Thursday, March 13, 2008

Two Tons of Steel

While I was waiting for the bus one morning, I decided I'd count cars to see how many were single-occupancy vs. two or more. I came up with a ratio of roughly 20 single-occupancy vehicles for every multiple-occupancy vehicle. The multiple-occupancy vehicles were most often work trucks, containing plumbers or construction workers going to a job.

People have to get to work. Maybe they don't have public transit where they are, or maybe they just don't feel like sitting next to smelly commuters, but for whatever reason, here in the U.S. they drive their cars.

The average American weighs about 180 lbs. Due to our love affair with SUVs, the average American car weighs over 2 tons and climbing. That means every time a person drives a single-occupancy vehicle to work, they aren't just expending the energy it takes to move 180 lbs 15 miles. They're also lugging around a hulking two-ton chunk of steel and plastic. The passenger of the average single-occupancy vehicle is only about 1/24 (4%) of the mass that's being moved to and from work. That's ridiculous!

Of course, we make up for the big weight of our cars with big engines so they can go vroom. That adds up to a lot of gasoline burned, for no clear benefit. In other words, most of us could easily be driving vehicles that perform the exact same function but burn 1/3 the gasoline. I'm not talking about space-age technology here; these vehicles are already on the market.

Why do we commute so inefficiently when better options surround us? I think there are several reasons. First of all, gasoline is dirt cheap. We have no incentive to be efficient beyond our own consciences. Even with the recent price jumps, gasoline doesn't cost much more than it ever has, if you adjust for inflation. In Europe, where high taxes mean gasoline can cost four times as much as in the US, vehicles are lighter and more efficient.

Secondly, we've always been a very car-centric society. Cars appeal to our desire for independence, power and control. A large, powerful car is a status symbol in the US. We've inherited these attitudes from previous generations and we're just beginning to question them. Are there healthier and less wasteful ways of getting to work?

There are, and many of them are very simple. The first and simplest is a carpool. If we put two average Americans in our two-ton car, all of a sudden the people are 1/12 the weight of the vehicle. With four people, the number jumps to 1/6. We've just made our vehicle almost four times as fuel efficient, per passenger! 1,000 lbs per person is still a lot of weight to be lugging around though, so let's look at some other options.

If you are on the market for a new car, fuel-efficient models abound. The new hybrid cars by Toyota and Honda are twice as efficient as their non-hybrid brethren, and not much more expensive. Some people truly need SUVs for their business, but I have good news for them too: there are now hybrid SUVs as well. That's right ladies and gentlemen, they're the most efficient gas guzzlers on the market.

Public transportation is another great option where it's available. Buses are big and heavy but they can accommodate many people.

Now let's get into the really efficient vehicles. Motorcycles and scooters weigh from 250-500 pounds, meaning that a passenger would be from 1/2 to 1/4 the total weight of the vehicle. Now we're beginning to make some sense. Certain scooters can go over 100 miles per gallon of gasoline.

An even better option is to use vehicles that don't burn gasoline at all. A bicycle weighs about 20-30 pounds, making the passenger about 9/10 of the total vehicle weight. That weight ratio might change as the average American loses some weight however. Even if you factor in the extra food you eat when you cycle regularly, it's still terribly efficient. Best of all, bikes allow us to get exercise and feel the sun for a while.

The title for the most fuel-efficient and low-tech vehicle around goes to feet. When using a pair of these, the passenger is 100% of the weight of the vehicle. You can walk until you wear them out and you still won't have burned a single molecule of gasoline. Now that's efficient.

Thanks to lairdscott for the CC photo.


Anna said...

Love it! I've always tried to make my car purchases with gas economy and size in mind. I learned this at a young age.

I find it interesting that my family van-driving friends (with one or two kids) often can't fit my son and I in their car to go somewhere because it is so loaded with "stuff" they haul around all the time that they can't fold down the rear seat for extra passengers. Yet, all five of us fit very nicely in my little Honda Fit. Certainly, my car isn't sufficient for some trips or loads, but I could probably even rent a larger vehicle now and then when needed and still be ahead.

Was it your blog I saw with the cute bowed chic Italian scooter photo? I should give one of those some thought. Many of my errands would work with one, now that I buy so little from grocery stores (I get a lot direct from farms).

