BP, You, and Me

Everyone I talk to is incredibly frustrated and disheartened by the ongoing environmental catastrophe caused by the April 20th BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and resultant oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. BP’s inability to stop the oil leak, as well as our feelings of being powerless in the matter, are at the heart of this palpable frustration and despair. Of course, we can apply pressure on our representatives, as well as express our feelings in public demonstrations, but because of our utter dependence on automobiles in this country, I suspect many people are unwilling or unable to hit the oil companies where it would really hurt — in the pocketbook.

There was an interesting piece on this subject posted on Boing Boing the other day. Let me quote some figures from the article:

  • Approximately 9% of the gasoline consumed in the U.S. is from offshore drilling.
  • Americans averagely travel 40 miles and consume approximately 1.8 gallons of gasoline per day.
  • Reducing our consumption by 9% (the amount represented by offshore drilling) would place us at 1.6 gallons, or 35.8 miles of travel; only 4.2 miles less per day.

As can be seen by the numbers above, even small changes, if undertaken by a large enough number of people, have the potential to affect outcomes. I’m not naive enough to think we’re going to stop offshore drilling solely by riding our bikes to work, but I am optimistic enough to think that the example we set can have an impact on those around us.

For those of you who are already doing what you can to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, thank you and keep up the good work. And for those of you who have been thinking about making a change, there’s no better time than right now.

34 Responses to “BP, You, and Me”

  • Sean in Calgary says:

    The best way to protest this disaster is to simply ride your bike.

    If Americans chose to drive less, that well would have never been drilled in the first place. Alas, your “American Dream” (every man can have a house in the burbs, 2 car garage, and a piece of lawn) has been sold to your nation so aggressively that the majority have bought into what is basically a lie – and now you are living with the consequences.

    Up here in the great white north we have our own ongoing catastrophy called the Tarsands. Frustratingly, the tarsands are now being touted as “clean energy” if you compare the devestation to whats going on in the Gulf. Rough.

    Makes me sick all around.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Great post! 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Source:

  • CedarWood says:

    The other day, one of the other half’s colleagues expressed a desire for a new SUV.

    My other half, who arrives at work via a combo of modified (100 mpg+) hybrid and bike, replied that deliberately buying an SUV to transport one person when there are other options is irresponsible, especially considering the Gulf oil spill.

    The colleague then said, “I knew you’d tell me that, but I want this particular SUV anyway.” And she bought it. What an unnecessary waste of resources.

  • Neil O says:

    Ok, let me restate some facts and then work out the math.

    * Americans averagely travel 40 miles and consume approximately 1.8 gallons of gasoline per day.

    * 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work.

    * In the third quarter of 2009, the American labor force comprised 154.4 million people.

    So we have 150 million total workers commuting on average 40 miles per day. That’s 6 billion vehicle miles per day.

    However 50% of those workers commute fewer than 5 miles. Those workers account for 375 million vehicle miles per day. (That’s a high estimate, by the way, because I’m assuming a full 5 mile commute for all 75 million. In reality it’s somewhat less than this.)

    If ALL of those people rode a bicycle rather than drive, then we would reduce the overall vehicle miles traveled per day by 375/6000 = 6.25%.

    Of course we all know 75 million bicycle commuters nationwide would be a HUGE increase over what we have today. But even such an enormous change would not be enough to eliminate the demand for offshore drilling.

    The problem is that our communities have been planned with a faulty assumption that we can live far from where we work. If 50% of commuters drive 5 miles or less, then the other 50% must be driving **75 miles or more** in order for the national average to be 40 miles a day.

    What needs to happen is incredibly difficult. On average people need to live closer to where they work. If some of them cycle or use public transportation that’s great, but the heavy oil consumption is driven by the population who live too far away for anything but a car to be practical for commuting. Somehow that needs to change.

  • Alan says:

    @Neil O

    Thanks for that, Neil. The important detail you left out of the equation is the fact that 70-80% of total miles are for trips other than commuting. In other words, even if it can’t be done by shifting commuting patterns alone, there is tremendous potential to reduce gas consumption by using our bicycles for shopping, socializing, and other non-work-related trips.


