Cars And Stripes Forever

From, Commuting

Alan Pisarski 07.29.08, 6:00 PM ET

As the cost of filling a gas tank creeps toward the three-digit mark, some foresee Armageddon for America’s auto-based lifestyle. Pundits have predicted that we’ll all move back to the city and ride bicycles or take mass transit.

In fact, while American lifestyles are sure to undergo a shift, it will not be away from the automobile.

Transportation, and particularly commuting to work, has always been
about the trade-off between the value of our time and the cost of
transportation. In the ’50s, the cost of transportation was the dominant
consideration for ordinary Americans. Cars and gas were expensive,
and incomes were lower than they are now.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the value of time came to dominate calculations.
Gas and vehicle prices were relatively affordable, but having enough
time for home and family became a critical issue, particularly as more
women joined the workforce.

Today as gas prices rise, exceeding for the first time the real
inflation-adjusted prices of the early ’80s, the pendulum is swinging
back, with operating costs taking on greater weight in decisions about
travel. But this doesn’t mean Americans are going to stop driving.
Over the long term, the American automobile-loving lifestyle will
dominate, and technology will solve our driving conundrums just as
it has before.

Take, for example, the concerns over air quality that arose in
the ’80s. Technological changes were about 105% responsible for
solving our air quality problems, and behavioral changes -5%. Just
as in the ’80s, there was a massive shift from the big steel wagons
of the era to little econo-boxes from Asia, so, too, will we see a
new shift to more sophisticated machinery.

Shifting to new vehicles, to be sure, will take time. The average age
of our cars is around nine years, and the U.S. has more vehicles
than it does drivers. But in the short run, people have a vast array
of actions at their disposal, in many respects even more options than
we did back in 1980.

The first line of defense against rising fuel costs is to maximize efficient
use of the household fleet. The vast majority of homes in America have
two or more cars. Most homes have more vehicles than workers, and
many even have more vehicles than drivers. This permits a very simple
response: Park the gas guzzler, and whenever possible use the most
efficient car. In the ’80s we saw almost a 10% gain in efficiency just
from this shift.

The second thing Americans will soon be doing, if they aren’t already,
is cutting their nonessential driving. This may be more painless than it
sounds. There has been a shift to what we call “trip chaining.” It was
first seen in the response to the oil boycotts of the ’70s, when families
saved up their trips and did not go out until a large itinerary was in
place. Instead of going to the bank, coming back, going to the store,
coming back and so forth, we can put those trips together to reduce
travel time and pollution, while saving on fuel and money.

Drivers returned to trip chaining in the ’80s as a product of time
concerns, when working women made frequent stops on the way to
and from work. Now it’s back again as a cost-reduction tool.

Finally, people are shifting to alternative modes of transportation, but
not always in the most expected ways. Carpooling to work has seen
a very long decline, from about 20% of workers in 1980 down to
around 11% or 12% today. Lots of factors are involved here. The
nature of employment today, the typical size of the workplace and
the dispersal of jobs and homes all combine to make carpooling tough.
When Ford Motor was in its heyday and factory workers all started
when the whistle blew, neighbors often had to be in the same place
at the same time. But today, what are the odds that someone who
lives near you also works near where you work and leaves at about
the same time?

Not great. That’s why more trips today are “fam-pools,” with
members of the same household traveling together if their work situation
permits. And the really immense changes in work travel are more likely
to come from an increase in home-based work and shifting work
schedules. Switching from an eight-hour-a-day, five-day workweek
to a 10-hour-a-day, four-day workweek yields an immediate
20% savings in fuel and time, without any public or private investment

The way we drive will change in the short run, and technology will
come to the rescue in the long run, just as it has before. But those
who predict that the automobile era is over should remember that
most excursions have a goal that is valued by both the trip maker
and society at large–be it a trip to Grandma’s house or a trip to
work. In fact, in economic hard times, some of those trips become
even more critical. The age of the automobile has a long time to go.

Alan Pisarski is the author of the Commuting in America series,
a national report on commuting patterns and trends.
Commuting America III was published in 2006.

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