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Monday, August 03, 2009

Cash for Clunkers: More auto-centric nonsense

Image of car in dumpster
From Yahoo News, 07.31.09:

House approves $2B more for 'cash for clunkers'
The House has voted to rush an additional $2 billion into the popular but financially strapped "cash for clunkers" car purchase program.

The bill was approved on a vote of 316-109. House members acted within hours of learning from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the program was running out of money.

Called the Car Allowance Rebate System, or CARS, the program is designed to help the economy and the environment by spurring new car sales. Car owners can receive federal subsidies of up to $4,500 for trading in their old cars for new ones that achieve significantly higher gas mileage. (Read more.)
The absolute insanity of this is just staggering.

Transit is starving, Amtrak is wheezing, bicyclists and pedestrians lack adequate facilities, yet the government happily tosses billions and billions of (borrowed) dollars at motorists. It's like a giant national Oprah show: "Everyone gets a new car!"

Easy credit for the masses has vanished. Catastrophic global climate change looms. Oil is running out. (We can debate whether we're at peak, beyond peak or nearing peak, but we don't call petroleum a "non-renewable resource" for nothing.) Simply put, the "happy motoring" era is finished, period. We need to get smarter about our transportation investments, if we are going to continue to have any kind of sustainable economy. This stupid revanchist "cash for clunkers" scheme does nothing to wean Americans off petro-dependency and debt overload. And don't get me started on the social justice inequity of all this (low-income transit riders facing cuts and fare hikes, while middle-class suburbanites buy new Ford Escape Hybrid SUVs.)

Worst of all, it appears the environmental advocacy community completely laid down for this. I even got a message from the Sierra Club: "Put Cash for Clunkers to Good Use."

Where's the environmental benefit? The 1,000 gallons or so of energy "embedded" in the prior manufacture of the existing clunker will be scrapped, so the new more fuel efficient consumer can save maybe 50 gallons a year? Huh?

Sustainable transportation advocates have long been frustrated by the failure of mainstream environmental organizations, obsessed with fantasies about clean energy or efficient vehicles. Transit has been on the chopping block everywhere, with negligible opposition from environmentalists.

If Congress wants to save jobs with some subsidy to the auto industry, we should demand concessions. Say a $1-a-gallon surcharge on gas dedicated to transit, walking, and bicycling in exchange for this freebie to motorists.

Bicycle advocates active with Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, and other enviro groups need to demand greater efforts for sustainable, not efficient transportation. Our economic future will be determined by how quickly we shift from a transportation system based on driving alone to one based on bicycling, walking, passenger rail, and public transit.

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Cash-for-Clunkers: An ‘Expensive’ Way to Reduce Emissions, Wall Street Journal
Visit: When It Comes to Being Green, Cash for Clunkers Is a Lemon, Washington Post
Visit: Separating Myth From Fact on "Cash for Clunkers", Streetsblog
Visit: "Cash for Clunkers" Program Yields Dubious Benefit, Public Citizen
Visit: Your tax dollars at work to sell more cars, Baltimore Spokes
Visit: CARS Program is actually a C.R.A.P. Program, Get Energy Smart Now
Visit: Sustaining the Unsustainable,
Visit: Warning: Oil Supplies Are Running Out Fast,
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Paul Dorn said...

I ranted on this topic on the Streetblog listserve, which generated this enlightening response:

"I don't know who has studied it, if anyone, but there's certainly a threshold at which you can raise the MPG standard high enough that the embedded emission costs will be outweighed by the vehicle's lifetime fuel efficiency improvements.

"It's not so certain as that. There's an additional variable, how much the vehicle is driven. This depends heavily on the cost of driving it; a shiny, new, more fuel efficient car will be driven more than the old 'clunker' would have been. In the extreme case, your threshold is infinite. Families of limited means may have a fixed budget to spend on gas each month, and if they stick to this then no change in their vehicles' efficiency will affect their fuel consumption.

Each time you try to account for a new real-life factor, the threshold to break even (!) with a new vehicle purchase flies further away and becomes more uncertain. Chasing efficiency is chasing a ghost of the real problem, fuel consumption. If our society is serious about reducing that then the solution is simple: raise the cost of fuel with taxes, refund it in other ways or spend it fairly (health care?). Efficiency would be a nice byproduct of this for people that like to drive, but the part that matters to the ecosystem we share would be a predictable and steady decline in overall consumption. And it wouldn't hurt our country's prospects to have some ability to mitigate the fuel price swings that will again wreck havoc on its economy."

Yokota Fritz said...

I sent a note to Feinstein and Boxer asking them to vote NO an any further funds for the clunkers program.

GJELblogger said...

It's great to get these so-called "clunkers" off the road, and this program is an incentive for that. But I can't help but agree that there must be some other way to incentivize people to ditch the inefficient vehicles. Maybe instead of "cash for clunkers" we should see "cash for cyclists" that would provide extra cash to someone who donates their car for re-use of the raw materials, and then also buys a commuter bicycle. Or use the money for implementation of a bike-share system.

dr2chase said...

