On Automobile Gas Mileage

December 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm

EPA Fuel Economy sticker for electric vehicles. Photo courtesy ecoautoninja.com

An Op-Ed article by Thomas Friedman in this Sunday’s New York times praises the President for his recent “victory,” increasing the gas mileage standards on vehicles. By 2025, U.S. automakers will have to “reach a total fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon.”

A (presumably) large majority of people, including environmentalists, may laud these new standards as environmentally friendly and a way to reduce gasoline emissions. However, the positive effects of higher gas mileage standards are negated by the effect they have on air quality (pollution by emissions) and the built environment.

First, increasing the distance people can travel on the same amount of gasoline will only make people drive more. They may be using the same amount of gasoline as previously, but the car culture remains. This perpetuates the built environment that I consider the most environmentally damaging development in history: the American suburb. The commuter who now lives in a suburb 50 miles outside of the city in which their job is located has no incentive to move closer to their job, or find a job closer to their home, if their gas mileage on their next automobile purchase has improved.

Even with the recent and forthcoming movement of populations from the suburban fringe to more walkable neighborhoods in cities, gas mileage improvements could be damaging. Many have grown accustomed to automobiles as the only way to move outside of their home, and those with this attitude may move to the city and find their automobile usage is accommodated, even when other transportation options are available. Urban zoning codes, much like suburban zoning codes, also often comply residential and commercial developments to include off-street parking. On-street parking concerns are also paramount in urban areas. Milwaukee’s new streetcar will not interfere with the majority of existing street parking along its proposed path, a decision that pleases both residents and business owners in the area. Cities that prioritize parking in order to assuage residents and businesses are only exacerbating their own problems. A responsible urban zoning code would eliminate off-street parking requirements and instead compel developers to construct bus shelters, bicycle facilities, or repair nearby sidewalks.

A responsible environmental policy, although immensely unpopular, is to raise the gas tax. The nationally-applied 18.4 cents per gallon (this may rise depending on the state, county, or municipality) has not risen in decades, and has been outpaced by inflation. Compared to other nations, our gasoline tax is incredibly low. The federal government should raise the gasoline tax by a substantial amount over a period of time, gradually increasing the price of gasoline. This, in tandem with higher fuel-efficiency standards, is the only way to reduce the incentive to drive everywhere (or so often). Further allowing the tax to fund more ambitious public transportation infrastructure projects would decrease the incentive to drive and increase the incentive to use public transportation (with the additional funding, America’s crumbling and widely inadequate–save New York City–public transportation infrastructure would improve).

If it helps, drivers could consider an increase in their tax a “congestion reduction fee,” considering that when all is said and done, decreasing the amount of driving and increasing the use of public transportation does reduce roadway congestion.