We’re living in a new economic reality: the era of low oil prices. The price of Brent crude (an international benchmark) began dropping late last year, and bottomed out at under $50 a barrel in January—a number not seen since the depths of the financial crisis in 2009. While prices have rebounded somewhat as the summer driving season approaches, people whose business it is to know don’t see the price of oil rising consistently above $100 anytime soon.
Drops like that have a big effect on what U.S. consumers pay at the pump—the average gas price Americans paid last June was $3.85 dollars a gallon, and it got all the way down to $2.17 by January. In some countries, including many in Europe, heavy taxation buffered the global price crash, and in others, including Indonesia and India, governments took the opportunity to remove fuel subsidies to consumers.
What did Americans do with the money they saved on fuel? Some took it as an opportunity to spend more on bigger cars—the demand for SUVs and trucks rose 40% in December. But for many others—including many young people—the dramatic changes just aren’t that relevant. They’re already choosing to live less of their lives in their cars. And they’re part of the supply and demand equation that’s behind the new era of low oil prices.
On the supply side, it’s clear that an oil boom in the U.S., with production increasing rapidly since 2010 in the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford formation in Texas, has played a role. As has OPEC's (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) decision not to curtail their own production, which has made for abundant supplies on the world market.
What about demand? Put simply, oil consumption is decelerating. In the short term, China’s low economic growth in the last year reduced their demand below project levels. And taking a longer view, actual U.S. oil consumption over the past ten years has been significantly below earlier projections.
What’s happened in United States (still the largest consumer of oil in the world) has been nothing short of a revolution—a quiet one, but one that could have big implications for the future: Since the Great Recession, the U.S. has experienced the de-coupling of economic growth and the number of vehicle miles travelled.
As you can see in this graph from the Shared-Use Mobility Center, from the 1980s and until the crash of the economy in 2008, vehicles miles traveled tracked closely with economic growth—and of course economists based their projections of oil consumption on the continuation of that trend. During the recession both lines turned down sharply. But something changed after 2009: even after the recovery started, Americans continued to use their cars less.
What’s behind this dramatic change? The answer lies in the choices young Americans are making. They drive less; take transit, bike, and walk more; and prefer city-center living and walkable communities where there are multiple choices for mobility. According to a report from the Frontier Group and the U.S Public Interest Research Group called Millennials in Motion, these trends have been accelerating for the past decade. But other trends, many of them technology-enabled—things like car sharing and ridesourcing—are just beginning to have an impact, while demonstrating that we can use less oil, use fewer vehicles more efficiently (and emit less carbon in the process) and improve individuals’ financial well-being, all at the same time. Every person who takes a job where they can bike to work or chooses to live in a neighborhood where they can walk to a grocery store is making a micro-decision that contributes to a macro-level impact on the international price of oil.
What can we, as a community interested in sustainable transportation, do to keep these trends going in the right direction? Will political developments force the price of oil up, or will further, technology-aided changes—autonomous vehicles, for example—push the next generation even further away from individual car ownership? What will happen now when the high gas price is no longer a motivating factor for using less? These are the questions keeping advocates, grantmakers, and experts up at night. The drivers of this quiet revolution have been technology, generational change, costs—but little in the way of policy, which is where those who would like to see these trends continue should focus their efforts. Effective policy to sustain and deepen these trends is what will turn this quiet revolution into a noisy one!
Have you ever spent more time looking for a parking space than actually running the errand, or worse, sitting in the restaurant? And did you think next time you should leave the car at home and use UberX, Lyft, or even public transit? Have you ever car-pooled? Have you started to ride your bike because it actually moves you around town faster? If you answered yes to any of these questions: Congratulations—you’ve started to build low carbon mobility!
What do I mean by low carbon mobility? Simply this: using less to move more. Low carbon mobility refers to moving people around using less fossil fuel—driving more fuel efficient cars, increasing passengers per vehicle by carpooling, or using buses and trains to commute. Walking and biking, of course, guarantee you the lowest carbon mobility.
This revolutionary concept runs counter to the United States urban tradition of making 75% of daily trips in private motor vehicles. That’s versus only 7% by foot or bike.
U.S. cities base their transportation system on individual car trips, which are incredibly inefficient when it comes to energy, space, and resources. Our roads are filled with heavy, highly sophisticated steel machines carrying just one person. The energy that powers our transit systems comes primarily from oil—it runs everything from cars and buses to planes and ships, everything except our bikes and our feet. And we know burning oil contributes to global warming and respiratory problems.
I visited Mexico City recently, and I enjoyed riding Metrobús, their Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. It reminded me of my home city of Bogotá, where we have our own BRT system, Transmilenio. Buses on the BRT run in exclusive lanes, they have their own stations and comprise a network of corridors equivalent to and more flexible than metros. Plus they cost 10 times less to build and maintain. Mexico City residents’ use public transportation at a very high rate—70% of daily trips occur in high capacity vehicles—but maintaining that high usage remains a challenge when more people want to own and drive their own cars.
