Hidden History: Lost Cycleway

Cars-first transportation has brought with it a veil of bogus, sponsored claims about its pristine popularity, past and present.

In reality, transportation history is much more interesting and conflictual than the powers-that-be would have you believe.

According to historian Norman Pollack’s classic book, in the 1890s, populists and labor leaders were calling for public ownership of all transportation infrastructure, including the Robber Barons’ railroads, which had, of course, originally been built by means of public giveaways of land and crucial technical assistance.

In the pivotal year of 1900, there was also this lost marvel in Los Angeles, about which DbC has just learned:


Physics and Capitalist Fantasy

rube_tube Having everybody in the United States use automobiles to accomplish daily travel has always been a capitalist pipe dream. That is thanks to the laws of physics and the geology of our planet. It will simply never be remotely economical, sustainable, or sane to deploy 3,000 pound objects that sit idle 95 percent of the time to accomplish what walking, cycling, and public transit could just as easily (and much more safely and healthfully) facilitate. On a planet that was fated to reach Peak Oil, awakening from this pipe dream, one way or another, was also always inevitable.

A major side note to this story is the open secret that the basic physics of automobile travel are also far more fixed than present promises from above would have you believe. Just as an acceptable level of safety in a sprawling, cars-first society like the United States will always require cars to weigh something like 2,500 pounds, so it is that moving 2,500-pound cars will only get so energy-efficient.

Evidence of this physical fact was recently helpfully analyzed by Rick Kranz of Automotive News:

On the basis of vehicle weight, how dramatic has the increase in fuel economy been over the past 45 years?

This week I was running through some old news articles, seeking information for several stories I’m writing for Automotive News‘ special issue devoted to Chevrolet’s centennial. The issue will be published Oct. 31.

I decided to compare those cars to two 2012 cars with similar vehicle weight to see the differences in fuel economy, 45 years later. Obviously, the length, width and height of the 2012 models are somewhat reduced compared with cars in the ’60s. The new models have far better aerodynamics than the Chevy and Rambler. Additionally, the 2012s compared here have four-cylinder engines.

The 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne weighed 3,294 pounds and averaged 21.04 mpg. I used a base 2012 Ford Fusion sedan with automatic transmission for the comparison. The Ford weighs 48 pounds more than the Chevy and gets 23 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 26 mpg overall, according to the EPA.

The 1966 Rambler averaged 23.80 mpg, coast-to-coast. For a weight comparison, I used a base 2012 Honda Civic with an automatic transmission. The Civic weighs 2,608 pounds, and is rated at 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 32 mpg overall.

Using the EPA’s overall miles per gallon numbers, the Fusion was 5 mpg better than the Biscayne and the Civic was about 8 mpg better than the American.

Was there a dramatic difference in fuel economy 45 years later on the basis of vehicle weight?

Those numbers work out to about a 25% mpg gain for the heavier car and a 33% one for the lighter vehicle. So, despite three major oil shocks and the recent quasi-official acknowledgement of Peak Oil, automotive mpg has improved by substantially less than one percent per year since the days when everybody assumed Earth’s resources were infinite and mpg ratings were not posted on sales stickers or anywhere else.

Something to keep in mind the next time you hear some Democrat or other “green car” moron bloviating about 62 mpg.

As the late Stephen Jay Gould wrote, every human endeavor is subject to “right walls,” or outer limits of improvement. Here at DbC, one of our core theses is this: The automobile is already much closer to its own right wall than anybody will admit.