Driving hard

by John Quiggin on February 4, 2004

Kieran’s piece on kids being driven to school reminded me of a post I’ve been planning for a while. One of the issues debated at length on my blog is that of speeding and law-enforcement measures such as speed cameras. I’ve argued against speeding and in favor of rigorous law-enforcement. Not surprisingly, and perhaps reflecting the fact that more than 80 per cent of drivers regard themselves as above-average, this has been very controversial. You can read some instalments in the debate here and here or use the search facility for “speeding”. Unfortunately most of the extensive and interesting comments were lost in a database failure.

In the course of this debate I discovered the fact, surprising to me, that, although the rate of road deaths per person in the United States is nearly twice that in Australia and the United Kingdom, much of this difference can be accounted for by the fact that distances travelled in the United States are a lot higher and are rising (there are problems with the numbers and biases in the measure, but I’ll leave that to one side for now). The differences between US and UK are plausible given differences in population density and well-developed public transport in London at least, but the differences between the US and Australia certainly surprised me. Australia is every bit as car-dependent as the US and has much lower population density.

All of this is a prelude to the fact that, in economic terms, time spent travelling is a really big deal. In their book Time for Life, based on the 1985 US Time Use Study, Robinson and Godbey estimate that the average adult American spends 30 hours a week in paid employment and 10 hours a week travelling (they also, controversially, argue that working time has been falling, not rising). It’s pretty clear that distances and times spent travelling have increased since 1985 in the US (in both the US and Australia, driving is by far the dominant mode of travel).

If, as I’ll argue below, most travel should be regarded as being in the same economic category as working and if, as the stats linked above imply, Americans spend about twice as much time travelling as Australians, then reducing travel times to the Australian level would be equivalent to a productivity improvement of between 12 and 15 per cent. As it happens, combined with the relatively small difference in hours of paid work, adjusting for hours of work and travel would just about eliminate the gap between Australian and US GDP per capita (about 20 per cent on standard PPP estimates).

his is also important because quite a few commentators have argued that one of the factors promoting productivity growth in the US has been the rise of “big-box” edge of town stores like Walmart and Costco in place of small inefficient local shops (here, for example is Robert Gordon, cited by Brad deLong). As Steve Sailer points out, this apparent productivity growth has been achieved by transferring costs to shoppers.

Bigger stores mean fewer stores of each type, and that means longer drives, with larger parking lots and longer aisles to trudge through.
(I’m less impressed by Sailer’s argument that more diversity pushes the responsibility for choice onto consumers, but that’s by the bye).

Now let me justify my claim that travel time should be added to work time in deriving economic measures of productivity. On the output side, at least two-thirds is associated with the basic business of getting and spending (commuting, childcare and shopping). The remainder is associated with free-time activities but, except in the case where the travel itself is part of the activity (‘a drive in the country’ and so forth) should, I would argue, be classified as work.

On the input side, driving is more stressful and unpleasant than most paid employment activities. One way of thinking about this is to look at full-time jobs that mostly involve driving (cabbie, courier etc) – these are generally considered high-stress unpleasant jobs.

Driving is more dangerous than work in general. Australian data suggests that there are about one and a half times as many work related deaths than road fatalities, but when account is taken of the number of hours spent at work and on the road, this means driving is several times more dangerous.

I should add that, in all of the above, I’ve treated distance travelled by car as a proxy for time spent travelling, on the assumption that average speeds are about the same. This might seem inconsistent with my emphasis on the enforcement of speed limits, but the reduction in average speeds associated with enforced limits is quite low – most of the time the binding constraint is congestion. My casual observation suggests that urban traffic doesn’t move any faster in the US than in Australia.

As far as I can tell, this issue has been almost completely neglected by economists, except for the special purpose of evaluating savings in travel times associated with improved roads. The standard practice appears to be to value travel time at about half the average wage. This is consistent with the economic analysis I’ve proposed on standard assumptions about the disutility of work (if the disutility of work starts at zero and rises linearly until the marginal disutlity equals the wage, then average disutility will be equal to half the wage).

The most likely reason for this neglect is the assumption that travel represents a more-or-less constant overhead cost associated with getting to work, shopping and so on. If so, it can be ignored without changing anything of interest. But the evidence seems to be that this is not true. Travel times (or at least distances) differ greatly between apparently similar countries and vary significantly over time. This means that analyses of productivity and living standards that disregard travel costs are likely to get wrong answers.

