Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reducing energy consumption: shopping via train

I left off a couple weeks ago talking about breaking our dependence on fossil fuels. While some of this is accomplished by finding other energy sources, much more of it is accomplished by reducing overall energy demand. This post will discuss one way to do this: enabling consumers to shop via mass transit.

There's several parts to this. One is for mass transit providers to provide routes that go to, or at least through, shopping centers, so that people can shop without having to drive to the shopping mall. For example, in Chicagoland, that would mean extending the north end of the Blue Line to Woodfield in Schaumburg, and extending the south end of the Blue Line to Oak Brook Terrace, or even all the way through Lombard. As both Schaumburg and Oak Brook/Oak Brook Terrace are already home to several large employers this would also help with moving people to their employment. Another idea is to extend the Yellow Line to Old Orchard.

I recently heard that Skokie is offering deals to try to get people into its "downtown" area. Here's what I find interesting. Skokie has several shopping districts: the aforementioned Old Orchard is an upscale boutique mall that seems to be doing quite well despite the present economic depradations. There's also a modest but apparently doing-pretty-well shopping area on Dempster near the north terminus of the Yellow Line. However, that's not the "downtown" that Skokie is talking about. They're talking about the area around the intersection of Oakton and Lincoln -- which is almost deserted these days. Why? It's hard to get to. There's not a lot of parking, the roads in that area are congested and hard to use, and there's no good mass transit options. Ironic, when you consider that the Yellow Line crosses Oakton about a thousand yards away... it just doesn't stop there. Adding a stop on the Yellow Line near Oakton would do wonders for Skokie's downtown, but despite the CTA and others talking about doing this for years it hasn't yet happened. So not only would this help reduce energy usage by having people use the Yellow Line to get to Skokie's shopping district instead of their cars, but it would boost Skokie's overall economy, to boot. If there's a downside here, other than the expense of building and maintaining the station and the extra five minutes it'll take for the trains to pass through because they have to stop at the station, I don't see it.

On the radio today there was a short blurb about the CTA contemplating building grocery stores inside CTA stations; this has also been covered in the Chicago Tribune. This is a great idea for enabling consumers to do daily commerce without additional transit expenditures, although, of course, there's the difficulty of getting the groceries home afterwards. And that's actually one of the main obstacles to pedestrian shopping: getting your loot home.

There's a solution to this, of course, and it's not a new one. It wasn't that many years ago that you'd go to the store, pick out what you want, and the shopkeeper would bundle it up and have his son (or some other employee) drop it off at your house later that day. Of course, this was before everyone had a car. Well, we need to go back to this model, or one like it. Go to the mall, buy all the stuff you want, then when you're done, if you have more stuff than you can carry home on the train, you go by the delivery services center and, for a moderate fee, they'll dispatch it to your home on whatever timetable fits your schedule and your budget. Yes, you will pay a bit more for it, but on the other hand if such services were pervasive, you might be able to get by without even owning a car. The IRS now allows a deduction of 58.5 cents per mile for business use of a car; that suggests that owning a car costs about $7000 a year, or $19 a day (assuming a relatively typical 12,000 miles per year). That leaves quite a bit to pay for delivery services, even after mass transit fares. And the delivery service can achieve economies of scale as well as logistical advantages that you can't. We could even eventually build a robotic delivery service that can take packages and deliver them to our houses for us, depositing them in a secure receptacle so that even if we're not home nobody will be stealing our stuff.