  • Randy says:

    I posted similar sentiments the other day on twitter and actually had a couple people say they were trying to figure out some way to use less oil and even stated they would try to ride a bike on small trips (i suggested they read your website to get inspired). So at least there may be some hope for people realizing how damaging this “American dream” is to all of us. However, i also had a coworker try to tell me his SUV is more economical than my bicycle (not sure how and he is suppose to let me know when he figures out exactly how it is more economical).

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Neil, I assume BoingBoing’s 40 mile number also includes trips not related to commuting, such as holidays.

    I don’t think it’s incredibly difficult to reduce gasoline use by 9%.

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I would imagine that teenagers cruising malls and driving in state-mandated caravans* accounts for a sizable portion of that 9%.

    *Growing up in suburban Orange County, CA, I drove everywhere, even a half mile to my friend’s house. A combination of affluence and infrastructure devoted to automobiles to an insane degree led my 17 year old self to not even realize you don’t have to drive. Even worse, CA State Law does not allow young drivers to drive with others under 25 years of age. As a result, my friends would drive everywhere in five cars, one person per car. It’s shameful! I cringe with embarrassment recalling it, but now I am 99% car free and doing my best to share the bike love with others as an atonement….

  • Kirby says:

    Oil is a global commodity. If you had a well in your back yard there is no guarantee that the oil it produces would be used in this country. If everyone in this country stopped driving tomorrow they would continue to drill in this country on land at sea because there would still be a global market. I’m car free and have been for since the bombs stated falling in Iraq, but I’m not so naive as to think it makes any difference except with my on conscious.

  • jamesmallon says:

    The school board where I am employed as a teacher, makes it very hard to transfer within the board. I tried to explain to HR that staff who are able to trade so two have a shorter commute, multiplied many times, give them a better rested staff with less absenteeism, which saves them money. Blank stares, or the email version thereof. I knew better than to bother with talk of the environment or savings on gas: this is in Toronto’s sprawling suburbs, which have the same (dearth of) density as LA. People hear it, understand it, but nobody gets it that a thing called ‘society’ requires some personal sacrifice. It’s all ‘somebody else’ in our ‘society’.

    As for the lady who bought the SUV: I hope she rolls it.

  • Richard Masoner says:

    I got into a frustrating conversation with some of my friends who were expressing their disgust with BP’s disaster. There was absolutely no conceivable way that they would be responsible, although every one of them live in far exurban large homes with horrendously long commutes. It’s the oil industry’s fault for their drilling practices (although they’re the ones who cointinue to drive demand for low priced fossil fuels); it’s the political leadership’s fault for failing to invest in magical fairy dust fuel (although they’re the ones who continue to drive demand for low priced fossil fuels), etc.

    Other measures to cut fossil fuel use are beyond their reality. Transit or bicycling or even carpooling is absolutely not an option for each and every one of them, they claim. They want their cake and eat it, too.

  • beth h says:

    I think that we’re missing some points here. Eventual — and not insignificant — side effects of moving the majority of the population out of their cars and onto bikes and rail would HAVE to include:

    — Smaller economies of scale based less on rampant consumerism and more on sharing, bartering and other “smaller” or under-the-radar exchanges.

    — Smaller, more densely inhabited cities and towns where everything is closer and folks would not have to travel so far to get to a job.

    — More part-time and flex-time employment, as we discover that living without the convenience of the automobile requires us to live more simply and deliberately, and to practice more acts of self-sufficiency (including food production and preparation, child care and education, and building/maintaining our dwellings ourselves).

    — A shrinking global economy as petroleum-dependent freight reduces easy access to cheaply-produced goods over time.

    — A gradual but very real shrinking of the overall population, as subsequent generations have fewer children and life spans are shortened back to a span that correlates more directly to the resources at hand (including food, clothing and medicine) and the decreased convenience/ability to get things from far away. This would likely take a long time but it would come about if everyone was eventually compelled to stop living a car-centric life.

    Countering all that is the reality that (a) most Americans won’t give up their car-centric way of life without a fight; and (b) even if they did, much larger populations in India and China are growing in affluence and demanding their time in the sun. There is currently NO political or military authority anywhere on the planet that has the power to persuade these countries to reconsider their growth and economic choices for the sake of the entire world.