{ 37 comments }

1

Chris Bertram 02.04.04 at 9:23 am

An entirely tangential point: 80% of drivers thinking of themselves as above average is often thought of as an absurdity on the conceptual grounds that 80 per cent of drivers couldn’t actually be above average. But they could, if most were very good at about the same level and a few were very very bad. After all, as I heard someone mention in a seminar the other day, 99% + of people have an above average number of legs (the average being, presumably, about 1.999 legs per person).

2

John Kozak 02.04.04 at 10:00 am

Chris – surely the nugget of folk wisdom here is that most distributions are normal?

3

Brett Bellmore 02.04.04 at 10:45 am

Actually, when it comes to people, many distributions are bimodal, for some obscure reason. LOL

4

John Quiggin 02.04.04 at 11:25 am

I think it’s reasonable to assume that driving skill can at best be ranked ordinally, which means that the only relevant “average” concept is the median. By definition of course, exactly 50 per cent of any (continuous) distribution is above the median.

5

Barry 02.04.04 at 1:53 pm

“Chris – surely the nugget of folk wisdom here is that most distributions are normal?”

-Posted by John Kozak

John, that’s just what they tell people in the classic ‘intro to statistics for people who will never take another stats course’. They also tell it to real statistics students for a couple of courses, but then admit that most stuff is non-normal. So it is theoretically possible for 80% of drivers to be ‘above average’.

I suspect that the real reason for people to say this is self-delusion.

6

humeidayer 02.04.04 at 2:19 pm

John, that’s just what they tell people in the classic ‘intro to statistics for people who will never take another stats course’. They also tell it to real statistics students for a couple of courses, but then admit that most stuff is non-normal. So it is theoretically possible for 80% of drivers to be ‘above average’.

80% of drivers are above average because the bad ones are SO BAD

7

Rv. Agnos 02.04.04 at 2:37 pm

I wonder how much of the driving problems in America can be attributed to the Workers’ Compensation “going and coming” rule.

Under W.C. laws, an employee who is injured in a car crash driving from Work Site A to Work Site B is injured in the course of employment, so entitled to W.C. benefits.

An employee injured on his way to work, or on his way home after work, is not considered injured in the course of employment, so not entitled to any workers’ comp. benefits (even though he wouldn’t have been on the road if not for having to go to work).

Employers, therefore, have no economic incentive to put their worksite where people actually live (or, alternatively, hire people who live closeby).

8

James Surowiecki 02.04.04 at 2:49 pm

Steve Sailer’s assertion about the rise of big-box retailers increasing travel time is just wrong, at least in the suburbs. It’s obviously quicker to buy most all your stuff in one place, rather than having to move around to many different stores, since in very few suburban towns are all the stores in one place. Most suburban towns, at least in the Northeast, don’t have a single downtown area where you can make a single trip and come away with what you need (and you’re driving there in any case, since the towns are so spread out that you can’t walk to “downtown”). In fact, since big-box retailers tend to be located near each other, they almost certainly shorten travel time when you do go from store to store — you can go from Home Depot to Staples to B&N to Circuit City in a couple of minutes. (I realize this probably sounds like the Seventh Circle of Hell to many CTers, but it’s actually quite pleasant.)

As for the “larger parking lots,” it’s much quicker to pull into a big-box parking lot, where you’re guaranteed a parking space, rather than having to look for a parking space in a downtown area.

Nor am I convinced that the suburbs are worse than cities. I live in Brooklyn, and I’m consistently amazed by how long it takes to get anything done here. I can drive eighty miles in the time it takes me to make a roundtrip on the subway into midtown Manhattan, which is, what, four miles away?

9

maurinsky 02.04.04 at 3:51 pm

For seven years, I lived 2 miles from my job, and the quality of my love improved dramatically during that time. During the warm months, I rode my bike to work. (I have a minor physical disability that means a 2 mile walk twice a day is out of the question)

Then I got laid off, and after a year of job hunting, got a job that is only 10 miles away, but due to poor public transportation, my work day has been extended by 3 hours of travel time. If I drive to work in my family’s only car, my day is extended by an hour.

