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Category — Transportation Policy

Modern Transportation and Food: How Carbon-based Fuel Kept the ‘Third Horseman’ in Check

“Anti-petroleum activists would have us give up on long-distance trade and the food security inherent to the reliance on multiple suppliers based in a wide variety of geographical locations. Far from keeping the third horseman at bay, their carbon dioxide obsession will bring him back with a vengeance.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter (1940) is generally regarded as the most historically accurate book of her Little House on the Prairie series. It tells the story of how her family and the other inhabitants of DeSmet, South Dakota—but then the Dakota Territory—narrowly avoided starvation during the severe winter of 1880-81. That year, after a lean harvest, a series of blizzards dumped more than 11 feet of snow and immobilized trains on their tracks, in the process cutting off the settlers from the rest of the United States.

As their meager supplies ran out, a rumor spread that a sizeable amount of wheat had been raised and was available within 20 miles of their snow covered houses. Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, along with a friend, soon risked their lives and eventually succeeded in bringing back enough food to sustain the townspeople through the rest of the winter. With the spring thaw the railroad service was reestablished, abundant food was delivered and the Ingalls family enjoyed a long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.

To 21st century readers, “The Long Winter” is as a valuable reminder of how common and lethal crop failures and geographical isolation once were before the advent of modern farming and transportation technologies. Indeed, two additional footnotes to this true story are that Almanzo Wilder’s parents had to leave the town of Malone in Upstate New York in 1875 due to crop failures. And secondly, soon after the winter of 1880-81, three years of drought and prairie fires forced most of DeSmet’s settlers to relocate their farms and homesteads. [Read more →]

February 3, 2014   2 Comments

Privatizing Local Transit: Part of the Free Market Energy Agenda

Those who are not yet convinced that government is vastly less efficient than private enterprise should closely examine the nation’s transit industry. In 1964, the industry was mostly private and earned an overall profit. In that year, Congress gave local governments incentives to take over transit, and by 1970, the industry was nearly all publicly owned.

Today it loses nearly $40 billion a year.

In that time, the industry has seen a spectacular decline in productivity. According to data published by the American Public Transportation Association, the industry’s chief lobby group, between 1970 and 2008, inflation-adjusted operating costs more than quadrupled, while transit ridership grew by about 40 percent. In the same time period, the number of annual transit riders carried per operating employee fell by nearly 50 percent. As economist Charles Lave observed, “It’s uncommon to find such a rapid productivity decline in any industry.”

This decline in productivity can be traced directly to government ownership. Since more than three out of four transit dollars come from taxes rather than fares, transit agencies are much more interested in getting money out of taxpayers than in attracting new transit riders. Although the core transit business is in dense inner cities, the typical transit agency taxes a broad area, which obligates it to provide transit service to distant suburbs that have three cars in every garage. As a result, the number of people boarding the average transit bus per bus mile has declined by nearly 40 percent since 1970. [Read more →]

January 6, 2011   3 Comments

U.S. EPA’s Adventures In Arithmetic: A Look at the CO2 Car Standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed to effect a reduction in CO2 releases in the U.S. by raising the required fuel economy standards for new cars in 2014 and again in 2016.  The current standard, now at 30.2 mpg for passenger cars (everything here is about passenger cars, the analysis of light trucks will have to wait) will rise to 35.5 mpg in 2016.

EPA claims that they used a carbon price of $21/tonne to establish the appropriate increase in fuel economy.  The EPA also claims that these standards will reduce CO2 releases from the vehicle sector by 21%.  Well, at least they are not using the number 19.  This proposal will have a minute effect on CO2 levels and is unlikely to come in at the very low or “negative” cost per tonne of CO2 claimed by its proponents.

Static Scoring and the Jevons Paradox

One of the oldest professional fights in Washington is about whether the objects of the government’s interest at a given time will simply accept what is put in front of them or react, perhaps in ways not included in the “scoring.”  Decades of poor predictions on cost and performance should have taught us that assuming no response by consumers, investors or others is probably the least likely of all possible scenarios. [Read more →]

April 8, 2010   5 Comments

Mobility versus the “Congestion Coalition” (freedom versus planning revisited)

“Unrestricted mobility is every bit as important to American freedom and economic health than health care reform. I hope that the people who have fought socialized health care will work just as hard to fight the congestion coalition.”  – R. O’Toole

The United States is the most mobile nation on earth, with the average American traveling nearly twice as many miles per year as the average resident of any other country. That mobility, the vast majority of which is provided by automobiles, has produced enormous benefits, including higher incomes, lower cost consumer goods, better housing, and access to a wide variety of social and recreational opportunities.

