More has been written about the price of oil and the cost of transportation in the past year than in the previous 30. Before that we had the oil crisis of the 70s and since then our inability to make any progress on fuel efficieny has been strangled by the car companies and their complicit allies of all political stripes.

Now the refrain we've heard from the car companies has been consistent and can be boiled down to the now familiar "the free market fairy will fix it"; now 30 years later as gas prices are over four dollars a gallon we are about to see the free market fairy in action as Americans switch to more fuel efficient vehicles and American car companies are caught by suprise. By surprise, as if it's possible to be caught by surprise with 30 years notice, now that the free market fairy has taken an axe to their sales and a company like Ford is expected to lose $2 billion this year.

Am I supposed to have any sympathy? Who should I have sympathy for? The buyers of SUVs now stuck with drastically devalued vehicles they couldn't trade in for the cost of a Yugo? The American car companies, foiled yet again by their own complacency and short-sightedness into almost going backrupt? Or for the average tax payer who is going to have to pick up the tab for the inevitable bailouts, because, we'll be told, that rescuing these knuckle-dragging corporate behemoths is "in the strategic interest of the country".

We need more mass transit, and it is certainly within our means and tradition of grand projects. We should be able to build smart mass transit, something that will start working for the suburbs, like these folks are planning on doing for air travel could be done for scheduling buses; doing just in time dispatch of vehicles, building an auction system where you can bid up the price your willing to pay for a shorter trip to your destination, etc, all managed from your cellphone.

It looks like we're in for a bumpy ride, I just hope we have the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing this time.

Link Fest

Like I said, there's been more ink spilled on this subject than I can ever remember, here's some of the links I've collected:

Have a read of Brad Templeton's Robocars series for a radical answer to this problem:
http://www.templetons.com/brad/robocars/robot-cars.html

Posted by Kevin Marks on 2008-07-10

Personal Rapid Transit has been trying to approach the problem of decentralized transit for some time. I think the problem with most traditional mass transit systems (and "mass" transit in general) is that it only works well when people travel to a small number of destinations, like a downtown. That's not even a good representation of urban travel anymore, and of course doesn't fit suburban development at all. PRT is also one of the few systems that actually is substantially more energy efficient than cars. A little-discussed fact is that both traditional trains and buses are only marginally more efficient per passenger-mile than cars. Because these systems run at a constant loss the ups and downs of their energy costs is largely invisible to passengers, unlike car gas which is immediately apparent to drivers.

A shared-taxi style service (what you describe with on-demand buses) is similar, but again it's not much more energy efficient. Parking efficient, sure, and maybe traffic efficient. The advantage of systems like these (including shared car services, e.g., Zipcar, and just relying on traditional taxis) isn't so much the increased energy efficiency of the system, but the fact that all costs are incremental as opposed to the up-front investment of a car, and so there's more incentive to travel less or to travel by other means (walking, biking, etc). The shared car services are very explicit that one of the primary benefits to cities (which subsidize them to some degree) is that people simply drive less.

Posted by Ian Bicking on 2008-07-10