How Government can save millions of gallons of gasoline daily and what we should learn from it

A recurring theme on this blog is that government is a terrible source of waste in our society.  Any efforts at becoming better stewards of the earth’s limited resources has to include more responsible government consumption.   A classic case in point: government’s irresponsible waste of gasoline, which only compounds government deficits and exacerbates the energy crisis that threatens world security.

Tremendous amounts of gasoline could be saved, with a resulting drop in prices, if our federal, state, and local governments would enact a handful of simple measures to reduce systemic, widespread waste.   At the same time, we, as individual consumers, can sharpen frugal living practices by reviewing some of the more obvious opportunities for conservation that the government regularly overlooks.

Here are eight areas in which government could conserve truly massive volumes of fuel:

Highway mowing

It’s a familiar sight to highway motorists: the orange warning signs, followed by the huge, slow-moving tractors mowing grass on highway shoulders and medians. The mowing goes on for miles and miles. The really dedicated local governments even send out large teams of workers on foot armed with high revving weed whackers to ensure a nice clean cut around guardrails. 

Is it necessary? No way. Think about it. You’ve probably seen stretches of road in remote rural locations where the grass is not cut. Sure, it grows to two, maybe three, feet in height. But who cares how high the grass is twenty miles from the nearest neighborhood? Does it present danger in any way? Do motorists really care about aesthetics fifty miles from home?  Is the natural look a problem in any practical way?

There should be an immediate moratorium declared on government highway mowing. When we achieve independence from oil, through ethanol, hydrogen cell technology, or otherwise, we can mow to our hearts’ content. But until then, let’s save the millions of gallons of fuel for more important purposes.

Postal Service

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night . . . but how about an oil crisis? Is that reason enough to slow the U.S. Postal Service down?  Absolutely. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we do away with the postal service. It still serves an important purpose and, all jokes aside, it does so reasonably well. But, in this day and age, do we really need to have postal carriers on the roads delivering paper mail on a daily basis? Who in this century sends anything via snail mail when time is of the essence? I personally do not believe there was ever a time when daily mail delivery was necessary. But certainly today with e-mail, online bill payment, fax machines, direct payroll deposit, and a variety of overnight delivery options, there is just no point to it.

I don’t know about you, but in my household snail mail consists of little more than unwanted junk mail, store ads, and bills. Those bills, by the way, always provide 25 or more days for payment. Will it ever matter whether I receive this collection of mail on Tuesday rather than Monday?

So here’s the solution: reduce all U.S. mail delivery to three days a week. Half of us receive mail on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; the other half gets it on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Imagine the benefits: postal service staff could be reduced by one half, as would the amount of time spent passing jeeps on the roads. We could actually see a reduction in the price of stamps. But, above all, just think of the gasoline that would be saved if such a plan were followed on a nationwide scope.

The importance of this solution cannot be overstated. In a recent USA Today article, it was explained that every time the price of fuel increases a mere penny, it costs the postal service $8 million to keep its fleet of 215,000 vehicles running. Just imagine the fuel that would be saved if each of those vehicles were parked every other day.

And one other thought before leaving the subject. It is high time for the standard delivery jeep to be retired from service and replaced with hybrid technology. If ever there were a business that was custom made for the use of hybrid vehicles, it is the stop and go mail delivery service. Mail carriers – that is those who can’t walk their routes like in the good old days – should operate a fuel efficient hybrid and double the fuel economy. 

Street Sweepers

I appreciate a clean street as much as the next guy. But in the grand scheme of things, I don’t much care if streets have dirt on them. I kind of expect it, really. If it will help our society, in any small way, reduce dependence on the Middle East, let the cigarette butts accumulate.

School buses

I shudder each time I pass a half empty school bus. Just thinking of the truckloads of fuel that the army of buses in my community alone devours is, in a word, disturbing. While it is true that school buses generally use less fuel than would be the case if parents drove each student individually, there are numerous approaches that could markedly reduce the amounts of fuel used by these government vehicles. 

First, convert to a four day school week. By extending the school day twenty-five percent, or roughly 75 minutes, the same amount of instruction can be accomplished in four days. Yes, this would necessitate child care arrangements on the fifth day, but arranging for full-day child care is not a difficult undertaking. Furthermore, some school districts that have experimented with the four day week facilitate baby-sitting arrangements between parents of young children and high school students. At any rate, the emphasis at this point is conserving fuel, and reducing school bus operations by twenty percent would save prodigious amounts.

Bus routes also need to be better managed and consolidated. Think how frequently we pass buses no more than half full. Routes must be better monitored and adjusted to ensure the minimum number of buses on the road. And forget about geographically incorrect school district. Students should go to the closest school, period. 

