Lost in traffic: does your time count?

Also published on Resilience

Traffic congestion studies make for quick and easy news articles, but they don’t even begin to calculate the true time lost to car culture.

The news story practically wrote itself: Toronto was ranked 7th worst among world cities for traffic congestion in 2022.

A web search showed similar stories popping up all over: “________________ [nearby city] ranks __th worst in world for traffic congestion.”

What did these traffic congestion ratings really measure? That wasn’t usually spelled out in click-bait articles. But a closer look reveals that the ratings measure and value the time spent by one particular class of urban residents – drivers – while omitting the urban mobility costs born by other citizens.

The basis for the recent round of stories was an annual report by INRIX called 2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. The company describes their work this way:

“INRIX Research uses INRIX proprietary big data, analytics and industry expertise to understand the movement of people and goods around the world. We achieve this by leveraging billions of anonymous data points every day from a diverse set of sources on all roads in countries of coverage. Our data provides a rich and fertile picture of mobility that enables INRIX Research to produce valuable and actionable insights for policy makers, transport professionals, automakers, and drivers.” (2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, page 27)

The Traffic Scorecard makes brief mentions of transportation methods such as walking, biking and public transit. But these ways of getting around cities don’t count in the Global Traffic Scorecard – even for cities in which they are the dominant types of mobility.

Instead, the Scorecard tallies and values the time supposedly lost by a particular subset of travelers, which happens to include most policymakers, politicians, the upper ranks of media, and mid- and upper-level businesspeople – that is, those who get around cities routinely by car.

For this class of people, an unobtainable ideal is a key factor in calculating the cost of lost time: the standard of “free-flow conditions.” This is the idea that when a large number of drivers are stalled in slow traffic, each one should imagine how fast they could move if most or all of the other drivers were not on the road; then there would be “free-flow conditions.”

It is nonsensical to imagine that in rush hour in a big city, when most people are commuting all at once, you could ever achieve “free-flow conditions”. Nevertheless this ideal is used as the measuring stick for calculating “time lost in traffic”. As INRIX explains their calculations,

“Total time lost is the difference in travel times experienced during the peak periods compared to free-flow conditions on a per driver basis. In other words it is the difference between driving during commute hours versus driving at night with little traffic.” (p. 10)

Using this standard, INRIX calculates that “The typical US driver lost 51 hours due to congestion in 2022.” In the UK, the typical driver lost 80 hours, and in Germany it was 40 hours.

What is this time “worth”? Using figures from the US Federal Highway Administration, INRIX calculates each hour of time lost in traffic as valued at $16.89 in the US, £8.83 in the U.K., and 10.08€ in Germany. Given the numbers of hours lost by each driver, and the large number of drivers, you can come up with large monetary sums for the cost of congestion. INRIX states that traffic congestion cost the US, for example, $81 billion in 2022. These sums will be bandied about whenever lobbyists advocate for more billions to be spent on road widening projects.

Consider the above excerpt from the INRIX report. The seven “most congested” cities all have substantial, sometimes world-famous public transit systems, and all have a substantial portion of population who don’t own or commute in cars.

How does “traffic congestion” affect all the people who don’t drive but still need to get around? Are they less affected by congestion than those poor, benighted drivers? Or are they even more affected? INRIX doesn’t tell us.

Yet in the number one city for congestion, London, only a minority own a car and a much smaller minority use a car for commuting:

“New census data has revealed that just 20 per cent of Londoners commute by car and 41 per cent of London households have no car at all. Yet despite this relatively low level of car ownership, the city is disproportionately designed to incentivise driving. At nearly 20,000 hectares, 12.4 per cent of land in the capital is taken up by roads – significantly more than the just 8.8 per cent of London currently used for housing.” (Dezeen, “Cities should not just build green transport but actively dismantle car infrastructure”, by Phineas Harper, 11 January 2020)

Statistics are similar for New York City: about 45 percent of households own a car, though fewer use cars to commute. (Source: NYCEDC) Even in Toronto, now dominated by its sprawling suburbs, about 28% of households do not own a car, and in some parts of the city non-car-owners are the majority. (Source: Toronto Star)

Do the non-car-users lose as much time to traffic congestion? For people who live close enough to workplaces or schools to walk or to bike, they might well lose much less time in traffic than the average car commuter (though they may still pay a high price in breathing polluted air, while risking being crushed by cars and trucks on unsafe roads).

But one thing is clear: the time lost by non-car-users is neither counted nor valued in congestion surveys like INRIX’s. And when policymakers make important transportation systems decisions based on surveys like INRIX’s you can expect the results to be seriously flawed.

The Gardiner Expressway walls off Toronto from its waterfront on Lake Ontario, and has required ever more costly repairs. In 2021 the Toronto Star reported “The Gardiner will eat up $2 billion of the 2021-2030 capital plan — 38 per cent of total transportation-related infrastructure spending — meaning the city will spend as much rehabilitating the Gardiner as they will on upkeep on every other roadway.”  But a study commissioned by the Gardiner Coalition found that removing the eastern portion of the expressway could add 5 to 10 minutes to the commute times of rush-hour drivers –  so the elevated expressway is still eating big chunks of the city’s budget. Photo by George Socka, from Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving at a good estimate of the time non-drivers lose to traffic congestion is difficult, but that doesn’t make the losses any less real. Take, for example, all the time pedestrians spend waiting at traffic lights while autos either speed or crawl through intersections. Think of the extra time pedestrians must spend walking out of their way to get to a relatively safe place to cross a busy road, and then doubling back to their destination. Think of the time public transit users must wait while their packed buses or trams are stalled behind private cars which each carry one person.

The Jane M. Byrne Interchange of expressways I90, I94 and I294, takes a big chunk of downtown Chicago, eating up a lot of time for non-car-drivers who need to get from one side of the tangle to another. Photo by Sea Cow, April 2022, from Wikimedia Commons.

Other lost-time costs of car culture are even harder to calculate. In many cities where car culture has hegemony, large swathes of urban landscape have been cleared and turned into car lanes plus necessary storage space, i.e. parking. That pushes actual destinations – homes, stores, schools, workplaces – farther apart. The resulting greater travel distances cost everyone more travel time. But above all the people who don’t drive, but still need to get around, lose a lot of their time in getting past expressways, multi-lane arterial roads, and parking lots on the way to their destinations. Traffic congestion studies don’t even begin to quantify the time lost to all this “induced distance”.

Studies like INRIX’s scorecard make for quotable listicles and reverse-bragging rights among the driving class. But beware when this skewed data is put forth as a basis for public policy decisions on transportation infrastructure.


Photo at top of page: Waiting for the lights, Sydney, Australia, photo by Dave Young, license under Creative Commons 2.0, at flickr.com.

Right-sizing delivery vehicles

Cargo bikes can replace far heavier vehicles for a substantial share of urban deliveries. But should you buy a cargo bike for personal use? Probably not.

ALSO PUBLISHED ON RESILIENCE.ORG

In North America we think in extreme terms when it comes to last-mile freight delivery. Whether the cargo is a couple of bags of groceries, a small parcel, a large-screen TV or a small load of lumber, we routinely dispatch vehicles with hundreds-of-horsepower engines.

This practice has never made sense, and there have always been niche markets where some products and parcels have been delivered by bicycle couriers instead of truck drivers. Historically, cargo bikes were in wide use in many cities in the decades before cars and trucks cemented their death grip on most urban traffic lanes.1

Today the cargo bike industry is growing rapidly due to several factors. Many cities are establishing zero-emissions zones. The cost of gasoline and diesel fuel has risen rapidly. Congested traffic means powerful expensive vehicles typically travel at bicycle-speed or slower in downtown areas. Last but not least, the development of low-cost, lightweight electric motors for small vehicles dramatically boosts the freight delivery capacity of e-assist bikes even in hilly cities.

Thousands of companies, from sole-proprietor outfits to multinational corporations, are now integrating cargo bikes into their operations. At the same time there is an explosion of new micro-powered vehicle designs on the market.2

Where a diesel-powered urban delivery van will have an engine with hundreds of horsepower, an electric-assist bike in the EU is limited to a motor of 250 W, or about one-third of one horsepower.3 Yet that small electric motor is enough to help a cyclist make typical parcel deliveries in many urban areas at a faster rate than the diesel van can manage.

A great many other deliveries are made, not by companies, but simply by individuals bringing their own purchases home from stores. In this category, too, North Americans tend to believe an SUV or pick-up truck is the obvious tool for the job. But in many car-clogged cities and suburbs a bicycle, whether electric-assist or not, is a much more appropriate tool for carrying purchases home from the store.

Image from pxhere.com, licensed via CC0 Public Domain.

This is an example of a change that can be made at the device level, rapidly, without waiting for system-level changes that will take a good bit longer. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions and reducing overall energy use, the rapid introduction and promotion of cargo bikes as delivery vehicles is an obvious place to make quick progress.

At the same time, the adoption of more appropriate delivery devices will become much more widespread if we simultaneously work on system-level changes. These changes can include establishing more and larger urban zero-emission zones; lowering speed limits for heavy vehicles (cars and trucks) on city streets; and rapid establishment of safe travel lanes for bikes throughout urban areas.

The environmental impact of deliveries

The exponential growth in online shopping over the past twenty years has also led to “the constant rise in the use of light commercial vehicles, despite every effort by cities and regulators to reduce congestion and transport emissions.”4

Last-mile urban delivery, notes the New York Times, “is the most expensive, least efficient and most impactful part of the supply chain.”5

Typical urban parcel delivery trucks have an outsize impact:

“Claudia Adriazola-Steil, acting director of the Urban Mobility Program at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, said freight represented 15 percent of the vehicles on the roads in urban areas, but occupied 40 percent of the space. ‘They also emit 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and account for 25 percent of fatalities ….’”6

Since vehicle speeds in downtown areas are typically slow, most parcels are not very heavy, and the ability to travel in lanes narrower than a typical truck is a great advantage, a substantial portion of this last-mile delivery can be done by cargo bikes.

Both Fed-Ex and UPS are now building out electric-assist cargo bike fleets in many Western European cities. UPS has also announced plans to test electric-assist cycles in Manhattan.7

How much of the last-mile delivery business can be filled by cargo bikes? A report by the Rapid Transition Alliance says that “In London, it’s estimated that up to 14% of small van journeys in the most congested parts of the city could be made with cargo bikes.”8 City Changer Cargo Bike estimates that in Europe “up to 50% of urban delivery and service trips could be replaced by cargo bikes….”9

It’s important to note that big corporations aren’t the only, or even the major, players in this movement. Small businesses of every sort – ice-cream vendors, bakeries, self-employed carpenters and plumbers, corner grocery stores – are also turning to cargo bikes. The City Changer Cargo Bike report says that “It is important to highlight that the jobs created by cargo bikes are mainly created by Small and Medium-size Enterprises.”10

For small companies or large, the low cost of cargo bikes compared to delivery vans is a compelling factor. The New York Times cites estimates that “financial benefits to businesses range from 70-90% cost savings compared to reliance on delivery vans.”11

The cost savings come not only from the low initial purchase price and low operating costs of cargo bikes, but also from the fact that “electric cargo bikes delivered goods 60 percent faster than vans did in urban centers, and that an electric cargo bike dropped off 10 parcels an hour compared with a van’s six.”12

It’s no wonder the cargo bike industry is experiencing rapid growth. Kevin Mayne of Cycling Industries Europe says sales are growing at 60% per year across the European Union and could reach 2 million cargo bike sales per year by 2030.

Delivery vans in European cities are typically powered by diesel. Replacing a few hundred thousand diesel delivery vans with e-cargo bikes will obviously have a significant positive impact on both urban air quality and carbon emissions.

