Friday, November 5, 2010

Why the car is simply not enough

It's no secret that the United States is addicted to the automobile. In 2009, we consumed over 3 million barrels of finished petrol and diesel fuel (2009 EIA Data); This is a decrease from previous years, but still a tremendous number. Estimates of how much oil remains buried vary dramatically from source to source, but an admittedly optimistic guess by the USGS is somewhere around 2.3 trillion gallons barrels remaining (USGS). BP (which clearly has a stake in higher oil presence) estimates around 2 billion barrels remaining: this places us, with current consumption practices (the world consumes 85 million barrels of total oil every day (which puts the automobile consumption in some perspective)), 64.46 years away from zero oil. Considering that we have been consuming oil for centuries, and estimates of use to date are around 1.2 trillion barrels, we can see that the supposedly 'liberal' doctrine of Peak Oil is actually not far fetched by any account. It should be a sign that Chevron has begun a "Will You Join Us" campaign to realize alternative energy sources...(Note: none of this includes emissions or manufacturing demands either!)
Many people take this information, look at electric/fuel cell vehicles, and raise their hands in praise. Don't get me wrong; I love the thought of plug-in electric Audis, or advanced hybrid Chevys, or hydrogen fuel cell-powered Honda Clarities. For a lot of reasons, they are important half way solutions. They represent the way we can keep driving (as we have been trained to do), until we have found a more permanent solution. But each horsepower is equivalent in electricity to 746 watts. This means that, for an economy car with a 1.4 liter turbo (a highly efficient engine, as turbochargers allow the engine to draw power from the flow of exhaust out of the engine rotating a compressor fan), producing around 140 horsepower (see the 2011 Chevy Cruze, a decidedly average econobox), 101 kilowatts per second of maximum power. Since the Cruze will likely be averaging around 2000 rpm (80 horsepower a rough estimate, since I haven't seen a dyno run for the Cruze) in daily operation, we can assume around 60 kilowatts per second of normal use. At 60 miles per hour (highway speed, where a car is most efficient) for its lifetime, and 150,000 miles per automobile (a sad estimate, since most engines can live much longer with care), that's 2500 hours of drive time (a lot, when I think about it!). That's 9 million seconds, and 540,000 megawatts (total). Since a decent coal power plant produces 3.5 billion kilowatt/hours per year, that's 6,481 automobile lifetimes of power annually. Sounds like a lot? Well, no. There are (according to ODOT), 225.9 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S. So you can see that powering them will require an enormous supply of energy, especially on top of the energy load already placed on facilities. Consider especially that (as of 1999) 78% of commuting in the U.S. is driver-only automobile trips, and you can see that the automobile is not highly efficient ( U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, American Housing Survey).
What about public transportation? Well, commuter rail is cited as using 2,656 btu/passenger mile in 2008. Since 1 kilowatt hour=3,413 btus, and 216,000 kilowatts/hour for passenger vehicle, that means 737,208,000 btus of energy for 150,000 miles, or 4,914 btu/passenger mile (assuming one passenger). That's 54% as efficient as commuter rail, based on current usage. Imagine if commuter rail had higher passenger rates! Now, carpooling could have a similar effect, so I won't throw that away as a valuable solution. However, carpooling may be less successful as an intermodal entity, since it sacrifices autonomy (and means that taking bikes, boards, or skates along might be more difficult).
This all tackles energy usage, and hopefully I've made a good case at least so far that the automobile is not the best way, energy-wise, of getting around. What about the other arguments? I won't address them all, but I'll cite some points and give links for more information:

1) Traffic congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 Urban Mobility Report found that congestion delayed travelers 79 million hours. 79 MILLION HOURS. Think about how much you could do with that time? That's 12 minutes per person in the U.S., which is half the running time of a primetime comedy we could be enjoying at home with the company of loved ones (or doing whatever else you want!). Also, research has shown that high traffic areas reduce positive interaction between people, and reduce neighborhood identification (see below)

Revisiting Donald Appleyard's Livable Streets from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

2) Cost. AAA reported an average annual cost of automobile ownership of $7,834 in 2006 (Boston Globe). The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts that at 17% of total household expenditures, second only to providing shelter. Imagine if someone gave you $7,800 to spend this year; if you gave a quarter back to transportation infrastructure we might be riding the trains of the future! and you'd still have almost $6000 to spend how you wanted. This an amazing figure, truly.

I think that this is enough, for now; more to come!

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