I keep looking for a job within walking distance of my house, but there are very few jobs for us lower middle class folks.

10

David Lloyd-Jones 02.04.04 at 3:57 pm

John Q,

If one assumes — hell, if one simply observes — that most useful work, down to and including stamping out the suspensions of Ford trucks, which I currently do, consists of thinking, then surely it springs to mind that the private time Americans spend in their cars must be a large factor in America’s awesome industrial productivity.

-dlj.

11

Ophelia Benson 02.04.04 at 4:11 pm

Hmm. Yes, cars are such a great place for thinking. Especially when one is either caught in an endless gridlock with all the other thinking commuters in their metal boxes, or going 60 on a freeway full of people in SUVs going 90 while chatting on their cell phones. I find I don’t do much useful thinking in those circumstances.

12

Kurt Rufa 02.04.04 at 4:17 pm

Something that gets me is the percieved cost of driving. Most people think of this as being the cost of fuel (cheap in the US) – ignoring the maintenance and depreciation of the car and the value of time spent (say) reading the paper on the bus instead of driving.

What we’ve got, in a way, is trillions of infrastructure that a citizen must pay a $2000 membership fee (car) and $1000 annual dues (cost of insuring and maintaining car) to use.

I think the perceived- cost-of-driving and the federal funding bias toward road building & away from transit goes a long way toward explaining why transit is relatively underdeveloped in the US.

13

Simon 02.04.04 at 4:40 pm

Vis-a-vis Australian driving habits, Australia is one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Sure the average population density is very low, but that is misleading. In 1996 over 80% of Australians lived in an urban area, and the percentage is rising. I also think you miss a correlation of relative automobile cost to accident rates. As fewer people can afford cars, those that have them tend to be better drivers (think age, income, etc..). Cars in Australia are quite expensive, as is insurance. Just my 2 cents.

14

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.04.04 at 6:07 pm

“Employers, therefore, have no economic incentive to put their worksite where people actually live (or, alternatively, hire people who live closeby).”

Just a small point. You take a very marginal influence and generalize it into the entire hiring practices. Employers actually have a huge economic incentive to put worksites near where people live if they can–they typically have to pay people more if the worker is engaging in a long commute. (I’m assuming we are talking about jobs which are not almost entirely interchangeable.)

15

Sigivald 02.04.04 at 7:54 pm

Ophelia: That’s just you.

Many of us, myself included, get a lot of thinking done while driving. (And we manage to do so without bringing up the shibboleths of SUVs or cell phones as if they were in any way actually relevant. Maybe you could get some thinking done if you weren’t fixated on the evils of other people’s car choices or desire to communicate?)

Kurt: Transit is “underdeveloped” in the US? Compared to what golden mean of “proper development”?

Transit may be (nay, almost certainly is – and I say almost only because I haven’t bothered to look up the figures) less developed in the US than in, say, Europe, but I don’t think I’d place the blame on “perceived cost of driving” or a Federal bias towards roads over transit.

For one, if we’re talking about buses, they, of course, still need roads, as do emergency vehicles, and trucks (Trucking – and its economic benefits – alone justifies almost all of the Interstate highway system (the “pork” spur lines and such are not really justified at all), in purely economic terms. A large chunk of GNP growth after the Interstate system went in is commonly and I believe accurately linked to the Interstate system itself). If we’re talking about trains, well, light rail systems are being put in in many places… and in some of them they even get used.

The real “problem” with transit seems to be twofold:

1) If transit doesn’t go where you want, when you want, you’re not going to use it, even if it’s free and fast and pleasant (which is rarely true).

2) Transit is rarely pleasant. People don’t want to ride busses full of bums and lunatics. (While that is an unfair stereotype, it also has a lot of truth to it – busses don’t get to discriminate and only let on Nice People. In your car, however, you’re guaranteed that you don’t have to deal with Un-Nice People. And people like that a lot.)

Samizdata talked about this some time ago, and I’ll take the liberty of quoting The Important Bit:

In the USA, as I say, cheap bus services, especially cheap inter-city bus services, are famously the haunt of weird people, at any rate if the movies and TV are anything to go by. Inter-city bus stations are famously the places where TV detectives trawl the lower depths of society, and learn of the most gruesome yet socially insignificant crimes. Buses and Miserables go together, in other words.