    BP’s massive, deadly burp into the Gulf and all of the screaming around the demand for cheap oil are simply the desperate squirmings and thrashings of a gigantic, multi-tentacled creature that knows it will eventually become extinct and grows more lonely and scared by the prospect each day.

    This situation feels incredibly bleak to me, and I don’t see a ready solution that doesn’t involve tremendous sacrifice and hardship for the majority of the earth’s inhabitants.

    I think that many more of us DO consider these possibilities and then end up sticking our heads in the sand, because our knowledge of the enormity and impossibility of the situation is simply too big to live with daily and still remain sane and functioning.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    One of the best things about this blog is that it manages to present everything in such an attractive and positive way. You can’t cajole people out of their cars and lifestyles, you need to make them want it. You need to be constructive. Which is what Alan and Michael are so good at being!

  • Jonathan says:

    All amazing points above. Regarding oil as a global commodity, the truth remains that if one by one, we all travel by bicycle more and more, communities will slowly re-organize, and it can and will affect the demand for oil. Suddenly all oil, wherever it is drilled, is in less demand, and subsequent drilling just might decrease.

    Big change does happen one small step at a time.

    –and this is all change that every reader of this blog is already hoping for

  • voyage says:

    Perhaps this one will get past moderation:

    A huge amount of oil is consumed just to mass produce automobiles, to say nothing of operating them.

    (to say nothing about carbon forks and carbon kickstands on commuter bikes)

  • Robyn says:

    I love this blog! Pretty bikes & great discussions!

  • MJS says:

    Oh, how I wish everyone was as frustrated and disheartened as your associates, Alan.

    You’d be surprised how many wingnuts here in the sprawling, unsustainable southwest believe that the Deepwater Horizon incident was a conspiracy by the current “socialist” administration to push through comprehensive green energy and climate change legislation (the horror, the horror!) and quote: “take away our right to drive.”

    Oy. I don’t know what’s worse: that these people can drive or that they can vote.

  • CedarWood says:

    @ beth h,

    Excellent points that we have discussed periodically ourselves. I think saving money is probably the largest motivator for change on a personal level, at least it was/is for us.

    Transportation? We needed to lose weight and save money, so we started biking.

    Food? We eat nutritious, inexpensive food from the garden and orchard, while saving money and getting our exercise maintaining the areas. Hand-operated utensils and a solar oven allow greater savings during food preparation.

    Housing? We live in a passive solar house, which means the suns heats and cools our house for 8 months each year. The tankless hot water heater and 12V LED lights reduce our electric bill also.

    Travel? We bought a hybrid car and modified it. With our tent in the rear, we can visit ailing relatives 2,000 miles away for about $55 in gasoline. and $20 in camping fees.

    Most Americans are probably not willing to sleep in tents instead of RVs, plant gardens instead of lawn, whip cream using a hand beater, open windows and acclimate instead of using AC, bike to work, hang clothes out to dry, harvest wood with axes and saws, spade a garden by hand, etc., but these are all viable ways to save money and may become necessary in the future.

  • Neil O says:

    @ Alan and Erik

    I agree there’s more to it than just commuting miles. My hunch is that there is a correlation, i.e. wouldn’t you think those who have long commutes probably also have longer trips for non-work purposes?

    Incidentally, Boing Boing’s 40 miles per day number is from the US DOT. (See the link in their article) That’s 40 miles average PER CAPITA per day. So a typical family of four would travel 160 miles per day or 1120 miles per week. Stop and consider how outrageous that figure is.

    I keep coming back to this TED Talk by James Howard Kunstler.

    This talk captures the tragedy of our architecture and urban planning not just in terms of energy efficiency, but also in terms of what our architecture says about us, and what message our architecture speaks TO us as humans. To Kunstler we’ve created a “national automobile slum” which constitutes “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known.”

    Kunstler is also a Peak Oil guy so his conclusion is not surprising: “We’re going have to change this behavior whether we like it or not. We are entering an epochal period of change in the world, and — certainly in America — the period that will be characterized by the end of the cheap oil era. It is going to change absolutely everything… We’re going to have to down-scale, re-scale, and re-size virtually everything we do in this country and we can’t start soon enough to do it. We’re going to have — (Applause) — we’re going to have to live closer to where we work. We’re going to have to live closer to each other. We’re going have to grow more food closer to where we live. The age of the 3,000 mile Caesar salad is coming to an end.”