But what if diesel delivery vans are switched instead to similar-sized electric delivery vans? Does that make the urban delivery business environmentally benign?

Far from it. Electric delivery vans are just as heavy as their diesel counterparts. That means they cause just as much wear and tear on city streets, they pose just as much collision danger to cyclists, pedestrians, and people in smaller vehicles, and they produce just as much toxic tire and brake dust.

Finally, there is the significant impact of mining and manufacturing all that vehicle weight, in terms of upfront carbon emissions and many other environmental ills. There are environmental costs in manufacturing cargo bikes too, of course. But whereas a delivery van represents a large amount of weight for a much smaller delivery payload, a cargo bike is a small amount of weight for a relatively large payload.

In a listing by Merchants Fleet of the “5 Best Electric Cargo Vans for Professionals”, all the vehicles have an empty-weight a good bit higher than the maximum weight of cargo they can carry. (The ratios of empty vehicle weight to maximum cargo weight range from about 1.5 to 3.5.)13

By contrast, a recent list of recommended electric-assist cargo bikes shows that the ratios are flipped: all of these vehicles can carry a lot more cargo than the vehicles themselves weigh, with most in the 4 – 5 times cargo-weight-to-empty-vehicle-weight range.14

One other factor is particularly worthy of note. The lithium which is a key ingredient of current electric-vehicle batteries is difficult, perhaps impossible, to mine and refine in an environmentally benign way. Lithium batteries will be in extremely high demand if we are to “electrify everything” while also ramping up storage of renewably, intermittently generated electricity. Given these constraints, shouldn’t we take care to use lithium batteries in the most efficient ways?

Let’s look at two contrasting examples. An Urban Arrow Cargo bike has a load capacity of 249 kg (550 lbs), and a battery weight of 2.6 kg (5.7 lbs)15 – a payload-to-battery-weight ratio of about 44.

The Arrival H3L3 electric van has a load capacity of 1484 kg (3272 lbs) and its battery is rated at 111 kWh.16 If we assume, generously, that the Arrival’s battery weighs roughly the same as Tesla’s 100 kWh battery, then the battery weight is 625 kg (1377 lbs).17 The Arrival then has a payload-to-battery-weight ratio of about 2.4.

In this set of examples, the e-cargo bike has a payload-to-battery-weight ratio almost 20 times as high as the ratio for the e-cargo van.

Clearly, this ratio is just one of many factors to consider. The typical e-cargo van can carry far heavier loads, at much higher speeds, and with a longer range between charges, than e-cargo bike can manage. But for millions of urban last-mile deliveries, these theoretical advantages of e-cargo vans are of little or no practical value. In congested urban areas where travel speeds are low, daily routes are short, and for deliveries in the 1 – 200 kg weight range, the e-cargo bike can be a perfectly adequate device with a small fraction of the financial and environmental costs of e-cargo vans.

On Dundas Street, Toronto, 2018.

Cargo bikes, or just bikes that carry cargo?

A rapid rollout of cargo bikes in relatively dense urban areas is an obvious step towards sustainability. But should you buy a cargo bike for personal use?

Probably not, in my opinion – though there will be many exceptions. Here is why I think cargo bikes are overkill for an average person.

Most importantly, the bikes most of us have been familiar with for decades are already a very good device for carrying small amounts of cargo, particularly with simple add-ons such as a rack and/or front baskets.

A speed fetish was long promoted by many bike retailers, according to which a “real bike” was as light as possible and was ridden by a MAMIL – Middle-Aged Male In Lycra – who carried nothing heavier than a credit car. Cargo bikes can represent a chance for retailers to swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme, promoting the new category as a necessity for anyone who might want to carry more than a loaf of bread.

In spite of bike-industry biases, countless people have always used their bikes – any bikes – in routine shopping tasks. And with the addition of a sturdy cargo rack and a set of saddlebags, aka panniers, a standard-form bike can easily carry 25 kg or more of groceries. Or hardware, or gardening supplies, or a laptop computer and set of office clothes, or a stack of university textbooks.

The bikes now designed and marketed as cargo bikes can typically carry several times as much weight, to be sure. But how often do you need that capability, and is it worth the considerable downside that comes with cargo bikes?

Cargo bikes are typically a good bit longer and a lot heavier than standard-model bikes. That makes them more complicated to store. You probably won’t be able to carry a big cargo bike up stairs to an apartment, and you might not sleep well if you have to leave an expensive cargo bike locked on the street.

If you only occasionally need to carry larger amounts of cargo, you’re likely to get tired of riding a needlessly heavy and bulky bike the rest of the time.

If you occasionally carry your bike on a bus, train, or on a rack behind a car, a long cargo bike may be difficult or impossible to transport the same way.

Depending on the form factor, you may find a cargo bike doesn’t handle well in spite of its large weight capacity. Long-tail cargo bikes, with an extra-long rack over the rear wheel, can carry a lot of weight when that weight is distributed evenly on both sides of the rack. But if the load is a single heavy object, you may find it difficult to strap the load on the top of the rear rack so that it doesn’t topple bike and rider to one side or the other. (As one who has tried to load a big reclining chair onto a rear rack and ride down the road, I can attest that it’s harder than it sounds.)

Long-tail cargo bike. Photo by Richard Masoner on flickr.com, licensed via Creative Commons 2.0.

 

Box-style cargo bike in Lublin, Poland. Photo by Porozumienie Rowerowe, “Community cargo rental”, via Wikimedia Commons.

The large box style cargo bikes known as bakfiets solve those balance problems, but are typically heavy, long, and thus difficult to store. They can be ideal for moving around a city with children, though many parents will not feel comfortable doing so unless there is a great network of safe streets and protected bike lanes.

For people who have a secure storage space such as a garage, and the budget to own more than one bike, and for whom it will often be helpful to be able to carry loads of 100 kg or more by bike – a cargo bike might be a great buy. Or, perhaps a cargo trailer will be more practical, since it can add great cargo-carrying ability to an ordinary bike on an as-needed basis.18

Ideally, though, every urban area will soon have a good range of cargo-bike businesses, and some of those businesses will rent or loan cargo bikes to the rest of us who just occasionally need that extra capacity.

• • •

In the next installment of this series on transportation, we’ll look at a sector in which no significant device-level fixes are on the horizon.


References

See A Visual History of the Cargo Bike, from Mechanic Cycling, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

For an overview of a wide range of new cargo bikes and urban delivery initiatives, see the annual magazine of the International Cargo Bike Festival.

In North America wattage restrictions vary but many jurisdictions allow e-assist bikes with motors up to 750 Watt output.

Stakeholder’s Guide: Expanding the reach of cargo bikes in Europe, published by CycleLogistics and City Changer Cargo Bike, 2022.

“A Bicycle Built for Transporting Cargo Takes Off,” by Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.

Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.

Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.

Large-tired and tested: how Europe’s cargo bike roll-out is delivering, 18 August 2021.

Stakeholder’s Guide: Expanding the reach of cargo bikes in Europe, 2022.

10 Stakeholder’s Guide: Expanding the reach of cargo bikes in Europe, 2022.

11 Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.

12 Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.

13 5 Best Electric Cargo Vans for Professionals”, Merchants Fleet.

14 10 Best Electric Cargo Bikes for Families and Businesses in 2022,” BikeExchange, Sept 1, 2022.

15 10 Best Electric Cargo Bikes for Families and Businesses in 2022,” BikeExchange, Sept 1, 2022.

16 5 Best Electric Cargo Vans for Professionals”, Merchants Fleet.

17 How much do Tesla’s batteries weigh?”, The Motor Digest, Nov 27, 2021.

18 One example is the Bikes At Work lineup. I have used their 96” long trailer for about 15 years to haul lumber, slabs of granite, voluminous bags of compost and many other loads that would have been awkward or impossible to move with most cargo bikes.


Photo at top of page: “Eco-friendly delivery with DHL in London: a quadracycle in action,” by Deutsche Post DHL on flickr.com, Creative Commons 2.0 license.

All the king’s horses

ALSO PUBLISHED ON RESILIENCE

When was the last time one of your relatives bought so many victuals they needed a team of a hundred horses to haul the load back from the market?

Perhaps it was that time your great uncle Napoleon was preparing for his not-so-great trip to Moscow.

Or perhaps your great great great uncle Christopher needed a long team of horses to move his groceries before he got in a boat to try to sail to India. Or your extra-extra-great grandpa Richard I, who really bought in bulk before his trip to the Holy Land in 1191.

More likely, though, if you live in North America, somebody from your family needed a team of hundreds of horses to bring home groceries in the past 24 hours – even if they were only picking up a carton of milk or a bag of cheese puffs.

“Need” might not be exactly the right word – but they used a team of hundreds of horses nonetheless, in the sense that they fired up the same hundreds-of-horsepower engine that they use for nearly every local trip no matter how light the cargo.

This grotesque mismatch between the task at hand and the tools we use for that task, have played a large role in pushing us deep into a climate crisis. At the same time, this mismatch can point us to one of the easiest, least painful ways we can move toward true sustainability.

When we look at our dominant car culture, we can consider it from a system standpoint or a device standpoint. On a system level, we have constructed a society in which homes are far from schools, from workplaces, from stores and from entertainment. We have built wide roads and streets that facilitate, at least potentially, high speeds between these newly distant sites. We have devoted most urban public space to huge heavy vehicles that make roads and streets unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. It took decades to build this environmental nightmare and it will take decades to fix it, even if we run out of cheap energy somewhere close to the beginning of the process.

The previous installment in this series looked at transportation on a systems level, with a call to change lifestyles so that we don’t need to, and we don’t imagine we need to, travel many thousands of kilometres every year. This post takes a narrower focus.

Strictly at the device level, some of the vehicles we use are reasonably appropriate for their typical usage, while many others are beyond absurd.

At the beginning of the 1970s, my summer job was working on a highway construction crew. As an impressionable teenager I was suitably awed when an older man, who worked as a dump-truck driver, showed me his new sports car and told me how powerful its engine was.

I don’t remember the number of horsepower it boasted, but I do remember my Dad’s reaction.

“That is really ridiculous!” my dad exclaimed. “The engine in his car is just as powerful as the engines in all of our gravel trucks!”

My dad was no opponent of car culture – he had a successful career building highways throughout half a dozen US states. But after growing up on a Minnesota farm, driving tractors and grain trucks since before he was ten years old, he had an instinctive understanding of the capabilities and usefulness of different engines.

He understood that for steady work hauling 10 or 15 ton loads, often along hilly highways at speeds up to the speed limit, a 300-hp engine was appropriate. But for hauling one young man along roads with the same speed limits, a 300-hp engine was ludicrous.

As it was in the 1970s, so it is today. Some of the devices we use for transportation – those used to haul heavy freight – have a reasonably powered engine for their assigned task. It will be a difficult challenge to convert their engines from fossil fuels. (Simply moving a lot less freight in the first place is one answer, of course, but that’s a system-level topic beyond the scope of this essay.)

But a greater number of the vehicles on our roads have power systems vastly beyond those needed, even if we accept for the moment that the “need” is to carry a person tens of thousands of kilometres along roads every year, sometimes at speeds of roughly 100 km/hr. There would be no technical hurdles in accomplishing that same task with power systems using a small fraction of the energy. The challenge would be cultural, not technical.

Going nowhere fast. Newly manufactured light trucks awaiting distribution and sale, parked outside GM Canada building in Oshawa, Ontario, Aug 28 2022.

“Get just enough horsepower to do the job.”

That 1970s truck driver whose muscle car impressed the teenage me and perplexed my practical dad? It turns out that by driving a car with the power of a dump truck, he was an avatar of the American future. Today, it is commonplace for Americans to make their daily rounds in cars with the power of dump trucks.