Cheap public transit may well be a social good, but don’t expect people who don’t have to use it to use it.

(Transit may well be so “developed” in Europe because driving is expensive, and thus so few (compared to the US) can afford it, as well
as the differences in population density and culture.)

16

Kurt Rufa 02.04.04 at 8:33 pm

I consider a federal funding formula where if a local government wants to build a road they can put up 20% of the funds and get a 80% federal match, and if they want to build a light rail or other mass transit system they must put up 50% of the funds (and compete for grants out of a much smaller pool!) not exactly conducive to balanced development.

As far as transit not being pleasant, tried riding the METRA rail around Chicago? It’s a lot better than driving (you can even bring a beer aboard and drink it) and the riders there on average make a good deal of money. Consider also VRE, coming from Virginia into DC; it’s chock full of yuppies.

Public transit that is concieved of only as a means of moving those with no other choice will only have riders who have no other choice.

You seem to be complaining that people aren’t riding transit that isn’t there and is of insufficient quality when it IS there. Well, duh.

My point is that there are lots of regimes where transit could be more costefficient than additional roadbuilding – and the reason the market hasn’t hit that sweet spot is because of a big funding distortion.

17

John Quiggin 02.04.04 at 8:45 pm

I’m with Ophelia on thinking and driving – except on an open road with little traffic, I find the driving task absorbs too much of my attention. Maybe thinking and driving is why so many people have crashes, though I doubt it.

James, the same assertions (big box stores are easier to get to etc) came up when this was debated on my blog, but the numbers show a big and increasing difference between distances travelled in the US and elsewhere. Can you suggest an explanation?

18

John Quiggin 02.04.04 at 8:49 pm

Simon, the rate of car ownership in Australia was 484 passenger vehicles per 1000 persons in 1996, compared to the USA (488), New Zealand (472), Canada (441), France (437), Great Britain (361) and Japan (342) (ABS 1998e, 1999f).

stats from Bureau of Transport Economics.

Australia’s urbanisation rate, and pattern of urban sprawl is also similar to the US.

19

Leo Casey 02.04.04 at 8:54 pm

Have you considered the effect of possibly greater ownership of SUVs in the US?

SUVs are notoriously less safe vehicles. One of the effects of increasingly SUV ownership in the US is that the traffic fatality rate has levelled off, despite the fact that increased safety devices in cars generally, such as anti-lock brakes, should have lowered it. The failure of the fatality rate to fall seems almost entirely related to the increased numbers of SUVs on the US roads. To the extent that the US has many more SUVs than other nations [which one would expect, given that SUVs are gas guzzlers, and the price of gas is kept artifically low in the US, making SUV ownership a less expensive option], it would also explain why the traffic fatality rate in the US is higher.

20

ahem 02.04.04 at 8:55 pm

Shouldn’t it be noted that in the US — where most people drive automatics, and only need to pass an extremely simple test to receive their licences — the assessment of what constitutes an ‘average’ driver is rather different to that of, say, the UK or Germany?

(You could argue that this stems from a cultural mindset which regards driving as a right and not a privilege, but that’s perhaps flamebait here.)

21

limberwulf 02.04.04 at 10:36 pm

I get a lot of thinking done when driving, and my car is my own personal domain. As someone who has lived with roomates since leaving my parents home behind, I find that private time recharging.

Transit systems in some cities make a great deal of sense. I find the transit system in DC and in NY to be quite ample and, while not especially pleasant, certainly more pleasant than driving in those places. Perhaps some of the tendency to drive farther is the fact that there are fewer barriers to spreading out in the US. Cities here are generally smaller than in much of the world, and the US in general is quite young. In fact, There is more rural area in North America than in Africa. This is where population density comes in to play. Necessity is the mother of invention. When costs are high for cars and fuel, or when driving is inconvenient, mass transit rules. When people have the freedom to spread out and live in the country but still be able to afford the time and cost of increased travel, they do so, because the benefits of more rural life outweigh the costs. Its individual choice at work.

22

Gavin 02.04.04 at 11:51 pm

On the issue of working time, there has been a fair amount of work done on the allocation of time between work, commuting, household production and leisure.

