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More Prius on My Mind

By Frank Gruber

I've learned something: if you want to incite readers to write letters, get a little dialogue going, write about a car.

I have nothing against hybrid cars like the Prius. In fact, I'm so much in favor of high mileage, low emission cars that I hope a new administration in Washington might get back into the business of requiring continual increases in average fleet mileage and lower emissions.

What I object to are feel-good gestures - such as our Assembly member Fran Pavley's bill to exempt the first 75,000 buyers of hybrids from carpool lane restrictions.

They do more harm than good.

I am reminded of this kind of eyewash every other Friday when I try to contact someone at City Hall, and it's closed. Way back when, during one energy crisis or another, "do-gooders" thought they could reduce gasoline consumption by closing government offices one day a week, the idea being that by commuting nine days every two weeks, instead of ten, civil servants would drive less.

Turns out that workers with a day off drive more than they would have driven commuting.

But now the every other weekend long is a vested right, and there is no going back.

Pavley's lame idea is the same. The more cars that congest carpool lanes, the less will be the advantage of forming a carpool or routing a bus or shuttle over carpool lanes. So we'll end up using more fuel, and have more congestion, because more people will drive solo, rather than use the lanes for what they were intended.

And all for what? Mark Harding pointed out in his letter that we don't need any incentives to sell hybrid cars like the Prius. They are flying off the dealers' lots.

Supposedly, if a carpool lane becomes congested the solo driving privileges for hybrids will be revoked, but just try doing that once the hybrid owners are vested in their "rights."

How much gas do 75,000 Priuses save, anyway? According to an article in the New York Times June 13, on average, comparable non-hybrid sedans use, at $2 a gallon, 451 more dollars' worth of gas a year. That's 225 gallons each.

Multiply that by the 75,000 hybrids that will get to use carpool lanes under Pavley's proposal (most of which are already on the road), and you get 16,875,000 gallons. That sounds like a lot but it's a drop in the bucket. In 2001, the last year for which I found statistics, California used 14.8 billion gallons of gasoline (and almost equal amounts of other petroleum products).

That doesn't mean that a million or two hybrids on the road would not have a significant impact, only that Pavley's measure merely trivializes the issue and, as I said last week, perfectly plays into the stereotype of the self-righteous eco-chic wanting to add to their privileges.

The fact is, there are meaningful measures we can take to reduce fuel consumption that don't require hundreds of millions in capital expenditure. That is, we don't have to sit around and act helpless until the Expo Rail line is built, as if that's going to solve all our problems.

Start, for instance, with the carpool lanes, which work great if you are taking your kid to Anaheim Stadium, but which haven't done much to solve our fuel or traffic congestion problems.

What if the Big Blue Bus and the MTA started running non-stop buses or shuttles that took advantage of the freeways and especially the carpool lanes? The idea would be to link the increasing number of transit centers in the region that are served by local grids of buses.

There is no reason why transit users should be stuck with slow buses grinding their way on surface streets, when many of them want to travel considerable distances, from, say, Santa Monica to transit centers in the Valley, or Pasadena, or the South Bay, or, for that matter, to Thousand Oaks.

The Number 10 bus to Union Station via the Freeway is a good bus, but it spends so much time making stops in Santa Monica, that unless you pick it up on 26th Street, it takes a long time.

The Number 3 to the Airport Transit Center and the Green Line Terminus is a good bus, too, but why not run a non-stop shuttle from downtown Santa Monica to both places? Or a non-stop to the Red Line station at Wilshire and Vermont?

Obviously, the fare for such nonstop service would have to be more than 75 cents, but if I could take a shuttle directly from downtown Santa Monica to the Red Line, and get to Hollywood without dealing with cross town traffic, that would be worth a few bucks at least. It would also save gas and reduce traffic congestion along the entire route. If I knew that a shuttle left every hour on the hour, I could rely on it.

Then there is the whole question of living close to where one works. In the past 30 years or so, the average number of vehicle miles traveled per person has doubled. The essential reason is that we have not built enough housing near jobs. Santa Monica, whose population has remained the same for decades, is a prime example.

It's no accident that housing is expensive in Santa Monica and the rest of the jobs rich Westside; government policies, enacted in response to no-growth politics, have made it difficult to build apartments and condominiums, and there is hardly any land left for single family houses.

So sure, let's get more hybrids on the road, but let's expect government officials, like Assembly member Pavley, to come up with real solutions to our excessive use of energy, and not waste everyone's time with gestures.

* * *

My intention of spending the summer as tourist in Santa Monica has taken an unexpected turn; a turn away from lowdown jazz bars and high brow museums and toward nature.

I have been in training. My son and I are going on a one-week backpacking trip in the Sierra this week. I've done my share of car camping, but hauling in a week's worth of supplies, plus equipment, by means of my legs will be something new.

Friends who do this every year have invited us along, so I don't have to know anything, but I don't want to embarrass myself when it comes to the hiking.

So since mid-June every weekend I have been hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, mostly in Topanga State Park, carrying a pack that weighs maybe half of what I will be carrying at 11,000 feet.

So I'm only getting an idea of what I'll be doing, but I have certainly fallen hard for nature. It's pretty great to walk along Rustic Creek, hopping from gravel bank to gravel bank, trying to keep your boots dry. We have some friends in Italy who are avid hikers, and next time we get them to be tourists here, I know where we're going.

And oh yes, I want to thank all those do-gooders starting with Will Rogers who assembled all that land for public enjoyment.

* * *

Since I will be off the grid next week, "What I Say" will next appear August 16, which means it will be a couple weeks before I can give Sunday's SMRR convention results their due. For now I'll just have to reflect on the political justice that all three SMRR incumbents who failed to support SMRR-endorsed Abby Arnold in 2002, including the two who ultimately received this year's SMRR endorsement, were humiliated by not making the cut on the first ballot.

It's not your mother's SMRR.



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