Garbage Trucks

According to a 2002 study by INFORM, Inc., Garbage trucks in the US consume approximately one billion – that’s right, one billion – gallons of diesel fuel annually and get the lowest fuel efficiency (2.8 miles per gallon) of any vehicle type. The problem has grown in recent years as landfills close and cities choose to ship their waste to faraway locations. Greensboro, North Carolina, for example, closed its city landfill in 2006 due to resident complaints in the Northeastern corner of the city. Since then, it has trucked its garbage to a landfill located some seventy miles away.

Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid the need for garbage collection and disposal. There are, however, several steps governments should take to minimize the tremendous fuel consumption currently needed to accomplish it. 

First, curbside collection should be eliminated. All local governments should establish collection sites to which local residents will be responsible for dropping household trash off. A few dumpsters in each neighborhood, strategically placed at or near locations that residents pass every day, would do the trick. Merely eliminating the need for these fuel sucking trucks to stop at each and every driveway would itself accomplish substantial fuel savings. The same system should apply to recycling and composting programs, which should be mandatory and strictly enforced.

Trash collection also should be done at night for two related reasons. First, when we’re dealing with trucks that average 2.8 miles per gallon, it is essential to minimize the amount of stop and go traffic that they see. By operating after hours, garbage trucks can take advantage of favorable traffic patterns and light cycles, thus operating at highway speeds far more frequently. By the same token, commuters can avoid the additional stop and go that these trucks invariably create as they block and/or impede the flow of daytime traffic. 

We also must eliminate this nonsense of shipping trash long distances in order to placate neighboring residents. Granted, no one wishes to live beside a landfill. It is, however, a necessary evil of city government. Just as neighborhoods are affected by placement of airports, highways, and prisons, some will be affected by landfills. A disgruntled resident can always move. But in this day and age, it is truly inexcusable for local governments to waste thousands upon thousands of gallons of fuel every week transporting society’s garbage.

Toll roads

As any good hypermiler will tell you, nothing zaps fuel efficiency like unnecessary stops. When a car or truck stops from a highway speed, the process of reacceleration takes the transmission through another gear cycle, which, in turn, requires more fuel consumption. It’s also widely known that idling burns fuel at surprisingly high rates.

With these realities in mind, we have to ask why state governments are so enthusiastic about placing roadblocks known as toll booths on major thoroughfares. Sure, the impact on one car on any given day or week is not great. Multiply it by a hundred thousand vehicles over the course of 300 or so work days, and it suddenly becomes a significant black hole in the nation’s fuel supplies. I shudder to think how many super tankers of oil have evaporated over the past three decades in the stop and go backup that these nuisances create during each and every rush hour. Don’t we have enough traffic impediments from the myriad of accidents that occur every day? Do we really need to inflict ourselves with these completely unavoidable snags in the traffic flow?

I realize that tolls are used to pay for roads and bridges. But there are far more efficient means to collect taxes. Let’s allow cars to maintain intended cruise speeds.

Night work

Speaking of governmentally-imposed nuisances, is there ever a good reason why road construction should occur during traditional work hours? We have wonderful technology that enables road crews to perform road maintenance and repair work during the dark of night when scarcely anyone would care. And yet every day in America there is a plethora of mile long backups created by lane closures, the majority associated with maintenance tasks of a non-urgent variety. 

Drive 55

It’s a proven fact: fuel efficiency drops markedly as a vehicle exceeds 55 miles per hour. Dropping average highway speed from 65 to 55mphs boosts fuel efficiency by 7 to 10 percent. And we all know that the majority of drivers on any metropolitan expressway travel well beyond 65. 

The Internet is fraught with reports of mind-boggling fuel savings accomplished by simply reducing average speeds. In a letter to the Drive 55 Conservation Project, Roger Pomerleau wrote that he saved 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel in a year by lowering the maximum speed of a commercial fleet of 60 Tractor Trailers by a mere four miles per hour. He added that further reduction to 55 miles per hour would save him another 150,000 gallons a year. Imagine this – 220,000 gallons of saved fuel, from one relatively small trucking firm, by simply decreasing speed.

Unfortunately, as Pomerleau noted, it simply is not safe for trucks – of any vehicle – to drive 55 miles per hour on an Interstate highway these days. 

So what is our government waiting for? Change the maximum speed limits to 55, as was done in the 1970s and 80s. With all due respect to Sammy Hagar, you can, and should, drive 55.

There you have it – eight simple means by which our government could significantly ease the nation’s oil crunch by simply modeling the conservation that it calls for. What say you, Uncle Sam?

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