I recently had occasion to meet a friend of a friend on a road trip. We met at his mountain-top house and he and his wife then drove us about 20 miles down the mountain to a nearby restaurant. Given the choice of four vehicles, the two of which could carry all four of us were a Mini Cooper and a Hummer H3. They chose the H3, probably for reasons of comfort. While there I picked up that they visit this restaurant, and others in the vicinity, often.
I don't want it to sound like I'm ungrateful for their hospitality, which is not the case at all. However, this particular experience brought to the front of my mind all of the problems I have with "spoiled Americans", in particular our ingrained car culture. I, too, am spoiled, and I seek to cut down on how it affects my life, but that doesn't stop me from noticing it in different ways and to different degrees in other people. Driving a vehicle that gets 16MPG twenty miles to eat dinner, multiple times per week, is irresponsible. It's bad planning, bad for your wallet, and bad for the environment. I happen to own a vehicle that gets gas mileage worse than that, but you won't find me commuting in it, and I can count the number of times I've driven it across Atlanta for recreational purposes in the last year on one hand.
I know other people whose daily routine involves a rough triangle, 10-30 miles per side. One such person lives 20 miles from work, and both lives and works about 15 miles from the neighborhoods where they hang out after work and on weekends. Every day they get in their car, alone (carpooling is for nerds!), and drive 50 miles, over half of that as part of heavy traffic. That's an hour a day, every day, that they will never get back. It's also 20-40 miles worth of gas being wasted (compared to living closer to either location and/or taking transit) every day.
There is a fundamental brokenness in most people's mental process when it comes to driving a car. The operation of the car is handled as a wholly separate process from whatever the car is being driven for. I know plenty of people who have a weekly gas budget (fewer than should, but that's another rant). I know almost no one who will mention the cost of gas when debating a decision where the driving is incidental, like going to the movie theater or grocery shopping or a restaurant. If you ask someone how much it costs them to eat at a restaurant on their lunch break instead of bring lunch to work, assuming they will have that conversation at all, they will almost certainly come up with [price of restaurant lunch]-[price of bagged lunch], and reason that the additional cost is worth the better taste. They might even bring up [time to make a bagged lunch] to defend their decision. What you won't hear about is [price of gas to drive to the restaurant] or [time to get to the restaurant]. This mental divide is reinforced by our culture, and it's a problem. The same majority of people who make these mistakes will also drive an extra 5 miles to buy $5 worth of groceries from a big grocery store instead of a local convenience store "because it's cheaper", despite 10 miles worth of gas probably being more expensive more than the extra the groceries would be, a few blocks from home.
The nature of the vehicle-spoiledness of American culture is never more evident than when you ask someone for the distance between two points and get an answer of how long it takes to drive (according to some arbitrary criteria). This is particularly notable and often misleading when the number is very small, such as "5 minutes". First, because most people won't give a number smaller than 5 minutes, which means that it could be 100 feet or 5 miles. Second, because for many cases involving such short drives, it's silly to not walk. The number of people who will get in their car and drive <2000 feet to the store or a neighbor's house, in fair weather and a safe neighborhood, appalls me.
I have long had a silly but interesting idea for attempting to break this problem. The core of the idea is that cars would have a payment device (coin, cash, card, whatever) installed, and driving the car would require a payment. That money could then be extracted to pay for fuel when the time came. This direct payment method has many flaws and wouldn't work for a lot of people, but it's the core of the idea. Alternately, the money could remain abstracted, paid in chunks or up front, but still be made visible to the driver and passengers in the form of a taxi-like meter. Every time you start the car, the meter would start at some number dictated by your maintenance regimen (probably around a dollar) and counts up as you drive based on your gas mileage (10 to 40 cents per mile) and maintenance cycle (another 10-20 cents per mile). When you get out of the car it could even print out a receipt. This sort of direct feedback would make it hard for people to not think about it.
Obviously convincing people to opt-in to this system would be difficult. I have a few ideas on that front, as well. First, if this system existed (and I'd like it to, so it's on my long term electronics project to-do list), one target demographic would be to get parents to put it in their teenagers' cars. The cost of the device would probably be well worth the data collection functionality, let alone the potential improvement in driving habits. Second, I'd be in favor of a tax credit for operating a vehicle using a system like this. Society, as a whole, would benefit from people driving more responsibly and informedly, enough so that a credit at least enough to pay for the device, and probably enough more for continued use to make it worthwhile in the eyes of someone who just wanted the money.
This has not been one of my more successful rants. I am not nearly as vocal or enthusiastic about this issue as I am about many of the other things I've written about here. I just needed to get these thoughts down in writing for future reference.