Driving Cars (less)

Posted: March 22, 2008 in Consumerism, Economics

I pulled together my papers for my tax return this week. The most surprising detail was that I drove my car just over 4,000 miles last year. Since I bought my current vehicle 4.5 years ago, I have added just under 30,000 miles, an average of about 6,670 per year. This low mileage is something of which I’m rather proud, and it’s only possible because I live in a city with good enough public transportation to forgo the car many days, especially the commute to and from work. If fact, if it weren’t for needing the car to get to musical engagements, I would consider selling the car and going without.

This reminded me of an article I saw comparing the fuel efficiency of a BMW diesel to a Toyota Prius hybrid. While the Prius has earned all the accolades for being the green, energy-conscious choice of the environmental set, the BMW, with its greater weight, power, and luxury status, actually won in a heads up competition. It may be that the Prius is designed to excel especially in stop-and-go city driving rather than the long-distance driving that was the basis for the comparison, but it’s still a surprising result.

The way the article is presented, though, reinforces the fact that most Americans are not really all that interested in energy conservation except as a byproduct of greater fuel efficiency. It’s still our implicit birthright to drive cars whenever, wherever, and at whatever cost we desire so long as we’re able to afford the fuel and the vehicle itself. The roadways are of course the responsibility of our government, meaning that they’re socialized (gasp!). The mainstream media rarely suggests that perhaps conservation might mean not driving everywhere, even or especially when it’s more convenient. (It’s rarely more efficient or less costly to drive a car except in terms of time. That calculus must include all the factors of driving, not just the fuel cost.) And there’s little urgency or sense in the public mind that driving habits may have broad implications beyond our personal economies.

Like everyone else, I haven’t yet given up the convenience of driving. A grocery store run (scarcely a mile from home) would be a very different endeavor on a bike were transporting milk, eggs, canned goods, meat, etc. It would often require several trips and a lot more time and be really unpleasant in the rain and/or cold. Similarly, the car extends my range so that I can shop at a greater variety of stores farther distant than the one grocery nearby. But I’ve still limited my driving considerably, and I have a guilt pang every time I drive, wondering if maybe I couldn’t make the trip some other way.

Of my circle of friends and acquaintances, only one has limited his driving because of an inability to afford the increased price of gas. Several don’t own cars (again, a real possibility in Chicago). The suburbanites who commute from the burbs to downtown Chicago are fully dependent on their cars. Most of us will continue to pay for fuel and drive at will until … well … until we can’t anymore. What then? Considering how firmly lodged driving has become in our daily habits, our social organization, and our nearly complete dependence on regular supply of cheap energy, some forward-looking individuals prophesy that Americans will go positively apeshit when fuel scarcity occurs. Peak oil projections indicate that such scarcity may not be far off, at which point the suburbs and exurbs will become the new slums, unreachable by most newly carless or fuelless people. For now, however, it’s still happy motoring. Enjoy it while you can.

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