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A Year Without a Car

On March 1, 2008 I sold my Nissan Micra in Aberdeen, Scotland and hopped a plane to Amsterdam to take up a new position. I have not owned a car since that time. A while back someone asked what that experience has been like, and suggested I write a story on it. So here it is.

While in Europe

It is really a tale of two continents. In large parts of Europe, one can get along reasonably well without a car. In the past year, I have worked at my company’s Accoya factory in the Netherlands most of the time. I fly in to Amsterdam, and there is a train station right in the airport. I catch a direct, 1 hour and 15 minute train to the Arnhem Central Train Station. From there, it’s a 15-minute cab ride to my apartment. (If you want to argue that my international flights more than offset any fuel savings from biking to work, you won’t get any argument from me. But in this economy, you do what you have to).

I secured an apartment that is only about half a mile from work, and I adopted the common Dutch habit of riding my bike to work. I certainly don’t feel safe all of the time with cars whizzing past me, and at times it has been an inconvenience, but the vast majority of the time the bike suits me just fine.

As for the inconvenience, if I want to go out to eat, I am around a mile from the nearest restaurant. When visitors come over to the factory to visit, I often find myself riding the bike in the dark, to a restaurant that may be 3 miles from my apartment. That may seem like a piece of cake, but I have done it in the snow, in freezing rain, and with a fierce wind in my face. It would certainly be more convenient to hop in a car and go.

The worst inconvenience to date was when I had a bad cold, and my secretary made me a doctor’s appointment on short notice. I hopped on my bike and rode a mile and a half in a freezing downpour. I could have probably bothered someone to take me, but I really try to be as low-maintenance as possible.

I do have other options, and I utilize them. There is a bus stop near my apartment, and I use it quite a lot. During the day the bus comes frequently, but later in the evening it only runs once an hour, and then stops altogether at about 10 p.m. (Incidentally, I learned one night while waiting for a bus at 10 that’s when the prostitutes come out and take over the bus stops).

For trips of intermediate length, a cab is another option I utilize from time to time. When I fly home, I have to catch a train at 6 a.m. That’s always a cab ride to the station. If I want to travel to another major European city, the train connections are superb. However, if you want to venture out into the countryside, it may be more difficult. My son wants me to take him to Normandy this summer, and that’s almost impossible to do without a car because the major points of interest are scattered over several miles, and there aren’t easy train connections to my knowledge. So this summer I expect to rent a car in Europe for the first time.

Meanwhile, Back in Texas

But as I said, it is a tale of two continents. When I fly back to Texas, it is hard to do without a car. I fly into the airport, and the first thing I have to do is catch a cab for the 35-mile drive to my house.

I bought a house 25 miles from my Dallas office, because 1). I hate cities, so I chose a house in the country; 2). I knew I wasn’t going to have to spend that much time in the office. 3). Because the housing bubble was imploding, I got a builder’s foreclosure for about half the appraised price. If I had to make that commute every day, I would have sucked it up and bought a house closer to the office, preferably close to some kind of public transportation. From where I live, public transportation isn’t an option, so I rent a compact car when I have to be in the office, or borrow my wife’s car if the kids are out of school.

How long can I keep this up? To be honest, I never thought I could keep it up for over a year. My initial assignment involved several straight months in the Netherlands, and I thought I would have to buy a car when I returned. But every time I do a cost benefit analysis, I can never justify it when I only need it one or two weeks a month. I have no registration fees or maintenance to pay, and I don’t have to keep insurance on it, because my insurance company covers me for a car rental at no extra cost. In the past six months, I have spent a total of $825 on car rentals. I don’t think a car purchase makes economic sense until I find myself spending 3-4 times this amount over a six month period. Given my current work arrangements, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Besides, I like the idea of living without a car. I will continue to put it off as long as possible, even if it occasionally means riding my bike to the doctor in the freezing rain.

Footnote

On an unrelated footnote, the 2009 EIA Energy Conference takes place on April 7th and 8th. The conference is free, so feel free to drop by if you are in the area. There are a number of topics that look interesting, including the following two plenary talks:

Energy and the Macroeconomy – William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics, Yale University

Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World – John W. Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

There are also a number of panel sessions, including:

The Future for Transport Demand

What’s Ahead for Natural Gas Markets?

Meeting the Growing Demand for Liquids

Financial Markets and Short-Term Energy Prices

Investing in Oil and Natural Gas – Opportunities and Barriers

I have been asked to participate on the panel Energy and the Media. The other panelists are Steven Mufson from the Washington Post and Eric Pooley from Harvard University (who was also former managing editor at Fortune). Mufson is the main energy reporter for the Post, and I think he does a good job of reporting the important stories. I have read a lot of his work, and have spoken to him on at least one occasion. Then there’s me, the energy blogger. Please humor me and let’s not play the game “Which One is not Like the Others?” 🙂

Here’s where I could use some assistance. I have a general idea of the themes I would like to explore. Namely, I want to discuss the amount of energy misinformation, which I think stems from some reporters really not having the background to know when they are being misled. We as a nation have a low energy IQ, and that creeps into many of the stories in the media. The TDP fiasco is a perfect example. Had the reporters dug a bit more and been more critical, it would have been another possibly interesting next generation fuel experiment, instead of something that ultimately had a lot of taxpayer money thrown at it.

