Category Archives: cars

Ray Bradbury on why cars are evil, the freedom and discipline you need as a writer, plus historic views of Venice, CA

This is about a half hour long, but I promise you, you won’t regret watching, if only for the terrific glimpse at what Venice, CA, was, before it redeveloped.

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In which I discuss Federal Transport Policy for USC’s Road to the Whitehouse series

Now that Rick Santorum has left the race, everything is much less interesting, and I have to go back to real work.

However, if you wish to spend some time listening to me wax eloquent, here is a link.

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Filed under Bus, cars, talks and lectures

The Electric DeLorean

I don’t drive, and I couldn’t afford a $90K car even if I did, but I am still ridiculously excited about the prospect the DeLorean will return as an EV.

Gullwing doors! For added impracticality.

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Obama’s new CAFE Standards as a tax break

Eagle-eyed reader Don C referred me to this nice Op-Ed from the statesman.com Ready for an Obama Tax Break: TxDOT might not be by Ben Wear. The key point:

Hang on first for some math.

Let’s say a Pflugerville physics schoolteacher drives 15,000 miles a year and, by coincidence, has a car that averages right at that 28 mpg existing standard. She would need 536 gallons to do that.

She pays both a state gasoline tax of 20 cents a gallon (which hasn’t increased since 1991) and a federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon (locked in since 1993). So her annual tax hit (paid invisibly at the pump) is $107 to the state and almost $99 to the feds. So, about $206 a year.

With a 56 mpg car, her total tax would be $103. Oh, and at $3.40 a gallon (and subtracting the gas taxes), she would save another $800 by buying half as much gasoline.

But here’s the problem, from a statewide perspective. TxDOT, which gets about three-quarters of that state gas tax revenue and about the same percentage of what Texans pay in federal gas taxes (because a quarter of it, unfairly in the eyes of Texas officials, is then distributed to other states), would lose a couple of billion dollars a year. Ouch.

I had to look up Pflugerville.

Finance folks in transport have seen this train coming for some time. The GAO issued a report in 2009 discussing the issue of improved fleet fuel economy on Federal coffers. Most of us have argued we should go with a mileage fee, or usage subscriptions for autos. Both of which could be handled by leases to private companies.

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Filed under cars, energy, regulation

Me writing in the Los Angeles Times this morning

I wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times on the Greek privatization issue. It appears here.

Here are some of the assets the Greeks are selling off.

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Filed under cars, finance and pricing, high speed rail, rail

A primer on CAFE standards and “Better Than Nothing” Policies

My brilliant colleague, Richard Green, an economist, is acting like an economist about CAFE standards over on his blog. I have a retort, though an addled one. Peter Gordon, another brilliant and genteel colleague of mine, has also weighed in. Economists agree: a carbon tax is the way to go.

CAFE stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. It’s one of those regulations that people tend not to understand terribly well because the rules are complicated. Here’s a nice overview by NHTSA.

President Obama, like just about everybody else for the past 20 years, wants to raise CAFE standards. For passenger vehicles, Obama wants to go from 25 mph to 39 mph by 2016 (that gives us 5 years to get there).

The rules pertain to a harmonic mean fuel economy of the fleet of cars that a manufacturer produces in a given model year. During the SUV craze (which doesn’t seem to be over if west-side Los Angeles is any indicator), US manufacturers could cash in on gas guzzling SUVs because they were not really considered passenger cars (defined by a weight of 8,500 pounds). The original limit was intended to keep farm and industrial equipment exempt from regulation, such as medium-duty trucks used by farmers and contractors. The wrangling over getting a set of light-duty truck fuel standards (for urban SUVs, used almost exclusively as commuting vehicles) took us a decade, and the damage was done. SUVs not subject to the standards have already penetrated the US fleet, where they will stay on average for 7 to 12 years. We have to make sure those glitches are gone if any revamped regulation–at all–is to be effective in raising fuel economy.

The penalties for CAFE noncompliance have also not risen concomitant with inflation. BMW and Mercedes famously have paid CAFE fines just about every year from 1983 to just recently (2008, largely because of the recession affecting their US sales). Right now, I believe manufacturers have to pay $55 for each vehicle they sell per each 1 mpg below their fleet target. Those types of penalties can be relatively small, and for luxury importers like BMW and Mercedes, they can easily pass those costs along to their buyers.

