Sunday, July 06, 2008

Your mileage may vary...

I just read a NYTimes piece called “American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot”. It pointed out that when gas prices went up the first time, in the late seventies and early eighties, we reacted with a 55 mph speed limit, with higher fuel standards for cars and by then actually buying the smaller cars. But when the gas prices went down, in the mid-eighties, the speed limit went back up, no updates for the CAFÉ standards were considered, and we started buying bigger and bigger cars. We simply frittered away the nineties and most of this decade. President Bush talked about a giant solar array in the Desert in the South East, back years ago, but did nothing about it. In fact, President Bush could have made energy independence a feature of his homeland security policy back in 2001, he could have advocated solar power, mass transit and new fuel standards for American cars. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only a Texas Bush could have endorsed conservation and alternative energy. But Dick Cheney once said "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," and the Bush policy has followed suit. Even now, the major recommendation of the Bush administration is to open up more areas for drilling.

But while the federal government may be incapable of acting, we can each individually do things, and pressure our local government to act. We can increase our use of bikes in commuting, or use public transportation. By the way, I should mention the electric bike went back. The second rechargeable battery was working no better than the first. But I have taken up using an old hybrid bicycle to commute to work. Hybrid does not refer to engines in this case, rather it was the name given to bikes which have narrower tires and lighter frames than mountain bikes, but are less fragile than road bikes, having fatter tires and the upright riding position of a mountain bike. I already have a stick shift, two door Korean rice burner mini car, but I am going to try to stop driving it to work so much.

Meanwhile, I wonder what the City and County could be doing to help their citizens. One thought that occurred to me is that the City could take public land and do things with it. The City could buy up or just seize (temporarily) some of the vacant lots and start growing switch grass there. Switch grass has been cited as a possible source of ethanol, like we are using corn and the Brazilians are using sugar cane. The difference with switch grass is that we wouldn’t necessarily use fertilizer on it the way we do corn (we apparently use a lot of petroleum based fertilizer on corn, in fact, apparently we over use it in the Midwest, it runs off and has created a dead zone in the Caribbean). And Steel City Biofuels has taken up residence in the building where Construction Junction is, no doubt just waiting for a knock at the door.

Another thing the City could do would be to put solar panels on Flagstaff hill in Schenley Park. The hill seems about angled right to get a lot of sun. The city could sell the power back to whatever utility (or utilities) it uses to power its buildings and our traffic lights. Maybe this could be done in conjunction with CMU engineers, in exchange for some fraction of the electricity.

The County, meanwhile, needs to resolve its issues with the driver’s union. That union seems to feel it can use a strike to its advantage, keeping or even increasing its benefits and perhaps getting a raise too. The County should point out to the driver’s union that transit agencies across the country are seeing increases in riders, but they are also seeing fuel costs increasing even faster. Nationally transit agencies are talking about cutting back on routes. PAT should let the drivers know that if they strike, and afterwards the Authority loses riders, there may be layoffs and dramatic cuts in routes. Which of course is absolutely counter intuitive in this time of higher gas prices. A bus may pollute more than two or three cars, but with twenty riders it is taking twenty cars off the road, and using less gas than probably the first fifteen to eighteen.

The point is there are a number of things we can do locally. It remains to be seen whether we will.


zak822 said...

I agree that there are a number of things that the county could do, but taking it out of the PAT drivers hides is not the answer. It's not always the unions fault.

Maybe we should look first at management to see if they actually are managing well.

"PAT should let the drivers know that if they strike, and afterwards the Authority loses riders, there may be layoffs and dramatic cuts in routes." could start a death spiral for public transportation here.

EdHeath said...

Well, in terms of pay, I believe management has done a round of givebacks. The drivers and mechanics have not. I think the current prevailing public opinion, fed by stories that say our drivers are the best paid (regionally adjusted) in the nation, is running against the transit union. I'm myself am not anti-union, but public sector unions whose service includes the very poor occupy a special position. If the City and the County were doing very well, running surpluses into the foreseeable future, it would be one thing. But I stand by the statement I made. Management should make it clear to the drivers/mechanics and the public, if the union strikes and the result (whether the union or management "wins" the strike) is that ridership shrinks, PAT will almost certainly have to cut routes and layoff drivers and mechanics. That may happen anyway because of the increase in the price of diesel, but it is much more likely after a strike.

I take your point about management. I was very disappointed in this business about hiring lobbyists for DC. I can’t necessarily get a handle on how good the current management people are, but at some level I don’t really trust them. On the other hand, I don’t see any pressure on them yet. If PAT has to make route cutbacks again and a fare hike again, that may change. But for now, PAT’s drivers and mechanics are the villains in the eyes of the people, and management is ok.