But what else? What other themes should be examined on a panel entitled Energy and the Media?

March 16, 2009 Posted by | cars, DOE, EIA, Energy Information Administration, mass transit, Netherlands, texas | 83 Comments

Peak Convenience

In the U.S. (and most of the developed world), people are accustomed to great convenience. We live in climate-controlled homes, wake up each morning, take a hot shower, and then eat a breakfast consisting of foods from halfway around the world. We hop into our cars, adjust the temperature, and head off to work. We fly across the country for a few hundred dollars. We send letters from coast to coast for 42 cents. For us, ‘inconvenience’ occurs when a store is closed on Sunday.

‘Those people’ living in far away places who have to put up with the inconvenience of intermittent power, no heating or cooling, and who have to walk everywhere they go (or ride packed buses/trains) are only images on television. Yet compared to the U.S., much of the rest of the world deals with inconvenience on a daily basis.

But as oil prices have climbed – and have taken almost everything up with them – people are starting to give up some conveniences. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 2007 saw usage of public transportation at a 50-year high. 2008 has seen additional increases in mass transit usage. People are starting to give up the convenience of personal transportation. (For some like me that hate to drive, mass transit isn’t such an inconvenience. If it takes me longer to get to work, I can work on the bus, and I get to let someone else do the driving.)

Some are losing the convenience of air travel:

And you think you’re trying to save gas …

[Dan] Garton [American Airline’s executive vice president of marketing] admits that some current flyers simply will not be able to fly.

“It’s an unfortunate part of this because our country has gotten accustomed to being able to fly somewhere for the weekend,” he said. “Everybody can go see Aunt Millie for her birthday, and some of that may change for some of our customers. Seventy-eight percent of our customers fly once a year. And so some of those people may not be able to fly anymore, because we will raise our prices by hook or by crook.”

Yes, airlines are going to have to raise prices to survive. And the high cost of oil not only takes a bigger cut out of personal transportation budgets, but it drives up the cost of producing food, and the cost of getting the food to the store. For some, growing a garden to help stretch the food budget isn’t necessarily a burden (unless you are 12-years old and would rather play Rock Band on your Xbox than pull weeds in the garden). But it certainly is less convenient than dropping by your local grocery store and finding that your favorite foods are never out of season.

The thought struck me as I got ready for work a couple of days ago that we may have reached ‘peak convenience’ as a result of high oil prices, which I believe are here to stay. Most people are going to find that certain conveniences that we have taken for granted during the age of cheap oil are less attainable (i.e., more expensive) than they once were. I can see a future in which something like the morning shower shifts to later in the day, after the solar water heater has had time to heat up the water. Or we have to drop our electrical usage way down at night because our solar output has dropped off. People are definitely going to have to become accustomed to tracking their electricity usage, to avoid a very big surprise at the end of the month. (On the flip side, I think we will continue to make medical and technological advances, so it isn’t as if I think we are headed back to the Stone Age).

Having grown up without great convenience (by Western standards), I don’t think I will have a difficult time adjusting. However, many I know would never consider public transportation. I know people who would circle the Walmart parking lot 10 times before they would walk from a parking spot that isn’t within 50 feet of the front door. The only food they have ever known comes from the supermarket. These are the same people who scream the loudest for the government to do something about rising gas prices. These are also the people who I think will have the most difficult time adjusting to the new reality imposed by high oil prices. Some will sink ever further into debt as they wait in vain for the government to fix the problem.

July 13, 2008 Posted by | airplane transportation, food prices, mass transit, oil prices, Peak Convenience | 21 Comments

Mumbai’s Deadly Trains

Given my recent trip to Mumbai – in which I took a trip on a very packed train – this story caught my attention:

Mumbai’s deadly trains claim a dozen daily

MUMBAI (AFP) – The death toll on Mumbai’s railways averages a dozen a day — more than a whole year on New York’s subway system, which has an average annual accidental death rate of eight.

In the first four months of this year, 1,146 commuters died and 1,395 were injured, railway police said.

Many of the victims had been hanging on the side of the packed trains, unable even to wedge themselves inside, and fell to their deaths after losing their grip, they said.

Last year’s total toll was 3,997 deaths and 4,307 injuries.

“We could enforce a limit on the number of people on a train but people still need to go to work. They’ll sit on the tracks and stop trains from moving,” Central Railways chief security commissioner BS Sidhu said.

