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Are Passenger Cars The Problem?

By Bruce of Stone Marmot

Sept. 29, 2008

When someone mentions reducing our oil consumption, the almost instantaneous response of many people would be that we have to get rid of SUVs, pickups trucks, and vans and get everyone driving small passenger vehicles. After all, these small passenger vehicles get much more miles per gallon of gas than these other vehicles.

I wonder if we have this backwards, that is, that too many people are driving passenger vehicles.

Think about it. Most of the time personal vehicles are used in this country (the US), they are transporting one or maybe a couple of people and little or no additional cargo. What additional cargo is being transported can often be easily carried by the vehicle occupants. If this is so, why are they using an automobile at all? Why not walk, ride a bike, or use mass transit?

Most won't walk because they live too far from their destination or they are in poor physical condition. They won't ride a bike because they live too far from their destination, they are in poor physical condition, they are afraid they will get dirty or sweaty, or the weather is not good. They don't ride mass transit because there isn't any convenient mass transit between where they live and where they are going.

Back prior to the late 1940s, there weren't a lot of private motor vehicles in this country. Most of them were owned by the upper middle class to rich folk or by people who had a business reason to own a vehicle, such as farmers and delivery people. Most people either lived on a farm or in a town. If they lived in a town, they could walk to most anywhere in town and get most of what they needed in town, since the towns were more self-contained than today. If a town got too big to easily walk around, it almost always had a mass transit system of some sort. It wasn't unusual to see towns of 20,000 people or more with their own street car system.

After World War 2 ended, the US had a lot of extra industrial capacity which was no long needed for making war materials. Many switched to supporting automobile production. Autos became more readily available to those who weren't as wealthy. As more people bought autos, they started moving out of the towns and cities. Less and less people lived within walking distance of their jobs, stores, schools, and other typical weekly destinations. Less and less were riding the mass transit systems and most of these systems soon were shut down because of lack of business.

Now most people live too far from everything of interest to walk or ride a bike, and they are spread too thin to support a mass transit system unless it is very heavily and unreasonably tax subsidized. And the zoning regulations in many areas further aggravate this problem by making difficult to co-locate private residences, jobs, stores, and entertainment. Many areas don't even have sidewalks, making it dangerous to walk even if the destinations were close enough. This situation was caused by too many personal passenger vehicles, making it too easy and convenient for people to live far apart from each other and everything else.

What is further aggravating the energy situation is that in the last 10 to 15 years a lot of people started buying cargo vehicles and using them almost strictly as passenger vehicles. Many of these vehicles carry a serious cargo less than 5 % of the time, if ever.

If we seriously want to reduce oil consumption, ideally personal vehicles should only be used if you are transporting cargo that is not practical to carry, like mulch, lumber, appliances, a large amount of groceries, etc. If you are not transporting such cargo, you should be walking, riding a bike, or using mass transit. Since mass transit can never be practical and self supporting unless you have a minimum population density (my observation of places where mass transit appears successful indicate you need a minimum population density of 5000 people per square mile), we need to go back to the self-contained village sort of lifestyle, with people living much closer together. If we didn't have all these personal passenger vehicles, we could eliminate most of the vast parking lots that surround most shopping, factory, and recreation areas, allowing these places to be much closer together without having to build more vertically than at present.

Many will respond that there is nothing they can do about this. This is something that government needs to fix. But these people choose to live so far from their jobs and so far away from businesses they frequent. Retirees have the most flexibility with regards to where they live but are often the worst offenders in choosing to live in out of the way places. It was a lot of individuals' personal choices that brought this situation about and personal choices can go far to fixing this situation.

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