Monday, January 05, 2009

Propensity for the Prius

Around the holidays, I get to spend a decent amount of time where I grew up, in the San Francisco Bay Area. (The ASSA meetings were in San Francisco this year, too, so that was particularly convenient.) Since most of my time is spent in West Virginia, or on the road to or from there, it's fun to see how things have changed back home in a more discrete fashion-- get off the plane, drive home, see what's different from what you remember.

What I noticed most this time around, however, didn't take much longer to figure out than exiting SFO-- sweet crispy Christ, there are a lot of Prius' on the road here. I'd give a numerical comparison to the rest of the country from my experience, but it'd be off-- I've never noticed them any more than sporadically anywhere else, and here you can't drive 30 seconds on a populated road without noticing one coming the other direction, or passing one in a driveway. Both of the neighbors here at my parents' house have one. One of my best friends from my Claremont days came to visit for an afternoon, and what did she show up in? Yup, Toyota Prius.

It doesn't surprise me that California has more of them, but why does the Bay Area have such a higher level of concentration of the Toyota Prius? Feel free to add your own reasons; here are mine.

1) Culture. Californians like to be at the front of the green movement, and what says green more than driving a hybrid vehicle. The thing is-- the saturation level of other hybrid vehicles is not significantly different than in other locales. Perhaps a bit higher, but nowhere near the Prius phenomenon. We'd expect all hybrids to be out in droves if it were a green culture thing.
2) Hollywood. I know for a while, about a year or so ago, it was quite the chic Hollywood thing to have a Toyota Prius. I can understand everyone wanting to wear the coolest sunglasses-- but a car? That's an expensive social statement. Perhaps being green carries that much value?
3) Gas prices. While a sufficiently large portion of hybrid development came out of government coercion, high gas prices certainly played a role in people ulimately deciding to buy a hybrid vehicle. But are California's prices that much higher? California is at the top when it comes to gas taxes, though Hawaii and Indiana (that's you Justin!) are right on their tail. I've always noticed the Bay Area to have generally higher prices than anywhere else I frequent, but not that much higher-- maybe 30-50 cents a gallon above Morgantown levels. Is that enough to spurn people to run to the Toyota dealership?
4) In the Bay Area (and I believe California as a whole), some of the Toyota Prius drivers have yellow "Access OK" stickers on their bumpers. This means that even if you are driving your Prius all by your lonesome, you may use the state's network of carpool lanes without punishment. No doubt, it's an advantage-- I've heard studies that say the sticker adds about $3k to the price on the used car market. But not all Prius' have this sticker, and further, I think they have stopped issuing these stickers. I don't think this can be it.
I have yet to see a particularly unclean Prius.
Finally, I wonder what economic theory would have to say about the actual provision of Prius' as compared to the efficient amount. The Prius pollutes, albeit less than most cars, but given the negative externality, we'd say there are too many of them on the road. However, I think there is a large positive externality generated by Prius'-- namely, that everyone else feels better about driving their more-polluting vehicles since Prius drivers are taking the pollution hit for me. Basically, me + any Prius driver = a combination of people that are doing alright in terms of pollution. Anyway, that aspect of it says there's too few Prius' on the road. Which one wins?

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