@yokota fritz - "no" might not always be practical. Give them suggestions, ranging from the outlandishly optimistic (that, if they are serious, they include in their first response, and then later give it up to show that they are willing to "compromise") to the likely and practical.

So, "outlandish", what would that be? I'm thinking, Copenhagen, in ten years. Health insurance must include bicycle subsidies in long-term fitness programs (perhaps they subsidize consumables, like chains, brake-blocks, and tires). They're willing to spend hundreds of dollars per year on meds that don't raise my good cholesterol, but not a penny on the cycling that does. Insist on a per-gallon-of-gas subsidy calculation. Auto insurance to be funded by a surcharge on each gallon of gasoline. No more free parking, anywhere!

And "sensible", what would that be? More money for bike paths -- bigger subsidies, and better paths in every way (better preparation, so that tree roots won't mess them up). Changes to the UVC to encourage signal/sign changes that work in Europe. Money to identify, and fix, gaps in the bike networks that already exist (my commute ends in two miles of shopping-mall and industrial-park heck). Money to communities to bring their crappy roads up to a smooth standard, IF they also make provisions for bicycles on those roads (and set standards, so that they don't cheap out with a white stripe 2 feet from the curb).

Paul Dorn said...

Great comments dr2chase; Copenhagen is the model. I also neglected to mention the obesity epidemic and the pending healthcare crisis, which active commuting (bicycling, walking) could help combat. But I've learned never to expect sanity from Washington.

Anonymous said...


WMD = Subsidized Auto-centrism + DOTs + Low fuel taxes + Free parking

Clunkers need to be eliminated via the stick (tougher inspection standards) and not the carrot (subsidies).

Daniel Nairn said...

Absolutely agree. I've cobbled together a list of reasons why I think any fuel efficiency gains will be far outweighed by other unforeseen factors.

I also think you are right to go after the environmentalist groups on this one. Michigan and the South are going to want the manufacturing jobs, and lots of people appreciate free money. They won't be convinced by reason or ethics (the whole "grandchildren's money" thing is not what you want to hear while you're driving a new car).

But the Sierra Club should know better, and it makes me sad that they had their members write letters for this. Maybe this could be a watershed moment for them, where they realize putting their political capital into motoring-only is not the best way to achieve their own goals.

Anonymous said...

Given that millions of cars are going to be sold each year for the forseeable future, the most troubling thing about this legislation is that it could not require truly significant increases in fuel consumption for qualified vehicles (say approaching 50 mpg). Since the US automakers don't sell such vehicles in this country, there would be no boost to the domestic auto industry from such a bill. The US automakers do sell cars that get 50 mpg in Europe for one simple reason--they have a gas tax with teeth.

Cliff said...

The problem is, that except for some of us on the fringe, bicycles are toys, and Copenhagen is not local America.

When buying a Bike makes a family feel confident about the future, and there is a bike Manufacture that is "too big to fail", and our niche market supplies jobs for 10% of the American workforce, then this argument makes sense till then we cyclists are on our own, and will continue to be marginalized.

Sean Yeager said...

Sadly, I believe the CFC program was created more to benefit the struggling auto industry than do anything for the good of the environment or safety of the roads.

Apparently, it's working. I am curious to see a study on the program that shows how many people who couldn't really afford a new car have gone further into debt to get a new one, and how many instances like this trade of a Ford F150 for a Chevy Silverado are taking place.

Yokota Fritz said...

KQED's "Forum" program this morning discussed the Cash for Clunkers program. They had a car dealer lobbyist on one side and economist Jeff Miron on the other side. I think Miron argued convincingly against Cash for Clunkers, but many callers weighed in on the environmental "benefits" of trading in the 18 mpg clunker for a 24 mpg newer car.

@dr2chase: Certainly; I didn't post my entire note to Senators Boxer and Feinstein (who now support the Cash for Clunkers program) here.

It's important to remember also that when communicating with politicians and with journalists, it's vital to stay on point, or your message gets diluted and lost.

Miron gave his suggested alternative: If people are serious about an environmental benefit, we need to raise the gas tax.

dr2chase said...

and there is a bike Manufacturer that is "too big to fail"

But this would never happen, and this may be an intrinsic problem to bicycling. Bikes are so much cheaper and more efficient than cars, that you could not possibly build a too-big-to-fail industry around them. On the other hand, a big shift to cycling, could hit some existing industries pretty hard. Suppose, hypothetically, that bikes suddenly hit at 25% commute/trip/ride share -- who loses money?

- auto manufacturers, because people will buy fewer cars (their cars will last at least 25% longer).

- oil industry, because people will burn less gasoline.

- drug companies, because there will be a corresponding reduction in medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol. Other meds may be affected, I'm not entirely sure.

- other industries dedicated to the care of autos, or fitness/health (gyms, weight loss)

We already own the bikes, so the money flowing to the bicycle industry (LBS and QPB, mostly) is smallish. Probably panniers, bags, and trailers. At the limit, people get cargo bikes, that runs you anywhere from about $500 (Xtracycle add-on) to $5000 (custom build Big Dummy, or Bullitt TNT ). When the most extravagant bike alternative is about as expensive as the per-clunker subsidy....

