Buying a New Car is More Environmental than Buying a Used One

From Hugo90 on Flickr
About a year ago I was at a conference where the keynote speaker dispensed the conventional wisdom that buying a used car is more environmental than buying a new, say, hybrid. Seems to make sense, and you can find agreement from others: Wired, Knol, Scientific American, BrakeandFrontEnd Blog.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Manufacturing a new car requires enormous mining, manufacturing, transportation and other costs and energy inputs, while a used car doesn't need to be manufactured; it already is. Case closed.

Or is it? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the answer really lies in the frame you put around it. If you are worried only about your own personal environmental footprint, then I think the used car is likely better. But if you are concerned about the entire planet (which if you are asking environmental questions like this, you presumably are), then a larger circle has to be drawn than just around yourself, and that changes the answer.

When one goes to purchase their replacement vehicle, what happens to the one they already have? In most cases it is sold to someone else, who eventually sells it to someone else until it finally completely dies after about 17 years and several owners. In fact, every car that is manufactured will be on the road until it finally is totaled or gives up the ghost. Your particular ownership of that car is just a way station on the path from manufacturer to junkyard.

What we environmentalists want to see is manufacturers churning out more and more high mileage and hybrid cars and working desperately to design and build the next, even better generation of vehicles.

Who do the manufacturers care about? New car buyers. They claim over and over that they manufacture to meet the demand of buyers (it's why GM claims it was building so many SUVs, right?). They don't care about used-car buyers (although I concede demand for used cars may send a weak signal back up the food chain, but much weaker than a direct purchase). If I buy a new, cutting edge hybrid, then I'm sending a signal to the manufacturer to make more of those. If I buy a used car, then someone else is sending that signal, not me, the environmentalist--and they may be buying a big gas guzzler. Buying a used car is not reducing the total number of manufactured cars by one nor reducing the number of cars going to the junkyard: remember, I'm just a way station along the car's trip.

(photo by Adam Franco on Flickr)
Another way to look at the argument is to scale it up. Thought experiment: a fleet buyer is buying 100,000 vehicles. Imagine the difference between placing an order for 100,000 new hybrids vs. buying 100,000 used cars. Which is going to make the manufacturers sit up and take notice--and maybe even invest in new factories? In fact, what if that fleet owner put in an order for 100,000 every year? Oo, there's an interesting twist. Counterintuitively, by making that argument writ small we learn that buying a new efficient car every year is better than buying one and making it last. And it's true (although not practical for most people). It would send an even stronger economic signal to manufacturers.

In the end, the decision about replacing your car includes a lot of factors, not the least of which is your own personal financial situation. But if you're thinking about a new car, but have considered a used car for environmental reasons, think again.

BTW - Slate did a comparison that also comes out in favor of the new Prius even without invoking my macroeconomic and macro-environmental arguments.

Disputing David Sokol's Article on Cap and Trade

Today's Washington Post printed an op-ed by David Sokol, Chairman of the Board of Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway (article here).

His basic premise is that he believes cap and trade will cost an enormous amount and will attract schemers from the financial markets--and we know what they've done lately. In fact, he says we will pay twice: once to purchase allowances and once to build out the low carbon energy system. He may be right that the costs will be high, and most certainly there will be entrepreneurs of all types working to make money as our energy economy changes over from high carbon to low carbon. Some of them are likely to be "greedy," no less. I have trouble following his argument about paying twice, though. Under cap and trade, a regulated entity either buys emissions credits OR reduces its emissions through investments--not both. In the early years, the cap will be very close to existing emission levels, so the only utilities that may have to pay are the ones that rely heavily on fossil fuels, which is how it should be. In order to reduce the use of fossil fuels, we need to increase the costs of using it. The market will then decide if they want to pay the cost or find another way of making the electricity.

