The Capricious Commuter



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gas misers in NW, but what of California?

The states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho have reduced their gasoline usage to about a gallon lower than the national average, according to a study I found in my inbox this morning:

Measured per capita, gasoline consumption in
the Pacifi c Northwest states has fallen to its lowest level since 1966. Per-person gas consumption in the region has declined in seven of the last eight years; and climate-warming CO2 emissions from gasoline have fallen by six-tenths of a ton per capita in the region since 1999. That decline in per capita gasoline consumption—11 percent, overall—is the equivalent of every driver in the Northwest taking a five-week holiday from driving in 2007.

That’s good news, no? I know exactly one family that lives in one of those states, so I called their house to verify the results.

Lise, mother of three and a computer programmer, answered the phone. I asked her about her gas consumption without revealing the results of the study so as to avoid tainting her answers.

“I fill up my tank about once a month,” she said. That’s confirmation, I thought.

Of course, her consumption may not be representative of the entire tri-state area. I asked if her consumption had dropped off in recent years.

“I work at home, so I go less places, but otherwise no.” Sigh. I guess it’s close enough for 24-hour cable news.

I, however, get gas every other day when I’m driving to work regularly. Does that mean we Californians are gas guzzlers?

I consulted the study.

Funny thing about California. Idaho ranks 18th most economical in per-capital fuel consumption, with 8.4 gallons per person per week. Washington and Oregon rank ninth and 10th at 7.8 and 7.9 gallons, respectively.

At 8.2 gallons a week, Californians’ gas consumption ranks 11th best in the nation, tied with Wisconsin and Massachusetts. When you consider our reputation as the epicenter of car culture, for urban and suburban sprawl and our disdain for public transit, this figure is astounding.

Compared to the wide-open spaces of the Southwest, California is “a pretty dense place,” said the study’s author, Clark Williams Derry. “San Francisco is one of the more walkable cities in the country,” he continued, and then remembered who he was talking to. “Also, in the East Bay, places like Berkeley, those are the kinds of places where people don’t drive as much.”

Derry was kind enough to send me a complete data set going back to 1950 showing gasoline consumption per capita, derived from Federal Highway Administration stats.

In 1950, when Californians were still fairly transit-dependent, the consumption was only 5.5 gallons per person per week. New York State, which is currently best in the nation, starts out at 3.2 gallons.

California’s number climb fairly steadily until it got to 9.8 gallons in 1978, the year I got my driver’s license and the year before the post-Iranian Revolution oil crisis.

Then consumption quickly drops and remains in the 8.0-8.5 range through the 1980s, which one could logically conclude was from federal fuel economy standards that haven’t changed since.

The decline continues, bottoming out at 7.8 gallons in 1991 and doesn’t rise above 8.2 throughout the decade. Oddly enough, after Sept. 11, 2001, consumption shoots UP to 8.4 gallons in 2002 and remains as high as any year in the 1990s until the last year in the study, 2006.

I’m not expert, but it seems like a good argument for stricter economy standards.

Meanwhile, the worst states are those that are more rural and/or lower income, such as Wyoming and Louisiana at 11.4 gallons each and Vermont, Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama all above 10 gallons in 2006.

While we have a long way to go, we can at least take pride in the fact that we’re not nearly as bad as we thought.

Posted by on April 17, 2008.

Categories: driving, Environment, fuel, global warming, Misc. Transportation, Transit vs. driving

13 Responses

  1. For what it’s worth people have been responding to the higher gas prices in California by consuming significantly less gasoline per capita. In 2006 Californians used 8.16 gallons of Gasoline (including AV gas) per person per week. In 2007, that number had dropped by 1.9% to 8.00 gallons per person per week. If you want to keep up with the latest California gasoline consumption statistics, you can find them updated monthly at http://boe.ca.gov/sptaxprog/spftrpts.htm

    For population, I used the state DOF numbers. Note that these numbers may not be directly comparable to those in the report because they may not have included aviation gasoline and may have used Census population numbers which are less accurate.

    by South Bay Resident on Apr 17, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  2. SBR, thanks for doing the math for us. That 8 gallons, while we don’t know for sure how statistically compatible it is with the NW people’s numbers, makes perfect sense in the context of even higher gas prices.