And how much power is that? In 2010, Brian Lindgren, a marketing director for Kenworth Trucks, offered prospective truck buyers this advice:

“One of the big mistakes many people make with dump truck engines is they spec too much power, says Lindgren. ‘You should get just enough horsepower to do the job. Generally, 350 to 400 horsepower is plenty for most applications. Extra horsepower just uses more fuel, puts more strain on the rest of the drivetrain, and adds cost up front.’”

Other trucking-industry publications make similar points: an appropriate horsepower range is somewhere between 300 and 600 horsepower, with the high numbers corresponding to semi-trailer tractors and “Super Dump” trucks carrying highway-legal payloads up to 26 tons.2, 3

This is the kind of advice that makes sense to practical business people who want to earn a profit from their vehicle. For that purpose, there’s no point in forking out a lot of extra cash upfront, and extra cash at every fuel re-fill, for an engine with horsepower far in excess of what’s needed.

Those practical considerations don’t count for much with the typical North American car buyer. The typical cargo is small – just one, and occasionally two or three, warm bodies weighing from 150 – 300 pounds each. But apparently the weight of desire for status, and the weight of drivers’ insecurity, has been on a decades-long climb – at least if we go by the size and horsepower rating of the vehicles they choose to move around in.

This chart by Kevin Drum illustrates the trend: 

By Kevin Drum, from his article “Raw Data: Horsepower of New Vehicles in the US”, on Jabberwocking.

As recently as 1980, when most buyers of pick-up trucks had a day-to-day practical need for such a vehicle, engines were only slightly more powerful than the engines in typical cars. Today pick-up truck horsepower ratings have nearly tripled, while engines in cars have more than doubled.

What that graph doesn’t show is that pick-up trucks have become a far larger share of the automotive market in recent years, as if an epidemic of cattle-ranching or lumberjacking has taken hold in every North American suburb.

A question arises: are today’s four-door pick-up trucks merely oversize cars in disguise, or are today’s oversize SUVs actually trucks in disguise?

Whatever. The US Department of Energy lumps them together with other cars as “light-duty” vehicles, and finds that in this category:

“Preliminary data for model year 2021 show that the average horsepower (hp) reached 252, an increase of more than 6 hp over the 2020 model year.”

If the average new personal passenger vehicle has a 252 horsepower engine, then something like half of those vehicles have a good bit more power – right up into the dump-truck or semi-trailer tractor range.

Car & Driver reported in 2021 that “Finding an SUV with about 400 horsepower is relatively easy these days. That number just doesn’t impress like it once did.”

These days if your personal vehicle has only as much power as an ordinary dump truck, you’re not making much of a statement. But don’t worry – if you’ve got the cash or the credit, you can buy a vehicle with as much or more power as a big, big, big dump truck. Car & Driver lists 15 SUVs and crossover vehicles with power ratings from just under 600 hp to more than 700 hp.

Costs, benefits, and opportunities

What’s the problem, defenders of superpowered cars might ask? After all, just looking at horsepower is an oversimplification that might give the wrong impression. The horsepower rating of passenger vehicles nearly doubled in the period 1989 to 2019, and vehicle weight increased by 24%, but it’s not as if fuel economy has taken a big hit. In fact, average fuel economy improved modestly.

And one ultra-important measure of performance improved dramatically in spite of the extra weight: “acceleration increased (i.e., 0-60 mph times dropped) by 37%.” Car & Driver notes that the most powerful SUV on its list “can get to 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds.”

Just think of all the time that saves a rushed commuter! Between the time a driver leaves a red light and catches up to the snarl of traffic behind the next light, he might save two or three seconds. Between the time he turns onto a freeway on-ramp and the time he reaches the maximum speed that won’t risk an expensive speeding ticket, he might save several seconds, compared to driving with the woefully underpowered vehicles of the 1970s or 1980s. In a long commute with many starts and stops, those precious seconds saved through superior acceleration could add up to a minute or more.

And it’s not as if that massive engine is working hard and really sucking down fuel all the time. Once the vehicle is at cruising speed, power usage is way down and fuel usage is (relatively) lower too.

All true. And yet …. Manufacturing cars that weigh a lot more, and manufacturing millions of bigger engines to propel those heavier vehicles, also has a correspondingly larger carbon footprint. All cars – be they subcompacts or supersize SUVs, gas, diesel, or electric – have resulted in a lot of carbon emissions before the impatient driver even revs the engine for the first time. The more materials used to make that vehicle, the bigger the upfront carbon emissions.

If or when we switch to electric vehicles, those issues of weight and power don’t magically go away. The larger and heavier a vehicle is, the larger the battery needs to be. The larger the batteries, the more scarce minerals we need to mine and refine, and the more high-speed chargers we’ll need to get these big batteries recharged in a reasonable length of time.

We’re in a period when we have a desperate need to curtail fossil fuel combustion, but during which we have only a small fraction of the clean renewable energy installations that would be needed to power an industrial society like ours. It would be folly to continue building bulky, heavy, massively overpowered vehicles to move one or two passengers along roads, and therefore devoting a huge share of our still scarce clean power supplies to building and/or operating that oversized vehicle fleet.

On a system level this is a long-term and complicated problem; we need to dramatically reduce the need to travel far and fast just to get to work or school on a daily basis. But on a device level it is simple. We could build cars that carry one or two people, and occasionally the smaller families that are typical today, plus a typical haul of groceries, at speeds up to but not a lot faster than highway speed limits. We could employ the latest automotive engineering improvements, not to move ever heavier vehicles ever faster, but to power lighter vehicles with the best energy efficiency currently achievable.

As we try to “electrify everything”, with clean renewable energy installations that are still nowhere near adequate for the transition, we should ensure that cars and “light trucks” make the smallest possible demands on our electricity network.

Technically that’s easy but culturally it’s hard. We have an auto industry, after all, whose key to bigger profits has been to persuade people their cars are never big enough or powerful enough. And we have millions of traffic-bound motorists convinced that it really matters whether their cars can go from 0 – 60 in 10 seconds or 5 seconds.

• • •

In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at a combined system-and-device level problem. In the cities where most people live, a big share of vehicle trips don’t actually require use of a car or a truck. How can we change the mode share of urban trips quickly, using existing technologies, and what kind of devices are most appropriate?


Illustration at top of post: detail from Market Economy, composed by author from Creative Commons-licensed images – Horses from image at pxhere.com; wagon and driver from photo by Milo Bost0ck, from Wikimedia Commons; Wal-Mart Supercentre, N Lexington-Springmill Rd, Ontario, OH, photo by Kirk Allen, from Wikimedia Commons; milk carton illustration by Paul Robinson, from Wikimedia Commons; random number background created in Excel.


References

Source: constructionequipment.com.

“How much horsepower does a semi-truck have?” on Trucker’s Corner, August 6, 2019.

“Dump Trucks 101: how to choose the right one”, on customtruck.com

US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Fact of the Week, Feb 7, 2022.

Car & Driver, “Most Powerful Crossovers and SUVs on Sale Today,” Nov 13, 2021.

6 Personal Transportation Factsheet, University of Michigan.

Car & Driver, Nov 13, 2021.

“In 1977, the U.S. average vehicle occupancy was 1.87 persons per vehicle. In 2018, average car occupancy was 1.5 persons per vehicle.” – Personal Transportation Factsheet, University of Michigan.

Hypermobility hits the wall

Also published on Resilience

Imagine a luxurious civilization in which every person has a motorized travel allowance of 4000 kilometers every year, with unused amounts one year carried forward to allow more distant journeys, perhaps every few years. Imagine also that non-motorized travel is not tallied in this quota, so that a person who makes their daily rounds on foot or bicycle can use all or most of their motorized travel quota for those occasional longer journeys.

It’s true that a motorized travel quota of 4000 km per year would seem a mite restrictive to most people in wealthy industrial countries. But such a travel allowance would have been beyond the dreams of all of humanity up until the past two centuries. And such a travel allowance would also mean a significant increase in mobility for a large share of the global population today.

Still, as long as we “electrify everything” why should we even think about reducing the amount of travel?

Australian scholar Patrick Moriarty floats the idea of a motorized travel allowance of 4000 km per year1, based on a recognition that the environmental harms of high-speed and motorized mobility go far beyond the climate-destabilizing emissions that come from internal combustion cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships.

In several articles and a recent book2 Moriarty and his frequent co-author Damon Honnery provide perspective on what Moriarty refers to as “hypermobility”. The number of passenger kilometers per person per year exploded by a factor of 240 between 1900 and 2018.3

“This overall 240-fold rise is extraordinary, considering the less than five-fold global population increase over the same period. It is even about 30 times the growth in real global GDP.”4

The global average for motorized travel is now about 6,300 km per person per year. At the extremes, however, US residents average over 30,000 km per person per year, while in some countries the average is only a few hundred km per person per year.5

Could the high degree of mobility now standard in the US be extended to the whole world’s population? Not likely. Moriarty calculates that if each person in the world were to travel 30,000 km per year in motorized transport, “world transport energy levels alone would be about 668 EJ, greater than global total commercial energy use of 576 EJ for 2018.”6

Increasing mobility services for the world’s poorest people, while decreasing motorized mobility for the wealthiest, is not only an environmental necessity, it is also a matter of equity. As part of examining those issues, we need to ask this simple question: what good is transportation?

We’re moving, but are we getting anywhere?

Moriarty calls attention to an issue that is so basic it is often overlooked: “What people really want is not mobility itself, but access—to workplaces, schools, shops, friends and family, entertainment etc.”7

Sometimes more mobility also means more access – for example, a person acquires a car, and that means many more workplaces, schools, and shopping opportunities are within a practical daily travel distance. But other times more mobility results in little or no gain in access. As two-car households became the norm in many rural areas, grocery stores and even schools consolidated in bigger towns, so that a car trip became necessary for access to things that used to be a walkable distance away in each small town.

Sometimes more mobility for some people means less accessibility for others. When expressways cut through urban neighbourhoods, lower-income residents of those areas may face long hikes across noisy and polluted overpasses just to get to school or a store.8

In the sprawling suburbs of North American cities, people typically drive much farther to get to work every day than their parents or grandparents did 25 or 50 years ago. But to what end? If you can now travel 50, or 70, or 100 km/hr on your commute, but the drive still takes an hour because you go so much farther, what have you gained?

Moriarty asks us to consider to what extent the explosion in mobility – hypermobility – has actually improved the quality of life even for those privileged enough to participate:

“Personal travel levels in wealthy OECD countries are several times higher than in 1950, yet people then did not regard themselves as ‘travel deprived’.”9

While the benefits of hypermobility are unclear, the costs are crushing and unsustainable.

Death rides along

Motorized transportation always comes with environmental costs. These costs are especially high when each individual travels in their own motorized carriage. Only a fraction of these environmental costs go away when a car or truck fueled by internal combustion is traded for an equivalent vehicle powered by electricity.

Many researchers have cited the high upfront carbon emissions involved in building a car or truck. Before the vehicle is delivered to a customer, a lot of carbon dioxide has been emitted in the mining and refining of the ores, the transportation of materials and parts, and the assembly. For currently produced electric cars and trucks, the upfront carbon emissions are typically even higher than the upfront emissions from an equivalent combustion vehicle. It will be a long time, if ever, before that manufacturing and transport chain runs on clean energy sources. In the meantime every new electric car signifies a big burst of carbon already emitted to the atmosphere.