Most bizarre, though is his solution. I quote directly from the article:
"The solution? Keep the cap and remove trading from the equation: Mandate that the industry, over the same 40-year period, simply limit its emissions to the same levels proposed in the Waxman-Markey bill. This can be accomplished with a clear plan that gives states an option: Either they participate in a cap-and-trade program or they elect an alternative compliance mechanism to reach the same greenhouse gas emission goals by working with their utilities to develop a 40-year program of shutting down aging coal plants, retrofitting plants to capture carbon dioxide if the technology comes available, and /or building zero-carbon energy plants."

Huh? I thought he just said no cap-and-trade, and then he goes on to say that is one of the options.
Hypothetical: So I'm a state that has to make this choice. Well, why would I not participate in cap and trade? Either it's going to cost me more to get there through retrofits--in which case I'd rather trade for those allowances--or it's going to cost me less, in which case I would want to participate in order to sell my additional reductions and make money. Also, the trading part is entirely voluntary. If I, as a utility, want to just reduce my emissions to exactly my cap without trading either way, well then I can do that. So his second option is already available to anyone who wants to follow that path.

For me, I cannot see how a cap without trading will not cost more than the same cap with trading. Trading allows for the lower cost emission reduction strategies to be more effectively used, because they can occur anywhere and then credited in places where costs are higher. Without trading, each entity has to reduce its emissions regardless of costs, and those with lower costs have no incentive to go beyond its requirements.

Thus, without trading, no entity has any incentive to go beyond the minimum requirement and it costs more. With trading, clever entrepreneurs, technologists and others have a big incentive to go beyond the minimum requirements, thereby unleashing the creative forces that will propel us forward faster, and it costs less. Will some people get rich in the process? I hope so, because that will then attract more entrepreneurs into the field trying to make money, too--all of which helps us meet our goals better and faster.

The whole idea of cap and trade is that it does not dictate a pathway. The private sector is unleashed to figure out the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions to the desired level (or below). For SO2 (the acid rain precursor), cap and trade has been a remarkable success, resulting in greater reductions at a small fraction of the expected initial cost for this very reason: the private sector figured out much cheaper ways to reduce emissions than were anticipated by anyone. Yet Sokol suggests that the state governments are going to be better and wiser about determining the pathway to lower emissions? State governments? Really?!?

Then we have the whole problem of state-by-state emissions. Washington state is low carbon due to its preponderance of hydroelectric plants. Virginia is high due to lots of coal. Who decides how that gets divvied up? Oh, maybe he's suggesting a nationwide average that can then be, well, capped and traded? How else? Any other option gets totally politicized with states arguing among themselves that their cap ought to be higher than yours, and on and on.

There is a simpler option, a simple carbon tax imposed way back at wellhead, coalmouth or wherever it is easiest to count and collect. That appears to be politically impossible right now, so the next best way to engage the creativity of the market is to provide incentives for them to take action: cap and trade.

Pedestrian Improvements in Greater Washington

Route 50 ped bridge from northwest It's almost done; ribbon cutting is scheduled for May 20. Even before I moved to a part of Arlington that is not far from Seven Corners, I was aware of the significant number of pedestrian deaths that were occurring along the stretch of Route 50 (Arlington Boulevard) near Patrick Henry Drive and Seven Corners (right by the Home Depot to point out a familiar landmark). Ped Bridge MapIt is the deadliest intersection in all of Fairfax County, accounting for approximately 25% of all pedestrian fatalities in the county: on average 2-4 per year. The county has known this is a problem area since at least 1987. I don't have the statistics, but extrapolating from known numbers, more than 50 pedestrians may have been killed here in the last 20 years. Here's a map of the area (one detail: the actual location of the bridge is somewhat west of what is shown. This is taken from the official VDOT site).

Creating separate pedestrian facilities is often not the best solution. What I, and many progressive urban planners believe is better, is to make our streets and roads more accessible, safer and more usable for all users: pedestrians, cyclists, Segway riders, and cars. Sometimes planners will create a poorly designed or planned pedestrian facility that will then "relieve" them of their responsibility to think more holistically about the interactions of road users. I agree with this viewpoint, but in this case, the pedestrian bridge at Seven Corners is a big, big improvement, and probably is the only reasonably safe enhancement that can be implemented in the short term. It also is located where pedestrians have generally wanted to cross and where many have been injured or killed.

