By Jonathan Marshall
Some of our best minds are focused on designing cleaner transportation fuels and vehicle engines. But much of their hard work and investment may be wasted if America doesn’t rethink outmoded transportation policies that drive up energy demand.
That’s the powerful message of a new report by the non-profit, non-partisan Securing America’s Future Energy, Congestion in America: A Growing Challenge to U.S. Energy Security. The group is co-led by FedEx CEO Fred Smith and retired Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. P. X. Kelley.
The report warns that growing traffic congestion wasted 1.9 billion gallons of fuel in 2010 and is “severely threatening the potential oil-saving benefits associated with more efficient vehicles and alternative fuels.”
Just as significant are the valuable wasted hours of people and goods stuck in traffic. The annual cost of wasted fuel and time together comes to about $100 billion, the report estimates.
In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, those costs exceeded $1 billion in 2010 and idling drivers wasted 54 million gallons of fuel.
As the U.S. population grows and people keep traveling longer distances, the amount of wasted fuel and time is projected to jump 65 percent by 2030.
Given that transportation accounts for 70 percent of all U.S. oil consumption, getting transportation policy right is critical to achieving sensible energy and environmental goals. And that’s not all. The gridlock encouraged by current policy “negatively impacts quality of life, adversely affects business activity, substantially distorts development patterns, (and) reduces urban air quality,” the report asserts.
The remedies outlined by the report will be familiar to transportation economists and reformers, but remain a tough sell politically:
- Variable tolling of roads, depending on the level of congestion, to encourage drivers to shift trips off-peak or onto public transportation, a strategy used successfully in such major cities as London, Singapore and Stockholm.
- Better management of accidents, using surveillance cameras and expanded service patrols to clear road hazards and blockages so traffic flows can resume as quickly as possible.
- Expanded investment in public transportation, especially flexible bus services that can meet the needs of dispersed populations.
- More use of telecommuting and “flex hours” to reduce peak-time trips, or get people off the roads altogether.
- Smarter land-use policies and zoning to promote denser, mixed-use developments that encourage transit and shorter trips.
For another interesting take on this issue, see the new working paper by MIT economist Christopher Knittel, “Reducing Petroleum Consumption from Transportation.” His main complaint: “U.S. energy policy has largely ignored” the importance of reducing oil consumption by reducing total miles traveled. Evidently, great minds think alike.
Email Jonathan Marshall at email@example.com.