Saturday, March 17, 2012

Conserve-atism, a greener world with greener wallets

As gasoline hits $4.00 per gallon amidst threats of even higher spikes if military actions are taken against Iran, we need a strategy to drive gasoline prices lower to preserve the economic recovery that is building. The problem is, as the recovery builds, people drive more miles and use more gasoline and the increased demand for a limited resource always increases the price. Higher consumption also means more traffic on the roads which means more stop-and-go driving which drives consumption even higher.  Yikes.  

Gasoline is essentially a speed governor on economic growth. The extra money consumers spend on gasoline can't be spent on other things like having dinner out, going to a concert, taking a vacation, or paying the bills for that matter. Because we need to import oil the dollars leave our economy and become part of the massive trade deficit.

The workings of the market that set the price at the pump are a story in itself, but clearly market forces still hold some sway, so there are two basic strategies for reducing the price of oil and gasoline. One is to increase the supply, the other is to reduce the demand.

The right wing universally craves to increase the supply. "Drill baby drill" is the mantra from Mitt to Palin. True, if we flood the market with more oil, it will help hold prices down even while demand increases from economic growth.   However to justify that strategy, they paint themselves into a corner regarding climate science and are forced to espouse ridiculous anti-science views to avoid openly admitting their greed and disregard for future generations including their own children.

At the other end of the political spectrum, there is a prevailing notion to increase gasoline taxes to coerce people and businesses to consume less fuel in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but that is a regressive tax that hits the lowest income consumers the hardest and would do serious harm to the economy as prices for nearly every product would increase while disposable incomes fell. We need a robust, healthy economy to provide the source of capital for the long term investment in renewable energy sources and we can't get there by dragging the economy down.

These two failing strategies point to the basis for one that will work and one the Government already has the power and people to make happen. I call it Conserve-atism, reducing waste in fuel consumption to build a glut in the supply to crash the price.  Most all of the existing government initiatives to improve fuel economy have involved modifications to vehicle design. Wikipedia: Fuel Economy in Automobiles. That will work, but it is dreadfully slow.  Why not increase the mileage of every car and truck already on the road by reducing how many times they need to stop and start every day?  Or just eliminate the driving altogether if we can?  

We need to be ingenious and creative to find 1,000 ways to reduce waste.  Here are just a few ideas for improving traffic flow and eliminating churn.
1) Highway project lane closures. How can we get three lanes of traffic to merge into a single lane without creating a mile-long backup. This is easy. At the point where traffic needs to merge into a single lane to accommodate a highway road construction project, a temporary three-lane red light system should be installed. Two lanes of traffic wait while the third lane proceeds into the single downstream open lane. Then the lights change and a different lane proceeds for a minute or so. No more jockeying for position and road rage at the merge point. The goal is to improve the flow of traffic so everyone wastes less gas and time.

2) Timing the stop lights. How can we keep traffic flowing through town. This is easy as well. Simply take into account the entire grid of roads and decide which is the master intersection and then decide the duration for the green, yellow, and red lights there. Then use the data available on Mapquest or Google Maps to find the distance to adjacent intersections as well as the speed limits to calculate forward or backward in time  when the stop lights before and after the master intersection need to be green, yellow and red. The goal is that vehicles travelling at the proper speed will drive through one green light after another without having to stop.  This is a great idea for a software application, devising the overall plan to time the stop lights for an entire city to make traffic flow.  Each time a vehicle has to stop at a red light it wastes a teaspoon of gasoline accelerating back up to speed. Multiply that by a hundreds of millions of vehicles waiting at red lights every day.

3) Reduce US Mail motor route delivery to three days per week. I am not advocating this to cut jobs, rather to cut fuel consumption.  Nothing that comes in the mail is so critical that the post office needs to deliver it six days per week, especially for motor routes that have to stop and start at every mailbox. If delivery is urgent, there are plenty of private overnight couriers, otherwise, your mail will arrive every other day. The US Mail operates 189,000 vehicles. link.  Maintaining half that fleet would save a lot of money as well.

4) Reduce school weeks to 4 days per week. Many school districts operate dozens if not hundreds of buses to pick students up and them drive them home Monday through Friday. If schools with large transportation costs were to alter their schedules for Monday through Thursday classes and have Friday off every week it would reduce fuel costs 20%.

Those ideas are just a start for the Conserve-ative agenda. Others would promote car-pooling and 4 ten-hour day work weeks. or they might promote product delivery by rail trains to reduce the need for trucking. Others would discourage drive-through fast food and banking. There are thousands of ways government entities can support waste reduction activities just by having a plan going in. When we reduce waste it will create a glut in the supply which will bring down the price perhaps drastically so. When that happens consumers should share the savings between lower prices and higher taxes to fund renewable energy sources that will reduce consumption even further.

We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the price of oil at the same time.  What's not to love?   I wonder how long until a major politician from either party sees the logic and adopts a conserve-ative agenda to lead the Nation into the future.  Hopefully soon seeing as this strategy will actually work. 

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