A dozen a day? That is stunning to me. Now I know what my friend Kapil meant, when he asked if I wanted to ride the train there. His question was “Are you feeling adventurous?”

June 27, 2008 Posted by | India, mass transit, Mumbai | 8 Comments

Mumbai’s Deadly Trains

Given my recent trip to Mumbai – in which I took a trip on a very packed train – this story caught my attention:

Mumbai’s deadly trains claim a dozen daily

MUMBAI (AFP) – The death toll on Mumbai’s railways averages a dozen a day — more than a whole year on New York’s subway system, which has an average annual accidental death rate of eight.

In the first four months of this year, 1,146 commuters died and 1,395 were injured, railway police said.

Many of the victims had been hanging on the side of the packed trains, unable even to wedge themselves inside, and fell to their deaths after losing their grip, they said.

Last year’s total toll was 3,997 deaths and 4,307 injuries.

“We could enforce a limit on the number of people on a train but people still need to go to work. They’ll sit on the tracks and stop trains from moving,” Central Railways chief security commissioner BS Sidhu said.

A dozen a day? That is stunning to me. Now I know what my friend Kapil meant, when he asked if I wanted to ride the train there. His question was “Are you feeling adventurous?”

June 27, 2008 Posted by | India, mass transit, Mumbai | Comments Off on Mumbai’s Deadly Trains

The Right Ideas

As a native of Oklahoma, this story was bound to catch my attention:

Oklahoma’s painful car culture

I know well how dependent Oklahoma is on the car. The reason?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — For many people in Oklahoma, life is built around the car. With several refineries in the region, years of cheap fuel have made it possible for many people to live far from their jobs.

So, I was preparing myself for another Big Oil scapegoating, when to my pleasant surprise the story took an unexpected turn:

Cindy LaBeff, 46, drives 70 miles a day from the small town of McLoud to her job at a data processing center in Oklahoma City. Until a few months ago, she spent $40 on gas for her work week. These days it’s $60 a work week – and $80 if she wants to go to church on the weekend.

She decided she can’t afford the higher prices. With no public transportation in her area, she went online to form a carpool. LaBeff has been ridesharing for a week now, and she hopes to add two new members to her car. “That way, it’s just a dollar a gallon,” she said.

If our governor or mayor would help set up carpooling, if they would push it better, then people would think about it,” she said. “But there has been nothing.”

Of course up until recently, the demand for public transportation or carpooling hasn’t been there. And Oklahoma is in a difficult spot:

Due to its sheer size, public transportation is a tough prospect in Oklahoma City. City Manager Jim Couch says that at 627 square miles, Oklahoma City has the third greatest land mass of all U.S. cities. It also ranked last among 50 U.S. cities in a recent study on areas best able to cope with high oil prices.

Tulsa is in the same boat:

High gas prices are also causing an increase in demand for public transport in neighboring Tulsa, Okla. Tulsa ranked second to last in the Common Cause study. Tulsa transit manager Bill Cartwright said urban professionals, who rarely rode the bus before, are now among his customers. “You’ve got people coming out of the woodwork, screaming for more bus service. We get calls and emails daily,” said Cartwright.

Note that those are the densely populated areas of Oklahoma. Most of the rest of the state has a very low population density. That’s why I have been preaching to family and friends back home for years: “Get yourself fuel efficient. Imagine that you have to pay $10/gal for gasoline.”

But it was nice to see a story on high prices were people are taking some initiative instead of demanding the government punish oil companies because prices have gotten high.

A reader also sent me an interesting story about Toyota. They are looking into cellulosic ethanol and green diesel:

Automakers going greener

Earlier this week, Toyota said it had developed a new fuel cell hybrid electric vehicle that can travel more than twice the distance of its previous model without filling up (see Toyota boosts range of fuel cell hybrid). Toyota said the improved FCHV-adv model has a maximum cruising range of 516 miles, up from 205 miles.

The car company also said its conducting research on a cellulosic ethanol, focusing on using technologies that involve yeast.

Toyota said it’s also working with Nippon Oil on high-concentration bio hydrofined diesel, also known as BHD, as a biofuel alternative.

Biomass to liquids are also on the table at the automaker, which said it’s conducting research on the technology. BTLs are derived from synthesizing gas made from all types of biomass, including cellulose.

BHD would appear to me to be green diesel, much like what is made by Neste, Petrobras, and the COP/Tyson venture. (See a bit on the projects from these companies here; explore the green diesel stories I have written here). Note that green diesel, produced either from hydrotreating/hydrocracking (Neste, Petrobras, COP) or via the BTL reaction (Choren) is chemically different from biodiesel. Green diesel has chemical properties identical to petroleum diesel.

June 12, 2008 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, green diesel, mass transit, Oklahoma, Toyota | 2 Comments