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Archive of posts filed under the Motor Vehicles category.

Gas is suddenly cheap(er), and the reason is bigger than you think

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn’t the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.

Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler fall temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That’s why gas prices always fall in autumn.

But that’s not enough to explain this autumn’s decline, since gas hasn’t dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that’s also only part of the explanation.

The bigger explanation seems to be that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it’s totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that “OPEC is over.”

It’s that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven’t changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn’t changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale herf=”http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-10/u-dot-s-dot-shale-oil-boom-may-not-last-as-fracking-wells-lack-staying-power”>isn’t limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That’s a mathematical certainty. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn’t very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here’s what it doesn’t mean: There’s never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we’ve only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn’t be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn’t change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that’s necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we’ve made on those fronts, and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.


FasTracks Progress: Union Station Transit Complex Opens!

It’s been a long, long time coming, but the $500 million Denver Union Station Transit Center is COMPLETE and will open for transit operations tomorrow! This is undoubtedly a game changer for downtown Denver and represents the realization of nearly three decades of planning efforts, if not more. Ryan D. covered the grand opening ceremonies in two posts (parts one and two) yesterday on DenverInfill.

The Denver Union Station Transit Center (any ideas for a nickname?) consists of three major transit components: light rail (open in 2011), bus (open now), and commuter rail (coming in 2016). Let’s take a look at each of those components and how they fit into one of the most expensive infrastructure investments since Denver International Airport.

RTD has produced (and agreed to share) this great image that gives a general overview as to how the three components fit together and where the different modes provide service to.

UnionStation-Map - Copy

The locations and facilities labeled in orange on the image above are now complete and will be open for the general public on Sunday, May 11, 2014. The Chestnut, Wewatta, and Union Station Pavilions provide the three main entrances to the underground bus station, complete with stairs, escalators, and elevators. The Platform 2 and Platform 4 Pavilions provide access from the Commuter Rail platform with stair and elevator access to the underground bus concourse (no escalators).

The light rail facility was relocated in 2011 and served as the first major component completed at Union Station as part of this massive project. This new station replaced the previous light rail platform which was located just south of Wewatta Street (right about where the Wewatta Pavilion is today). The 16th Street MallRide was also extended 2-3 blocks to serve the new light rail station at the same time.

2014_05_09_DUSLRT01 

The underground bus station (which again….nickname?) is a sight to behold. A behemoth at 140 feet wide and 980 feet long, this 22-bay bus station has more than twice the capacity of Market Street’s 10 bays. The pedestrian concourse isn’t anything to sneeze at, coming in at 44 feet wide and 780 feet long. Every bus that services Market Street Station today will service Union Station, in addition to the free MetroRide. Buses from Greyhound as well as other private bus companies are a possibility in the future (no definitive plans as of yet). CDOT announced this week that its new inter-regional bus system—which will connect Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Glenwood Springs (and points in between) with downtown Denver—will serve the underground bus station. This new service starts sometime next year!

DenverUrbanism and DenverInfill have tackled the bus station through several previous posts, so I won’t bombard you with pictures here, but let’s take a look at some before-and-after pictures of the bus facility. Better yet, head on down and take a look for yourself. Honestly, I was wary when I heard about the yellow tile (can anyone say outdated and tacky?) but I think it turned out great. Combined with the seven skylights, it really helps brighten the facility up and makes it seem even larger (if that was possible).

2014_05_09_DUSBefore03 2014_05_09_DUSAfter01

2014_05_09_DUSBefore01 2014-05-09_DUSAfter02

The final and the most visible and stunning piece of transit infrastructure at Union Station has to be the commuter rail platform. Denver is known for lots of things (300 sunny days each year, active lifestyles, marijuana, etc.) but stunning and modern architecture tends to not make most people’s lists. This canopy will serve as an iconic welcome to those who arrive in downtown Denver by transit, whether it be the coming commuter rail lines, bus, or light rail.

2013_11_18_DUSCanopy04 2013_11_18_DUSCanopy09   

2013_11_18_DUSCanopy18 2013_11_18_DUSCanopy10

Union Station is big. It’s expensive. It’s important. It serves as the hub of the $6+ billion, decade-long infrastructure investment that is FasTracks. It will serve as the heart of transit throughout metro Denver. It will change how tens of thousands of people access downtown Denver on a daily basis. Get down there and take a look. Wander around. We all paid for it, and after decades of planning and years of construction, we can finally cash in on this investment.


“Sneckdowns” reveal street space cars don’t use

Every time it snows, vast sections of city streets remain covered by snow long after plows and moving cars have cleared the travel lanes. These leftover spaces are called “sneckdowns,” and they show where sidewalks or medians could replace roads without much loss to car drivers.


Photo by Anne G on flickr.

The term sneckdown is a portmanteau of “snow” and “neckdown,” the latter being another term for sidewalk curb extensions. So it literally means a sidewalk extension created by snow.

New York’s biggest urbanist blog, Streetsblog, put out a call for photos of sneckdowns in the wild earlier this winter. They’ve received plenty of responses.

Be on the lookout for these as winter continues to roll along.