If only the damage stopped there. But building and maintaining roads, bridges and parking lots is also a carbon-emissions intensive activity, with additional negative impacts on biodiversity and watershed drainage.  And though an electric vehicle has no tailpipe emissions, that doesn’t mean that electric driving is pollution-free:

“[N]on-exhaust emissions of fine particular matter from tire wear is actually greater than for equivalent conventional vehicles, because EVs are heavier than their conventionally fueled counterparts.”10

Finally, there is the direct toll from the inevitable, predictable “accidents” that occur when multi-tonne objects hurtle along roads at high speeds:

“In 2018, some 1.35 million people were killed on the world’s roads, with millions more injured, many seriously. Paradoxically, most of the casualties occur in low vehicle ownership countries, and are pedestrians and cyclists, not vehicle occupants.”11

Death reliably accompanies high-speed transportation – but the fatalities disproportionately accrue to those not privileged enough to travel.

Slowing the machine

To recap the argument: the mass production of high-speed vehicles has made possible an explosion in mobility for a privileged portion of the global population. But the energy costs of transportation increase exponentially, not linearly, with increases in speed.  Hypermobility was fueled overwhelmingly by fossil fuels, and even if we could recreate the infrastructure of hypermobility using renewable energies, the transition period would result in a burst of upfront carbon emissions which our ecosystem can ill afford. Finally, if we concentrate on ramping up renewable technologies to serve the rapacious energy demands of hypermobility, it will be more difficult and will take longer to convert all other essential energy services – for producing and distributing foods, for heating and cooling of buildings, and for distributing clean drinking water, to name a few examples – so that they can run off the same renewable electricity sources.

It is clearly possible for a society to prosper with a lot less motorized travel than our hypermobile society now regards as normal. Given the manifold environmental costs and manifest social inequality of a hypermobile society, we need to rapidly cut down not only on the use of fossil fuel in transportation, but also the total amount of motorized transportation as measured in passenger-kilometers (p-k) per person per year. This is the underpinning for Moriarty’s “tentative proposal for an average aspirational target of 4000 vehicular p-k per person per year.”12

But how to begin applying the brakes?

In an article titled “Reducing Personal Mobility for Climate Change Mitigation”, Moriarty and Honnery have examined the likely impacts of various factors on overall motorized mobility. Neither new information technology services, carpooling, or land-use planning changes are likely to result in significant reductions in travel, particularly not in the 10 – 25 year time frame that is so critical for staving off a truly catastrophic climate crisis. Large and rapid increases in the market price of fossil fuels, on the other hand, would dramatically hurt lower-income people while allowing high-income people – who consume by far the most energy per capita – to maintain their current personal habits. Thus Moriarty and Honnery conclude:

“The only equitable approach is to reduce the convenience of car travel, for example, by large travel speed reductions and by a reversal of the usual present ranking of travel modes: car, public transport, and active modes.” [emphasis mine]13

Expressed graphically, that reversal of priorities would look like this chart from Mikael Colville-Andersen’s book Copenhagenize:

From Copenhagenize, by Mikael Colville-Andersen, Island Press, 2018; reviewed here.

At the outset of the motor age, walking and cycling routes were as direct and convenient as possible. As streets were dedicated to fast, dangerous cars, walking and cycling routes started to zigzag through many detours, or they simply disappeared, while priority was given to auto routes.

To make our cities safer and healthier, while also reducing the voracious energy demands of motorized transport, we need to flip the hierarchy once more, putting active transportation first, public transit second, and cars third. That way we can improve access to essential services even as motorized mobility drops.

Within cities where most people live, I think Moriarty and Honnery are right that this change would result in a substantial reduction in overall motorized kilometers per capita, and would do so in a generally equitable manner.

Easier said than done, of course. While many European cities have made major strides in this regard, even timid moves to de-privilege cars are tough for city councils to enact in North America.

A personal travel allotment of 4,000 km per year will seem outrageously low to most North Americans, and it is hard to imagine any North American politician – at least anyone with a hope of ever being elected – saying a good word about the idea.

Yet the luxury of any high-speed travel at all is a recent phenomenon, and there is no reason to take for granted that this extravagance will last very long. We do know that we need drastic, rapid change in our energy consumption patterns if we are to avoid civilization-threatening environmental instability.

We might not find it within ourselves to voluntarily steer away from our high-speed, hypermobile way of life. But if, a few decades from now, our society is in free-fall due to rapid-fire environmental disasters, the complex infrastructure needed for widespread motorized transport may be but a faint memory.

* * *

Though I only came across Moriarty’s work a few years ago, for most of my adult life I unwittingly lived within a motorized travel allotment of 4,000 km/yr – with one major exception. More than 40 years ago, as a new resident of an urban metropolis, I realized it was a bizarre waste of horsepower to use a car simply to haul my (then) scrawny carcass along city streets. Besides, I found it healthier, cheaper, more interesting, and definitely more fun to ride a bike to work, to concerts, to stores, and nearly everywhere else I wanted to go. I was fortunate, too, to be able to choose a home close to my workplace, or change my workplace to be closer to my preferred home; throughout several decades I never needed to regularly commute by car.

But: I did get on a plane once or twice a year, and sometimes several times a year. For many years these air journeys accounted for most of my motorized transport kilometers. Later I learned that of all typical modern travel modes, air travel was the most environmentally damaging and the least sustainable.

In upcoming installments in this series I’ll look at the energy needs, both real and imagined, for personal transportation within cities; and at the impact of hyper-hypermobility as embodied in routine air travel.


Illustration at top of page courtesy of pxhere.com, free for personal and commercial use under CC0 public domain license.


References

See his brief article in Academia Letters, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”, published in September 2021.

Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, Switching Off: Meeting Our Energy Needs in a Constrained Future, Springer, 2022.

P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport,” MDPI Encyclopedia, February 2021.

P. Moriarty, Academia Letters, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport”.

P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport”.

P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

For more on the trade-offs between mobility and accessibility see my article “The Mobility Maze”.

P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

10 P. Moriarty, “Global Passenger Transport”.

11 P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

12 P. Moriarty, “A proposal for limits on vehicular passenger travel levels”.

13 Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, “Reducing Personal Mobility for Climate Change Mitigation”, in Handbook of Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, Springer, 2022, pages 2501 – 2534.

 

The high cost of speed

Also published on Resilience

Imagine that we used a really crazy method to establish speed limits. We could start by recording the speeds of all drivers on a given stretch of roadway. Then, without any clear evidence of what a safe speed might be, we might argue that the great majority of people drive too fast, and therefore the maximum legal speed will be set as that speed exceeded by 85 percent of drivers. Only the slowest 15 percent of drivers, in this scenario, would be considered to be driving within the legal limit.

If you have a passing familiarity with the legal framework of car culture, you will recognize the above as a simple inversion of the common 85th percentile rule used by traffic engineers throughout North America. Following this guideline, driver speeds are recorded, engineers determine the speed exceeded by only 15 per cent of the drivers, and that speed is deemed an appropriate speed limit for the given roadway. All the other drivers – 85 per cent – will then be driving within the speed limit.

Two recent books argue that the 85th percentile guideline is as arbitrary and misguided as it sounds. In There Are No Accidents, (Simon & Schuster, 2022; reviewed here last week), Jessie Singer summarizes the 85th percentile rule this way:

“Most speed limits are not based on physics or crash test expertise but simply the upper limit of what most amateur drivers feel is safe. A speed limit is the perceived safe speed of a road, not the actual risk of traveling that speed on that road.” (Singer, page 95)

Singer draws on the work of Eric Dumbaugh, who has a PhD in civil engineering and teaches urban planning at Florida Atlantic University. Dumbaugh has analyzed tens of thousands of traffic crashes in urban environments in the US. He concluded that the traffic engineering guidelines used for decades are based on false information, are often misapplied, and result in dangerous conditions on urban roadways. Absent physical evidence of what constitutes a safe driving speed, engineers simply assume that most drivers drive at a safe speed. Dumbaugh doesn’t mince words:

“Traffic engineering is a fraud discipline. It presumes knowledge on road safety that it doesn’t have and it educates people generation after generation on information that is incorrect.” (quoted by Singer, page 96)

The dangerous conditions on roadways have contributed to thirty thousand or more deaths in the US every year since 1946. But the engineers who design the roadways cannot be faulted, so long as they have applied the rules passed down to them in standard traffic engineering manuals.

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer was published by Wiley in 2021.

Similar themes are also a major focus in an excellent book by Charles Marohn Jr., Confessions of a Recovering Engineer (Wiley, 2021). Marohn was trained as a civil engineer, and for the first part of his career he worked as a traffic engineer designing what he saw at the time as “improvements” to roadways in small cities. Over time he began to question the ideas he had absorbed in his education and the guidelines that he followed in his engineering practice.

Marohn is now founder and president of Strong Towns. He has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the planning principles underlying American suburbia, and the design guidelines used to justify the arterial roads in those suburbs. He writes,

“The injuries and deaths, the destruction of wealth and stagnating of neighborhoods, the unfathomable backlog of maintenance costs with which most American cities struggle, are all a byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering.” (Marohn, page 5)

These values are held so widely and deeply, Marohn says, that they are seldom questioned or even acknowledged. These values include :

“• Faster speeds are better than slower speeds..
• Access to distant locations by automobile is more important than access to local destinations by walking or biking. …
• At intersections, minimizing delay for automobile traffic is more important than minimizing delay for people walking or biking.” (Marohn, page 12)

Working from his own experience as a traffic engineer, Marohn explains the order in which issues are considered when designing a new or “improved” roadway. First the engineer decides on a “design speed” – a driving speed which the road should facilitate. Next to be established is the traffic volume – all the traffic typically traveling the route at present, plus all the additional traffic the engineer anticipates in the future. At that point the engineer will choose a design based on official guidelines for that design speed and that traffic volume; so long as the guidelines are followed, the design will be deemed “safe”. Finally, the engineer will estimate how much it will cost.

Marohn argues that the questions of whether traffic should move slow or fast, and whether all existing traffic should be accommodated or instead should be restricted, are not technical issues – they are questions of values, questions of public policy. Therefore, he says, issues of the desired traffic speed and desired traffic volume should be dealt with through the democratic process, with public input and with the decisions made by elected officials, not by engineering staff.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Some sins are forgiven

In the early days of car culture, traffic casualties happened at a far higher rate per passenger mile than they do in recent decades. Part of the improvement is due to changes in vehicle design – padded surfaces, seat belts, air bags. Part of the improvement can be attributed to what is called “forgiving design”, at least as applied on rural highways. Examples of forgiving design are gradually sloped embankments, which reduce the likelihood of rollovers if a driver veers off the road; wider lanes which lessen the chance of sideswiping; centre barriers which prevent head-on collisions; straightening of curves to improve sightlines; and removal of roadside obstacles such as large trees which an errant driver might hit.

On highways these forgiving design principles make sense, Marohn believes, but on urban arterial roads they are disastrous. He coined the word “stroad” for urban routes that combine the traffic complexity of streets with the high design speeds of inter-city roads. Stroads feature the wide lanes, cleared sightlines and levelized topography of highways, giving drivers the impression that higher speeds are safe. But stroads also have many intersections, turning vehicles, and access points for pedestrians. This means that the higher speeds are not safe, even for the drivers. And vulnerable road users – pedestrians and cyclists – often pay with their lives.

