MONEY Autos

Traffic Costs You Even More Than You Think—and It’s Getting Worse

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JAMIE RECTOR/GETTY

Congestion on the roads costs us a fortune, and a new study forecasts that the price we pay for traffic will rise 50% by 2030.

A new study from the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research aims to put a price on traffic—now, and in the near future. After crunching the numbers and factoring in projected population growth and rising living standards, as well as costs associated with road congestion such as wasted fuel, decreased productivity, and higher prices for goods as a result of higher transportation costs, the researchers estimate that the combined annual price of traffic in the U.S. and Europe will soar to $293 billion by 2030, a rise of nearly 50% from 2013.

For what it’s worth, drivers in the U.S. get off easy compared with motorists in Europe. By 2030, the average American household is expected to incur traffic-related costs of $2,301 per year. That’s a 33% increase compared with 2013, but it’s still much lower than annual congestion costs for drivers in Germany ($2,927), France ($3,163), and the U.K. ($3,217).

At the same time, however, the U.S. has bragging rights for being home to the city where the costs of traffic are highest. No surprise which city has that dubious distinction: It’s Los Angeles, which of all the cities in the study has the most autos (4.5 million) and the highest percentage of workers who commute by car (67%), and where the annual costs of road congestion per household are projected to reach $8,555 by 2030, a 49% increase from 2013. (London is a distant #2 in the category, with traffic costs per household forecast to be $6,259 by 2030.)

A separate line of research estimates how much traffic costs not merely individual households, but the nation as a whole. The U.K. is facing the sharpest spike, with a 66% increase by 2030, but even then the total would come to only $33 billion, a pittance compared with the much larger, more car-crazed U.S. In this category, the USA is #1, with the economic impact of road congestion forecast to reach $186 billion for the nation as a whole by 2030, a 50% increase over 2013.

What can we do about any of this information—besides saying, “That sucks,” and perhaps moving out of L.A. as soon as possible? Among other things, researchers call for improved public transportation options and more of them, to help ease traffic by getting more drivers off the roads.

MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Just Hit a Low for 2014

Gas Cans
Get it while it's cheap! NoDerog—Getty Images

Around the country, drivers are paying the lowest prices of the year for gas.

The summertime swoon for gas prices has continued into fall, and now it looks like the forecasts calling for lower and lower prices at the pump are right on track.

Earlier this week, AAA noted that the national average for a gallon of regular stood at $3.29 and that we were on the brink of matching the cheapest mark thus far in 2014 ($3.27, hit on February 9). Well, as of Wednesday, AAA data indicated the national average hit $3.267, a new low for the year.

What’s more, drivers in many states are paying well below the national average. The price of regular is averaging $3.10 or less in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and Missouri is cheapest of all, recently dipping just under $3 per gallon—the first state to average under $3 since January. Drivers in many metropolitan areas, including Kansas City, Duluth, Minn., Tulsa, Okla., and Iowa’s Quad City area, have been enjoying sub-$3 gas this week. The gas price-tracking site GasBuddy is also reporting that gas stations in no fewer than 18 states currently have prices that are the lowest they’ve been for all of 2014.

Best of all for drivers hoping to spend less on fill-ups, all signs indicate the trend for cheaper and cheaper gas will keep on rolling in the months ahead. AAA is predicting that the national average will dip to $3.20, perhaps even $3.10, by the end of the year, by which time as many as 20 states could see per-gallon prices drop below $3.

MONEY Gas

Watch: Gas Prices Are Falling…Toward $3 a Gallon

Prices at the pump are dropping, and some forecasts have a gallon of gas heading toward $3 a gallon.

MONEY Gas

$3 Per Gallon Gas, Here We Come

Gas prices
MCCAIG—Getty Images

After peaking around $3.70 per gallon in June, gas prices dropped steadily for two months—and they're expected to keep declining for months to come.

