Travel Less

by David S. Lawyer More articles by David Lawyer

March 2004
In order to conserve energy we need to travel much less than we do today. To do this we need to both reduce the need to travel and make travel more costly. Other methods of conserving are not sufficient and will, in many cases only result in more energy consumption. Thus the best solution to the problem of conserving oil and other resources in passenger transportation is to drastically reduce the amount of travel.

1. Copyright

2. The Evils of Transportation

3. How Much Has Travel Increased?

4. Improving Energy Efficiency Could Be Counterproductive

5. What About Public Transportation ?

6. Living Near Work

7. Government leading the way

8. Shopping Nearby

9. Internet Shopping

10. Energy Taxes

11. Reducing travel

12. Suburbia and Sprawl

13. Notes and References

1. Copyright

Copyright 2004 by David S. Lawyer. Feel free to make copies but commercial use of it is prohibited. For example, you can't (except to an insignificant degree) combine it with advertising on the Internet. Please let me know of any errors or suggestions for improvement.

2. The Evils of Transportation

2.1 Oil

During the last half of the 20th century, the United States become very dependent on foreign oil. In 1950 the US imported only about 8% of its oil but this shot up to well over 50% by the end of the 20th century (2000). Almost 70% of the oil (petroleum) consumed in the US is for transportation. Over 2/3 of transportation energy is used for passenger travel and most all of it is oil. See Transportation Energy Data Book. So reducing the amount of travel would save a great deal of oil.

Oil conservation will not only help to reduced dependence on foreign oil, but will help preserve oil for use by future generations and reduce air pollution resulting from burning it, including reduction of carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to global warming.

2.2 Other Fuels

But other fuels besides oil, such as coal, also pollute and contribute to global warming. So the problem is broader than just to how to save oil. It's how to reduced the amount of energy needed for transportation.

For example, atomic energy used for transportation (such as to generate electricity for electric trains) also has serious problems associated with it. The problem of radioactive waste disposal has not been satisfactorily solved.

2.3 Time

Transportation takes up a lot of people's time which could be better used for other purposes. So reducing the amount of travel (other things being equal) could help save time. The time spent in motorized travel is time which is void of physical exercise. If trips are shorter, it's more feasible to make them by foot or bicycle, thereby giving people some physical exercise, even in cases where there is no savings in time.

3. How Much Has Travel Increased?

In 2000 people in the US travelled almost 200 times as much as in 1900. This was because there were nearly 4 times as many people with each person travelling 50 times as much. In 1900 each person on average, only travelled about a mile a day on rail transportation (steam railroads and streetcars). See Fuel Efficiency of Travel in 20th Century. Is it feasible to reduce travel 50 fold to only 2% of the present volume (the 1900 level)? If we could reduce energy consumption (in all sectors of the economy) to only several percent of the current consumption, then there would be no need to use fossil fuels or atomic energy. Hydroelectric power would then be more than sufficient to satisfy all the demand.

Thus if one presents the changes needed to reduce energy consumption to only a few percent of the current usage, it also covers the case of less drastic reductions. To reduce energy use by a lesser amount, simply don't take all the proposed steps needs for a more drastic reduction.

4. Improving Energy Efficiency Could Be Counterproductive

Besides reducing the amount of travel, there are a number of other ways to supposedly save energy:

All of the above are ways (or alleged ways) to improve energy-efficiency such as increasing the number of passenger-miles per gallon (of gasoline). But history shows that the results of such improvements to energy-efficiency may actually be counterproductive and more (not less) energy may be consumed. For example, in spite of a five fold increase in the energy efficiency of travel in the US during the 20th century, fuel consumption increased 40 fold. See Fuel Efficiency of Travel in 20th Century. Thus, decreasing the volume of travel is perhaps the most effective way to decrease energy consumption.

Regarding shifting to allegedly more energy efficient modes, it's not clear that mass transit is more energy-efficient than the automobile. See (url url="does_mt_saveE.html" name="Does Mass Transit Save Energy ?">.

5. What About Public Transportation ?

Mass transit today, unfortunately, is little more energy-efficient than the automobile. If it's "well" planned, the convenience of using it tends to encourage even more travel, not less. See Does Mass Transit Save Energy ?. So at first glance it seems that public transportation is not part of the solution. But in fact, it can save energy if its presence can make it unnecessary for people to own automobiles, provided that people don't travel much. This would mean that most people would get to work and go shopping on foot or bicycle and use public transportation only for occasional longer trips and outings to destinations too far away to be feasible by human powered transportation.