For example, see Freeman and Shettkat (2001, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics: Marketization of Production and the US-Europe Employment Gap).

Surprisingly, the total amount of time allocated to working and household production is surprisingly similar across countries. The general rule is that Americans work longer hours but then effectively ‘contract out’ a lot of household production (in this case, cooking) by eating in restaurants. There is far less eating out in Europe, but far more cooking at home.

The allocation of time between work and home is particularly different for American women compared with German hausfraus.

23

Ophelia Benson 02.04.04 at 11:52 pm

Sigivald,

Well did I say it wasn’t just me? There’s a particular word in my post – it has only one letter, and the letter is kind of conspicuously vertical? I (see, there it is now) used it to refer to myself, oddly enough.

“Maybe you could get some thinking done if you weren’t fixated on the evils of other people’s car choices or desire to communicate?)”

No, I couldn’t possibly, I’m far too obsessive.

One thing I’m obsessive about is the triumphalist me-only-ism in that kind of talk. Other people’s car choices indeed – as if “other people’s car choices” take place in a total vacuum and have no impact whatsoever on anyone else. Cause no pollution, make no noise, are not in any way dangerous to pedestrians, animals, people in other cars, walls, buildings, take up no space, are gorgeous to look at, consume no fuel, have nothing to do with the need for ever-more roads and parking lots – etc etc etc. No, other people’s car choices have no impact of any kind whatsoever on anyone but the people who make them and there is absolutely nothing further to be said. And the same goes for their “desire to communicate” – absolutely, their desire to communicate on the telephone while driving a ten ton vehicle at high speed on a crowded street or freeway is something that has nothing whatever to do with anyone else, it’s purely a personal choice, because absolutely nothing anyone ever does ever has the smallest tiniest impact for good or ill on anyone else. Which is why no one has ever had a word to say about ethics in the entire history of humanity, because all our personal choices and desires are so utterly compatible and harmonious and smooth and conflict-free and without problems. In Libertarian Lalaland, maybe, but on planet earth, I don’t think so.

I wish I could think, though, it really upsets me that I can’t seem to manage it.

24

Tom T. 02.05.04 at 1:14 am

Sigivald, the substance of your points aside, your tone is so crabby that I have to wonder whether you wrote that post while sitting in traffic.

25

multitimbral 02.05.04 at 5:42 am

“This is where population density comes in to play. Necessity is the mother of invention. When costs are high for cars and fuel, or when driving is inconvenient, mass transit rules. “

Apparently, someone forgot to let Los Angeles know.

Of course it had nothing to do with GM.

http://www.culturechange.org/issue10/taken-for-a-ride.htm

26

Jake McGuire 02.05.04 at 5:59 am

Of course people’s choices have impacts on other people. If it wasn’t for all those rich bastards bidding up the price of housing in San Francisco my rent would be half as high as it is; if it wasn’t for all of my co-workers wanting to have a back yard and a pool I wouldn’t have to ride 97 miles round trip to work, and if no one drove ugly cars I wouldn’t have to look at them. I don’t think that gives them a right to compel me to change my behavior.

It’s a free country.

27

Ophelia Benson 02.05.04 at 4:12 pm

“I don’t think that gives them a right to compel me to change my behavior.

It’s a free country.”

Nor did I say it did. This wild leap is exactly the kind of thing that gives libertarianism and market-worship such a bad name with people who might otherwise be more willing to give it a hearing. Even the mere criticism of, say, SUVs and people who drive them while talking on the telephone is construed as advocacy of repression.

Criticism of X is not identical to a demand for the extirpation or suppression or regulation of X.

Surely that’s obvious? Is it not?

28

Simon 02.05.04 at 4:33 pm

I really should check back more often. John, re: numbers of cars in Australia and US:
There are 107 million U.S. households, each with an average of 1.9 cars, trucks or sport utility vehicles and 1.8 drivers, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported. That equals 204 million vehicles and 191 million drivers.

Urbanization: I tried to get better info, but definitions seem to vary. I’m really quoting from memory a statistic that was “common knowledge” when I lived in Australia (90-92)

29

Jake McGuire 02.05.04 at 5:40 pm

Criticism of X is not identical to a demand for the extirpation or suppression or regulation of X.