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Anna, welcome to the blog.

That's a tragedy about the van; if you have a big family that's one case where it might make sense to have one, unless it's full of junk.

Anonymous said...

Move closer to where you work. Or get a job closer to home.

Get a bicycle.

Telecommute, if your boss will let you.

Join Zipcar.

I don't own a car at all. I live in a freestanding house that shares land with two other houses, so it's technically a condo. Occasionally neighbors let their guests park in our parking space, which I don't mind unless I happen to have a rental car or a guest of my own. But every now and then I come home from work and find a giant minivan with a bumper sticker that says "One Less SUV." OK, OK, I know that minivans have higher fuel economy standards than SUVs, but I still think the owner of that van is unclear on the concept.

I don't get people who have two kids who "need" a minivan. Most people say it's because kids "fight" if they don't have enough space in the backseat. I say that's part of growing up - learning to share. If you get a bigger car to prevent fights, what you're teaching your kid is that acquiring more territory solves all problems.

Stephan Guyenet said...

That's great, Migraineur. Do you live in an intentional community? I'm thinking about trying to set one up with some friends someday so we can share land, vehicles, tools etc.

I do own a car (Civic) so don't let me get too high and mighty. But I also own a bike and I use it for all of my everyday transportation like commuting, shopping etc. I do about 4,000 miles a year on it!

The reason I hang on to my car is because it's my only way of getting to the mountains for backpacking and hiking. I like Zipcar/Flexcar but the rates are too high to be able to rent one for a weekend, and weekend rentals at a normal rental place are just too inconvenient because they aren't located in the city.

I hope someday there will be a service that's convenient enough that I'll feel comfortable losing the car.

The Rug Merchant's Son said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Rug Merchant's Son said...

Have a look at these articles about the destruction of light rail by oil and car companies in order to increase their business.

or google this topic and see where it leads you! Amazing that this happened
back in the 1950s! The US government sued oil companies and car makes GM etc. and won, trouble was they were only made to pay a small fine and were not forced to rebuild the rail they destroyed.

The Rug Merchant's Son said...


Another interesting article on the destruction of light rail by auto, oil and tire companies in the 1950s. Its a shame the we lost those key beginnings of mass transit is what are now some of the most congested cities in the US!!!!

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hey Koury,

Thanks for the links. Well hopefully it's not too late to bring them back! Once people have the incentives to use mass transit, they will. The city is thinking about imposing some pretty strict tolls here on the highway. That's one way to do it, but maybe a better one would be to make public transit more efficient...

Debs said...

Having grown up in New York City, I have an appreciation for excellent public transportation, which we just don't have in Seattle. Sure, the subway breaks and smells bad in summer and gets overcrowded, but that just gives New Yorkers something to kvetch about, and New Yorkers dearly love to have fodder for their kvetching. Seriously, though you can get anywhere easily by subway or bus, and you can get out of the city through an excellent system of trains. It's simply more convenient to use mass transit than to drive, so virtually everyone uses mass transit, and people walk a lot. Do you think Seattle will ever be willing to invest in a system that big?

I like the ethic you imply about individuals making choices to reduce impact, even apart from a transit system that hasn't caught up. I like that your choices naturally incorporate exercise into your day.

As to the best way to get around, I vote for helium balloons. They'll decrease your weight (and weigh less than a bike!), and they may even make you float across the street.

Stephan Guyenet said...

I don't know if Seattle will ever get its ass in gear on public transport. It seems to be really bad at large-scale projects like that.

Anonymous said...

Nope, Stephan, not an intentional community - definitely individual private ownership, except for the land. I refuse to share a kitchen with anyone to whom I am not related by blood, marriage, or adoption!

I live smack in the middle of Cambridge, MA, so it is of course much easier for me to be car free than it is for someone from, say, Iowa. But I have never owned a car, even in St. Louis.

I have a love/hate relationship with Zipcar. I was sad when they bought Flexcar; I was hoping that competition in the car-sharing realm would one day come to Boston. It's not really intended for weekend rentals; more like two- or three-hour errands.

JBG said...

"The title for the most fuel-efficient and low-tech vehicle around goes to feet."

Low-tech, yes. Most efficient, no:

"...the 3 times more efficient than walking..."