More Important Than MPG
By Mark Sand
We are all aware of the peak oil theory and its consequences. Even though it is the correct view, there isn’t much good news to be found in it. But instead of sitting in despair, what can we do to make the situation better? How can we all make a contribution?
The remaining petroleum MUST be used more efficiently. I say this not only because later generations deserve some of the advantages of using petroleum, but because by making oil last longer we gain time in the struggle to find alternatives.
Okay, so how do we use it more efficiently? Does each person need to trade in their current vehicle for a high-mileage model? Or ride a bicycle everywhere? Not necessarily.
The high rate of oil usage in the U. S. is due in part to the fact that we’ve allowed too many low-mileage vehicles on the road. But it is also due to the fact that we use most of our cars and trucks inefficiently. That is, we worry only about miles per gallon (mpg). And even there we don’t worry enough. But our major concern should be passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). This is calculated as (miles per gallon)×(number of passengers), which means that even with an average car, a solitary driver can immediately double or triple his or her pmpg merely by taking along a passenger or two. Sorry, pets don’t count.
Cars are built to move people from one place to another. So, let’s increase the efficiency with which we do that. I am no longer happy when driving alone and getting 25 miles per gallon. My personal goal is that on every highway trip I get at least 60 passenger miles per gallon. In fact, why not have a national goal? I say every highway trip, even for just driving to work, should set 60 pmpg as a target, and this goal should be increased by 2 pmpg each year.
As always, raising the mpg of new cars is still important. One good means to accomplish this would be to raise the federal CAFE standards. But enacting legislation, having the automobile companies comply, and then getting a majority of these newer vehicles on the road takes a long time. Increasing pmpg can begin today and is feasible for every driver.
The key word, then, is CARPOOL. Share the ride. The benefits are obvious—cleaner air, longer-lasting roads and automobiles, lighter traffic, lower demand and price for petroleum, and greater energy security. These are all desirable outcomes, for individuals and governments alike.
But how do we start this carpooling thing? Is it possible that our state and federal elected officials can help boost public interest in this idea? It seems a natural thing to do—the cost is low and the potential return is very high. This leads me to begin my search for carpool information on the internet, with government web sites.
First, I thought that the federal government might be helpful. Bad idea. Looking on the web site of the U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT), I could find no mention of carpooling and no links leading to carpooling information.
Second, I figured that the states would be more in tune with carpooling than the federal government. Just the possibility of saving money from cleaner air and reduced road wear should get the attention of state lawmakers. Here’s what I found. Several places, including www.nebraskatransportation.org, have links to all the state departments of transportation. A few states call it by some other name -- for example, in Nebraska it is the Nebraska Department of Roads. But I’ll refer to them all by the letters DOT.
The state DOT web sites contain a wealth of very useful information. We can find anything we might want about registering a car, current road conditions and closures, construction zones, traffic problems, express and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, where to catch mass transit, airports, ferries, and a multitude of other topics.
Except for carpooling, that is. In surveying the 51 DOT web sites for the states and the District of Columbia, only two—Maine and Utah—had a link on the main page to a carpool registration page, and only Utah’s was a large and obvious icon. Looking under “Travel Information” or “Commuter Information” located a few more links to carpool registration—Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin have them. Two notes: Minnesota’s carpool page is especially hard to find, and Arizona has a program in which a driver of a hybrid-powered car can obtain a special license plate to allow the restriction-free use of the HOV lanes there.
This was a pretty quick survey, so I might have missed a few. But we all know that if an item on a web site is hard to locate, then it is rarely used. My conclusion is that most state DOT web sites are nearly useless when it comes to carpooling. Kudos to Maine and Utah for leading the pack. Where are California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas, just to name a few states with the most obvious need for carpooling?
Third, my final search was in the realm of commercial carpooling internet sites. What have people put together on their own? Here, the results are much more encouraging. There are many web sites that allow a driver or rider to register and be automatically matched with other drivers and riders. A user’s registration can be customized for the starting point of a trip, the ending point of a trip, the day of the week, and the time of day. Some of them are national and some operate only for a specific state or region. This was another quick survey, and I don’t claim to have found all the relevant sites. In addition, the web sites of some environmental organizations have ride-matching programs, so check them out, too. Here are a few:
- http://www.vanpool.com (for California)
- http://www.commutesmart.info (for southern California)
- http://www.commuterlink.com (for New York City)
- http://www.commutesolutions.com (for Texas)
- http://www.carpoolnation.com (still in development)
This shows that the situation is far from hopeless. The resources are available, thanks to modern technology, for a large portion of the commuting and traveling population to share the cost and increase the efficiency of their travel.
In fact, I envision a future of high gasoline prices, in which each neighborhood or small town has a carpool coordination office. Just show up there in the morning and either pick up a passenger or two for the morning commute, or hop in someone’s car for the ride. For safety, every driver and every passenger would be identified and recorded.
So, let’s do it. Share the ride, and raise your pmpg. How high can you go?
Mark Sand is a professor of mathematics and physics at Dana College, Blair, Nebraska
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