Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wir fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr'n...mit Rad, Bus und Bahn

American economist Paul Krugman was apparently in Berlin recently, and he had some nice things to say about German urban planning and public transportation. (Via German Joys)

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Notice that I said that cars should be fuel-efficient — not that people should do without cars altogether. In Germany, as in the United States, the vast majority of families own cars (although German households are less likely than their U.S. counterparts to be multiple-car owners).

Krugman is right that this is not an issue of being 'anti-car': Germans, in my experience, love their cars.

But the average German car uses about a quarter less gas per mile than the average American car. By and large, the Germans don’t drive itsy-bitsy toy cars, but they do drive modest-sized passenger vehicles rather than S.U.V.’s and pickup trucks. [...]

And he's also right that they're not all driving micro-sized sub-compacts. There are a lot of substantial mid-sized cars on the road in Germany. You know, the ones you often see swishing by near the speed of sound on the Autobahn.

Some of these cars are not all that fuel efficient (especially when driven near the speed of sound), and the German auto industry has hardly been at the forefront of environmental technology (allowing Japan to gain an advantage in hybrids and the French to do so in diesels with particle filters to clean up their exhaust. I know that for many Americans the phrase 'French auto industry' is kind of a joke. They should get out more.)

However, truly monster-sized gas-guzzlers are a rarity. You see them, but they're rare enough that you notice seeing them.

Fuel prices have also, of course, been rising in Europe, where -- compared to America -- they were already quite high. Almost three years ago, the Christian Science Monitor pointed out that European were paying something around $7 a gallon. These days, we're paying about $8.25 for a gallon of diesel. Like about 40% of Europeans (according to the Monitor article), we drive a diesel, which has greater fuel economy: a little over 40 miles per (US) gallon in our case. (We buy it, of course, in litres. I've converted the measures for comparability. Because of differential taxation, diesel in Germany is cheaper than petrol -- but only just barely anymore.)

But, as Krugman points out, this is not just about fuel economy.

Can we also drive less? Yes — but getting there will be a lot harder.

There have been many news stories in recent weeks about Americans who are changing their behavior in response to expensive gasoline — they’re trying to shop locally, they’re canceling vacations that involve a lot of driving, and they’re switching to public transit.

But none of it amounts to much. For example, some major public transit systems are excited about ridership gains of 5 or 10 percent. But fewer than 5 percent of Americans take public transit to work, so this surge of riders takes only a relative handful of drivers off the road.

Among the various interesting bits of information in a recent report in Der Spiegel on how average Germans live, were statistics on how they get to work. (The whole report is here--a pdf, in German--and the relevant stats are on page 73, where you'll also find the very useful fact that 72% of Germans regularly sing while driving.)

Overall, about 13% of Germans commute via public transport. That's interesting -- even if I found it to be surprisingly low. (Still, it's more than twice the proportion of Americans.) More intriguing is the fact that 18% apparently commute via bicycle or even by foot.

Of course, this is based upon the fact that -- overall -- Germans are able to make these choices. And this is not an accident, but rather the result of a long-term town planning and transport policies.


Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this [i.e., the minor rises in American public transit usage] — it will mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

I think it did.

It's not as if Europe is a paradise of rational foresight or a smoothly-functioning eco-utopia.

But what Krugman's article points out is the way that sensible planning (typically mocked by Americans as government interference) can increase freedom and allow people a greater array of options in living their lives.

And this is not simply true in large cities like Berlin.

We live in a small town in what is arguably 'the country' (I mean, we have tractors going by our front door every day, and a very short walk takes you into vineyards or fields planted with various crops...for someone born and raised in the suburbs, this is the country to me).

However, since the town -- like most small towns I've seen here -- is quite densely planned, we can walk to get essentially anything we need.

There are also lots of buses, some of which travel at least semi-regularly through surrounding villages.

Now, it's not as if all of this mass transit works perfectly or is ideal. But were we to become fully dependent upon it, we could manage with only a relatively small change in our lifestyle.

In much of the US, this is not the case.

Coincidentally, Molly Ivors at Whiskey Fire is soon to embark on an experiment to see just what shifting to mass-transit might mean.

Initial signs suggest this might be a good idea for her and her family:

The cold, hard, facts: A monthly bus pass costs less than a tank of gas.

Here on Liberal Mountain, we have two cars. One is a minivan which assures us it's a low-emission vehicle, but gets crappy gas mileage (about 20 mpg). It has a 26 gallon tank which, at current prices, costs us just over $100 to fill. We generally do so once or twice a week. The other is a small economy car which mostly belongs to the teen now. That gets slightly better mileage (about 30 mpg, on average), but also has a smaller tank. We generally spend about $50 filling that one weekly.

A bus pass for one adult for one month, entitled to bring up to three children free, is $35.

Sounds pretty good, only:
the bus doesn't actually come here. We have two choices, then. We can either (a) call the rural route bus, which is like a jitney and runs $2 per adult, or (b) drive to a place where the bus will meet us, preferably a parking lot where we can leave the car all day, maybe at a shopping center or similar. There are two places I can think of off the top of my head: one, a strip mall with Wal-Mart and Sam's Club and Barnes & Noble and stuff like that; the other the local library. The strip mall is 9.15 miles from Liberal Mountain, the library is 8.3 miles. So getting to either of those would mean driving more than half the distance to work anyway.
I can sympathise. I actually spent about 5 car-free years in America, actually in an area (suburban Maryland/Washington D.C.) with a reasonably good transit system. You get used to it, but even there it didn't always go where I needed and some of the routes were quite infrequent.

I'll be interested to see what Molly finds out about switching to the bus.

Of course, as Krugman points out, having spent a good half a century in constructing a society based upon cars and long-distance commutes, any improvement in the US is only going to come gradually.

But, it seems that it's going to have to come somehow.

Previous Obscene Desserts articles on related topics:
Going out on a line
Running on Empty (Words)
Auf Wiedersehen Wal-Mart

And in other 'Magic Bus' news...

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