Automakers can get thus around the law–that’s a problem. And in addition, some economists have argued that by forcing fuel economy, cars became less safe than otherwise:

Lave, Charles and Lester Lave, “Fuel Economy and Auto Safety Regulation: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?” Pages 257-290 in Essays in Transportation Economics and Policy: A Handbook in Honor of John R. Meyer, edited by Jose Gomez-Ibanez, William B. Tye, and Cliffor Winston, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1999.

(aka one of my favorite transportation books of all time).

The argument: cars had to get lighter and thus they got less crash-safe.

As a result, CAFE has few friends other than environmentalists, and many environmentalists I think have stopped advocating around car technology in favor of advocating for Smart Growth or the New Urbanism. After all, raising fuel economy just makes cars less expensive to use, and that flies in the face of the ideas behind these two urban models.

So here are my problems, in a set of bullet points:

1) Yes, absolutely, a carbon tax or simple higher petrol taxes would accomplish the same thing as revamped CAFE standards, and at lower cost. However, I don’t see how a tax would avoid the same safety issues that Lave and Lave (1999) talked about. The basic engineering principles mean you go lighter if you want to use less fuel; we don’t have any strap-on technologies analogous to the carburetor in 1980s or fuel injection that we can turn to. The alternative would be more hybrids, which are also lighter.**

2) Tax aversion pretty much seems to be controlling the world of US policy right now. I’m told that any and all taxes, even ones that would be good for us like most Pigouvian taxes, are off the table, forever and ever, amen.

3) So that means we are left with fuel economy regulation or…nothing?

4) Nothing may have fairly steep consequences. By far—BY FAR–the most effective thing we could for climate change emissions reduction in transportation is improving the fuel economy of the passenger fleet on the road for the next 20 years. Not even in analyses written by the most religious New Urbanist/Smart Growthy people can fudge the fact that most substantial, most immediate gains to be had in climate policy come from changing fuel economy as VMT changes marginally in response to built environment changes, and those built environment changes are happening slowly–even more slowly now that the recession has become permanent.

5) So, yes, it’s costlier and more convoluted to regulate cars via CAFE, but if it’s the only game in town, the additional costs associated with raising the fuel economy of the fleet becomes the price tag of tax aversion—not the fault of the second-best policy. It’s a legitimate democratic choice for voters to prefer to avoid taxation in favor of a costlier strategy. We can’t blame the costlier strategy for being costlier if the optimum isn’t the optimum according to voter preferences. I didn’t make up these rules: but Americans would rather pay more overall for fuel economy changes than pay taxes, well, that is what it is.

This “better than nothing” is the argument made to me for years about congestion pricing. Voters hate it; we aren’t going to do it. So we’re going to build lots of trains to alleviate congestion, and those trains will, in turn, be underused because we’re not pricing autos properly. But building and running half-empty trains is a “better than nothing” policy.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But it’s a debate worth having.

**See comments for Gabriel Rossman’s referral to the Continuous Variable Transmission technology, which would allow for fuel economy improvements without going lighter. (I still wonder, though, because the models where the CVT has been employed aren’t taking us up the economy notches that a harmonic average of 39 would need to go–the Cube, the Maxima, etc. Remember that this is a harmonic average. You have a number of ways of achieving it, and one of the most expedient is chopping off your lower tail of the distribution of models you are producing.)

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Filed under cars, energy

Hilter rants about Carmageddon

For reasons beyond me, the New York Times and other national news outlets appear to be interested in Carmageddon, which is what we here Los Angelenos have dubbed the plan to close the 405 (aka the San Diego) freeway for two days.

This is the part of the 405 that is being closed, lest you think all the hysteria is somehow justified:

Voila Capture85

But then, west LA is the center of the world.

The Fifth District is represented by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Before anybody snorts that county politics are uninteresting, let me point out that County Supervisors in Los Angeles County determine services and policy for over 9 million people–more than many US governors. Yaroslavsky’s office created a list of 53 things families can do to avoid the mishagosh.

Finally,here’s a little mashup worth watching, sent to me by one of my brilliant colleagues (who shall go unnamed due to the massive use of the F-word here; be warned). It’s Hitler’s staff breaking the news that the 405 is going to be closed:

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Filed under cars

LA Will Lead in Electric Vehicle Sales?

UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation has a nice report out that is getting some press: LA is expected to be a leader in electric vehicle sales.

Here’s a quote from the KCET story:


What does that mean in actual numbers? In 2015, a 9% market share of new car sales is estimated to be 30,000, with a total of some 230,000 purchased through 2020. Those numbers sharply contrast sales this year. “The analysis predicts just over 2,000 electric vehicles will be sold in Los Angeles in 2011,” explained Luskin Center director J.R. DeShazo. “This number is due to the limited supply of electric vehicles; even if more residents are inclined to purchase them, it just isn’t possible right now.”

