans while in 2001 there were 285.1 million Americans. So that means in that without double counting 1983, on average each American traveled 5,197 miles annually, while in 2001 each American traveled 8,022 miles. This a 54% increase since 1983.

We've been blamed bad cars, but might, just might it be that all the self-righteous Prius People skitting who live 30 miles from work might be at fault?

I mean, as US DOT numbers show most trips are taken to and from work.

Then again, maybe not.

So let's get down to business. What would happen to our national gas consumption if we had the same number of people, and the same engine efficiency, just reduced the miles traveled per person to the 1983 number?

Gas =285.1 million(5197/20.2)

That would bring the gas consumption per person down to 257.27 gallons, or 73.35 billion gallons annually. Again as things stand now Americans use 113.1 billion gallons. That cuts gas consumption by more than a third without even touching existing engines. This has the same effect as increasing the fleet average fuel efficiency to 30.2 gallons per mile.

Perhaps in asking how to allow people to drive more efficiently to cut gas consumption, we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we need to ask what improvements in urban planning are needed to get people out of their cars.

The Prius people strike me a lot like methadone junkies, the question they ask isn't how to kick the habit, but how to keep it rolling. And the real tragedy is that keeping people in their cars perpetuates one of the key means by which individuals indicate social status in our unequal society.

I hope I haven't rambled on to much.



More Flights

An increase in travel by air is also a contributing factor to our increase use of fuel.
Another, many corporate headquarters have moved from the city to the suburb, causing employees to drive to work rather than use of public transportation. Many live in the city and must commute to the suburbs to get to work.
More vehicles on the road, additional tollbooths requiring fees to be paid, all add to wasted fuel consumption. Also, let's not forget the DRIVE THRU WINDOW. This 'value added' convenience is very costly since an idling vehicle continues to burn gasoline.
It is suggested that if you will be idling for 60 seconds or more, Turn Off Your Car. Idling at railroad crossings, and long traffic lights is wasteful.
Maintain your vehicle according to the manufacturers suggestions. Changing your oil and air filter regularly will aid in maintaining efficiency.

The suburbs are doomed

They were a poorly thought-out concept to begin with.

Here's an idea: instead of driving to the movie theater, or restaurant, or tavern, how about riding a bike there instead? Instead of buying a home you can't really afford 60 miles from work, how about renting an apartment 5 miles from work and saving your money until you can actually afford a place?

distributed corporatizing

Instead of having corporations herd in a select series of areas, how about if they spread out with a lot of satellite offices? I mean for Tech, there are only certain cities which really have tech jobs and those areas are traffic jams, housing prices through the roof and commutes from hell, even when someone wants to rent "close to work", depending on whether they are offshore outsourcing the jobs or not of course, but these corporations "huddle" into some areas, Silicon valley, Boston, Redmond WA and so on, except of course for their expansions in India and China!

I ride my bike most of the time

to get around town, but at times it's irritating. Like when you have people in cars whiz pass you and shout things. And as far as sidewalks and bike lanes? Nonexistent in many neighborhoods. We need a better pedestrian infrastructure that includes sidewalks on at least one side of the street, and street design to slow cars down on city streets.

The real killer for me though is neighborhood groceries, which don't really exist in much of the Midwest.

When you have to drive 10 miles round trip to get groceries then a car becomes a necessity and adds to the cost of living.

There needs to be better urban planning codes that require that new commercial construction demonstrate need before being given a permit for large stores.

Parking is another huge issue. Imagine the benefit of limiting the parking lot requirements for new business, but requiring that they pay for additional slots in city owned parking structures that could then serve as loci for new mass transit connections. Anything over a half mile, and most people will refuse to walk. And better yet, require a 1 for 1 match between new commercial construction and housing that matches the income spectrum of a neighborhood over commercial floor space.


I have no idea, in this day and age of 24/7 communications, corporations require people to drive in and sit in some cube, every day, but they do.

Then, because people simply cannot afford the housing prices, often they buy far away, so their commute ends up being sometimes 3 hours each way. This is especially true in Silicon valley. Then, roads are congested, so people end up sitting in traffic, stuck in their cars....burning gas.

There are a lot of factors here but to me the obvious culprit is once again...the corporation with their stuck in the last century 8-6 (that's the truth, who works 9-5 these days?) five day work week, insisting people sit in cubes when the workplace is really more mobile. Staggering work hours as well would help cut down on congestion.

Then, of course the politically incorrect thing, the US population is growing like crazy and that of course puts pressure on resources, including roads and gas, prices.

Nice analysis.

I remember about 4 years back that

some group proposed taking post offices, and adding workspaces in them. Basically cubicles with broadband and space for a computer, and using them as telecommuting centers in smaller towns. Matched with a plan to rebuild a government owned internet backbone that has trunk lines between major cities and connections out to local post offices. (Even better if matched with Wi-Max towers for rural areas) You could do a lot to help business create distributed offices, where much of the back office work currently the target of offshoring to India is contracted out to small towns.

work from home

have meetings in person on an as needed basis. There are now many web conferencing products out there where literally someone's entire desktop can be shared or shown. I think it's a control thing frankly of corporations must have people on site. I'll have to dig around for productivity studies for I have a belief it's more corporations just don't know how to manage remote teams or distributed teams. I'll bet the productivity numbers are there to justify it.

The issue that you will

see raised then is, if we can outsource it to someplace in Indiana and have it work fine, why can't we get someone at a quarter the cost in India?

One of the big advantages of having you consumer contact, production, and engineers close is that you can do rapid change orders to offer what people want now.

When you've got outsourced production, you expand the lead time before you can implement a change in production, this being even more true where production occurs through an outsourced vendor rather than company owned facilities. Even more, having customer contact in the same place allows for informal contact that lets problems with products float to the engineers without putting it on paper.

Europe and high costs of fuel

All too often you will hear the lame excuse for higher energy costs by the fossil fuel apologists and the MSM - "The US is still lower than Europe"

what they fail to mention is that in Europe they have many viable alternatives to air and auto travel. The times I have spent in the UK, I used the trains to get pretty much anywhere I needed to go. Europeans tend to live much closer to their places of work and business. They walk, ride public transit, bicycles, motorbikes and mopeds.

Since the US largely does not have these alternatives of less fuel intensive travels and have built our cities around the suburbs, higher fuel costs while lower than other parts of the world have a greater impact and represent a higher percentage of ones income.

We need to go on a crash infrastructure revitalization program and bring back rail travel - high speed, regional and light rail - would be very price and time competitve with current modes of transport and will have a much less environmental footprint.

We also should be strongly considering nationalizing oil reserves and a ATT style break up of big oil in addition to alternative energies