Throughout the U.S., prices at the pump took the unusual step of declining steadily during the summer, resulting in the cheapest Labor Day gas prices in years. Now that we’ve reached summer’s end, which traditionally brings on cheaper gas prices, the downward trend on fuel costs is expected to keep on rolling.

Gas prices are hardly plummeting. As of Friday, the national average for a gallon of regular stood at $3.41, just a couple of pennies less than it was a week ago. But a year ago at this time, the average was $3.55 per gallon, and as recently as June 2014, it was $3.70. As AAA pointed out this week, drivers in several parts of the country are paying significantly less for gas than they were in early September 2013: Prices in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska are now 28¢ to 33¢ cheaper per gallon compared to a year ago.

Most importantly of all, the decline in prices is expected to stay on track well into the fall and early winter, largely because demand is down due to the end of summer, and because refineries switch to producing cheaper winter-blend gasoline starting in September. At the same time, the U.S. gasoline supply is up 1% compared to last year. So, barring any troubles with refinery production or geopolitics, the anticipation is that it will slowly but surely get cheaper and cheaper to fill up at the pump.

How cheap? “I’m expecting the national average to drop to $3.15 by Halloween, and $3 a gallon as a national average is certainly in the cards,” Andy Lipow, president of consulting firm Lipow Oil Associates, told the Wall Street Journal.

The averages in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia are already under $3.20 per gallon. “Some states could see a monthly average pump price below $3 a gallon at the end of the year,” Adam Sieminski, head of the Energy Information Administration, said in a statement this week.

Prices under $3 per gallon have already begun popping up at gas stations in cities such as Baton Rouge. And drivers in metropolitan areas like Kansas City think they could be next to enjoy prices under the $3 mark.

MONEY Autos

Why Hybrid and Electric Cars Have Lost Their Spark

2015 Nissan LEAF
To entice buyers to purchase a Leaf, Nissan launched a free charging promotion this past spring, promising new owners access to public charging stations at no cost for two years. Nissan—Wieck

The Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, BMW i3, and other electrified cars were projected to take over an ever-increasing chunk of the auto market. Only sales have gone flat in 2014. What happened?

At first glance, the electric car market appears to be pretty darn electrified. Tesla just chose Nevada as the site for its $5 billion “gigafactory” to produce batteries needed for EVs, and Tesla shares hit an all-time high this week after the company was praised by analysts. What’s more, Nissan reported that August was the best ever month for sales of its plug-in Leaf, with 3,186 units sold. Sales of BMW’s new plug-in, the i3 were also strong in August—1,025 sold, which just about matches the total of the previous three months combined.

At the same time, however, the overall electrified car market appears to be flat, even in a bit of a slump. Auto sales are booming in general through 2014, and last month reached the highest sales pace since before the Great Recession. Yet hybrids and fully electrified plug-ins haven’t kept pace with the rest of the field. “The whole automobile market has grown,” Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell explained to the Los Angeles Times. “We’re not seeing electric vehicles as part of that growth.”

According to Edmunds data, through August 2014 hybrids and electric vehicles captured 3.6% of all auto sales this year. For the same period a year ago, hybrid and EV sales represented 3.7% of the overall market. That wouldn’t seem like a big deal except for the fact that for years analysts have been forecasting that hybrid and EV sales would rise steadily, more or less indefinitely—reaching 7% of global auto sales by around 2020.

How can all of this be explained? First off, the increase in sales of the Nissan Leaf is mostly an anomaly. Nissan launched a free charging promotion this past spring, promising new buyers access to public charging stations at no cost for two years as an incentive for the purchase of a Leaf. Local subsidies in states such as Georgia, which provides a $4,000 tax credit for EV purchases and boasts inexpensive electricity to boot, have helped juice sales. (Federal tax credits for plug-in purchases amounting to up to $7,500 off are still around as well.)