Some transportation plans set a goal to reduce vehicle-miles traveled but large vehicles use more fuel than smaller ones. So while getting people out of automobiles and into buses will reduce vehicle-miles traveled, it may not save much (if any) energy.

6. Living Near Work

If people live close enough their workplace, then they can easily get to work by walking or bicycling. One way to encourage this is to have housing provided by ones employer very close to ones workplace. This often happened in the past in the United States with so called "company towns". A mining or manufacturing company would not only build the plant, but also construct houses and dormitories nearby for its employees to rent. Something akin to this still continues to this day: university dormitories, farm labor housing, the military, apartment building managers, etc.

6.1 Company Towns

At one time there were many "company towns" in America, where the company not only owned housing but also often provided nearby stores for their workers to shop at. The popular hit song of 1955, 16 Tons, goes: "I owe my soul to the company store". The company store, while in some cases charging excessive prices, was often conveniently located near the company housing so that workers could walk to it. But today, the company town in the U.S. is no more.

6.2 Company Towns and Housing in the Soviet Union (socialism)

In the old Soviet Union (Russia, etc.) many company towns were built (although they were not called by that name). In additon, large companies provided housing for their workers which was often conveniently located near the workplace. And also many cities and towns had government owned housing for citizens. With much fewer automobiles than the US, people needed to live near work.

But there were many favorable and unfavorable features. The most favorable was that rents were very low. The government and industry (owned by the government) usually operated its housing at a loss. Thus with low rents, there was no need to live far away from work due to high rents (as in the United States) But a major problem was the shortage of housing, which continued even after a huge amount of new housing was built. The shortage still existed when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. In the early days of the Soviet Union in the 1930's and 1940's people could find housing but they often had to share, with up to 3 familys living in a single apartment. Then in the late 1950's after Stalin died, Khrushev started building new apartment complexes. By the 1980's most everyone had their own apartment but many apartments were tiny. With low rents, people wanted more space and there were thus long waiting lists to get new housing.

It cost money to build company housing and this money came from company profits. But if it wasn't spent on housing it could be used to pay bonuses to workers and managers. This was a disincentive to build more needed worker's housing. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, there were plans to signifiantly expand housing, but instead, housing was privatized when socialism collapsed in Russia and elsewhere (after the dissolution of the Soviet union and outlawing of the Communist Party).

There is much to be learned from the housing experiece of the former Soviet Union. One thing the author thinks it did wrong was charge too low rents. It should have charged higher rents and used profits for building more housing. It should also have not allocated land to private individuals for them to use to build their own housing. This housing should have been rental. The situation with "dachas" (vacation homes) and Soviet citizens living in dachas and making long commutes by commuter train to work is still another problem.

7. Government leading the way

U.S. government policy needs to be established, promoting the live-near-work theme. As a first step, governments at all levels should seek to provide nearby housing for their employees which it would rent to them. Employees wouldn't be required to live there, but it would be an option. Should such housing be subsidized? Probably not, but it might be better if it were non-profit.

7.1 Job Mobility

With high job mobility, it's easy for people to change jobs to find a job nearer to where they live. Instead of moving to live near work, one justs finds a new job near where they live. An interesting proposal made by Beckwith was to give everyone the right to demand work. This means that one could pick a workplace near where they lived and then demand a job there. If they were qualified for the job they applied for, then they would get it, but the organization that hired them might then need to reduce the hours of other workers so as to keep their total wage bill constant, unless they wanted to increase production.

There are problems with this policy since it might drastically reduce the hours of work of some employees. For example, if a company of say 40 employees takes on a new employee, then it might seem that the hours of work per week by each employee needs to be reduced by one hour. In such a case, the consequences are of minor significance. But suppose that many of the 40 employees are highly specialized. Suppose that just one of them is a computer programmer. Then suppose another qualified computer programmer drops by, demands work and is hired. Then the two programmers only get to work half-time to create the same output as before. Getting ones wages cut in half can be a real calamity.

But what about the right to demand work in cases where the benefit to the employee that gets hired will greatly exceed the total hardship to those whose hours are reduced? Beckwith suggested this right to demand work for a socialist economy, but real socialist economies never did this. But the proposal (in modified form) may also have merit for a capitalist economy.

7.2 Renting

If people rent but don't own, they are more mobile and can more easily move and change jobs. This is the desirable situation from the workers' perspective since it makes it easier for workers to live near work and also to change jobs.

High land rents in some areas can mean that lower income people will live far away from their work so as to save rent money. What is the solution? It's many faceted and includes reduction of population.