Most stroads should be converted into streets, Marohn says. “Instead of providing drivers with an illusion of safety, designers should ensure the drivers on a street feel uncomfortable when traveling at speeds that are unsafe.” (Marohn, page 43) To ensure that the mistakes of pedestrians and cyclists, and not just drivers, are forgiven, he advocates these guidelines: “Instead of widening lanes, we narrow them. Instead of smoothing curves, we tighten them. Instead of providing clear zones, we create edge friction. Instead of a design speed, we establish a target maximum travel speed.” (Marohn, page 41)

On a typical urban street, with stores, offices, schools, restaurants, and many people moving around outside of cars, that target maximum speed should be low: “Traffic needs to flow at a neighborhood speed (15 mph [24 kph] or less is optimum) to make a human habitat that is safe and productive.” (Marohn, page 56)

In recent years there has been a substantial rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, even as motorist fatalities have continued a long downward trend. The rising death toll among vulnerable road users was particularly noticeable during and following the pandemic. In Marohn’s words we find a good explanation:

“Most [traffic fatalities] happen at nonpeak times and in noncongested areas. … the traffic fatality rate is much higher during periods of low congestion. This is … because the transportation system is designed to be really dangerous, and traffic congestion, along with the slow speeds that result, is masking just how dangerous it is.” (Marohn, 117)

With many businesses closed and many people working from home, there was much less traffic congestion. And without congestion acting as a brake, people drove faster and more pedestrians were killed. That wasn’t intentional, but it was predictable – it was no accident.

* * *

As Jessie Singer explains, we find an extensive matrix of causes that contributes to “accidents” when we look beyond the individual making a mistake. That matrix very often includes racial and economic inequality, which is why poor people suffer more in nearly every accident category than rich people do.

Both racial and economic factors come into play in the current wave of pedestrian deaths. In the major city closest to me, Toronto, pedestrian deaths occur disproportionately among racialized, poor, and elderly people. These deaths also occur most often on wide arterial roads – stroads – in older suburbs.

Marohn’s words again are enlightening: “as auto-oriented suburbs age and decline … they are becoming home to an increasing number of poor families, including many who do not own automobiles.” (Marohn, page 43) When these residents need to walk across four, five or six lane high-speed arterial roads, the predictable result is pedestrian deaths among the most vulnerable. An obvious, though politically difficult, solution is to redesign these roads to bring speeds down to a safe level.

The inequality that contributes to “accidents” is buttressed in most North American cities by an elaborate legal framework telling people where they are allowed to live and work. That legal framework is zoning. In the next installment of this discussion we’ll look at the history and consequences of zoning.


Image at top of page is in public domain under Creative Commons CC0, from pxhere.

Dangerous roads are no accident

Also published on Resilience

If you watch network television you can see auto companies spending a lot of money making our roads more dangerous. One slick ad after another glorifies massive cars and trucks as they careen around curves, bounce over bumps and potholes, and send up clouds of dust on always-open roads. The message is clear: it’s really cool to buy the biggest, most menacing vehicle you can afford, and drive it as aggressively as you can get away with.

It’s not that the car companies want to cause more serious injuries, but a simple logic is at work. The outsized profits from sales of big SUVs and trucks go to the bank accounts of car companies, while the hospital and funeral expenses of crash victims are charged to someone else.

There Are No Accidents, by Jessie Singer, is published by Simon & Schuster, February 2022

The way to reduce the horrific human cost of crashes, Jessie Singer explains, is simple: make the companies who produce dangerous vehicles accountable for their damages.

Singer’s book There Are No Accidents was spurred by the killing of one pedestrian by  motor vehicle, and traffic violence is one major subject she covers. Yet the book covers so many related subjects, and covers them so well, that one review cannot do the book justice.

What we call “accidents,” Singer says, usually result from a non-intentional act – a mistake – in a dangerous context. When we focus only on the person closest to the accident, who is often the person making the mistake, it’s easy to find one person to blame. But in so doing we typically overlook the more powerful people responsible for the dangerous conditions. These powerful people might be manufacturers of dangerous products, regulators who permit dangerous products or practices, or legislators who set up rules that make it difficult for accident victims to win redress. 

With this basic framework Singer looks at the history of workers’ compensation in the United States:

“By the end of the First World War, in most of the United States, when a worker had an accident, employers were legally required to provide compensation for medical care and lost work. For employers, this was a massive shift in their economic calculus. … The decline in work accidents was dramatic. Over the next two decades, deaths per hour worked would fall by two-thirds.” (all quotes in this article are from There Are No Accidents)

She also examinations the rise and fall in prescription and street drug overdoses, and the peculiar laws that conveniently overlook accidental discharge of firearms.

In all these disparate cases, a person making a mistake might pay with their life. But many social actors together set up the dangerous conditions. Economic inequality, racial prejudice and social stigmas act as multipliers of these conditions.

“Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic,” Singer writes. “Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.”

She also examines why “black people die in accidental fires at more than twice the rate of white people.” And why “Indigenous people are nearly three times as likely as white people to be accidentally killed by a driver while crossing the street.”

A sudden epidemic of traffic violence

About a century ago, a new and very dangerous condition began to kill people in rapidly growing numbers. “While the accidental deaths and injuries of workers generally declined from 1920 onward,” Singer writes, “accidental death in general rose – driven by huge numbers of deaths of car drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.”

Majority opinion did not, at the time, blame the children who played in streets, or “distracted walkers” who dared to stroll while engrossed in conversation. Outraged observers would occasionally pull a driver out of a car and beat him following the killing of a pedestrian, but there was also a clear recognition that the problem went beyond the actions of any individual driver. Thus citizens, editorialists, and city councils responded to the epidemic of traffic violence by calling for mandatory speed regulators in all cars to keep streets safe for people.

It took a concerted publicity campaign by the auto industry to shift the blame to “jaywalkers” or the occasional “nut behind the wheel”, and away from dangerous vehicles and dangerous traffic laws. Within a generation streets had become the precinct of drivers, with the ultimate price often paid by individual victims who still had to walk, because they couldn’t afford to drive dangerous vehicles themselves.

Eventually public demand and legislative requirements resulted in automakers introducing a wide variety of safety improvements to their cars. Notably, though, these improvements were focused almost solely on the safety of the people inside the cars.

And in the past twenty-five years there has been a large increase in the number of pedestrians killed by motorists: “Between 2009 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reported a massive 51 percent rise in the number of pedestrians killed in the United States, from a little over 4,000 a year to more than 6,000.”

The increasing carnage was abetted by simple of facts of physics which both automakers and regulators had understood for decades:

“As long ago as 1975, the U.S. DOT itself figured out that three factors most determined whether or not a person was injured in a car accident: how much the vehicle weighed, how high it was off the ground, and how much higher its front end was compared to a pedestrian. By 1997, the department demonstrated that large vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks were significantly more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash than smaller cars.” 

The automakers knew this, but they also knew they could make bigger profits by marketing bigger vehicles while escaping accountability for the greater numbers of pedestrians killed.

It didn’t have to be this way. Some countries took a different course. “Since 1997 in Europe and 2003 in Japan, vehicles have also been tested and rated for how safe they are for pedestrians, too, should the driver hit someone,” Singer writes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed similar rules in the US but General Motors objected and the matter was dropped.

During the same period that US pedestrian fatalities were climbing steeply, “Pedestrian fatalities fell by more than a third in a decade in Europe and by more than half since 2000 in Japan.”

Love and rage

Eric James Ng was a middle-school math teacher, a fan of punk music, an activist, and he rode his bike everywhere, every day, through New York City.

Jessie Singer writes, “Eric was sixteen when I met him working at a summer camp. … Eric was magnetic, and I fell in love, right away. I still feel proud to say he loved me, too.

“Eric was killed at age twenty-two.”

He was killed while riding his bike on one of the busiest bike routes in the US, when a drunk driver mistook the paved bike lane for a car route and drove down that lane at high speed. The same type of “accidents” had happened before and would happen again, in spite of safety advocates urging that concrete bollards be installed at potential motor vehicle access points. But those life-saving bollards would not be installed until 2017, after a driver intentionally turned down onto the bike lane and intentionally hit people, killing eight people and injuring eleven others. Then, within a few days, new barricades were installed at dozens of intersections between the bicycle lane and motor vehicle driveways – exactly the type of barricades that would have saved Eric James Ng’s life.

Anger is a natural reaction to lives cut short and deaths that came far too soon, caused in significant part by dangerous conditions that were clearly known but tolerated due to lack of political will. Jessie Singer’s book would be a powerful and enlightening read even if it were a pure expression of anger, but it is so much more than that.

Eric James Ng, she writes, signed his emails with the phrase “love and rage.” That signature would make a fitting tag for her book too.

“In making recommendations after an accident,” she writes, “two goals are central: that we are guided by empathy and that we aim to repair harm.”

That empathy shines through every chapter of There Are No Accidents. Singer wants us to “Remember that the people who die most often by accident are often the most vulnerable – the youngest and the oldest, the most discriminated against and least wealthy – and start there. Start by concerning yourself with vulnerability.”

And if we truly want to change the dangerous conditions that make mistakes deadly, we need to look beyond the individual making a mistake or the individual victim. “Blame is a food chain. Always look to the top. Who has the most power? Who can have the greatest effect? The answer is very rarely the person closest to the accident ….”


In motor vehicle crashes, speed kills and higher speeds kill more. In the next installment we’ll consider how speed limits are set on roads and streets.

‘Zero crashes, zero congestion, zero emissions’ – the perennial myths of autonomous vehicles

Also posted on Resilience.

For a hundred years the auto industry has held out visions of a trouble-free future for drive-everywhere society – and that future is always about 20 years away. Peter Norton urges us to see the current hype about automated vehicles in the cold light of the failed promises of the past.

American automakers had a problem in the 1920s. Cars were selling well in rural areas, but in the cities – home of a steadily growing share of the population – cars were meeting a lot of resistance.

Autonorama, by Peter Norton, is published by Island Press, October 2021.

Parking was scarce, streets were full of people, drivers usually had to go slow – and they still managed to kill a shocking number of pedestrians. Cars weren’t very convenient in cities, and there was so much public outrage over killings that many cities were considering severe restrictions on car use.

The response, Peter Norton writes in Autonorama, came from the coalition of automakers, car dealers, drivers, oil companies, and road builders he refers to as “motordom”. Their strategy had both long-term and short-term prongs. First, it was necessary to win public acceptance of the radical idea that city streets should be generally cleared of pedestrians so that cars could routinely drive faster. Second, local, state and federal governments had to be persuaded to invest millions, and soon billions, in widening streets and in building entirely new highways, not only between cities but within cities.

These long-term efforts, however, wouldn’t keep sales up in the short term. As Norton explains,

“No matter what the expenditure on roads and highways, in no given year could it deliver marked improvement. What was needed was a clear vision of a more distant and idealized future toward which motordom was striving. The promise of future perfection can buy tolerance of present affliction.” (Autonorama, from Island Press, October 2021, page 29)

To present this “clear vision of an idealized future”, motordom turned to creative minds in advertising, theater and film-making. During the 1930s, GM, Ford and Shell sponsored increasingly elaborate presentations of future cities where everyone drove, everywhere, without a hint of traffic congestion, and in perfect safety. The process culminated in Futurama, by far the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Norton’s view, the Futurama template has been revived periodically by motordom ever since. “Autonorama”, the heavily hyped story that “autonomous vehicles” will soon take over our roads, while ending crashes, congestion and emissions, is the latest iteration of a marketing fantasy now several generations old.

By the late 1950’s, one element of the strategy had been largely accomplished: new standards in traffic engineering had enforced auto dominance on streets, and had defined any delay to drivers – caused, of course, by all the other drivers – as an unacceptable cost to all society which should be remedied by public expenditure on roadways. A second strategic element – a vast new highway-building project – had been approved and was under construction.

Yet traffic congestion grew as rapidly as the number of cars on the roads and streets, as did the numbers of crash casualties. It was time for a new round of Futurama, and motordom answered the call with language that remains familiar all these years later.