Even in Atlanta, however, which has become the #2 urban market for electric cars (after San Francisco), EVs account for only 2.15% of new car registrations. Nationally, EVs constitute only 0.38% of new car registrations. Hybrid vehicles, which are more practical because they run on gas as well as battery power, have regularly sold in far higher numbers than pure electric-powered plug-ins. And sales of many hybrids and non-Leaf EVs aren’t faring well in 2014. MarketWatch reported that through August, sales of the Chevy Volt, Toyota’s plug-in and hybrid Prius, and Honda’s lineup of hybrids and plug-ins were all down at least 10% compared to the same period in 2013. Tesla doesn’t provide sales data, but according to estimates from InsideEVs.com, sales of the Model S totaled approximately 500 and 600 in July and August, respectively, after hitting 1,000 or more monthly from February to June.

What’s been holding sales of hybrid and electric cars back? Reasonably flat, reasonably inexpensive gas prices have certainly played a role. A survey from a couple of years ago indicated that the majority of Americans wouldn’t alter their lifestyles until gas hit $5 per gallon. Not only are we still far off the $5 mark, but prices at the pump have actually been on the decline, recently dipping to the lowest Labor Day gas prices in years.

Edmunds.com’s Caldwell also told MarketWatch that sales of EVs and hybrids may be down because they’re no longer new and novel in the marketplace, and the fascination with owning one is quickly diminishing. “Stable gas prices have a lot to do with it, but there’s also a possibility that the prestige of owning an electric vehicle or hybrid has died down,” she said. “This year may not be able to top last year, which is kind of sad given how well the overall market is performing.”

With the novelty of owning an electrified vehicle disappearing, consumers are left considering the issue as a purer matter of dollars and cents. Hybrids and EVs generally have higher sticker prices than their gas-powered counterparts, so the hurdle electrified cars must clear is convincing drivers that they’re worth the extra money. Lower gas prices obviously mean lower potential cost savings from owning a car that runs on electricity, so the state of gas prices is a strike against EV sales. Traditional gas-powered vehicles have made great strides increasing their fuel economy, which again hurts the argument for opting for an electric-powered car for the purpose of saving money.

Even the improvement in the economy seems to be hurting sales of EVs and hybrids. As the Associated Press noted, consumer demand for SUVs and crossovers has been particularly strong, at least partly because buyers have felt comfortable enough financially to afford larger, pricier vehicles. (The rise in subprime car loans is surely a factor too.) Because so many drivers are interested in SUVs, automakers and car dealerships have felt forced to offer larger-than-usual discounts and incentives on compact and midsize vehicles to convince customers to bite.

And when a gas-powered compact with excellent mileage and no need to ever worry about running out of battery power or finding a recharging station is available at an especially cheap walk-away price, that’s one more reason that many consumer are finding that the math isn’t adding up for the purchase of an electric car.

MONEY Gas

Labor Day Gas Prices Are Cheapest in Years

friends consulting a map while sitting on the back of a car
Cavan Images—Getty Images

Gas prices usually drop in the fall. This year, prices at the pump began falling in early summer and kept on heading down, resulting in the cheapest holiday weekend for gas since 2010.

Earlier this month, an Edmunds survey indicated that as many as three-fourths of all Americans were likely to take a road trip before Labor Day weekend marked the unofficial end of summer. According to AAA, nearly 35 million Americans will be heading at least 50 miles away from home over the holiday weekend, and 86% of travelers will be embarking on their journey by car.

This means that roads are likely to be jammed over Labor Day. There is some good news for those stuck in traffic, however. It’s been years since gas has been this cheap over Labor Day weekend. “AAA expects gas prices to have little impact on the number of people traveling for Labor Day, though lower prices could help make travel more affordable,” a statement from automobile association explained.

Gas prices dropped steadily throughout July, with the national average hitting $3.52 at the end of the month. As of Thursday, a gallon of regular gasoline was averaging $3.43 around the country. That’s about 13¢ cheaper than prices were a year ago at this time. In fact, the last time that gas was priced this low leading into Labor Day weekend, it was 2010. Gas prices spiked to around $3.75 for Labor Day 2012, for instance.