Rent control can help keep rents low, but it can also lead to a housing shortage and long commutes for those whose rent is very low due to rent control. Investors are reluctant to build new housing where there is rent control. People who live in rent-controlled housing are often reluctant to move to another location when they change jobs since they will say on rent by staying put. One condition that might ameliorate these negative aspects is making rent control universal throughout the U.S. This requires a constitutional amendment.

7.3 Population Reduction

By reducing population by having less children and restricting immigration, there would be less demand for housing. As a result, rents and land prices would likely decrease. Population density is important too. With high population density, it's often necessary to construct costly, high-rise apartment buildings to house people nearby. But with low population density, cheaper one and two story housing will suffice. Also, with low population density, there should be sufficient vacant land on which to build housing if needed. The presence of such low cost land tends to keep rents down since it offers competition with renting: buy a lot and build a house.

8. Shopping Nearby

Today there are very large shopping centers that people often travel long distances to get to. One solution to this problem is to do more shopping on the Internet. Another is to promote smaller stores located nearby. But will prices in the smaller store be too high?

An unfair advantage that large stores have over smaller ones is that they order in large quantity at lower prices. But the combined orders of many small stores also amounts to ordering in quantity and thus shouldn't be much more expensive to provide. However, the cost of transportation of goods to a smaller store is likely to be a higher since they need less volume.

So one solution is uniform pricing. All retail prices would be about the same, with differences only due to differences in transportation costs. That way, smaller stores would not suffer the disadvantage of having to charge significantly higher prices. Uniform pricing would also apply to wholesale pricing. It would be required to list prices on the Internet which would make uniform pricing easy to enforce. Consumers could readily check on the Internet to insure they are not being overcharged for their purchases.

The uniform pricing scheme would be required by law and be designed to be as efficient as possible with only a relatively modest burden on the government. For the case of competitive goods, prices would be set by manufacturers, including both wholesale and retail pricing. If the manufacturer set the price too high, less would be sold. If the profit made by stores was set too low, they would refuse to carry the good. If it was set too high, less of the good would be sold.

There could be some sort of prohibition of sudden and unjustified jumps in prices. For example one couldn't sell the public a lot of low priced computer printers with low priced ink, and then jump the price of the ink, knowing that people are trapped into buying ink from them.

With uniform pricing, there would be a lot more shopping nearby and large shopping centers would mainly have the advantage of a larger selection of goods.

9. Internet Shopping

Does shopping on the Internet save energy? Goods purchased on the Internet are usually delivered to you by a van which stops at your residence to deliver what is often a very tiny percentage of the goods in the van. Due to all the stops it makes, and the long circuitous route it takes, it likely uses a lot more energy than local delivery of the same goods to a store. Of course if the goods were made far away, there is the energy used for long distance transportation by truck, rail, and/or ship.

But at the same time, Internet shopping saves the energy cost of driving to a store. Transporting a small amount of goods in an automobile is not energy-efficient at all, since the automobile weighs many times more than the goods being transported. So in many cases, Internet shopping will save energy as compared to shopping by automobile. But if one shopped by walking or bicycling to a nearby store, it's likely that even less energy would be used than by Internet shopping. However, with the wide variety of goods available today, people may not be able to find what they want in a local store.

So it seems desirable to make shopping via the Internet better. It seems like it's been a good thing that the Internet hasn't been regulated. Yet some regulation might help. For example, I've observed that many Internet stores don't state their shipping costs until you have already selected what you want to buy. This seems reasonable in a way, since it's not known what the shipping costs will be until you select what you want to buy. But it also seems that many such stores are making money on shipping and handling charges and these charges vary from store to store. Thus, under present conditions consumers need to know shipping costs in advance before deciding on purchases so as to be able to do comparative price shopping.

Also, there's the problem of tendency towards search engine monopoly. One doesn't have time to use a lot of different search engines for searching for the same type of item. So the best search engine is likely to get most of the business. This is turn enables them to charge higher prices for listed businesses in their index and to then be able to use this money to improve their service so that other search engines will not be competitive. This leads to monopoly (which is currently Google). The large number of search engines in a competitive model imposes a undue burden on internet stores to list themselves with almost every search engine (and to have to pay for each listing).

Ideally, there should be one large search engine that is non-profit and possibly subsidized. Subsidy could be financed by a tax on computers. To reduce cost, the software would be provided free by volunteers. But the government would pay for the search engine's computers and internet connections, with suggestions and input from the volunteers. It would also use free software such as the free Linux operating system created by volunteers.

There are problems with fraud in on-line shopping. Buying something from a well-known establishment is usually safe, but buying from individuals or small internet store may be risky. How does one sue them if they cheat you? Could we establish a small claims internet court where testimony is by on-line conferencing? Hearings might be held with the participation of two local small claim courts with a judge present in each court. It's important to have testimony presented not just in writing. Internet courts could initially consider evaluating written statements so as to try to settle some disputes without personal appearances.