Transportation touches everyone’s lives every single day, and most American have to deal with traffic congestion several times a week. So when Congress takes up the subject of federal transportation funding, which it does every six years, people ought to be as concerned as they have been in the ongoing health-care debate.

This is especially true because there is a congestion coalition of powerful interests that wants to reduce our mobility. This coalition includes: 

  1. Big city officials who view the suburbs as rivals;
  2. Downtown property owners who similarly would like to limit the growth of edge cities;
  3. Rail contractors who make far larger profits building;
  4. Subsidized rail lines than from roads paid for out of highway user fees;
  5. Urban planners who think Americans should be happy to live in cramped, European-like cities;
  6. Natural area advocates who think no one should be allowed to live in rural areas except for an elite few who know how to appreciate nature; and
  7. Environmentalists who argue getting people out of their cars is critical to stopping global warming.

The Obama administration has gladly joined this coalition, saying it wants to emphasize livability, not mobility. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently threw out rules designed to insure that federal transportation funds are cost-effectively spent. Instead, LaHood prefers projects that do not encourage “urban sprawl.” Since the low-densities that planners derisively call sprawl are a direct result of mobility, LaHood is saying he wants to fund wasteful transportation projects that don’t truly enhance personal mobility. [Read more →]

February 2, 2010   10 Comments

Horsepower Sure Beats Horses! (Part II: transportation gains from the 'master resource')

“Vice President [Al] Gore is wrong to call for the elimination of the internal combustion engine, and wrong again to call ‘absurd’ our current reliance on cars and trucks. Mobility is an essential and inseparable part of almost all that we value—from close-knit families to rewarding careers, quality educations, and fulfilling recreation. Mobility truly is what makes our autonomy possible. And cars, trucks, and the internal combustion engine are worth keeping because they make automobility itself increasingly sustainable.”

- Joseph Bast and Jay Lehr, “The Increasing Sustainability of Cars, Trucks, and the Internal Combustion Engine,” Heartland Institute Policy Study No. 95, June 2000, p. 54.

Part I of this two-part series described the primitive, messy, inefficient  prehistory of the mechanized transportation.  Today’s post provides quotations form different scholars that describe the great advances provided by carbon-based energy transportation.

Transportation Benefits

 “Not only was the motorcar considered cleaner, safer, more reliable, and more economical than the horse, but it promised to be vastly improved and lowered in price in the near future, whereas the expense and liabilities of the horse seemed unalterable. . . . [Moreover] the general adoption of the automobile by farmers promised to break down the isolation of rural life, lighten farm labor, and reduce significantly the cost of transporting farm products to market, thereby raising the farmers’ profits while lowering food prices paid by city consumers.”

- James Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 138-39.

“Mass personal automobility appears to have a new lease on life. In contrast with the disappointing past, disillusioning present, and clouded future of mass transit in the United States, the renaissance in automotive technology is making cars safer, less polluting, and more energy efficient with every model year. Predictions of the imminent death of the automobile have given way to a new optimism. [A Massachusetts Institute for Technology] report comes to the particularly rosy conclusion that ‘the automobile’s future as the prime means of personal transport is quite secure because of the flexibility of the basic concept and robustness of automotive technology. . . . [T]here is no basis whatever for projecting that in the end auto technologists will fail to cope. Thus, the auto industry can continue to be one of the world’s foremost manufacturing activities far into the future, serving the need for personal transportation in developed and developing nations.’”

-James Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), p. 404. [Read more →]

October 9, 2009   No Comments

Is Rail Really a Fuel Saver? (rethinking a rationale for Obama's National Transportation Plan)

[Editor Note: Transportation expert Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow of the Cato Institute and blogs at Antiplanner. His bio is at the end of this post.]

Amtrak, the American Public Transportation Association, and other passenger-rail advocates want everyone to believe that passenger trains are more energy efficient than driving. This helps them justify the hundreds of billions of tax subsidies they receive. But is this rationale true?

Comparing the Studies

A new study from the University of California (Davis) finds that the answer depends on such things as load factors: your auto carrying four people consumes a lot less energy per passenger mile than a subway (which on average is only one-sixth full) or Amtrak train (which on average is only half full).

The Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book says that, on average, cars consumed [Read more →]

June 11, 2009   6 Comments