Kiran Stacey Why do Americans drive more?

Shell has produced a lengthy update to its Shell Scenarios today, laying out what the company believes will be the themes affecting the energy industry until 2050.

Its core findings are summed up in this article from The Times (£). The general trend is not particularly shocking: emerging market energy demand will outstrip that from the OECD, and diminishing supplies will lead to a potentially vicious squeeze.

But the scale of the problem as far as Shell sees it is stark. It thinks the gap between supply and demand could be equivalent to the global energy industry’s entire output in 2000.

But rather than re-hash the main points as summarised elsewhere, I thought I would bring you an eye-catching piece of mini-research contained within the report.

The team at Shell decided to look at why the average American motorist uses three times as much energy as the average European.

There are two possible reasons for this: low population density, which leads to people travelling more and political decisions which keep fuel prices low, which in turn encourages urban sprawl.

As far as Shell is concerned, the former is not at all significant, accounting for only 2 per cent of the difference in kilometres driven per person.

The rest is accounted for by political choices and another category which the company opaquely calls “lifestyle choices that tend to increase the propensity to drive”. This seems to mean something like “they choose to”, which is hardly the most useful explanation as to why they make those choices.

But the message remains the same: there is nothing inherent about American geography that means their motorists are bound to drive more and consume more energy while doing so. Instead Americans drive more because petrol is cheap and cities are so sprawling. (As an example of this, a colleague of mine visited Florida recently, and after travelling through miles of strip-malls and suburban housing, asked where the centre was. “This is it,” came the reply.)

This has consequences for urban planners if they wish to maximise energy efficiency: build compact city centres, and don’t subsidise energy. In Shell’s words:

This result indicates that the quality of urban mobility infrastructure development can hard-wire either energy profligacy or energy efficiency into the system for decades.

It also highlights the pernicious impact on long-term demand of low energy prices such as those driven by subsidies, particularly in emerging markets.