Efforts to Reduce Cars' Impacts Find Only Stop-and-Go Momentum

Efforts to Reduce Cars' Impacts Find Only Stop-and-Go Momentum

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Burning Image

We probably don't have to tell you that the nation's roads are often a mess, and if the traffic congestion doesn't drive you nuts, fuel prices might. At the same time, the environmental impact from all those miles driven -- and the near-complete lack of reduction in those miles driven -- is sometimes too depressing to think about.

This has been a hot-button issue on all fronts for years, with companies, nonprofits and governments trying to address the issue in any number of ways. In the past week, there have been a few interesting developments -- both good and bad -- in efforts to reduce the impacts of and stresses from our national driving habit. Here are some of the highlights:

Should the Government Focus More on Vehicles Than Renewables?

The federal government needs to pay more attention to the transportation sector, according to a new assessment from the U.S. Department of Energy. The federal government's support of renewable energy has recently been thrust into the spotlight because of the Solyndra debacle, but this analysis finds it is "underinvested" in the transportation sector. Vehicle efficiency and electrification, rather than wind and solar, will do the most to address what the Department of Energy called the biggest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security: oil dependence.

"Vehicle efficiency has the greatest short- to mid-term impact on oil consumption," the DOE wrote in its first Quadrennial Technology Review report (PDF) released yesterday, which it describes as an assessment of its R&D portfolios. "Electrification will play a growing role in both efficiency and fuel diversification ... Within our transportation activities, we conclude that DOE should gradually increase its effort on vehicle efficiency and electrification relative to alternative fuels."

Aggressive New Fuel Efficiency Standards Suffer from Political Pushback

The nation's transportation sector consumes more than 14 million barrels per day of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, that figure will top 16 million barrels each day, the EIA predicts, although that growth rate is slower compared to the time frame from 1975 to 2009.

In an attempt to address growing oil demand -- and meet President Barack Obama's goal of reducing oil consumption by a third by 2035 -- the government introduced higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for light duty vehicles requiring 35 mpg fuel economy by model year 2020.

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department were supposed to issue new rules for the next phase of fuel standards -- 54.5 mog by 2025 -- but that will be delayed six weeks because of technical issues, the Los Angeles Times reported. Although that move echoes other new environmental law delays of late, including rules that would reduce smog, stakeholders, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been assured the rules are coming, not shelved.

Calculating Our Traffic Woes ... and Finding a Solution?

While more efficient vehicles may reduce our reliance on oil and ultimately save people money, those new rules surely don't mean there will be fewer cars on the road. That's little comfort to drivers in Washington, D.C., which was just ranked the most congested city for traffic in 2010. Roughly 1.7 million people drive to work every day there, spending some 74 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Chicago fared only slightly better, followed by the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area, Houston and the New York-Newark, N.J.-Connecticut tri-state region.

With all those cars on the road, you can expect the parking situation to be a nightmare. A new study released today by IBM found that about 30 percent of urban traffic congestion is caused by drivers searching for parking. The company and San Francisco firm Streetline are teaming up to providing a solution: a network of sensors that help drivers locate a spot with the aid of a smartphone.

IBM and Streetline announced their partnership this morning with an aim of marketing the solution to cities. In December, Los Angeles was the first city in the U.S. to put Streetline's concept to work.

Here's the idea: Sensors are placed in parking slots and meters to tell whether a space is occupied and how much time is left on the meter. That information is communicated to data collectors mounted over a street, such as on a lamp post. That information is fed to a control center so that when a driver activates the mobile app, he or she can tell how many open slots there are on the street they are traveling and in the immediate area. IBM analytics gives the system more muscle and provides a tool to help cities analyze traffic flow, demand and use of parking.

Here is video on how the "Parker" app works.

[Editor's note: GreenBiz Editor Leslie Guevarra contributed to this report.]

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Burning Image.