The latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is all about our long, risky, and mostly unrequited love affair … with the automobile. (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
For more than 100 years, we’ve relied on the car to get from place to place; it changed the way we think about distance. But it has also been a deathtrap. John W. Lambert, the man who built the first gas-powered car in America, in 1891, got into a crash. You’ll hear about it from his great-granddaughter Carol Lambert. Read More »
From a reader named Kevin Murphy (alas, not the Kevin Murphy):
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The Economist just reported on what you covered in the “The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon” podcast in February. It’s looking like Oregon is leading the way in possibly charging per mile: “A bill that would have applied a VMT fee to all new vehicles doing 55mpg and above died in the last legislative session; instead, 5,000 volunteers will join a new VMT scheme in July 2015. They will be charged at 1.5 cents per mile rather than paying the state petrol tax (30 cents per gallon).”
Michael Sivak, a transportation scholar at the University of Michigan whose work has appeared on this blog before, released a new study on inter-state variations in economic activity per unit of driving. His findings are interesting and reflect significant differences in GDP per distance driven among U.S. states:
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In 2011, the highest GDP per distance driven was in the District of Columbia ($30.04/mile, followed by Alaska, New York, Connecticut, and Delaware. The lowest GDP per distance driven was in Mississippi ($2.51/mile), followed by Alabama, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The median value was $4.66/mile. In comparison, the standard federal reimbursement rate for fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile in 2011 was $0.51/mile.
From 1997 to 2011, the largest absolute increase in GDP per distance driven (with GDP measured in current dollars) was in the District of Columbia (+$14.95/mile), followed by Alaska, New York, Delaware, and Oregon. The smallest increase was in Mississippi(+$0.67/mile), followed by Alabama, Michigan. Florida, and New Mexico.
The absolute number of vehicles reached a maximum in 2008. However, it is likely that this was only a temporary maximum and that the decline after 2008 was primarily driven by the current economic downturn that started in 2008. Consequently, with the improving economy and the expected increase in the U.S. population, it is highly likely that (from a long-term perspective) the absolute number of vehicles has not yet peaked.On the other hand, the rates of vehicles per person, licensed driver, and household reached their maxima prior to the onset of the current economic downturn. Consequently, it is likely that the declines in these rates prior to the current economic downturn (i.e., prior to 2008) reflect other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles (e.g., increases in telecommuting and in the use of public transportation). Therefore, the recent maxima in these rates have better chances of being long-term peaks as well.
But Sivak is smart enough to hedge his prediction:
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However, because the changes in the rates from 2008 on likely reflect both the relevant societal changes and the current economic downturn, whether the recent maxima in the rates will represent long-term peaks as well will be influenced by the extent to which the relevant societal changes turn out to be permanent.
When you are a transportation professor, it is your privilege to hear a lot of zany ideas. I have heard about a scheme to create a fleet of intercontinental freight zeppelins (actually, this may not be quite as zany as it sounds). Fifty years after The Jetsons, there are still dogged advocates of flying cars. The most common thing I hear is that we should attack congestion by building monorails down the medians of the freeways. I have no idea how the monorail has bewitched our citizenry (too many trips to Disneyland?), or what precisely is so offensive about the idea of trains that run on two rails, but it’s amazing how beloved the monorail is, so much so that an episode of the Simpsons parodied it. Monorail! Monorail!
Because I love hearing people’s ideas and have no desire to be rude, I engage in an exacting regimen of meditation, yoga, and deep breathing so I can exhibit the equanimity of a lama when hearing goofy ideas. But occasionally something comes up that none of my mantras or self-hypnosis can handle.
Some thinkers make their reputations by focusing on social justice, economic progress, or global sustainability. I took the low road and went for horse manure. It was my article on filth, flies, and putrefying horse carcasses in the 19th century city that brought me to the attention of Dubner and Levitt and, for better or worse, to this site. FYI, the article is here.
If you do peruse it, you’ll see I ended with the hope that technology will bail us out of our transportation problems just like it bailed us out of those caused by the horse. At that time, a deus ex machina descended from the heavens to improbably solve the insoluble. The savior was known as the automobile, and as it went from obscurity to ubiquity in a few decades it banished the working horse—a primary mode of transportation for thousands of years—to oblivion.
There was only one problem with my call for a miraculous technological fix: I did not have the slightest idea what that technology would be. Read More »
A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?
They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and — depending on the author’s point of view — self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full. (For example, see this.)
But in the real world, this is emphatically not the case. Read More »
More than 25 per cent of trade between the U.S. and Canada goes over the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The bridge, built in 1929, has since 1979 been owned by one individual — Matty Moroun. He also owns duty-free stores and sells gasoline that escapes taxes. The Bridge isn’t quite a monopoly—there is also a tunnel; but the Bridge is more convenient for a lot of traffic.
Michigan has a constitutional amendment on the ballot requiring that any new bridge be approved by voters before state money is spent on it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bridge owner is funding a large advertising campaign supporting the amendment. No monopolist likes to have the stream of monopoly profits diminished, which a new bridge would surely do. His political advertising is a smart move for him—a good way to ensure a continuing flow of profits. Whether it’s good for Michigan, for U.S.-Canada trade and the well-being of the average North American consumer is questionable. (HT to DJH)