Monday, September 03, 2007

Study in Contrasts

One benefit of taking a vacation, especially going to a foreign country, is that it gives you a new perspective on where you live. I've been pretty busy since my return, but wanted to share a few observations resulting from my trip. I thought I'd get over these thoughts, but they persist. Perhaps the problem was that I shouldn't have waited nearly 10 years since our last, full-fledged vacation. Well the die is cast ...

Americans drive huge cars. I know: This just in. One explanation is that Americans pay relatively little for fuel, but there's something else at work here. I see individual drivers getting into and out of 5000 pound SUVs. I see them on the freeway - one person in a vehicle that might get 20 MPG (11 liters/100 KM) on the highway. As if this actually needs to be said, let me point out that one person commuting to work in a vehicle with 300+ horsepower, capable of towing a 6000 pound load, with four-wheel drive is just plain kooky. I wish I knew how this could be corrected, but I don't. If you haven't seen it yet, rent Who Killed the Electric Car to get a perspective on how PR, marketing and corporate influence can affect this sort of debate.

I saw many well-designed, fuel efficient vehicles in Europe and I only saw a handful of SUVs. There were so few SUV it was always a shock when I did see one. My conclusion is the reason more fuel-efficient vehicles are not available here is that U.S automakers do not know how to market them and, more importantly, they think U.S. consumers do not want to buy them. Every time I go out for a walk or drive to the airport and encounter these beasts on the road, I feel like I'm living in a strange dream. I just cannot accept that as a people we are that clueless and selfish.

The widespread availability of mass transit in most U.S. cities doesn't compare to what's available in Europe. One reason is that the U.S. is a big place except in some parts of the Eastern Seaboard, we don't have the overall population density that Europe does. Still, the long distance trains I took in France were quiet, fast, comfortable, and affordable. There is a proposal to create a TGV-style express train between San Francisco and L.A., but I wonder, do we have the political will to make it happen?

Deciding to walk my talk and lower the carbon load associated with moving my own carcass between home and the airport, I've been commuting to work two or three times a week using my Brompton folding bike and the Bay Area Rapit Transit, or BART. The difference between say, the Paris Metro and BART has mainly to due with the patrons. On my BART trips I am saddened to see so many riders acting aggressively, creating noise and squalor, making other patrons nervous. To be honest, many of these people seem to need help with psychological or drug problems.

Another big problem with BART is that the train itself is incredibly noisy, especially during some of the underground routes. I've read several on-line articles about why this is so, but the screeching sounds the train makes while taking turns, especially in underground tunnels and the Trans-Bay tube is unbearable. I've begun wearing ear plugs when I ride BART. I intend to continue my bicycle commutes at least two or three times a week, more if my schedule permits, but the fact remains that riding BART is decidedly unpleasant.

Something you just don't see much of on U.S. roads is the roundabout - a traffic control feature at intersections. There are two roundabouts in my neighborhood, but the entrance from each road has a stop sign: That kind of negates the whole point of letting the stream of traffic flow through the intersection. And speaking of flow, I've theorized that roundabouts have an interesting side effect - they train drivers to go with the flow, think ahead, and (most importantly) pay attention. A stop sign or stop light effectively breaks the flow, interrupts the driver's rhythm, and provides an opportunity for drivers to do dumb things like put on makeup, read the paper, send a text message, look for something in the bottom of their flight bag, or the countless other ways we become distracted and space out.

Coming back through U.S. Customs was a rude awakening, and I'm a U.S. citizen! I can only imagine what non-citizens must think. No one could argue that any country needs security at its borders, but being out of the U.S. and returning really clarified to me just how militarized the American people have let our society become. Of course we need security, but the TSA has decided we're all guilty until proven innocent. I saw toddlers break into tears after TSA employees wrenched their stuffed animals from them so they could be x-rayed. I see senior citizens being frisked. I myself was singled out for additional security and the TSA employee actually started yelling at me when I set off a metal detector and it too me more than three seconds to find the offending coin that was still in my pocket. We shouldn't be sacrificing the very freedoms upon which our country was based. What we often have at our airports is paranoia masquerading as security. If we let terrorists alter our commitment to basic freedoms and respect for human dignity, they will have won the battle.

While in France, I saw very little general aviation. In fact, I saw exactly six light aircraft flying in the air. Two were banner tow aircraft near a Mediterranean beach, one was a Robinson helicopter, one was a Diamond Katana or Eclipse, and the last looked to be a Piper Warrior. Americans are blessed with a tremendous GA community and we have much more opportunity to fly small aircraft. Think about that the next time you're complaining about the cost of maintenance or 100 low lead after a flight.


Anonymous said...

20 MPG (3 liters/100 KM)

It would be more like 12 l/100 KM

Paul said...

We are blessed in the US with lower energy costs than socialist Europe.

I might complain about fuel prices and seek out the lowest price, but the last time I was in England, fuel was roughly $8/gallon and that was auto fuel not avgas.

It may be kooky for a single person to drive a large SUV. But think of the class warfare if you start to advocate taking away their SUV. It wouldn't be long before GA would be the target.


John said...

Anonymous, Thanks for pointing out my error in converting MPG to liters per 100km. Mea culpa.

Paul, I'm not suggesting "taking away" anyone's SUV nor a class war. I'm advocating something even more radical - critical thinking and personal responsibility on the part of each individual.

I think the question to ask is this: What would happen if more people elected (on their own) to not purchase or drive these wasteful vehicles rather than just going with the herd? The SUV has become America's sacred cow.

Air travel, whether GA or on the airlines, has already become a concern for some countries who are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Anonymous said...