Colored lanes aren’t just safe, they send a message

Denver’s 15th Street bike lane is the latest in a growing trend around the world to paint bike lanes in bright colors. These bright markings make cycling safer, by reminding car drivers to watch out for cyclists when driving across bike lanes. That’s a great benefit, and it works, but there’s a second benefit, that’s as big a deal for non-cyclists as it is to cyclists.


Green paint on Seattle’s Broadway cycletrack.

The broader benefit to green-painted bike lanes is simple: They send the clearest-possible message that roads are not only for cars.

Despite a century of sharing roads, and despite the fact that people walked, biked, and rode trolleys in streets long before most people owned cars, there’s a strong entitlement mentality among some drivers that roads are only for cars. A 5 second google search turns up plenty of examples.

Green-painted bike lanes accomplish what a white stripe next to the parking lane cannot. They proclaim loudly and clearly that streets are not merely sewers for traffic, through which to funnel as many cars as possible to the detriment of all else, but rather they’re fully multimodal public spaces. Colored bike lanes send the message that drivers are welcome to use roads just like everyone else, but must not expect to have roads completely to themselves.

These painted lanes are public relations features as much as they are safety features, and that matters.

Incidentally, the trick works for transit too.


Red-painted bus lanes in New York. Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

Stop Driving Your Car Around Denver…Drive Somebody Else’s!

In the past few months, Denver has gone from simply having car sharing to fully embracing it. In a city once dominated by Subarus, most people are likely having the dizzying zebra stampede effect with blue and white Smart cars. Some very exciting changes have occurred in Denver that have paved the way for car sharing to become more efficient and useful than ever before in the Mile High City.

While car sharing is not new to Denver, the trend of using it en masse certainly is. This form of transportation came on the line in 2009 in Denver and was originally introduced by eGo. The original concept was to pick up a car in a designated lot throughout the city (normally in a private parking lot). However, the introduction of some game-changer policies/permitting have enabled on-street parking to take car share to the next level. Now, car share companies have the ability to purchase permits which allow them to rent designated spots throughout the city (this traditional model is utilized in the case of car shares that must be rented and returned to the same spot like eGo or OccassionalCar). The other option (in the case of Car2Go) is to permit each individual car with an annual fee and allow them to float to any non-permit parking or meter free-of-charge. The cost of this permit supplements lost meter revenue.

Making it easier through policy for these companies to function in the city has resulted in more cars to drive, but has also made for a diversity of car share models to choose from. As alluded to above, eGo CarShare, OccassionalCar and the future Zipcar service all function on the principle of picking up a car at a designated location, making your trip, and then returning it back to the same location once finished. As this more traditional model expands, even Hertz and Enterprise have placed cars at designated locations around town. These cars are often found to be most convenient during a trip that would take you beyond a 10-15 minute ride. Perhaps your monthly Target trip or a cross-Metro ride make the most sense as they often have an hourly rate.

If you are looking to hop across a few neighborhoods, Car2Go might be for you. With this service, you have the ability to pick up any one of their 300 cars and drop them at a location that’s most convenient for you. This is more a one-way option than a round-trip. If you live in a core neighborhood, it’s unlikely that you’d have to walk further than 4-5 blocks to access a Smart car. Something to consider is that while a cab might cost upwards of $15 (after tip) traveling from South Broadway to Union Station, Car2Go’s $0.38 per minute fee can be expected to cost about a third of that price.

            Car2Go Accessibility Baker

[Accessibility of Car2Go in dense Denver neighborhoods. Left: Downtown, Center: Lower Highlands, Right: South Broadway]

So now that you have a concept of what is available, let’s look at why this is so important for Denver, and for you:

For Denver:

With an ever-increasing mix of transportation diversity, car share continues to make Denver a more accommodating place for the urbanite. Building transit lines and heavier infrastructure takes time, money and public input/planning. Being auto-oriented and very user-friendly, this option deviates from a dedicated line of any form and really opens up the street grid to go just about anywhere in the central neighborhoods. Another perk is that many of the car models used by car shares are fuel-efficient or hybrid, reducing environmental impact. Lastly, sharing one car between dozens of people means fewer cars on the road, rather than every person having their own.

For you:

As Robert Ferrin, Parking & Planning Program Administrator with the City of Denver, puts it, “We normally see that this service has the ability to save people money.” Though each company has its own rules and operations, most of them offer a form of insurance, taking that burden off your monthly expenses. Gas is normally part of the deal and refueling can even result in free ride credits. Also, oil changes and general maintenance are no longer your problem. You no longer have to pay meters or deal with paying for a private spot of any sort. The service is also cheaper, and often more accessible, than a taxi. One last benefit is that having the knowledge you are paying for every minute you spend in a car has a way of making you want to drive less. With that, there’s more of an incentive to walk or bike to places within a half-mile or so, rather than paying (and thus keeping more people off the road by encouraging walking/biking).

There are a number of benefits to reap from giving car sharing a chance. It’s the perfect addition to a car-free or single-car household. Paired with a Bcycle membership, or really any other alternative mode of transportation, car share has unlocked a significant portion of Denver’s urban domain. There’s no denying that it’s still easiest to get around our city by car, and now you have a cheaper option to drive without owning (or parking) an automobile!