Despite the increase in motor vehicle ownership and infrastructure, Metrobús has been a great success. The Mexico City government deserves credit for its leadership. And some of our grantees, including Centro Mexicano de Transporte Sustentable, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and El Poder del Consumidor, deserve credit for their support and advocacy. Many organizations are working to implement BRT systems in the United States. But public transit usage overall in the U.S remains very small (In many cities, as few as 2% of all trips occur by public transit—New York (55%) and San Francisco (33%) are the exceptions).
There’s no reason to stop at BRT when it comes to a low carbon mobility future. A more revolutionary concept has now taken hold in many urban centers: shared mobility. One great leader I talked to in Mexico, from the group Fundación Tlaloc, remarked that low carbon mobility necessarily means sharing. Sharing space and sharing vehicles. Even for innovative cities like Mexico City, where the shared bicycle system (eco-bici) has displaced many motorized trips in the more dense areas, there’s still room for more sharing opportunities.
The younger generation—and Millennials in particular—excel at shared mobility. Young people base their decisions about commuting on cost and the quality of their experience. The US is seeing fewer vehicle registrations and drivers’ licenses issued than in previous decades. So how do these young folks move around? By using bicycles and car shares, or by choosing to live closer to work or transit. Technology has enabled new mobility solutions, and young people are making a transformational shift from vehicle ownership to vehicle access.
These solutions offer me hope. Young people and people like me who want to de-carbonize our transportation system share some things in common. We all want to avoid traffic jams. We want to reduce our transportation cost. Find ways to reduce our travel time and at the same time reduce fuel consumption (and emissions). In the end, it doesn’t matter what name you give to these trends—we just need to change the way we move!
Some people are born with great facilitation skills, and there are others, like me, who need a little help. Believe it or not, one of my New Year’s resolutions—made just as the clock struck midnight—was to get better at facilitating meetings: of my grantees, partners, and other donors, and even meetings between family and friends.
Late last year, I attended a training session on facilitation at the Foundation. Led by David Barkan, the training was, for me, transformative. And judging by the response—a third of our staff has now been through the training—I’m not alone.
One of the most useful ideas that I took away from the training was also the simplest. There are various types of meetings and many reasons to meet, but the real purpose of virtually any meetings should be to do something: engage in generative discussion, make a decision, explore a new direction, or learn about something new. If we are meeting just for the sake of meeting then we are wasting time and money, according to David. This was like a thunderclap! How many times have we all attended meetings only to walk away with the feeling that an email would have been sufficient? The purpose of the meeting, the discussion we need to have or the decision we are trying to make has to be clear and must guide the design of the session. A good facilitator has to prepare well (the preparation might take more time than the actual meeting), weighing whether or not the meeting is necessary, its purpose, its goal, and how the goal might be accomplished.
The training also gave attendees the opportunity to practice our facilitation skills—listening skills in particular—that can help move a group from disagreement to unanimity. Getting to a collective agreement can take much more than one meeting. Often the facilitator hears distinct and divergent points of view and has to deal simultaneously with difficult interpersonal dynamics that stifle productive conversation. This requires patience, skill, and focus over time to understand and facilitate well. What I learned is that a good facilitator is sometimes a good interlocutor: clarifying, capturing and interpreting the group’s myriad points of view so that everyone at least understands the problem before trying to solve it. I paid close attention to what David said about paraphrasing and balancing—being able to accurately reflect back to someone what they are saying, and organizing the conversation to give equal space to opposing views. These are perhaps the most difficult skills to master.
Last month, I had my first opportunity to put what I had learned to work while facilitating a session with colleagues from other foundations and the World Bank. My table had a great group of people, both enthusiastic and skeptical. I knew going in that finding consensus was not going to be easy. Even with my preparations, there were things I hadn’t anticipated. I tried to open up space for everyone to articulate their viewpoint and reminded myself to be encouraging so that we could identify actions on which there was the possibility of collaboration, our goal for the session. Many good points were made, but there was no single narrative thread that tied them together.
Complicating matters further was the format of the session, which required our conveners to move intermittently to different tables. As new faces shuttled to my table, I had to use my newfound skills to summarize for the new members where we were in the discussion. But this repetition had an unexpected benefit: This constant summarization of the issues provided me with some clarity, which in turn, enabled me to identify the common themes that had eluded us until that point—the precursors to finding consensus.
After reporting back to the larger group, I returned to my table to words of praise for my facilitation and a few thumbs up. Afterward, as we all milled around the hotel conference room, others approached me just to tell me they were impressed with my facilitation.
I was ecstatic.
I know I still need to work on some important skills, but I can see the critical role that a good facilitator can play in improving the quality of meetings, the decisions made at them, and our grantmaking.