Surely that’s obvious? Is it not?

Mmmm…. true, sort of. But there’s a difference between criticism of the nature of “this is annoying because it inconveniences me” and “this is ethically or morally wrong because it inconveniences me”. While the second sort of criticsm is not the same as trying to compel someone to change their behavior, it is very frequently a precursor to doing so.

Perhaps this is just my underexposure to annoying drivers in SUVs (they get in your way, so you pass them) and my overexposure to anti-SUV zealots (I live in San Francisco) speaking.

30

Ophelia Benson 02.05.04 at 5:53 pm

“While the second sort of criticsm is not the same as trying to compel someone to change their behavior, it is very frequently a precursor to doing so.”

Sure, that’s true. But I don’t take that to be a reason simply to assume that that’s invariably what’s going on and proceed accordingly. A precursor is not automatically the thing itself, and should not be discussed as such.

And then, the bit about inconveniencing, and the bit about me. More rhetoric, frankly. The problems with SUVs go way beyone mere inconvenience (they are dangerous, to put it briefly). And I wasn’t just talking about me. To say the least. That’s exactly the problem with libertarian rhetoric: the way it pretends that all discussion begins and ends with Me. It’s both stupid and disgusting, and so as I say puts off people who might otherwise give it a hearing.

(But then I haven’t had over-exposure to anti-SUV zealots. Where I live, they’re taking over the universe – the SUVs I mean, not the zealots.)

31

Jake McGuire 02.05.04 at 9:03 pm

I think that in the grand scheme of dangerous driving behavior, buying an SUV ranks pretty low on the list. It’s pretty similar to comparing intelligence among various social groupings – there may be a difference in the averages, but it’s by and large totally swamped by individual variations. In this case – driving closer than your reaction time and brakes allow, not using your turn signal and/or looking while changing lanes, and driving more than 10 mph faster or slower than the general flow of traffic.

I also think that I’m fairly attuned to what constitutes dangerous driving behavior as a result of riding a motorcycle 100 miles a day through some of the foulest traffic in the US (US 101 between San Francisco and San Jose) for the past couple of years.

I also think that the trend toward people buying SUVs for safety reasons is a direct and very predictable result of auto safety groups concentrating on collision safety rather than collision avoidance.

Now that I think about it more, shouldn’t increased danger to other people be compensated for very accurately by increased liability insurance premiums?

32

limberwulf 02.05.04 at 9:25 pm

I dont understand the concept of SUV’s being dangerous. The issue is poor driving skills. Driving an SUV as if it were a sedan is very dangerous when it comes to handling, stopping distance, etc. This is also the case for vans, in fact, more so in the case of full sized vans. I drive a honda civic, I used to drive and acura integra. I can not drive the civic the same way I drove the acura, it doesnt have the same capabilities in handling, etc. If I drive a van or SUV, I drive it with the knowledge that it will have a longer stopping distance and will not corner equally to my civic. If I drive a pickup, I drive it knowing that it will have similar issues plus an additional loss of traction in the rear when not loaded due to the design of the vehicle.

It is my responsibilty as a driver to adjust my driving style to match not only the road conditions, but the vehicle I am driving. There are many types of vehicles on the road, all of the road, all of them have advantages and disadvantages. They each have capabilities that others do not. You buy what suits your needs and desires, and adjust for the losses. If people are too foolish to make these adjustments, that causes a problem.

The bottom line is, no vehicle is dangerous in of itself, the drivers are the dangerous party. There needs to be personal responsibility, not blame transference to inanimate objects.

33

John Quiggin 02.06.04 at 12:34 am

Simon, your figures imply around 700 cars per 1000 people which is about 40 per cent higher than the BTE source I quoted. There seems to be a fair bit of variation in these estimates, but I think it’s fair to say that differences between Australia and the US on this score are modest relative to differences in reported distances driven and that car ownership is not an important constraint on Australian travel.

As regards urbanisation, the popularity of the claim that Australia is the world’s most urbanised country is due to its contrast with the common image of Australians as hardy outback pioneers, but the term “urbanised” is used here in a much broader sense than in the US to cover anyone living in a city or its suburbs. In terms of the proportion of people living in or near central business districts, Australia is still probably one of the worlds least urbanised countries.