“General Motors Avenue of Progress” with concept car “GM-X Stiletto” on display at 1964 New York World’s Fair. Photo by Don O’Brien, from Wikimedia Commons.

“Automobile accidents will be eliminated completely”

In a 1958 episode of Disneyland sponsored by the Portland Cement Association, the narrator intones,

“As Father chooses the route in advance on a push-button selector, electronics take over complete control. Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map. With no driving responsibility, the family relaxes together. En route, business conferences are conducted by television.” (quoted in Autonorama, page 51)

The specifics of how the nascent electronics industry might accomplish these wonders had to be left to the imagination. No matter. A 1961 Pennsylvania ad campaign assured readers that “the nation’s finest automotive and scientific brains … predict that someday in the future automobile accidents will be eliminated completely.” If that blissful fantasy remained distant, it was not for lack of industry effort. Technology companies, auto makers, and government transportation departments teamed up to construct automated car test tracks in locations around the US. The vision received its most elaborate portrayal in GM’s Futurama 2, the biggest pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

To the extent that newly widened arterial roads were engineered for greater speed, they also became more deadly for all users, including the fewer and fewer remaining pedestrians. And to the extent that officially favored development patterns induced people to live farther away from work, schools and shopping, even more people became car-dependent and the roads filled with congestion as fast as they were built.

As Norton explains, American cars were and remain the least spatially efficient mode of transportation in common use. It never made sense to think that by putting each driver/passenger in a steel box that takes 10 square meters of road space, we would vanquish the problem of roadway congestion. Though a congestion-free car culture could never be achieved, it remained essential for motordom to keep painting the pretty picture – all to keep consumers buying new cars every few years, and to keep politicians authorizing greater public works expenditures.

The road-building boom begun in the 1950s, with “the biggest public works project in history” justified primarily for its supposed traffic congestion benefits. But “Four decades and $100 billion later, GM was claiming that congestion was worse than ever, and getting worse still.” (Autonorama, page 93) The congestion was cited to promote a new round of public spending in what Norton terms “Futurama 3”. Reflecting public concern about the deadly effects of air pollution, the visions also started to promise the elimination of harmful emissions.

In the 1990s the new focus was on “Intelligent Highway-Vehicle Systems”. A decade of work yielded one viable congestion-reducing technology – but it was not a technology the auto industry could support. Electronics had advanced to the point where it was clearly workable to automatically charge road tolls at times of peak use, or within perennially congested areas such as urban cores. Although congestion pricing has now been used to great success in Europe, the practice does not encourage people to buy more cars, and so it was not a strategy American motordom embraced.

The latest and current flourish of car culture futurism is what Norton terms “Autonorama.” Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted from “smart highways” to “smart cars,” with a promise that smart cars will soon safely drive themselves everywhere, from the wide-open road to city streets teeming with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. And today, Norton adds, autonomous vehicle boosters want to sell not just new cars and new roads, but also new data.

Stanford Racing and Victor Tango together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge Finals. The 2007 contest was the third in a series sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to promote development of automated vehicles. Six of the 11 entrants completed the 96-km course, through a simulated urban environment at the George Air Force Base in Victorville, CA. Photo from Wikimedia Common.

“Social media on wheels”

If you’re one of the tens of millions who start and end each workday with a long, stressful drive, you might not even be aware of one of the major downsides in driving. A 2016 report from consultants McKinsey & Co. highlighted “the greatest single constraint on personal data collection besides sleep: the attentional demands of driving.” There’s the problem: while you are driving you can’t give your full attention to social media!

And that’s no joke, to the huge industry of data collectors and brokers. Time spent looking at the road is time wasted – because while you’re driving, the data hounds are unable to learn much about your likes, dislikes, what you believe, what you watch, what you share, and what you are likely to buy.

In an insightful chapter titled “Data Don’t Drive,” Norton cautions us to think carefully about the business catch-phrase “data-driven.” Data might guide decisions, but data don’t drive decisions – people do. People make decisions through judgment calls, both about the meaning of data, and about which data matter and which data don’t matter.

Where profit-focused industries are concerned, it is not data that matter but monetized data or at least monetizable data. The engines of consumerism are stoked by data from and about people who can spend money, and preferably lots of it. Which data is likely to be worth more: an hour’s worth of smart-phone data from a person standing in the cold waiting for a bus? Or an hour’s data from the in-car digital entertainment system in a state-of-the-art new automated car?

This in-built tendency to reinforce social inequality is at the heart of Norton’s concerns, not only with Autonorama but with the whole history of auto-centered planning. It’s not just that vast sums of public money have been devoted to infrastructure that never comes close to the promise of “no congestion, no crashes.” It’s also that in focusing attention over and over on the needs and wishes of motordom, the needs of those who can’t or won’t drive are systematically downplayed. In the process, industry and government fail dismally to preserve or create safe, efficient, pleasant, healthful, walkable urban environments. The modest expenditures that would make cities safe for non-drivers are declined, while hundreds of billions are spent instead on transport “improvements” that continue to produce more deaths, more congestion, and more pollution.

Norton writes that

“The twentieth century should have taught us that accommodation of expensive transport does not merely neglect affordable mobility; it actively degrades it.” (Autonorama, page 180)

Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking.


Photo at top of page: An official DARPA photograph of Stanley at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, created by the Stanford University Racing Team, won the race and the 2 million US dollar prize. The automated vehicle race was sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of the 23 vehicles entered in the 2005 running, five managed to complete the 212 kilometer course. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Your gas tank is not an oil well. Your battery will not be a power plant.

Also published on Resilience.

My car comes with an amazing energy-storage, demand-management-and-supply system; perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the “gas tank”.

Thanks to this revolutionary feature, if I get home and the electric grid is down, I can siphon gas out of the tank and power up a generator. In a more urgent energy crunch, I can siphon out some gas, throw it on a woodpile, and get a really hot fire going in seconds. If a friend across town has no power, I can even drive over there, siphon out some fuel, and run a generator to provide power in an alternate location. It’s beautiful! I can shift energy provision and consumption both temporally and spatially.

There is one minor drawback, to be sure. If I siphon the fuel out of the tank then I can’t actually drive the car, at least not more than a few kilometers to the nearest fuel station. But let’s not let that limitation cast a shadow over this revolutionary technology. If this flexible load-management system were widely adopted, and there were cars everywhere, think how smoothly our society could run!

These thoughts come to mind when I hear someone rhapsodize about the second coming of the electric car. Recently, for example, a Grist headline proclaimed that “Your Electric Vehicle Could Become a Mini Power Plant. And that could make the electrical grid work better for everyone.” (June 21, 2021)

Stephen Peake, in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons (review here) wrote that “new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (emphasis mine)

One more example: an Oct 2020 article at World Economic Forum says that “When electric vehicles are integrated into a city’s energy system, the battery can provide power to the grid when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The key to this supply-and-demand magic is “bidirectional charging” – the electric vehicles of the near future will have the equivalent of a gas tank with a built-in siphon. Thus their capacious batteries will not only be able to quickly suck power out of the grid, but also to empty themselves out again to provide juice for other purposes.

But allow me this skeptical observation: electric car batteries do not have huge batteries because the drivers want to offer aid to the “smart grid”. Electric car batteries are huge because cars are huge consumers of energy.

(True, electric cars don’t consume quite as much energy as internal-combustion cars of similar class and weight – but they consume a whole lot more energy per passenger/kilometer than intelligently routed electric buses, trains, or especially, electric-assisted bicycles.)

And let’s be clear: neither an electric car vehicle nor its battery provide any “energy supply”. The car itself is a pure energy suck. The battery is just an energy storage device – it can store a finite capacity of energy from another source, and output that energy as required, but it does not produce energy.

As with internal-combustion powered cars, when the tank/battery is drained for a purpose other than driving, then the car ceases to be a functional car until refueled.

That will leave some niche scenarios where vehicle batteries really might offer a significant advantage to grid supply management. The Grist article begins with one such scenario: three yellow school buses which run on battery power through the school year, and serve as a battery bank while parked for the summer months. If all 8,000 school buses in the local utility service area were EVs, the article notes, their fully-charged batteries “could collectively supply more than 100 megawatts of power to the grid for short periods — or nearly 1 percent of Con Ed’s peak summer power demand.”

When parked for the summer, electric school buses would not need to be charged and ready to drive first thing every weekday morning. So they could indeed be used simply as (terribly expensive) battery cases for two or three months each year.

OK, but … let’s be careful about singing the praises of school buses. This might be a slippery slope. If big buses catch on, soon Americans might start taking their kids to school in giant pick-up trucks!

Of course I jest – that horse has already left the barn. The top three selling vehicles in the US, it may surprise people from elsewhere to learn, are pick-up trucks that dwarf the pick-ups used by farmers and some tradespeople in previous generations. (It will not surprise Canadians, who play second fiddle to no-one in car culture madness. Canadians tend to buy even larger, heavier, more powerful, and more expensive trucks than Americans do.)

The boom in overgrown pick-ups has not come about because North Americans are farming and logging in record numbers, nor even, as one wag put it, that a 4X8 sheet of plywood has gotten so much bigger in recent years. Yet urban streets, parking lots, and suburban driveways are now crowded with hulking four-door, four-wheel-drive, spotlessly clean limousine-trucks. Those vehicles, regardless of their freight-carrying or freight-pulling capacity, are used most to carry one or two people around urbanized areas.

If we are foolish enough to attempt electrification of this fleet, it will take an awesome amount of battery power. And as you might expect, car culture celebrants are already proclaiming what a boon this will be for energy transition.

A pre-production promo video for Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pick-up truck gets to the critical issue first: the Lightning will accelerate from 0 – 60 mph (0 – 97 km/hr) “in the mid-4-second range”. But wait, there’s more, the ad promises: the battery can “off-board” enough power to run a home “for about three days”.

Keep that in mind when you start seeing big electric pick-up trucks on the road: each one, in just a few hours of highway driving, will use as much power as a typical American home uses in three days.

Keep it in mind, too, when you see a new bank of solar panels going up in a field or on a warehouse roof: the installation might output enough electricity each day to power 100 pickup trucks for a few hours each – or 300 homes for the whole day.

Given that we won’t have enough renewably produced electricity to power existing homes, schools, stores and industries for decades, is it really a good idea to devote a big share of it, right at the outset, to building and charging limousine-trucks? Are the huge batteries required by these vehicles actually features, or are they bugs?

Granted, an electric car battery can provide a modest degree of grid load-levelling capability in some situations. It can be drained back into the grid during some peak-power-demand periods such as early evening in the heat of summer – as long as it can be recharged in time for the morning commute. That’s not nothing. And if we’re determined to keep our society moving by using big cars and trucks, that means we’ll have a huge aggregated battery capacity sitting in parking spots for most of each day. In that scenario, sure, there will be a modest degree of load-levelling capacity in those parked vehicles.

But perhaps there is a better way to add load-levelling capacity to the grid. A better way than producing huge, heavy vehicles, each containing one battery, which suck up that power fast whenever they’re being driven, while also spreading brake dust and worn tire particles through the environment, and which significantly increase the danger to vulnerable road users besides. Not to mention, which result in huge upfront emissions of carbon dioxide during their manufacture.

If it’s really load-levelling we’re after, for the same money and resources we could build a far greater number of batteries, and skip building expensive casings in the form of cars and pick-ups.

Other factors being equal, an electric car is modestly more environmentally friendly than internal-combustion car. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?)  But if we’re ready for a serious response to the climate emergency, we should be rapidly curtailing both the manufacture and use of cars, and making the remaining vehicles only as big and heavy as they actually need to be. The remaining small cars won’t collectively contain such a huge battery capacity, to be sure, but we can then address the difficult problems of grid load management in a more intelligent, efficient and direct fashion.