10. Energy Taxes

Just making it easier to travel less in not enough. Monetary incentives are also needed and one of the best monetary incentives would be a high tax on energy. It would be passed along to transportation consumers in the form of higher prices for gasoline, higher airline fares, and higher fares for public transportation. It would help save energy not just in travel but for freight transportation and all other uses of energy. Such taxes, so as not to hurt poor people, could be refunded to the public in the form as a yearly energy dividend. Thus if you used less that the average amount of energy during the year, your dividend would exceed what you paid out in energy taxes. If you used more than the average amount of energy, you would sill be in the hole, even after the dividend.

11. Reducing travel

Thus there's a need to substantially reduce travel. That is, to reduce the passenger-miles traveled. Less travel provides many social benefits to society.

12. Suburbia and Sprawl

In the 19th century before say 1890, there wasn't much suburbia because there were seldom any easy ways to get from the countryside to the city. Before 1890, streetcars were mostly pulled by animals and didn't make much better time than walking. The only way to commute to suburbia then was by steam railroad and there weren't many trains, perhaps only a few per day.

City living in 1890 offered many amenities that country living often couldn't. There were often utilities in the city like electricity, telephones, piped gas and water and a sewer system that were not available in the countryside. This, plus the non-existence of automobiles and electric streetcars, resulted in almost no one living in suburbia and commuting to work in the city.

But things changed rapidly to encourage living in suburbia. A major event was the electrification of streetcar lines and extending them to new housing developments at the edge of the city. In the early years of the 20th century (after 1900) one could live in what seemed like the countryside and get to work in the city on the electric interurban rail lines (light rail). The automobile appeared on the scene around 1900 but bad roads and high prices for autos discouraged their use at first. But as autos came down in price and roads were paved, people began to commute to work from suburbia by automobile. The point in time when more people commuted from suburbia by automobile than by railroad depended on the city. It seems likely that for newer cities such as Los Angeles, this happened in the 1920s but for older cities such as New York, it probably happened much later.

The construction of freeways after World War II (1945 on) made it faster to get to work from suburbia. More and more people abandoned the city for suburbia and commuted to work. This of course resulted in more fuel use. But there's another aspect of the story and that's the people who both lived and worked in suburbia. If they worked in the same suburbia that the lived in, they didn't use nearly as much energy in commuting to work. Another tendency was that major corporations began to escape the central city for suburbia. This made it feasible for some people in suburbia to make short commutes to work. Thus one can't just claim that suburbia always implies long commutes to work.

There was also another trend and that was moving beyond suburbia to exurbia. In exurbia there were often few utilities, but technology improvements made it feasible to create ones own utilities. For example, satellite TV made it possible to watch television in the most remote locations. Liquefied petroleum gas made it possible to have gas when there were no gas pipes under the street. Where there was no electricity, gas could be used for both lighting and refrigeration. Or a private electric generation system could be installed.

So the sprawl greatly increased travel, but it was only because that the jobs that people had did not move to the suburbs with them, or perhaps moved to different suburbs.

13. Notes and References

13.1 Transportation Energy

Transportation Energy Data Book: Ch. 2. and Ch. 1. Table numbers are for Edition 23: Table 1.13 "Petroleum Production and Consumption Ratios, 1950-20..", Table 1.14 "Consumption of Petroleum by End-Use Sector, 1973-20..", Table 2.5 "Transportation energy Use by Mode 2000-2001".

For the percentage of transportation energy used for passenger transport, one needs to estimate the percentage of "light truck" transportation used for freight. This is because published tables include SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks under the category: "light truck". These are vehicles with only 4 tires and are used primarily for passenger transport. I'm guessing that 10% of the fuel consumed by "light trucks" is used for freight transportation and the remaining 90% is for passenger transportation. Transporting a small amount of freight that could be transported in the trunk of an automobile is allocated to passenger transportation since passenger transportation includes transportation of their luggage.

Also, the "off-highway" category of "vehicles", including earth moving equipment and farm tractors is shown as one of the major transportation modes in the Trans. Energy Data Book table 2.5. But much of this is really not transportation. It should be categorized as energy use in construction and farming. More details will be found in "Off-Highway Transportation-Related Fuel Use by Stacy C. Davis, et. al., Oak Ridge National Laboratory 2004.

13.2 Economics

Beckwith, Burnam P., The Economic Theory of a Socialist Economy, Stanford University Press, 1949.