  • Garth says:

    The problem isn’t that people want so much, it’s that they aspire to so little.

  • Bill says:

    We have an opportunity right now for comprehensive climate and energy legislation. We’ve never been so close to legislation like this. It passed the House a year ago and now a similar bill awaits the Senate. The bad news is that Senators appear ready to punt. The good news is that almost everyone reading this can make a difference by emailing or calling their two Senators and saying “I want a comprehensive climate and energy bill that puts a price on carbon emissions.” Even senators who would clearly vote yes like Senator Feinstein in California need a call because their current lack of leadership is totally unacceptable. The legislation most likely to move is the Kerry-Lieberman bill. It’s far from perfect, but passing it would be a huge step in the right direction to move us away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency, conservation and renewables as well as encouraging better design of buildings, transit and communities.

  • Zweiradler says:

    Richard Masoner said: “They want their cake and eat it, too.”

    The problem is that they’re eating someone else’s cake, but they obviously don’t care.


  • Erik Sandblom says:

    BusinessWeek had an article two years ago by Alex Steffen, about sprawl.

    BusinessWeek: Cities: A Smart Alternative to Cars
    Because of population growth, the ongoing development churn in cities with buildings being remodeled or replaced, citywide infrastructure projects and changing tastes, half of the American-built environment will be rebuilt between now and 2030. Done right, that new construction could enable a complete overhaul of the American city.

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    On the SUV question, people can also make better choices about which SUV they buy. SUV MPG ratings range from 11 MPG to 34 MPG. If someone who wants a 17 MPG SUV is willing to buy the 34 MPG version, they can cut their gas consumption in half. A lot of times we can convince people to buy a better version of the type car they want, but we may not be able to convince them to buy a different type of car.

    And remember, adding 5 MPG to the 20 MPG car is a whole lot better than adding 5 MPG to the 40 MPG car.

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    Oh, I forgot to share this link: http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/byclass.htm

  • Caspar says:

    Don’t just blame BP. We all use to much energy. As long as that doesn’t change, Oil companies get to do what they want, Wars will rage and the world will basically go down the drain. We are all responsible for what is happening now!!!!
    And don’t think other companies are doing a better job. And I am sure it is not just the oil industry!!!

  • Stephen says:

    I grew up in the area between Pensacola and Panama City. The beaches there are some of the prettiest in the world. The BP spill, as you can imagine, has been heartrendering in many ways, and the impacts are only starting to manifest themselves.

    I try to ride when I can, but I have to attend professional meetings across town often, pick up kids, etc., and that’s hard to do when it’s 97 degrees and often raining in the summer. But I made the connection between oil consumption and riding a bicycle long ago, and I work on bicycle facilities planning issues.

    A significant part of the problem is that we make riding a bicycle too hard for most people, and that is a very tough nut to crack. Like Dottie at LetsGoRideABike has figured out, commuting has to be relatively easy, fun, and safe for it to happen. It’s that way for most people who own a car; regardless of the costs, most people find driving to be much easier and they perceive it to be safer. Streets are designed for cars, not peds or bicyclists, and parking lots are provided by code. Even in the “best” American cities for bicyclists, the car is still king of the road.

    Depending on altruism alone to ride a bicycle will not make a substantive dent in the number of people driving. It has to be based on cost, convenience, and available facilities. We know how relatively easy and fun it is to bicycle to work or the store, but to the average American, it’s hard and dangerous. The average American also feels the pain of the oil spill at least theoretically, but who here has vacationed on the Gulf Coast, or owns a coastal business in these areas? Who is willing to sweat profusely in July day after day if they are required to wear a tie and a dress shirt to work?

    The cost and inconvenience of driving must be increased in order for people to make choices, and those choices must be provided, and that costs money, and takes political will. In these days of extremely limited available funding for facilities of any sort, and the dominance of anti-government sentiment in political debates, I don’t have a lot of faith in being to move the ball too far, at least in the small cities and towns, especially in the Sunbelt areas. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but we shouldn’t allow our expectations to rise too far too fast.

    (For the record, I will never buy BP products again, and I am painfully aware of the costs of driving. Even though I own a small SUV, it has a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission, and I try to ride one of my four bikes when I can.)