Illustration at top of post: Energy Utopia, composite by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain images.

Going to extremes

It only took us a century to use up the best of the planet’s finite reserves of fossil fuels. The dawning century will be a lot different.

Also published on Resilience

In the autumn of 1987 I often sipped my morning coffee while watching a slow parade roll through the hazy dawn.

I had given up my apartment for a few months, so I could spend the rent money on quality bike-camping equipment for a planned trip to the Canadian arctic. My substitute lodgings were what is now referred to as “wild camping”, though most nights I slept in the heart of downtown Toronto. One of my favourite sites afforded a panoramic view of the scenic Don Valley Parkway, which was and remains a key automobile route from the suburbs into the city.

Even thirty-five years ago, the bumper-to-bumper traffic at “rush hour” had earned this route the nickname “Don Valley Parking Lot”. On weekday mornings, the endless procession of cars, most of them carrying a single passenger but powered by heat-throwing engines of a hundred or two hundred horsepower, lumbered downtown at speeds that could have been matched by your average cyclist.

Sometimes I would try to calculate how much heavy work could have been done by all that power … let’s see, 1000 cars/lane/hour X 3 lanes = 3000 cars/hour, X 200 horsepower each = the power of 600,000 horses! Think of all the pyramids, or Stonehenges, or wagon-loads of grain, that could be moved every hour by those 600,000 horses, if they weren’t busy hauling 3000 humans to the office.

This car culture is making someone a lot of money, I thought, but it isn’t making a lot of sense.

One early autumn afternoon a year later, in the arctic coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk, I dressed in a survival suit for a short helicopter trip out over the Beaufort Sea. The occasion was perhaps the most elaborate book launch party on record, to celebrate the publication of Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole. The publisher had arranged for a launch party on an off-shore oil-drilling platform in said Northwest Passage. As a part-time writer for the local newspaper, I had prevailed upon the publisher to let me join the author and the Toronto media on this excursion.

The flight was a lark, the dinner was great – but I couldn’t shake the unsettling impression made by the strange setting, beyond the ends of the earth. I thought back, of course, to those thousands of cars on the Don Valley Parkway alternately revving and idling their powerful engines. We must be burning up our petroleum stocks awfully fast, I thought, if after only a few generations we had to be looking for more oil out in the arctic sea, thousands of kilometers from any major population centre.

This post is the conclusion of a four-part series about my personal quest to make some sense of economics. I didn’t realize, in the fall of 1988, that my one-afternoon visit to an off-shore drilling rig provided a big clue to the puzzle. But I would eventually learn that dedicated scholars had been writing a new chapter in economic thought, and the quest for energy was the focus of their study.

Before I stopped my formal study of economics, I sought some sort of foundation for economics in various schools of thought. I devoted a good bit of attention to the Chicago School, and much more to the Frankfurt School. It would not have occurred to me, back then, to understand economics by paying attention to the fish school.

Schooled by fish

Well into the 21st century, I started hearing about biophysical economics and the concept of Energy Return On Investment (EROI). I can’t pinpoint which article or podcast first alerted me to this illuminating idea. But one of the first from which I took careful notes was an April 2013 article in Scientific American, along with an online Q & A, by Mason Inman and featuring the work of Charles A.S. Hall.

The interview ran with the headline “Will Fossil Fuels Be Able to Maintain Economic Growth?” Hall approached that topic by recalling his long-ago doctoral research under ecologist H.T. Odum. In this research he asked the question “Do freshwater fish migrate, and if so, why?” His fieldwork revealed this important correlation:

“The study found that fish populations that migrated would return at least four calories for every calorie they invested in the process of migration by being able to exploit different ecosystems of different productivity at different stages of their life cycles.”

The fish invested energy in migrating but that investment returned four times as much energy as they invested, and the fish thrived. The fish migrated, in other words, because the Energy Return On Investment was very good.

This simple insight allowed Hall and other researchers to develop a new theory and methodology for economics. By the time I learned about bio-physical economics, there was a great wealth of literature examining the Energy Return On Investment of industries around the world, and further examining the implications of Energy Return ratios for economic growth or decline.1

The two-page spread in Scientific American in 2013 summarized some key findings of this research. For the U.S. as a whole, the EROI of gasoline from conventional oil dropped by 50% during the period 1950 – 2000, from 18:1 down to 9:1. The EROI of gasoline from California heavy oil dropped by about 67% in that period, from 12:1 down to 4:1. And these Energy Return ratios were still dropping. Newer unconventional sources of oil had particularly poor Energy Return ratios, with bitumen from the Canadian tar sands industry in 2011 providing only about a 5:1 energy return on investment.2 In Hall’s summary,

“Is there a lot of oil left in the ground? Absolutely. The question is, how much oil can we get out of the ground, at a significantly high EROI? And the answer to that is, hmmm, not nearly as much. So that’s what we’re struggling with as we go further and further offshore and have to do this fracking and horizontal drilling and all of this kind of stuff, especially when you get away from the sweet spots of shale formations. It gets tougher and tougher to get the next barrel of oil, so the EROI goes down, down, down.”3

With an economics founded on something real and physical – energy – both the past and the immediate future made a lot more sense to me. Biophysical economists explained that through most of history, Energy Return ratios grew slowly – a new method of tilling the fields might bring a modestly larger harvest for the same amount of work – and so economic growth was also slow. But in the last two centuries, energy returns spiked due to the development of ways to extract and use fossil fuels. This allowed rapid and unprecedented economic growth – but that growth can only continue as long as steady supplies of similarly favourable energy sources are available.

When energy return ratios drop significantly, economic growth will slow or stop, though the energy crunch might be disguised for a while by subsidies or an explosion of credit. So far this century we have seen all of these trends: much slower economic growth, in spite of increased subsidies to energy producers and/or consumers, and in spite of the financial smoke-and-mirrors game known as quantitative easing.

The completed Hebron Oil Platform, before it was towed out to the edge of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland Canada. Photo by Shhewitt, from Wikimedia Commons.

The power of the green frog-skins

John (Fire) Lame Deer understood that though green frog-skins – dollars – seemed all-important to American colonizers, this power was at the same time an illusion. Forty years after I read Lame Deer’s book Seeker of Visions, the concepts of biophysical economics gave me a way to understand the true source of the American economy’s strength and influence, and to understand why that strength and influence was on a swift road to its own destruction.

For the past few centuries, the country that became the American empire has appropriated the world’s richest energy sources – at first, vast numbers of energy-rich marine mammals, then the captive lives of millions of slaves, and then all the life-giving bounty of tens of millions of hectares of the world’s richest soils. And with that head start, the American economy moved into high gear after discovering large reserves of readily accessible fossil fuels.

The best of the US fossil energy reserves, measured through Energy Return On Investment, were burned through in less than a century. But by then the American empire had gone global, securing preferred access to high-EROI fossil fuels in places as distant as Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That was about the time I was growing to adulthood, and Lame Deer was looking back on the lessons of his long life during which the green frog-skin world calculated the price of everything – the blades of grass, the springs of water, even the air.

The forces of the American economy could buy just about anything, it seemed. But dollars, in themselves, had no power at all. Rather, biophysical economists explained, the American economy had command of great energy resources, which returned a huge energy surplus for each investment of energy used in extraction. As Charles Hall explained in the Scientific American interview in 2013,

“economics isn’t really about money. It’s about stuff. We’ve been toilet trained to think of economics as being about money, and to some degree it is. But fundamentally it’s about stuff. And if it’s about stuff, why are we studying it as a social science? Why are we not, at least equally, studying it as a biophysical science?”4

The first book-length exposition of these ideas that I read was Life After Growth, by Tim Morgan. Morgan popularized some of the key concepts first worked out by Charles Hall.5 He wrote,

“Money … commands value only to the extent that it can be exchanged for the goods and services produced by the real economy. The best way to think of money is as a ‘claim’ on the real economy and, since the real economy is itself an energy dynamic, money is really a claim on energy. Debt, meanwhile, as a claim on future money, is therefore a claim on future energy.”6

The economic system that even today, though to a diminishing extent, revolves around the American dollar, was built on access to huge energy surpluses, obtained by exploiting energy sources that provided a large Energy Return On Investment. That energy surplus gave money its value, because during each year of the long economic boom there was more stuff available to buy with the money. The energy surplus also made debt a good bet, because when the debt came due, a growing economy could ensure that, in aggregate, most debts would be paid.

Those conditions are rapidly changing, Morgan argued. Money will lose its value – gradually, or perhaps swiftly – when it becomes clear that there is simply less of real, life-giving or life-sustaining value that can be bought with that money. At that point, it will also become clear that huge sums of debts will never and can never be repaid.

Ironically, since Morgan wrote The End of Growth, the dollar value of outstanding debt has grown at an almost incomprehensible pace, while Energy Return On Investment and economic growth have continued their slides. Is the financial bubble set for a big bang, or a long slow hiss?

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, 2010. Photo by US Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy becomes a thing

When I was introduced to the concepts of biophysical economics, two competing thoughts ran through my head. The first was, “This explains so much! Of course, the value of money must be based on something biophysical, because we are and always have been biophysical creatures, in biophysical societies, dependent on a biophysical world.”

And the second thought was, “This is so obvious, why isn’t it taught in every Economics 101 course? Why do economists talk endlessly about GDP, fiscal policy and aggregate money supply … but only a tiny percentage of them ever talk about Energy Return On Investment?”

Another then-new book popped up right about then. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, published by Verso in 2013, is a detailed, dry work of history, bristling with footnotes – and it was one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. (That’s why I’ve quoted it so many times since I started writing this blog.)7

As Mitchell explained, the whole body of economic orthodoxy that had taken over university economics departments in the middle of the twentieth century, and which remains the conventional wisdom of policy-makers today, was a radical departure from previous thinking about economics. Current economic orthodoxy, in fact, could only have arisen in an era when surplus energy seemed both plentiful and cheap:

“The conception of the economy depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies, making postwar Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge’.” (Carbon Democracy, page 139)

Up until the early 20th century, Mitchell wrote, mainstream economists based their studies on awareness of physical resources. That changed when the exploding availability of fossil fuels created an illusion, for some, that surplus energy was practically unlimited. In response,

“a battle developed among economists, especially in the United States …. One side wanted economics to start from natural resources and flows of energy, the other to organise the discipline around the study of prices and flows of money. The battle was won by the second group, who created out of the measurement of money and prices a new object: the economy.” (page 131)

Stated another way, “the supply of carbon energy was no longer a practical limit to economic possibility. What mattered was the proper circulation of banknotes.” (page 124)

By the time I went to university in the 1970s, this “science of money” was orthodoxy. My studies in economics left me with an uneasy feeling that the green frog-skin world was, truly, a powerful illusion. But decades passed before I heard about people like H.T. Odum, Charles Hall, and others who were developing a new foundation for economics. A foundation, I now believe, that not only explains our economic history, but is vastly more helpful in making sense of our future challenges.

* * *

Lame Deer’s vision of the end of the green frog-skin world was vividly apocalyptic. He understood back in the 1970s that we are all endangered species, and that the green frog-skin world must and will come to an end. In his vision, the bad dream world of war and pollution will be rolled up, and the real world of the good green earth will be restored. But he had no confidence that the change would be easy. “I hope to see this,” he said, “but then I’m also afraid.”

Today we can study many visions expressed in scientific journals. Some of these visions outline new worlds of sharing and harmony, but many visions foretell the worsening of the climate crisis, economic system collapse, ecosystem collapse, crashes of biodiversity, forced global migrations. These visions are frightening and dramatic. Are we caught up, today, in an apocalyptic fever, or is it cold hard realism?