34

JRoth 02.06.04 at 2:30 am

limberwulf & jake:

Yes, you’re right that, well-driven, an SUV can be as safe as a well-driven small car (neither is as safe as a well-driven mid-size, for reasons I hope are obvious). But statistics are overwhelming (see the recent article in Mr. Surowiecki’s magazine) that SUVs are, in fact, the cause of many, many more deaths per vehicle mile than any other vehicle type, including full-size vans. It’s a pernicious combination of consumer ignorance, inadequate training, marketing, and (unintentionally?) deceptive design. No one can drive a block in an Econoline van and not be aware that they’re in a potential deathtrap. Automakers have spent over a decade eradicating that sensation from SUVs, without eradicating the .

In other words, an ’04 Explorer feels much safer than the ’93 Explorer I used to occasionally drive in a babysitting gig, but without a corresponding decrease in braking distance, rollover rate, etc. SUVs really are inherently dangerous, because the stimulus-response calculus has been jiggered with not by engineers, but by marketers (not literally, of course, but you take my meaning).

sigi:

You’re conflating intercity buses with intra. Although Americans have been shown to prefer light rail to buses (the reasons for this are disputed), intracity buses are not the gothic stages that intercity buses have been made into – they are much more prosaic, if inelegant. I’ve ridden both, plenty. The post here is not about intercity, vacation travel, but about peoples’ daily lives. And here, the choices have been made at federal and multinational corp. levels, not the levels of unfettered individual choice. Someone above gave an excellent example of the slanted funding implications. Subsidize mass transit for 48 years the way highways have been, and you’d have a different America (the productivity boost of the interstate highway system was a one-time phenomenon that ended about 1970).

On top of that, the reasons for companies to locate where they do are, of course, myriad, but it’s a truism in real estate that companies will abandon bus riding employees long before they inconvenience drivers – it’s simply a prejudice, one of those irrational decisions that make the market run so flawlessly.

Lastly, James:

I grew up in the suburbs of the northeast, and now live in a northeastern city. You’re absolutely mad if you find driving from big box to big box pleasant. When I’m forced to the suburbs for some product unavailable within the city, I invariably find my afternoon ruined by the unpleasantness of the driving – and I adore driving. It is a pastime for me. But the mall crawl makes a mockery of it in a way that urban stop and go (with a stick, no less) rarely does.

35

John Quiggin 02.06.04 at 3:48 am

Gavin, thanks very much for the link to Freeman and Shettkat. It was very interesting, although most of the time travel was lumped in with the associated economic activity (commuting added to working, for example). But where they were separated the result was striking – 2.0 hours of travel time per week on personal business (travel to and from shops, for example) for Americans vs 0.4 for Germans.

36

ahem 02.06.04 at 4:25 am

I dont understand the concept of SUV’s being dangerous.

The concept is simple: They roll over. They crush smaller cars and are more likely to kill pedestrians because of their shape. That can’t be addressed solely by saying ‘it’s all about driving skills’. Sticking that much weight on a pickup frame — as Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, a 30-year old design — may be cheap to manufacture, but it’s bankrupt design.

This is also the case for vans, in fact, more so in the case of full sized vans.

Not so: most minivans and full-size vans have a unit-body contruction: i.e. they’re built according to modern principles of collision impact safety and weight distribution. As jroth has suggested, do read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece, especially the part about how SUVs actually cultivate bad driving skills because they’ve been designed to make drivers feel safe.

It makes one wonder whether those who say ‘my car is my living space; I can think while I’m driving’ are actually telling us: ‘Please pray you never encounter me on the road, because I won’t be concentrating.’ Which is not something you could ever say about an old Austin Mini.

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Jake McGuire 02.06.04 at 6:31 am

Full size vans are most definitely not of unit-body construction. I know – I’ve owned three of them. They’re great, and also the reason I would never buy an SUV.

And that Gladwell article is up to his usual standards, which is to say excellent. But one thing he does not mention, which I think is relevant, is that this learned helplessness did not come about magically – it was *encouraged* by traffic safety organizations. Before SUVs came around, when did you hear from anyone who wasn’t a car nut that a sports car was safer because you could avoid a collision? In fairness, though, he has written another excellent article about this phenomenon.

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