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A Resilient Suburbia? 2: Cost of Commuting

Jeff Vail, The Oil Drum
In the second post in this series on suburbia and peak oil, I’ll consider one of the threats that peak oil poses to suburbia: the increasing cost of commuting to and from work for suburban residents. My conclusions may surprise readers: suburbanites aren’t particularly vulnerable to the rising cost of gasoline. Instead, like all of us, they are vulnerable to general economic shocks that may be caused by peak oil, but the elasticity of their commuting budgets may better position them to deal with these shocks than urban residents.

The first thing that comes to mind when people discuss peak oil and suburbia is the massive amount of gasoline used to commute to and from work. I think this is also the least problematic. However, to the extent that it is a problem it won’t result in the abandonment of suburbia—rather, it will act as a catalyst to reshape the economic structure of suburbia.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll discuss the hypothetical suburban commuter who drives 10 miles to and from work 22 days each month. I realize that many suburbanites drive farther than this, and that some drive shorter distances, but it’s an easy number to work with. Here’s a graph of what that commute costs each month at varying prices of gasoline and vehicle MPG figures:
(11 November 2008)

European Support for Bicycles Promotes Sharing of the Wheels

Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times
In increasingly green-conscious Europe, there are said to be only two kinds of mayors: those who have a bicycle-sharing program and those who want one.

Over the last several years, the programs have sprung up and taken off in dozens of cities, on a scale no one had thought possible and in places where bicycling had never been popular.

The sharing plans include not just Paris’s Vélib’, with its 20,000 bicycles, but also wildly popular programs with thousands of bicycles in major cities like Barcelona and Lyon, France. There are also programs in Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; and Düsseldorf, Germany. Even Rome, whose narrow, cobbled streets and chaotic traffic would seem unsuited to pedaling, recently started a small trial program, Roma’n’Bike, which it plans to expand soon.

For mayors looking to ease congestion and prove their environmental bona fides, bike-sharing has provided a simple solution: for the price of a bus, they invest in a fleet of bicycles, avoiding years of construction and approvals required for a subway. For riders, joining means cut-rate transportation and a chance to contribute to the planet’s well-being.

The new systems are successful in part because they blanket cities with huge numbers of available bikes, but the real linchpin is technology. Aided by electronic cards and computerized bike stands, riders can pick up and drop off bicycles in seconds at hundreds of locations, their payments deducted from bank accounts.
(9 November 2008)

Congestion pricing: Can tolling be fair?

Clark Williams-Derry, Gristmill
Tolls reduce congestion, but they price people off the roadway


That’s the word that kept crossing my mind as I read this clearly-written report [PDF] about the Puget Sound Regional Council’s study on using road tolls to fight congestion. The study found that a well-designed, comprehensive system of congestion-busting tolls could make a major dent in traffic backups in the Puget Sound. It would also speed up transit, shorten commute times, and reduce gasoline consumption.

But much to its credit, the report also identifies one critical question that may dominate any public debate over congestion pricing: Can tolling be fair?

To collect the data for the study, the PSRC outfitted the cars of 275 volunteers with satellite-based tracking devices that could tell if a car was traveling on a highway or major arterial. These GPS tracking devices work a lot like in-car navigation systems — they can tell precisely which road a car is traveling on.

… The study found that these tolls really worked to fight congestion. The PSRC estimated that the study’s tolling system, if implemented comprehensively, would reduce total vehicles in the Puget Sound travel by about 7 percent. Between that reduction, and changes to the route and time of travel, tolls would make a significant dent congestion.
Cost benefit chart – Traffic Choices

Just as importantly, the study found that the public benefits of “congestion pricing” (as this sort of system is called) vastly outweighed the costs. See the graph to the right: over the long haul, congestion pricing saves travel time on the highway, improves transportation reliability, and reduces road operating costs. These benefits save a whopping $8 for every dollar spent on GPS installation, data transmission, and other administrative costs.

But the benefits of tolling aren’t spread around evenly. Instead, congestion pricing would create “winners” and “losers.” The biggest “winners” would be drivers whose time is worth a lot of money: commercial truckers most of all, but also wealthy private citizens. (If you make $100 per hour, spending $5 to save 15 minutes is a bargain!) Transit riders would also win, since they’ll face shorter travel times at no personal cost.

The “losers” would include people priced off the roadway — folks who’d prefer to drive, but can’t afford to — as well as those who would keep on driving, but pay more in tolls than they receive in time benefits. Perhaps worst-off would be the folks who succumbed to the “drive ’til you qualify” phenomenon: families who moved to a distant suburb where housing seemed more affordable, but where transit simply isn’t an option and car-dependence is the norm.
(13 November 2008)

Infrastructure planning ignores peak oil: ASPO

Transport & Logistics News (Australia)
Without immediate action peak oil will cost Australia up to $80 billion within a decade, a research body has warned.

In a submission to Infrastructure Australia, the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) argued Australia’s domestic oil production had already peaked in 2000, making the nation heavily import-dependent.

“Australian policy-makers must now accept that we have entered a ‘period of consequences’ and adapt to the new realities of the peak oil era,” it said.

“Unfortunately, the Federal Government is yet to even acknowledge peak oil much less formulate a plan for how to sustain the economy in the face of oil decline.”

With almost half of the oil consumed in Australia imported, the petroleum trade deficit is exceeding $12 billion each year. The deficit is expected to reach $40-80 billion by 2015, depending on oil prices and other variables.

“Given Australia’s geography and the nature of its existing transport systems, oil dependence is becoming somewhat of an economic Achilles heel.

“This is clearly unsustainable,” the ASPO said.

It said the nature of Australia’s infrastructure was a key determinant of its oil vulnerability, and much infrastructure investment in recent years exacerbated the nation’s oil dependence.
(13 November 2008)
The submission cited in the article is available as a doc file at the ASPO-Australia website:…