May 19, 2004
The high cost of driving

I'm not quite at the point of gloating as my commute costs about a buck fifty a day, but I sure have no sympathy for all those SUV drivers who are feeling the pain at the gas pump now.

Jaime Rodriguez is borrowing his brother's Nissan Xterra for his sales runs because his own Chevy Tahoe costs too much to drive.

Milton Jordan is giving up those Sunday jaunts.

And while Ted Luna still cruises around in his Chevy Suburban, he's forking over $60 a pop to fill up the tank -- and struggling to pay for it.

"That means I've got to make more money somehow," Luna said.

I'm going to try and say this in a calm and rational manner. If you're not regularly hauling large quantities of cargo, you have no freaking business driving a Suburban. People who use Suburbans to drive themselves to and from office jobs are getting what they deserve. And that goes triple for Hummer owners, who don't even have the haul-stuff exception to fall back on.

There are good reasons to own an SUV. I don't like them, but they're not evil, and neither are their owners. That said, in my opinion most people have no need for them. It's fine by me if you want one, but don't expect me to commiserate when gas prices go up.

"We've experienced a lot of people trading in SUVs for passenger cars or cars with better mileage," said Nate Murphy, general sales manager for Munday Chevrolet.

Nationwide, sales of the larger SUVs were down 4.7 percent in April, Wards Automotive reported.

Instead, motorists are picking smaller SUVs built on car platforms, known in the industry as "crossover utility vehicles" or CUVs. Sales of these vehicles were up 13.3 percent in April.

And car buyers are getting on waiting lists to buy the new hybrid vehicles, which -- thanks to their combination of a traditional internal combustion engine and an electric motor -- get substantially better gas mileage. Take the Toyota Prius, for example, which boasts 55 miles to the gallon for combined city and highway driving. That's four times the fuel efficiency of some of the larger SUVs.

Of course, fuel economy isn't the only reason consumers pick specific models. Many consumers find crossovers easier to drive and park than the larger SUVs, while hybrids are popular in some communities because motorists can drive them without passengers in high occupancy vehicle lanes -- although that isn't the case in Houston.

But gas mileage is certainly on Houston motorists' minds.

It's about damn time. We'd be an awful lot less dependent on foreign oil if there were fewer SUVs in this country.

Something else to consider. When I meet Tiffany at her doctor's office, I take the Metro rail. It's about a ten-mile round trip by car, so I figure at 25 MPG, which is what I average, it'd cost me about 75 cents to drive it. Throw in the minimum of two dollars it'd cost to park (the doctor is at St. Joseph's Hospital on the south edge of downtown), and the train is cheaper than driving. Maybe higher gas prices will get more people out of their cars altogether and into buses, vanpools, and the light rail trains.

Tom Kirkland has been following this news and has some good stuff, like this bit on the benefits of higher oil prices, and this one which points to this WaPo article on the strategic reserve. Check this out from that WaPo piece:

[T]he $41.55 price for oil today is much higher than the $35.50 it costs for a barrel to be delivered next year. This disparity inspired Loews chief executive Jim Tisch, whose company has extensive energy holdings and plays financial markets like a violin, to propose a trade. Let's sell oil out of the reserve, he says -- not for money, but for oil to be delivered next year. We could get seven barrels next year for six today. We're now buying 160,000 barrels a day for the reserve, which has 660 million barrels. But by trading rather than buying, we'd save taxpayer dollars, reduce the demand that's driving up prices today, and spook the speculators. I love it.

Works for me, too, though as I understand it, even 160,000 barrels per day will have only about a nickel a barrel's effect on prices. Regardless, buying back that oil on the futures market is a no-brainer.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 19, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

The Chronicle article lists the average price of gas as $1.87 a gallon. In New York, that's a bargain. On the other hand, compared to Canada and Europe, US prices are dirt cheap.

I do agree that anyone that drives a SUV solely to get to and from work deserves whatever happens to them.

Posted by: William Hughes on May 19, 2004 3:14 PM

I don't understand why you say that owning an SUV, or especially a Hummer, is not "evil", if we're using evil to describe deeply reprehensible behavior. The point is not gas mileage. That is unfortunate, thoughtless, but there are many unfortunate, thoughtless uses of energy. McMansions may be worse for all I know. What is "evil" is that these cars KILL large amounts of innocent people; the Hummer is designed to kill people and that seems to be one of its major selling points. Keith Bradsher, who reported on SUVs for a half-decade and wrote the standard book, estimated that SUVs cost 3000 lives a year on average. That's not 3000 lives if the SUV owner drove no car, but 3000 lives lost compared to what would be the case if the SUV owner drove a standard LARGE-size car. 3000 a year. We've turned the world upside down because of 3000 dead one time. Here we're talking about 3000 dead a year, and it will only get worse as the SUVs enter the used-car market and start to be driven by younger, wilder drivers. If we are going to use the word "evil", why does this wanton slaughter not qualify as "evil"? It's a serious question.

Posted by: angry moderate on May 19, 2004 4:29 PM

I have a 10 minute commute, and probably haven't put 10K miles on my car in the last 18 months.

Noticing this week that all the local (MA) gas stations were over $2/G was rather startling.

Posted by: Danil on May 19, 2004 4:30 PM

I hope it hits $3. This nation seriously needs a swift kick in the butt to convince it that guzzling and over-reliance on oil is a bad idea.

And as the others have said, I have no sympathy for anyone who is commuting to/from work, solo, in a Hummer. Too bad we can't charge them $10!

Posted by: Tim on May 19, 2004 4:39 PM

I'm one of those SUV owners, a decision that I wasn't proud of and that my wife and I wrangled over. The fact is that I had almost no choice. I have enough projects and work that I do that require a truck. There are other reasons, including having a family that I have tote around. :) The SUV is a nice compromise in that regard. At least now, there are hybrid SUVs that should help and be a reasonable alternative. We'll be replacing our aging fuel efficient car with a Prius next year and the SUV not long after.

One thing to keep in mind is that the tax incentives for owning an SUV are enticing. The owner of a $60,000 SUV can deduct $20,000 from his/her taxes in one year. Contrast that with the ($2000, I believe) deduction for hybrids which were in place for only two years.

The one thing (and I do mean one thing) that I applauded Bush for was his promise in the 2000 debates to include a tax deduction for hybrids.

Posted by: Tx Bubba on May 19, 2004 7:59 PM

Angry Moderate, I like to keep a pretty tight definition of "evil", and driving a SUV doesn't make the cut. Sorry.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 19, 2004 10:23 PM

Charles - Fine, it's your blog, but that's not a serious response. I don't care about the word evil, but you seem to blow off 3000 dead a year as no big deal. We're not talking about people who are voluntarily putting themselves at risk. I and my children are put at a heightened risk of death because individuals choose to drive trucks that are sufficiently heavy and whose carriage is raised high enough that if it hits an ordinary car, it is much more likely to kill the innocent occupants. That to me is a vastly more morally serious problem than bad gas mileage. Why do you not at least acknowledge that?

Posted by: angry moderate on May 19, 2004 11:13 PM

I just spent two weeks in Japan, riding the subways every day. The Tokyo Metro is one of the wonders of the modern world, it's cheap and speedy, and always on time, you never wait more than about 4 minutes. But my feet are so tired and worn out from walking everywhere, I had to see a podiatrist when I got back. As I left the doctor's office, I noticed he owns a new Hummer H2.

Posted by: Charles E on May 20, 2004 8:06 AM

I've been in Michael's car once in the last two weeks. But I second the feet hurting thing. Time to buy new shoes!

Posted by: Ginger on May 20, 2004 8:09 AM