    by Capricious Commuter on Apr 18, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  3. I’m actually interested in seeing the study you referred to in your posting. Can you post a link here or send it to me via e-mail?

    by South Bay Resident on Apr 19, 2008 at 10:52 am

  4. Rail Transit Advocate – National Association of Railroad Passengers member
    Yes, I need the study too. Can you post a link here or send it to me via e-mail? I am a national transit advocate working on rail transit development for 25 years. I am working on a proposal for training State DOTS how to rapidly retool their mission and programs to carry out large scale rail transit programs.

    by Rail Transit Advocate on Apr 21, 2008 at 11:01 am

  5. I wish transportation writers would stop using phrases like, “…our disdain for public transit” when referring to Californians and their travel habits. They are as vacuous as the old “…love affair with the automobile” notion and have nothing to do with either nature or nurture, even in California.

    I have no quarrel with the idea that Californians snub their noses at today’s transit. We also dislike root canal work. But transit doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. All we need do is develop it to the same degree we’ve developed every aspect of so-called “car culture.” Instead we starve transit in the name of “efficiency” and then express surprise when the public responds by not using it. The media’s conclusion from this is that Californians don’t use transit because of some hereditary condition, when the real story may be that the transit product has been allowed to deteriorate into something only a masochist can justify using.

    The great wonder to me is how successful transit is, despite its limitations. Its as if you put Coca Cola on a store shelf next to bottled donkey urine, and despite charging more for the latter, it actually competed, in some markets, with the Coke. Transit actually carries as many people from the East Bay to San Francisco as cars do. One in four North Bay commuters to San Francisco use transit to get there. Nehi should be so competitive. Bay Area transit ridership may not have improved over the last 25 years, but the systems where investments have been made (BART and Caltrain, for example) have dramatically higher usage. Those that have fallen into the deadly cycle of periodic service cuts and fare increases have declined in behavioral influence and importance as they’ve struggled to hold onto their shrinking ridership bases.

    For me, the above facts prove two things. First, if you take bad transit and make it worse, people will have “disdain” for it. Alert the media! But second, if you take bad transit and make it mediocre, riders will beat a path to your door. Just imagine how the world would change if we actually provided real transit alternatives in terms of travel time, cost and convenience. Imagine good transit. You might find, that, far from living in a “car culture,” we live in a “…desperate for alternatives to the car,” culture.
    If you don’t believe it, explain the performance of California intercity rail and bus service in the land of the auto. Explain the success of the Baby Bullets, despite the fact that they still don’t go into Downtown San Francisco. Explain the San Diego Trolley and Coaster and ACE and all the other new systems that, because of chintzy funding, can’t expand fast enough to meet demand.

    Despite their “disdain,” Californians have led the way on many of these transit fronts. Bay Areans keep telling us they want transportation problems solved. We keep ignoring them and using the “car culture” and “transit disdain” as our excuse. Can we stop, please?

    by Eric Schatmeier on Apr 21, 2008 at 12:42 pm

  6. When the Republicans in the state legislature stop opposing all tax increases, we can pay for some more transit. Or when Democrats have 2/3. Until then, you can say all you want about how “car culture” is a fabrication, but transit requires investment, and investment requires revenue. At the core, this is a partisan POLITICAL problem that can only be solved if the party preventing change either reverses or is rendered irrelevant.

    by MikeD on Apr 21, 2008 at 7:47 pm

  7. Just to keep this in some perspective with the rest of the world; because there’s a possible refinery strike in Scotland, at least one station is selling Diesel fuel for the equivalent of $9.76 a gallon, 1.30 GBP/gal, 3.8 liters/gal, $1.97 to 1 GBP).

    by Doug Faunt on Apr 23, 2008 at 3:31 pm

  8. Eric, in my defense, I did say “reputation” before throwing out “disdain for public tranist” and “car culture.”

    I understand your point, but if what you’re suggesting is that we ignore the fact that 70 percent of commuters are solo drivers, that people don’t ride the bus because of its socioeconomic stigma or that one’s car/assault vehicle is a reflection of one’s lifestyle, I strongly disagree. Just on principle, I don’t like glossing over reality, no matter how ugly. From the persepective of wanting to get more people to use transit, you first have to recognize these facts if you want to help achieve that goal.