Even though gas prices are cheaper, that doesn’t really mean they’re truly cheap. As recently as the fall of 2008, the national average stood at around $2 per gallon, thanks to a falloff in demand due to the economic crisis. In any event, drivers should always be taking advantage of easy ways to save on gas. Two no-hassle strategies to consider: credit cards with 5% cash back on gas purchases, and Walmart’s Rollbacks on Gas program. The latter involves using various Walmart-branded cards (prepaid debit, gift cards, plain old credit cards) to pay for gas, with savings ranging from a flat $25 off to 15¢ off per gallon. These options can save you money at the pump this weekend, but the clock is ticking on both. Walmart’s gas savings program ends September 8, and most credit cards only pay 5% cash back on gas through the end of September.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 25

1. Slavery’s long shadow is inextricably linked to modern income inequality in the south.

By Stephen Mihm in the Boston Globe

2. Superdistricts in the House of Representatives could end the tyranny of incumbency in Congress.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post

3. Yelp the Police: Georgia teens build an app to rate law enforcement interactions.

By Rebecca Borison in Business Insider

4. The new Egyptian government’s policies of repression and exclusion could push citizens into the arms of extremist groups.

By Michele Dunn and Scott Williamson at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

5. Transforming oil and gas rigs into artificial reefs could save the delicate ecosystems formed around the structures.

By Amber Jackson in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

MONEY Autos

The Least and Most Expensive States to Drive

Car driving into the Tetons, Wyoming
At least the scenery is great in the state where drivers tend to log in the most mileage on the road, Wyoming. Rolf Richardson—Alamy

Curiously, a state with low auto insurance premiums and fairly cheap gas is named the most expensive in the nation for operating a car.

Bankrate.com released the results of a new study about the least and most expensive states to own a vehicle, and a few of the places featured at the pricey end may seem particularly puzzling. Using state-by-state data concerning driver spending on car repairs, insurance, and gas gathered from CarMD.com, GasBuddy.com, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Bankrate researchers found:

• The Midwest dominated the least expensive end of the cost spectrum, with Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa named the three cheapest states. All averaged under $2,000 annually for the trio of car operating costs included in the study, with Iowa the cheapest of all—$1,942, 13% below the national average ($2,233).

• Drivers in North Carolina, California, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey spend the most on repairs, all averaging $390 or more annually. New Jersey has the highest average of all at $393, which is 11% higher than the national average. A few hours north in Vermont, meanwhile, drivers average just $270 in annual repairs.

• Average car insurance premiums in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Louisiana top $1,200 per year, which is at least $500 more than a half-dozen other states in the country.

• Several of the top five most expensive states to operate a car may come as a surprise: Wyoming is the priciest overall ($2,705), followed by Louisiana ($2,555), Florida ($2,516), Mississipi ($2,487), and New Jersey ($2,421).

The reason that Wyoming is at the top of the list pretty much boils down to how much drivers pay for gasoline. It’s not even that the state’s gas prices are all that high—drivers in Alaska, Hawaii, New York, California, and Connecticut, among other places, routinely pay more per gallon than folks in Wyoming. Instead, Wyoming drivers pay more annually for gasoline because they tend to drive so much—68% more than the average American. The data used by Bankrate indicates that folks in Wyoming spent $1,588 on gasoline last year, and $1,643 the year before that. In the 2014 study, the state where drivers spent the second highest amount on gas was Alabama, with an average of $1,237. The average driver in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, spent an average of only $618 on gasoline in a year’s time.

Drivers in D.C. don’t get off so easily in other areas, however. The average car insurance policy there runs $1,273 annually, vastly more than premiums in Iowa, Ohio, Idaho, Wisconsin, Maine, and both of the Dakotas, which all average under $700.

What’s more, D.C. drivers are subjected to many costs that aren’t factored in to the Bankrate study, and that drivers in, say, Wyoming, rarely have to worry about. Like parking. A 2014 NerdWallet report about the worst 10 U.S. cities for parking featured Washington, D.C., for its typical costs ($19 per day, $270 per month) and the total amount collected in parking fines (around $100 million each year).

