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gas prices

As go gas prices, so goes interest in transit

It is what it is.

gas-prices-sign

Cheap gasoline has Texans driving more, indicating that efforts to promote mass transit or bicycle commuting are falling short, a new statewide poll suggests.

As folks hit the road, though, they are increasingly supportive of investment in transit and bike safety, even if perhaps they’d rather see others try it first.

“It’s one of those things where everybody thinks it is a good idea, but nobody seems to be using it,” said Tina Geiselbrecht, a co-author of the report and leader of the public engagement planning program at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The poll, released Tuesday, is the first update to the Texas Transportation Poll since its creation in 2014. In those two years, car-centric Texas became even more devoted to driving, based on responses of more than 4,300 drivers, including more than 1,000 in the Houston region. Among the findings:

93 percent of drivers rely on an automobile as their primary way to travel, up from 91 percent in 2014. Vehicle ownership is also up statewide.

Roughly 1 in 7 Texans, 14 percent, had used public transit in the past month, compared to 25 percent of those polled two years ago. Fewer reported bicycling, walking and carpooling as well.

Gasoline prices, which have remained low in the state, were far less of a factor for drivers. Less than 30 percent of drivers were traveling less because of fuel prices, compared to 61 percent who said they were cutting back in 2014.

Geiselbrecht noted fuel prices in 2016 were about two-thirds what they were when pollsters asked people their opinions two years ago. Opinions on many things remained roughly the same, such as the interest people have in increased transportation spending, despite many thinking public officials squander some of the money.

“While people think there should be increased funding for transportation … nobody wants it to come out of their pocket,” Geiselbrecht said.

A copy of the study is here. I currently have a short commute into downtown, and I carpool with my wife. On the occasions when I have to be in early or when my wife has an after-work errand or appointment, I take the bus. In a few months, I’m going to be moving to another location out on the west side of town, and will be driving solo when that happens. Metro service is mostly nonexistent in this area; there is a bus route nearby, but I’d have to make two transfers to get to or from this location, so it’s just not an option. The main change for me is that this will be the longest commute I’ll have ever had in nearly 30 years of living in Houston. To put it mildly, I’m not thrilled about it. Life is too damn short to spend that much time in the car.

For better or worse, mine is a minority opinion, or at least one that carries little political and policy weight. I’ve said before, we need to come to terms with the fact that at some point we just cannot prioritize optimizing the travel times of single-occupancy vehicles over everything else. There’s only so much road capacity we can create, and the cost of doing so, which heavily subsidizes these solo trips, keeps increasing. That means that at some point, we need to prioritize density and transit, so that people can be closer to the places they most need to be and can get to and from them without having to drive. I have no idea when this might happen – at this point, I doubt I’ll live to see it – but it’s what we’re going to need.

Mapping oil usage

From the Natural Resources Defense Council

America buys 18.8 million barrels of petroleum products every day, accounting for more than 20% of all global usage. This can drain roughly $1 billion on average every day out of the economy. This oil use also accounts for more than a quarter of the heat-trapping carbon pollution emitted by various sources in the U.S.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters developed an interest in a more detailed understanding for the causes of our addiction. Specifically, we were curious about which geographic areas were most oil dependent, and thus, driving the country’s oil addiction the most.

First, we looked at all the total 2010 oil consumption in every county in the United States. We visualized that oil consumption in the map below.

gasoline consumption map.JPG

We can determine the nation’s oil addiction “hot spots” based on the figures plotted in the map above. It turns out a disproportionately small number of counties in metropolitan regions drive the nation’s oil use. In fact, just 108 counties out of the nation’s 3,144, or about 3.5% of the total consume more than 10% of the nation’s oil. This suggests that we should target policies and practices aimed at reducing oil dependence to a small geographic portion of the nation.

Consumption per person in these top oil-guzzling counties can give help further with targeting; those counties with high per-capita consumption levels afford the biggest opportunities for reductions. For example, Los Angeles County’s population is much larger than Dallas County’s, on average each person consumed much less in the former. If the per capita consumption in the latter were halved, while still higher than the average Los Angeleno it could save more than a half-million gallons of gasoline a year! 

Top 10 Counties Driving Our Oil Addiction

RankingofCounties.JPG*Note: The Missouri figures stood out as an outlier in the data set, possibly due to poor or inconsistent reporting so both on the map and in this table the numbers should be taken with a giant grain of salt.

On the other hand the Houston area and Dallas area are particularly addicted to oil, both in total and per person use. To find out more about where your county stacks up in this picture, click here to access and use a cool googlemap designed by friends at the Sierra Club.

I went looking for this after spotting this Express News story and figuring there had to be more to it than that. DC Streetsblog adds on to the conversation, but I have to agree with their commenters that per capita consumption is the better way to think of this. Still, it’s useful information and a reminder that another spike in gas prices will have a greater effect on the Houston area than other parts of the country. A growth strategy geared towards more and more development of the exurbs just isn’t going to be sustainable in the long term.

New flash: We spend a lot on gas

No surprise, Texans are more vulnerable to gas price increases than people in most other states.

While most Americans felt the pinch of higher gasoline prices in 2008, drivers in Texas paid an especially heavy toll, according to a national study released Tuesday.

Texans on average spent 6.8 percent of their household income, or $2,622, on gasoline last year, the seventh-highest percentage of any state, said the study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group in Washington.

Yet Texas ranked near the bottom, at 37, in taking steps that could help reduce the state’s dependence on oil, like boosting public transit options or providing incentives to buy fuel-efficient hybrid cars.

The report highlights both the burden record oil prices last year had on U.S. consumers and what states are doing to make their citizens less vulnerable to such spikes.

The report gives us one more good reason to be thankful for the existence of Mississippi, whose residents spend over nine percent of their income at the pump, thus making us look not so bad by comparison. You can see an overview of the report here and the full report itself here.

So much for the Fort Bend-Medical Center shuttle

Well, that didn’t last long.

After just six months, the Texas Medical Center has pulled the plug on subsidized express bus service to and from Fort Bend County.

Fort Bend County Commissioners Court members approved an agreement with the Houston medical center in July, which was touted as a way to provide cheap transportation to some of the 14,000 medical center employees in the county.

On Tuesday, court members accepted a termination notice from the medical center, canceling the agreement.

“The use of the service is not what they had projected it was going to be,” said Fort Bend County Transit Director Paulette Shelton.

In July, Texas Medical Center Senior Vice President Joyce Camp said about 14,000 people in the Fort Bend area work at institutions in the medical center, with about 8,300 living in zip codes abutting bus routes originating in Katy and Sugar Land.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Shelton said about 100 people were riding the buses from Fort Bend County to the medical center each morning, and about the same number were riding back after work.

Precinct 4 Commissioner James Patterson said the medical center was expecting 450 riders.

“Let’s face it, when gas was $4 a gallon a lot of people signed up,” he added. “When gas went down to $1.40 a gallon, a lot of people dropped out.”

Link via Hair Balls, which noted that there were a few glitches at first, but it still seemed promising. I don’t know if the concerns about being stranded during the day if an emergency arose dampened demand, or if people just preferred driving, but whatever the reason it’s not terribly encouraging for future rail prospects. I hope some kind of after-action review of customer experiences is performed, so that a potential future successor can learn from this.