We have much to hope for, and we also have much to fear.


Image at top of post: Offshore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara channel, by Anita Ritenour, CC 2.0, flickr.com


Footnotes

 

The marginal uselessness of muscle-cars

Also published on Resilience

Waiting at a stop-light, sitting on my bicycle while leaning against a telephone pole, ready to step down hard on the pedals, it was only natural to think about the economic concept of “marginal utility”.

I enjoyed my little game of beating fast cars through intersections after stopping for lights. Having taken up biking in downtown Toronto in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that for all the power in their absurdly oversized engines, many, perhaps most, cars could not accelerate their great bulk through an intersection any faster than an ordinarily fit cyclist could accelerate a bicycle. As long as we both started from a dead stop, and as long as I had already downshifted to a torque-maximizing low gear, and as long as I sprinted away the second the light changed, and I shifted gears smoothly at least twice while getting through the intersection, I could make it to the other side before a single car had gotten up enough speed to overtake me.

And when an aggressive driver in an expensive Camaro or BMW did beat me through the intersection, the advantage was fleeting: I would catch up and pass that car, in the typically congested city traffic, before we reached the next stoplight.

In the city traffic game, the marginal utility of each additional horsepower in a car’s engine was awfully close to zero.

All the cars on the road, whether their engines produced 70 horsepower or 370, could move far faster than a bicycle on an open road, and all of them could easily surpass the speed limits on highways. Yet they were all hard-pressed to accelerate from 1 – 20 km/h faster than a bicycle, with its human engine of less than 1/2 hp, could do.1

The marginal utility of the first 10, 20, or 50 horsepower, in pushing a car and its human passenger down the road, was significant. But the next 50 or 100 or 200 hp in a car engine accomplished very little, even on an open road – much less on the crowded city streets where these cars burned so much of their gas.

Following the magazine version in 1973 Energy and Equity was expanded into a small book, which is now available as a free download from various sources including Internet Archive, here. Quotes and page numbers cited in this article are from the Internet Archive edition, as originally published in 1974 by Harper & Row.

These musings on the intersection between physics and economics spurred me to have another look at a curious little book I’d come across a few years earlier – Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity.

Illich was a controversial Catholic priest who eventually settled in Mexico. He published a flurry of books in the early 1970s questioning many of the most cherished practices of “first world” countries. His work was particularly popular in France, where Energy and Equity was first published by Le Monde in 1973.

I briefly attended the school Illich founded in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an experience which enriched my life and challenged my thinking in many ways. Yet Energy and Equity struck me as engagingly odd but hyperbolic on first reading, and it had little immediate impact. That changed when I started to experience city traffic from behind the handlebars instead of behind the steering wheel. Today, more than forty years later, I’m amazed at how clearly Illich summed up both the comedy and the tragedy of industrial society’s infatuation with high-powered travel.

Once I had taken up cycling, and I realized I could accomplish my daily travel routines in the big city as fast on bike as I could do in a car, Illich’s trenchant critique of car culture was no longer threatening – it was a broad beam of illumination.

Illich didn’t fall for the idea that North Americans moved around at 100 km/hr, therefore getting around 10 times as fast as our ancestors had. Instead, he looked at the immense amount of time Americans devoted to building cars, building roads, paying for cars, paying for insurance, washing cars, fixing cars, trying to find parking for cars. To find the true average speed of travel, he said, one needs to tally all the time society puts into the effort, and divide that time into the total amount travelled. Or, you could do the same on an individual basis:

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” (page 19)

Car ads, of course, encourage us to think only of that rush of acceleration when we’re able to step on the gas – never of the time spent waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, never of the time we spend earning the wages that go to monthly car payments. But once I’d absorbed Illich’s way of thinking, I could understand how much time I saved by not having a car. In the mid-1980s I calculated that owning and operating a car instead of a bicycle would have cost about six weeks of my wages each year. Getting around by bike, then, meant I could take six extra weeks of annual vacations. Some hardship, eh?

A class structure of speed capitalists

My initial reactions to Energy and Equity, you may have noticed, were rather self-absorbed. They were shaped by Illich’s observations, but equally by my varying degrees of privilege. Male privilege meant I could ride the city streets at all hours without fear of sexual harassment. White privilege meant I could move around the streets openly, for years, and only once be stopped by a police officer (who gave me just a polite scolding). I took for granted the blessings of good health and the ability to find a reasonably well-paid job. Perhaps most significant, bicycling for me was a choice, and I could, if and when I chose, also rent a car, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket to fly across most of the world’s national borders.

Thus I wasn’t as quick to catch on to Illich’s more fundamental critique of car culture and the traffic-industrial complex: that the reorganization of life which affords some people the privilege of high-powered, high-speed mobility, inevitably results in many other people having less effective mobility and less free time. In Illich’s summary, “Energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. … Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity.” (page 5)

To explain his viewpoint, Illich gave his particular definitions to three key terms: “By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside of their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy.” (page 15)

For most of history, traffic and transit were pretty much the same. Most people got around on their own two feet using their own power. As a result people were generally capable of mobility at roughly the same speed. Ideally, Illich said, improvements in traffic should not impair the pre-existing ability of anyone to engage in transit under their own power.

Unfortunately, motorized transport has played out much differently so far. Soon after passenger trains came into use, and particularly following the introduction of motorcars, impediments to the non-passenger class began to be built into daily life. Streets became deathly dangerous to pedestrians, crossings became highly regulated, soon vast areas of cities had to be devoted to parking for the car-owning class, neighbourhoods were razed and new controlled-access highways created wide barriers between districts for those unfortunate enough to depend on foot-power. Distances became greater for everyone in cities, but the problem was worst for pedestrians, who now had to detour to find relatively “safe” road crossings.

This Google satellite view of downtown Chicago shows how infrastructure built to support high-speed travel pushes cities apart, increasing the distances that pedestrians must walk even within their own neighbourhoods. Of course, in Chicago as in all other industrialized cities, the “high-speed” infrastructure still fails to provide high-speeds when these speeds would matter most – during rush hour.

Illich was fond of a quote from José Antonio Viera-Gallo, an aide to Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.” By contrast, he wrote, “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … High speed capitalizes a few people’s time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all.” (page 29)

It was possible to estimate the total time a society devoted to the construction, maintenance, and operation of traffic. In doing so, Illich found that “high-speed” societies suck up much more time than “underdeveloped” societies: “In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people … allocate only three to eight percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.” (page 19)

On average, of course, the people in high-speed societies both need to and do travel much farther every day – but the averages conceal as much as they reveal. The well-to-do travel much greater distances than the average, but due to all the infrastructural barriers and regulations necessitated by high-speed travel, even impoverished pedestrians devote much extra time to their daily rounds. (And, just one small step up the ladder, those who need to ride buses in congested cities are held up daily while their buses crawl along behind private cars.)

The traffic-industrial complex not only restructures our cities, Illich said, but it also restructures our perceptions and our imaginations:

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. … Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.” (page 25)

Unfortunately, “All those who plan other people’s housing, transportation or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration.” (page 53) The impetus for positive change, then, will need to come from those who still get around by the power of their own feet. In that respect, Illich argued, the bicycle is one of civilization’s greatest advances, on a par with just a few other developments:2 “Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. … The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion.” (page 60) 

Final bike-raising at the April 22, 2006 Critical Mass rally in Budapest, Hungary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Illich, it is important to note, was not a human-power absolutist. In his view, motored transport could be a very useful complement to foot-powered transit. The key, he said, was that when motorized transport remains relatively low-powered and low-speed, its advantages, for society as a whole, can outweigh the disadvantages:

“If beyond a certain threshold transport obstructs traffic, the inverse is also true: below some level of speed, motorized vehicles can complement or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle.” (page 68)

Where is that “certain threshold”? Regarding speed, Illich said that historically, the threshold was crossed when motorized speeds topped “±15 mph” (about 25 km/h). Regarding power, Illich summed it up this way:

“The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.” (page 8)3

For personal transportation, that “reasonable limit” on power use struck me as sensible in the 1980s, and even more so today. The VW Beetle engines of that time produced roughly 50 horsepower. Today, of course, automotive engineers know how to get far more efficient use out of engines, even though they mostly use that increased motive efficiency simply to push around a much bigger and much heavier car (increased efficiency, directed to the cause of decreased efficiency). Using lighter materials, with an electric drive-train, and more aerodynamic shaping, a car with less than half the horsepower of a 1980s VW Beetle would be entirely adequate for occasional personal transportation at speeds surpassing bicycle speed. Of critical importance, a limited number of cars powered by, for example, 10–20 hp engines, might be integrated in an equitable society without sucking up absurd quantities of materials or energies.4

Almost 50 years after the first edition of Energy and Equity, some of Illich’s ideas on traffic planning have moved beyond the fringe and almost into the mainstream. Fifty years of hard work in the Netherlands, and in cities such as Copenhagen, have proven that densely populated places function more smoothly, and populations are healthier, when people of every age can walk and cycle through their cities in safety – as long as people-powered transit, not motor-powered transport, is given priority. Even jurisdictions throughout North America are now making formal commitments to “Complete Streets” with safe access for walkers and bikers, though the follow-through is usually far behind the noble ideals.

But as to the amount of energy that average people should harness, and the desirability of “time-saving high-speed travel”, the spell that Illich tried to break has scarcely loosened its grip. Mainstream environmentalism, while advocating a swift and thorough transition to zero-carbon technologies, clings to the belief that we can, will, indeed, we absolutely must retain our high-speed cars and trains, along with the airliners which whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound. Nobody knows how we’ll manage some of the major parts of this transition, but nearly everyone “knows” that we’ll need to (and so we will) convert our entire traffic-industrial complex to green, clean, renewable energy.

Illich has been gone for nearly 20 years, but I think he’d say “Wake up from your high-speed dream – it’s a killer!”

* * *

At the outset of this series, I discussed my personal, winding journey to an appreciation of biophysical economics. Ivan Illich is not considered a biophysical economist, or an economist of any stripe, but he played an important role for me in focusing my attention on very simple facts of physics – simple facts that have profound implications for our social organization. In the next installment, we’ll look at energy issues in a different light by examining the way European colonizers embarked on a systematic, centuries-long extraction of rich energy sources from around the world – well before the fossil fuel age kicked energy use into hyperdrive.

Epilogue

If in 2021 I were to replay the cyclist’s game of racing cars from a standing start through intersections, I’d have a lot more difficulty. Age is one factor: I’m a good bit closer to being a centenarian than a teenager. But it’s not only that: the average horsepower ratings of car engines have more than doubled since 19805, though speed limits have not changed substantially and city streets are generally just as congested. A big selling-point of these twice-as-powerful cars, however, is their increased ability to accelerate. Whereas the average car in 1980 took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/hr), by 2010 the average car could do it in just under 9 seconds – a savings of over 4 seconds! Think of the time saved on your daily commute! Or, in busy city traffic, think of the joy of having extra seconds to wait behind the line of traffic at every stop-light. Think, in other words, of the marginal utility you’ve gained by doubling the horsepower in your car. But is your life twice as fast, twice as rich, do you have twice as much free time, as a result?

As a part-owner of a car today, I can readily see that the joke of the marginal utility of big-horsepower engines is on car buyers, and the car-makers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But as Illich saw so clearly, back in 1973, the joke of high power consumption is also a tragedy. The hyper-powered cars of today (mostly in the shape of SUVs or four-door, five-passenger “trucks”) are even more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than were the sedans of the 1960s.6 Energy use goes up – and equity goes down.


Photo at top of page: Mansory at Geneva International Motor Show 2019, Le Grand-Saconnex, photo by Matti Blume, from Wikimedia Commons.


Footnotes