Regulating People or Regulating Greenhouse Gases?


It seems very likely that a national greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction standard will be established by legislation in the next year. Interest groups are lining up with various proposals, some fairly benign and others potentially devastating.

One of the most frequently mentioned strategies – mandatory vehicle miles reductions – is also among the most destructive. It is predictably supported by the same interests that have pushed the anti-automobile (and anti-suburban) agenda for years, often under the moniker of “smart growth.”

Regrettably, these interests have never understood the economic importance of rapid travel – mobility – throughout the nation’s urban areas. Indeed, one of the factors that makes American metropolitan areas so competitive is that, judging by work trips, travel times are the best in the world for their population. The secret to that success is the ubiquitous mobility of the automobile, which allows people to travel from virtually any point to any other in an urban area in a relatively short period of time. It also helps that automobile travel has become so inexpensive that it is available to more than 90 percent of the nation’s households. Restrictions on driving would change that.

At this point, it is unclear exactly how any attempt to restrict driving might be implemented. It is clear, however, that the consequences will weigh most heavily on the nation’s lower-income, disproportionately-minority households. Any price mechanism would put limits first on the low income households who cannot afford the higher prices. At the same time, attempts to reduce the demand for automobile use by forcing more new development into existing urban footprints (urban areas) would make traffic congestion more severe, increase travel times and intensify air pollution. This approach would fall more harshly on low income households simply because housing prices (and rents) would rise disproportionately in urban areas as the option of opening new suburban developments on inexpensive land is removed or severely restricted.

Mobility is crucial to the economic viability of urban areas and to their citizens, rich and poor. It does no good to claim that alternative transit services will be provided, because they generally cannot compete. According to data from the 2007 American Community Survey, the average transit work trip takes twice as long as the average single-occupant automobile work trip. This means that the average commuter would spend at least an additional eight hours traveling to and from work in a week.

For low income households, this could mean the difference between employment and unemployment. How will a low-income single parent, for example, drop children off at day care centers and continue to work by transit? It might be considered a fortunate case if this could be accomplished in triple the time of the automobile commute.

These dynamics were further demonstrated when University of California Berkeley researchers concluded that African-American unemployment could be substantially reduced if cars were available to non-car households. Brookings researchers put it more directly: “Given the strong connection between cars and employment outcomes, auto ownership programs may be one of the more promising options.” Or, as a Progressive Policy Institute report suggested, “In most cases, the shortest distance between a poor person and a job is along a line driven in a car.”

There is good reason to believe that technological solutions will make it possible for us – including low income households – to continue to live our lives as we do now while substantially reducing GHG emissions. People are already driving less and shifting to more fuel-efficient cars. Volkswagen plans to market 1,000 prototype 235 mile per gallon cars in 2010. They are only two-seaters but could be used for a large share of travel. If, in 2030, one-quarter of US car travel was by such cars, the average fuel economy would be about 75 miles per gallon and concern about cars as a source of GHG emissions would be a thing of the past. And this does not even consider the alternative fuel advances – electric cars, natural gas, hydrogen – that are on the horizon.

There is a broader problem with the idea of restricting driving. This strategy is less about the environment and more about regulating people’s behavior. It is not people that require regulation, it is GHG emissions. There is a subtle but important difference.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”

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Estimates put the number of

Estimates put the number of guitar players in the world at about 50 million. Something like 20 million of these pickers, strummers and shredders are Americans.

I have never thought about

I have never thought about the green gas emissions this way before, but you are right, the government should target the emissions not the people's driving habits. By making efficient cars available for the poor this issue should improve considerable and for this to happen these cars should be more affordable. Those who have electric or hybrid automobiles get a anyways, so i guess the real problem is the auto makers high prices.

And since we're dealing with

And since we're dealing with the reduction of greenhouse gases, it's never been a good idea to restrict people from driving. Auto makers are making any strategies through the production of electric cars (acura oem parts) and plug-ins as an alternative to fuel dependent cars. We can settle for GREEN cars.

A more efficient solution

We could just starting shooting/killing people at random.
Fewer people = lower energy consumption and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, random would actually require using a somewhat complicated selection algorithm. Even more efficient would be to "start with the Jews". After all, everything else gets blamed on them.

Dave Barnes