I’m sure the Luskin folks are right about LA being an early adoption area, but the long-term trends for energy costs in California are not cheap for any energy supply, electricity included. I wish I knew more about the grid in California, but I wonder how the infrastructure is really going to manage all the charging, even if it is happening off-peak. But I may be completely wrong here–I need to learn more about the basics of energy production in the state.

As one of my brilliant PhD students says, with an EV you are polluting residents of nearby states. Of course, you’re doing the same with your ICE vehicle (emissions can transport across large geographies).

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.

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In which epidemiologists tell us what we already knew

I’m on the editorial board of Transportation Research Part A, and it’s an excellent journal by any measure. But one article this morning seemed so promising, and then rather failed to deliver:

Graham-Rowe, E., Skippon, S., Gardner, B. & Abraham, C., 2011, Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

Great, right? Another review, and we probably needed another review after this inappropriately optimistic one appeared in JAPA last year:

Ewing, R. & Cervero, R., 2010, Travel and the built environment, Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(3).

The latter review was problematic because it summarized the evidence and then concluded “Yes, well, all the empirical evidence shows small effect and insignificant effect sizes, but we still think our interventions work under the right conditions.”

There comes a point where you have to wonder if those right conditions are feasible if the research can’t find them time and time again.

However, Graham-Rowe sort studies according to quality, stating what’s obvious to everybody: there aren’t enough randomized trials in applied social science research.

Gee, ya think?

There’s a reason why the high quality studies are looking at program evaluations and why the cross-sectional studies look at before and after projects. Unlike medical and psychological research, researchers in my world don’t get to randomly select controls for anything other than programs, and often not even then because there are practical problems with employers or city governments allowing some employees or residents–but not others–to participate in a program that carries a benefit, like being paid not to drive.

So undeniably, we’d have better research if I could select random samples and controls for selected interventions, use our godlike hands to pick drivers up by their heads, place them in case-control groups according to intervention versus non-intervention environments or programs, and make them live there/participate as long as we wanted them to. Unfortunately, doing that sort of thing in societies where human beings have freedom of movement and self determination tends to be frowned on.

The takeaway–AGAIN–is that self-selection and endogeniety go hand and hand. Gargh.

I don’t see a path out of this cycle of research-critique. We’ve hit a stalemate. People who are advocates of particular position–that mixed land uses and transit supply reduce auto use–are like Fox Mulder: “I want to believe.”

Social scientists can try to tinker on the margins of what we have, with instrumental variables and various econometric contraptions strapped on to different datasets, but there’s no way around the residential self-selection problems here.

We can publish critique after critique, and perhaps that’s useful, but I don’t see how. We know where we are with this research–and we also know that planning, policy, and forecasts are thundering ahead with the “I want to believe” attitude. The alternatives to believing aren’t particularly attractive, either.

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Filed under cars, compact development, Uncategorized

Davis and Kahn on the effects of used vehicle imports on emissions

Davis, Lucas and Matthew Kahn. 2010. International trade in used vehicles: The environmental consquences of NAFTA. Economic Policy. 58-82.

Davis and Kahn set up a nice little set of models to help us understand what has likely happened in the durable goods market for vehicles. In comparatively higher income countries, used durables like cars are likely to get traded out to lower income countries–here, the US and Mexico. And since older durables emit more than new cars, they find that this robust trade in used vehicles increases lifetime emissions as Mexico consumers substitute away from transit use to used car consumption and those cars stay in use longer. An excellent paper: I highly encourage you to go read (and to spring for membership in the American Economic Association: you get lots of good journals and a calendar with economist centerfolds! One of my happiest investments this year.)

A couple of weak points: they say at the beginning that they establish that trade makes emissions go up in both countries. No, they actually show that emissions go down in the US but up in Mexico, and the increases in Mexico outstrip the reductions in the US. I don’t love the way they calculate emissions: they have to make some assumptions about the distribution of vehicle miles of travel, and I suspect that it is possible, given their analysis, that trade make makes VMT go up in both countries. Moreover, they note that costs of repairs are low in Mexico, yet they really don’t calculate how repairs can significantly improve engine performance. A car isn’t as good as new, but that doesn’t mean it stays a clunker after it’s traded. This may be particularly true depending on where the used car ends up in Mexico: Mexico City has different incentives and regulations for fixing up a car than other parts of the country.

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Filed under air quality, cars, climate change