Problem we've got is, if we shift to a radically more efficient means of transportation, that all the people who previously supported the inefficient transport, will have to find something else to do. That's hard, they'd much rather lobby their elected representatives to keep the gravy flowing.

Paul in Minneapolis said...

Yes, but if 25% of all trips were now on bikes other indistries would grow, such as clothing indistries, better health care, longer vacations and even higer educations with all the money redirected. So, America would not in any way suffer. And add that America becomming a more friendly country tourism could grow.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a post from you again. This blog has been sleeping since the book.

Tanya Seaman said...

I'm so glad to see this! How about a government program that gives you money for a bicycle and/or a transit pass???

Doesn't anyone in government get the connection between our health care costs and our support of the automobile-centric lifestyle?

RANTWICK said...

That was a great post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I just came across this story from the UK: Government says 'no' to scrappage scheme for bicycles.

Apparently the UK's Environmental Transport Association responded to that country's version of Cash for Clunkers by proposing a "Pounds for Pedals" program: consumers would be given £100 for a new bicycle, with the old one being sent for refurbishment in the developing world.

The Prime Minister rejected the plan. Same as the old boss, etc.

SubComandante Sasquatch said...

What you all said and more in the above comments. And if you can't beat 'em, join 'em:

Portland bike shop offers Cash for Clunkers.

Anonymous said...

delighted to that conservatives and liberals are agreeing that this administration is out of control.

Paul Dorn said...

I don't think it's just "this" administration. The bi-partisan consensus has favored and privileged automobiles for more than 60 years. The "cash for clunkers" nonsense is more "consistency" than "change" from this particular administration.

Paul Dorn said...

From "Cash for Clunkers didn't boost hybrid sales" in the Sacramento Bee, 08.18.09: It's less clear what the trade-in program has accomplished on the environmental front. Much to the chagrin of public-interest groups, a fair number of U.S. consumers are turning right around and buying new light trucks with their credits from the Car Allowance Rebate System, or CARS.

"It appears that despite some of these glowing (federal) reports we've seen on the environmental benefits of the program, a lot of light trucks and SUVs are being purchased through the program," said Lena Pons, a policy analyst Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Powerful Pete said...

Wow. Here in Italy the government set up a subsidised programme to support the purchase of new bikes. The money flew out the door, to the point that it ran out and they are only starting it up again this fall.

I wonder what impact could have been made with a few pennies from the cash for clunkers programme targeted exclusively to bikes?

DennisTheBald said...

Love the photo of the clunker poking outta the top of the dumpster.

If I was the king of the world, I tell you what I'd do. I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the wars and make sweet love to you.
Joy to the world.

helmets said...

thanks for the tips

chococat78 said...

I completely agree. It is ridiculous to throw money into cars when we really need to be building livable communities by creating a REAL infastructure (i.e. bike lanes, side walks, mass transit).

hannah, heart city said...

the mainstream american love of cars is so sad. i like this blog. being a college student, i don't have a car and i bike or take public transit to get around. i'm also proud to say i have a mom who takes the subway to work and a dad who bikes! so you know, there's hope.

Jacob said...

I really appreciate you for all the valuable information that you are providing us through your blog.

Mountain Bike Girl said...

I just stumbled on your post and it really struck a chord with me. Here in the UK we have a similar system where the government is subsidising a scheme which gives you £2000 off the price of a brand new car if you trade in your 10 years+ old model.

There are so many flaws with this that it's untrue. As far as the environmental argument goes, surely leaving people running older, smaller cars is more sensible than the MASSIVELY damaging (in terms of carbon emissions) process of making a new car (not to mention getting it to the UK after it's been made).

The idea was also to boost our ailing economy, which begs the question, why are we subsidising brands which were designed and manufactured abroad? The benefit to the UK economy of a car that was manufactured by workers in another company isn't so great...

Finally, there was so much more they could have spent their cash on. We live in a tiny country. Our cities are so densely packed in that in reality nowhere is very far from anywhere else, so why aren't we cycling. Cash on providing cycling lanes and traffic calming measures to make life safer for cyclists would surely have been better spent.

I'd have given the money to these mountain bike guys- they'd use it more wisely.

Killshot said...

Now that we know more about the morons running the government, this is much more understandable a year later.

central park bike tours said...

Greeting from NYC. Great blog!

Darrin said...

I know this topic can get deep and I have to tell you great pic!

Anonymous said...

Compared to bikers of Ottawa, people who ride bicycles on street in Montreal are really lucky. Because in Ottawa, there are no bicycle lanes at all! The appeal of building bicycle lanes were denied.

Anonymous said...

when gas passes $4, get an american flag and ride around local gas stations

Orbea Bikes said...

Is that photo real or photoshoped!

Its a difficult one with the idea of the program to bring cash into a stale market while potentially ignoring the fact there are already just too many cars about.


Omaha Florist said...

I'm in agreeance with the majority of the people here. The system seems like a nice one. Getting low MPG cars off the road will definitely help, but not to the point where we need to give them that much money. There's a point where there are more important things to be doing to make ourselves a greener country.