    The way things are going, however, this argument may be moot. I got onto my post-peak trains last night and this morning to find them crowded, which they never are at those times of day except during the holidays.

    The Sacramento Bee (provided free on the Capitol Corridor) has a story today on the ridership phenomenon and the problems it poses:
    http://www.sacbee.com/101/story/886115.html

    What we’re facing is a surging demand for transit that our system very likely can’t handle and a government that’s unlikely to put provide enough money to correct that.

    by Capricious Commuter on Apr 24, 2008 at 1:57 pm

  9. The only facts I see in your comment are the 70% of commuters are solo drivers. The rest are assumptions. How do we know that the reason people don’t ride the bus is because of socioeconomic stigma and not because it is slow, unreliable, unable to avoid traffic jams, and as the SacBee article you linked to shows, because the state government is prevented from helping fund adequate levels of service?

    Seems to me folks already ARE using transit – the problem now isn’t attitudinal, but practical. We need more transit service. More transit infrastructure. More trains. Most regions of our state know what is needed and where it needs to go – they just need the money.

    The question before us isn’t whether the system can handle it or whether government can provide enough money, but whether Californians will abandon the failed tax and spending priorities of the last 30 years and instead help their government invest in the transit that everyone now wants?

    by Robert Cruickshank on Apr 24, 2008 at 5:01 pm

  10. Mr. Cruickshank, I couldn’t have said it better. And capcom, nobody is more acquainted with reality than the transit user who must allot twice the travel time for a commute trip as an auto user, even if he’s lucky enough to have a transit alternative. And if Californians who commute in single occupant cars are such creatures of unchangeable habit, why, when they go abroad, do they use trains and boats and buses, and subways and trams to get around? Could it be because trains and boats and buses and subways and trams are actually available and work better than cars? Nah. It’s probably because, over there, they live in a “transit culture.”

    by Eric Schatmeier on Apr 25, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  11. Look, I love to argue with you guys. It sustains me and sometimes I become difficult to provoke more of the same. But it’s the end of the week and I need to drive home (yes, drive, after doing the train all week, because I need the car here for work, and now I need it at home to haul stuff), but I’ll cough up one more truly heartfelt quibble. Eric, I think you’re correct that Americans use trains much more when they go to Europe. The question is, why? Yes, its more convenient, and I should know because I spent part of my childhood living in central Germany collecting transit tickets and commuting long-distance to school by bus, train and straßenbahn. Convenience is a big factor, and I won’t discount it — much. Another major factor is what we’re just starting to taste here: Punitive gas prices, and Robert, I’ll make another ASSumption here and say other costs associated with car use are also higher. And while this is completely unscientific, I’ll submit that when my mother-in-law in Osnabrück wants to travel to Frankfurt or Düsseldorf to see off her daughter and hubby at the airport, then return home, she takes the Passat. She’s not rich, and is in fact quite careful with her money. The fact is that even with all those costs and nasty traffic jams on the autobahns, driving is more efficient.

    by Capricious Commuter on Apr 25, 2008 at 8:06 pm

  12. I wonder if you’re setting up a false premise here. Your German mother-in-law has a realistic choice about whether to drive her family to the airport or whether to drop them at the local train station. The European transit system has a multiplicity of options, which makes travel MORE efficient – people are not totally dependent on their cars and so the resources are more effectively used.

    That’s our goal here in CA. To give people options other than driving that will get them where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time and at an affordable cost. We tried the cars-only approach and it has totally failed for California. I don’t think any of the transit advocates or bloggers want to do away with private automobile transport, we just want to give people the option of doing something else, an option very few Californians have right now. And in the absence of those alternatives, family budgets are breaking and the state’s economy is in a tailspin.

    by Robert Cruickshank on Apr 26, 2008 at 8:43 pm

  13. In your anecdote, you have found a good parallel with Germany. Germans I’ve spoken to love to drive their cars, but are still glad to take trains when they work out well. I think, if given sufficient opportunities, Californians would act quite similarly.

    by MikeD on Apr 27, 2008 at 10:26 pm

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