Prior to the construction of this bridge, the only possible crossing points were at Patrick Henry Drive (not all that safe either: pedestrians have been killed in the crosswalk; the county has improved this crossing in the last couple years, but it's still a 6-lane highway) and Cherry Street, a distance of 1.3 miles from each other. Although one could cross at the Seven Corners overpasses, it requires a brave and fleet person to do so. There are no actual pedestrian facilities like sidewalks or lights there. So crossing at either Patrick Henry or Cherry St. requires a very long schlep, thus many people choose to make the mad dash across Route 50. For years the county tried to force pedestrians to the crossing at Patrick Henry rather than find a safe solution to their need to cross closer to their destinations.

There are homes, apartments and significant commerce on both sides of the highway, so there are lots of reasons for people to cross. One would think that the businesses would have an interest in making it easier for people to reach their establishments, too. I do not know if they were engaged in the project, though. On more than one occasion I have been in the Sunflower Restaurant looking out at the Guitar Center, seemingly close enough to touch--or at least hit with a golf ball. I measured with Google, and it's about 200 yards, so a golfer could conceivably hit one onto the Guitar Center roof from the restaurant. However, if I wanted to walk there, I could not do it. Impossible. Perhaps one could walk down Route 7 to Patrick Henry, cross there and go back up, a distance of 1.2 miles. I'm not sure there are sidewalks along this entire route, though.

By the new bridge, this distance is now still about 1/2 mile, but considerably more direct, doable and obvious to potential pedestrians.

So all in all, I believe this is a significant improvement. However, the county needs to continue to improve this area as well as the entire length of Route 50 inside the Beltway, where usable pedestrian crossings are few and far between. Here are my thoughts about this project:

- Way, way overdue, as mentioned above.
- It took a long time. This project was started in the fall of 2007. Originally it was supposed to be complete last November. Unfortunately, the original truss that was delivered was cracked, which caused a several-months delay.
- Why does the north side empty out inside the frontage road, so people still have to cross another lane of traffic to get to the sidewalk (see photos)? If the frontage road had been shifted a little southward, the bridge would need to be somewhat longer, but not much. They completely rebuilt this entire area, so it could have been designed that way. I often wonder why--when we're building a piece of infrastructure that will be there for 40 years or more--that more thought isn't put into these details.
- Pedestrian access on both sides needs to be addressed now that the bridge is complete. Completing well designed sidewalks and creating pedestrian access to cross the parking lots will make the bridge much more usable.
- There are still way too few ways to cross in this 1.3 mile stretch. Seven Corners itself needs to be rethought and redesigned to accommodate other road users besides cars (and it doesn't even do a very good job with those!) [Update: I learned at the ribbon cutting that this will happen in a couple of years.]
- It probably cost too much (I've read $2.6 million) [Update: I learned at the ribbon cutting that total costs were more like $8 million!]. Although it appears to be an excellent facility, Fairfax County is not known for its willingness to invest in bike/ped facilities. I suspect that the next time someone suggests an improvement, the county will say, "But that one at Seven Corners cost so much; we can't afford to spend that kind of money willy nilly on pedestrians."

I've also included a number of photos below, which you can expand by clicking. There's also a great article in the Falls Church News Press by Penny Gross describing the placement of the main bridge section a couple of weeks ago.

7 corners overpass 2 Taken in February from the Barnes & Noble parking lot prior to installation of the bridge (click to enlarge)

Route 50 ped bridge looking east from 7 corners 2 Looking east from Seven Corners. Home Depot is behind the bridge to the right (click to enlarge).

Route 50 overpass showing frontage road 2Looking West along Route 50. You can see the ramp pedestrians will come down and then have to cross the frontage road on the right to get to the sidewalk. Dumb. (Click to enlarge)

Route 50 overpass inside look

At the top of the ramp looking south across the bridge. Still a little work being finished up.


(Cross posted with lots of comments on GreaterGreaterWashington)