Let's say you spend 90% of your driving time solo or 1-2 passengers with no cargo, 5% of the time you're hauling "stuff" (bikes, plywood, furniture, packages, whatever), and 5% of the time 1-2 passengers plus luggage (vacation!).

Option one: Buy a big car, drive it 100% of the time.

Option two: Buy a small car, 10% of the time beg, borrow, or rent a larger vehicle.

Option three: buy a big car and a small car, leave the big car in the garage all but 10% of the time.

Which option do you choose? Don't forget carrying costs.


Paul said...

When I was working on my pilot license my CFI drove a Ford 350. He would laugh about my Insight, because it could be put in the bed of his truck and hauled around.

However, he justified the gas mileage because his truck could take 6 people at 20 miles per gallon for 120 MPG. My insight gets 65 mpg on average for two people or 130 MPG.

He didn't want to consider that 99% of the time he is the only one in his large truck.

Ryan said...


America is all about excess. Whether it's the SUV you drive, the widescreen plasma TV you bought, or the huge home you MUST have, we are always trying to super size everything in our lives... and it shows. Look how big we are! Heaven forbid if we had to walk anywhere too! Who might see us? We are blinged-out, celebrity-obsessed people who are growing more shallow by the red-carpet second. For me, it is completely ridiculous! I look at big cars as unnecessary (unless you really need it for a family or job) and feel that it is all about status. Do people really need to drive that Hummer in Los Angeles? No. Do we need more methods to commute to inner cities from the suburbs? Y747370es. Bring back the monorail!

By the way, roundabouts are growing quickly in this country, as they are replacing stop signs in rural communities.

Neil said...

Couldn't agree more on your points about airport security. I've taken to calling it the "warm and fuzzies". It seems to me the idea is to give the appearance of thourough security to the uneducated passangers, instead of providing real security soultions.
I got an email from my Dad last night as he was waiting in a US airport to fly to the UK. They had taken his 4oz tube of toothpaste away. Had it been 3oz, he could have kept it. The illusion of security at it's finest...

Anonymous said...

BRAVO!!!!!!! As a "U.S." Citizen(not "American")that spends at least one week a month outside our vast borders, I cannot disagree with any of your points. I like to think that we lose perspective in our "Super Sized" society.

Anonymous said...

They will pry the keys to my SUV out of my cold, dead fingers.

Greybeard said...

It is called freedom, isn't it?!
And it's a dangerous course to take when you start thinking about mandating the way people can live...
Al Gore would have to give up his Gulfstream while he flies somewhere to speak about global warming.
Ted Kennedy might have to put up with the sight of windmills (the horrors!) on his horizon.

The world is full of stupid hypocrites, including me sometimes.
I don't like it much, but I don't see a way of changing it without having the AlGores and Teddy's of the world in charge of who can do what...
and that's just unacceptable.

John said...


It's interesting that you're the second person to mention mandates. I'm not suggesting any mandates, I'm just advocating personal awareness and choice by providing some observations - food for thought, if you will.

So now let me get really philosophical.

I think much of the discourse in this country centers around people that we don't like or respect or agree with. After all, it's easy to find fault with, complain about, and blame others. But if, as a country and a people, we get stuck on blaming and complaining, we're sidetracked from the really hard work - examining, thinking about, and changing our own behavior.

I'm all for personal initiative, creativity, insight, and innovation. I think there are solutions out there and it starts with each of us thinking critically. This might lead us to conclusions about ourselves that we don't like or don't want to face, and that is where the really hard work begins.

Mike said...

Excellent post, John.

Europeans build cars with some of the best space utilization, not to mention very powerful, yet efficient turbo diesel power.

I feel fortunate to drive and Audi A3. It will hold my entire family, plus a week's worth of luggage. It has 200 horsepower, goes like a bat out of hell, and gets over 30 mpg on the highway. I don't get why US manufacturers fail to offer these types of vehicles. They are fuel and space efficient and an absolute blast to drive.

Now that the US is finally selling low-sulfer diesel, some of the great Euro diesels will start finding their way here.

Actually, Saturn is importing the Opel/Vauxhall Astra beginning this fall. If they make few changes, I just might be able to buy American again. I'm glad to see GM testing the waters.

I think given half a choice, US buyers would begin shifting towards high-quality, space efficient autos. Like you say, it doesn't need to be mandated or legislated. People will make good choices when they are actually presented.

Ford sets a very poor example by continuing to sell the old platform Focus in North America, while offering the excellent C-platform (Volvo S40, Mazda 3 & European Focus) elsewhere in the world. Another excellent Ford that hasn't seen the light of day here is the Mondeo.

As far as TSA (Taking Stuff Away) goes, it is pretty demeaning the way they screen people. I watched them practically strip search an 80 year old woman Wednesday in Phoenix. They tested her cane for explosives. I felt much safer. TSA makes air travel painful for everyone. Nobody is in a good mood by the time they make it to the gate.

Anonymous said...

Your TSA experiences are just one of many good reasons to avoid the airlines and use GA, as those who can afford it are already doing. The air taxi business is going to only get better.

As for international travel, entering a country by air is often problematic in most of the world. The idiocy of TSA makes it worse.

I echo the Bravo! on your SUV observations. Except for those relatively few that need to haul something, it's almost all adolescent ego which these people won't grow out of until their 50's, hopefully.

Phibius said...

In Ireland, where incomes are now quite high, larger vehicles are becoming quite common - we can afford to pay the tax.

Greybeard: I personally love driving large 4x4 vehicles, particularly in countries where the "road" is made of sand or snow, but I'ld feel a bit of an ass commuting to work in one (highway driving). The high fuel tax helps me stay virtuous, fuel efficiency-wise. I could drive to work in a river-fording monster... but I prefer to save a little money. Free choice, just slightly "nudged".