For that matter, the Bankrate study, limited as it is to just three data points, leaves out quite a few of the costs involved in owning a car. Like, you know, the actual cost of the car. Once the price of buying or leasing a vehicle is adding in, along with things like depreciation, maintenance, and gas, the average sedan costs $8,876, according to the latest AAA estimates.

And hey, owning a car in Wyoming is not necessarily as expensive as the Bankrate study makes it out to be. The average driver pays more there because he is on the road much more than his counterpart in Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, where the averages in annual gas expenditures are all under $800. To some extent, Wyoming drivers are victims of their state’s geography and development—stuff there is far away, what are you gonna do? But unlike in other states, where impossible-to-get-around high auto repair and insurance costs inflate overall driving expenses, at least people in Wyoming theoretically have the power to dramatically rein in the price of having a car, provided their work schedules and personal lives allow it. Just drive less.

TIME Taiwan

Taiwan’s Crippling Gas Explosion Caught On Camera

Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, is currently in a state of disarray due to blasts caused by a gas explosion. The number of casualties has now surpassed 250, with bodies continuing to be discovered as the day progresses.

Eruptions began around midnight Thursday and continued into the morning Friday. Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) announced that residents had been reporting smells of leaking gas to authorities prior to the explosions.

Investigations are currently underway to uncover how the blasts could have occurred and who was responsible. It is currently assumed that the cause was underground gas leaks from petrochemical pipelines built alongside the city’s sewer system.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Yard Tools for Your Money

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We just moved out of the city and are gearing up for our first yard work. How do we decide what type of lawnmower, hedge-trimmer, leaf blower, and other machines to buy? Our options include gas, plug-in and battery-powered.

A: Welcome to suburbia! As you begin to enjoy the many benefits of lawns and foliage, you’ll also likely quickly discover yard work needs to be done weekly during much of the year, taking anywhere from an hour to a whole day depending on the chore at hand and the size of your property.

You might shell out $1,000 to $5,000 on the equipment you’ll need, but assuming you stay with your do-it-yourself plan for perhaps five years or more, that investment will more than pay for itself compared with hiring a pro to tackle the work. (If you’ve never before used mowers, string trimmers, leaf blowers and such, get a friend who owns them to give you a lesson before you buy.)

Gas-powered equipment is the gold standard. You get virtually unlimited run time (as long as you keep your gas can full), with plenty of power. There are downsides though: Gasoline engines need regular service (technically every year), and they’re bulky and loud. They may require a strong arm to start, especially as they age.

Plug-in machines, on the other hand, start with the flip of a switch and need no maintenance, other than sharpening blades perhaps once or twice a decade. They weigh less than a gas tool and cost less too. The price for a handheld machine, such as a leaf blower or hedge-trimmer, comes in at just $50 to $70, compared with $130 to $250 for gas. The problem is that plug-ins lack the power of gas, plus you have to drag long extension cords around to use them. That’s why Chris Bolton, of the giant Michigan equipment retailer Weingartz, doesn’t recommend plug-in tools for anything larger than a postage-stamp-size lot.

Battery-powered machines have long been the also-rans of the outdoor power equipment world. Thanks to new battery technology, though, they’ve leapfrogged plug-ins and now offer a middle ground between burning gas and dragging cords in terms of power, weight, and convenience. The downsides: They are pricey, with a high-quality handheld coming in at $400 to $500 (perhaps twice the price of an equivalent gas machine), and the batteries typically only last 4 to 5 years. Replacements run about $80 apiece.

As long as you’re able-bodied enough to handle their weight and power, go with gas for your mower and snow thrower (if you need one), which are jobs that demand maximum power, says Bolton. If you prefer batteries for other tools, go with the same top-of-the-line name brand for them all. That way you’ll get plenty of power and the batteries will be interchangeable. Buy two so that when you’re using one, the other can be charging. Also spring for the quick-charger upgrade so you never have to wait on a battery and can get back to enjoying your new yard as fast as possible.

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