  • Moopheus says:

    Ride, baby, ride!

  • Paul says:

    Two words: Critical Mass :)

  • j. pierce says:

    A couple thoughts spring to mind:

    1) Even though by being bicyclists, we help save oil, we also contribute to the problem too – everytime we spring for a new bike, that used energy to make and ship. I know I’m guilty of this – I bought a VO bike for my last new ride, instead of fixing up any of the hundreds of used bikes available in my area. More energy consumed in the construction and shipping of that bike than if I had gotten a used one, where that initial energy investment was already spoken for years ago when it was constructed.

    2) i agree that a large number of Americans make less than smart choices about housing – (although there is a growing change in this attitude recently) – that results in a crazy amount of fossil fuel use for transportation. I think there’s a quality of life issue too; in having a ridiculous amount of your time being consumed by a stressful, long commute; it’s seems like folks are finally realizing this. There was an interesting piece on NPR the other week about the cost of transportation – the folks who bought home two hours away from their work in Manhatten are realizing the increased wages from a city job are not worth it when they factor in how much they spend on gas and parking.

    Buying a huge (probably bigger than you need) house in the exurbs and then commuting a long distance to everything seems silly to me. More people need to analyze the true costs of this, and work needs to continue on making sustainable communities that facilitate the use of public transportation, walking, and biking.

    However – not everyone in this boat is there because of a conscious choice to live an extravagant lifestyle. I live in Vermont, and work in a semiconductor factory outside of Burlington. Many people I work with drive very long distances to work there. Most of those who do drive these ridiculous distances do so because the smaller towns they come from, many forms of employment are now gone. Some of those jobs are manufacturing gone overseas, some of those jobs are local shops gone as the big-box retailers (which are also farther away) have taken over the retail marketplace. Not everyone can telecommute or work from home. Many folks bought houses within their means, in the small towns they grew up in, and worked blue collar jobs close to them. When those jobs disappeared, they now work blue collar jobs further away from them. Living closer to larger population centers is more expensive – the rents are sometimes twice as high, and housing costs go up dramatically. Folks have a hard time selling there homes in a town no longer close to any employment or jobs, as everyone else has come to the same conclusion, they have. So we have people driving ridiculous distances.

    I’m not trying to shift blame or excuse anyone, it’s just a couple of points that sprung to mind that I thought I’d throw out there. Sometimes i feel that we have a tendency (or perhaps I just perceive one) to make a black/white distinction between the “good” people and the “bad” when it comes to being conscious about certain issues, and like everything, it’s complicated.

  • Morpheous says:

    What would be truly advantageous is if more American companies would utilize the existing telecommuting technologies to enable more of their workforce to work from home. (and why are people still flying for business meetings/briefings?) Reduce all air travel to vacation/recreation only, cut commuting by at least 50% with telecommuting, and ride your bike out of your driveway for fun, utility, and transport locally. Probably still have to drive to the MTNS for MTB riding, but this is usually a carpool from my experience…..One more notion: Weekly bike shop rides should require participants riding there to meet, the amount of fuel spent for 20-50 individuals to drive to the shop to ride their bikes is shameful.

  • ian... says:

    22 mpg/40 miles per day average makes sickening reading. Not that some people drive a 22mpg car 40 miles each day, but that this is an ‘average’.

    Blame governments, infrastructure & media all you like though – consumers choose what they buy/supply is driven by demand. Oil problems bit hard in the ’70s, and that those figures are so shocking, paints a poor picture of the consumer.

  • Fergie says:

    We now have two excellent recent examples of how humans undervalue risk, especially in low probability situations (Subprime lending, deepwater drilling..). People will claim to be committed to change but there’s only one aspect of this that provably alters behavior on a large scale. Cost.

    Align incentives for reduction in petroleum consumption and we will consume less. The primary incentive for people to drive less or drive a more fuel efficient car or ride their bike instead of driving is because they want to keep money in their pocket. I’ve been writing to my congresswoman and senators to consider a rise in the federal excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuels. I know it’s regressive, but that could be handled in the tax code rather easily. We need to tax the things we want less of – less employment taxes (we want more employment) and more consumption taxes (we want less carbon in the air). Simple!

  • Fergie says:

    Rode the 25 miles to work this morning – I feel great!

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