Are Old-Line Environmentalists Asleep at the Wheel?


Dr. Bill takes to NYC’s streets to tell us about cars and global warming

Once a month, Environmental Defense, the venerable environmental organization, posts an "Ask Dr. Bill" video to their web site to answer common environmental questions. Dr. Bill is Bill Chameides, ED’s Chief Scientist.

This month Dr. Bill takes to the streets to answer common questions about cars and global warming. With a Yahoo Autos banner plastered across the screen, Dr. Bill says, "Our message for today is don’t stop driving, just drive and use your car smart."

If the video were shot in the parking lot of a gigantic suburban mall it would make more sense. But Dr. Bill is walking around what looks like Gramercy Park, a few blocks from the Union Square subway station, telling us, "cars are a fact of life," "we’re all driving cars" and no you do not have to give up your SUV or pick-up truck to do something about climate change (just keep its tires inflated). New York City, of course, is a place where less than half of households own a car, where we’re "all" taking the train and walking, and where a much bigger number of trips could easily be made by bicycle if the city helped make that more possible.

To my eye, the video really feels like it is light years behind the current state of debate about New York City’s urban environment. Coming on the heels of ED’s strong press release urging Mayor Bloomberg to commit to congestion pricing, it also feels like ED’s messaging is a bit schizophrenic.

  • mike

    This is truly awful. He includes a short spot about bikes, but in a condescending manner. ED should be ashamed of themselves.

  • ddartley

    I don’t know, guys. It’s not as forward-thinking as we in this community are, but if it’s got a national audience (i.e., not cool New York people like us), it’s more good than harm.

    Sure there are a few other things I wish it included (take mass transit!), but I think it is moderate enough not to turn off a suburbanite who doesn’t know much or anything about these issues, and that’s important. I think a lot of the stuff we say here would be perceived as nutty screed by would-be open-minded car culture denizens, and the video is a little easier on such an audience.

  • ABG

    Wow. You’re right, he could have at least gone out to Huntington or Tenafly or someplace where people actually were driving cars (not all, but more than in Morningside Heights or wherever this was shot).

    Sadly, this is all too typical. Check out “Transportation” on Page 25 of the New Mexico Green Party platform:

  • Steve

    To his credit, Dr. Billgave two decent plugs for bicycling as an alternative to driving (although none for walking), one of which given a place of honor in the last 30 seconds of the clip. On the other hand, the clip’s emphasis is on “it’s OK to keep driving in the city” which is just the wrong message for ED because (1) its not really true and (2) millions in advertising dollars are beng spent each day to bombard us wth that message. That overarching message is stated repeatedly in unequivocal and unqualified ways throughout the video so as to drown out the part about the bikes for the average viewer.

    Environmental Defense, they seem to have done a lot of good work using an issue-by-issue approach but from a quick review of their website I don’t see a “mission statement” or other foundational document that would prevent them from drifting in the direction of Dr. bill’s latest webcast. Their slogan, “finding the ways that work,” seems to tell the whole story. This video embodies some very questionable trade-offs that may “work” in some ways but not in others.

    Just a very quick plug for what I think of when I hear the phrase “old-line environmentalist”: the late Murray Bookchin and social ecology movement he founded in the 1960s. Bookchin passed away last summer but has left behind a uniquely American philosophy of ecologically-rooted, libertarian municipalism that I would expect to be of interest to many who read and comment here. I know he would have enjoyed reading the discussions in Streetsblog and I hope there are more of his students who follow the site.

    Check out Bookchin’s biography:

  • I encourage everyone to actually watch the short film. I think it’s got some good moments, but the for the most part it completely missed the boat on how New Yorkers should aim to increase transportation efficiency.

    I would love to see a compare and contrast of the urban vs. suburban lifestyle. If you are going to just talk about tire pressure and aggressive driving saving fuel, go out to a suburban mall. Don’t use NYC’s “coolness” to sell suburbanites on little things they can do, use it to encourage them to move back to the city.

  • Someone needs to inform Dr. Bill that we are not going reach our required CO2 reductions by driving slower and filling up our tires.

    The Earth requires bold changes by human beings, not band-aids.

  • Steve

    It seems pretty obvious that the video is being shown to people nationwide and not just in New York City and that it’s trying to be non-threatening to those people.

    Since Environmental Defense is behind the idea of congestion pricing for New York City streets, I don’t buy the argument that ED isn’t looking for ways to reduce driving in NYC.

    Two other things: there’s no car ad on the web page with the Dr. Bill video. Maybe you saw that on YouTube?

    And this also isn’t true – “New York, of course, is a place where less than half of households own a car” Did you mean to say New York City?

    Seems like this post could use some corrections.

  • Kate

    As a huge advocate of mass transit and congestion pricing, I have to disagree with some people about this post. This is meant for a national audience and like it or not, nationally, Americans drive and they drive a lot. NYC is an anomaly, unfortunately. If we can convince folks to actually think about fuel economy when they drive and purchase cars, the impact could be enormous. While enhortions to take the train or ride a bicycle may be what NYC needs right now, they aren’t going to do a thing to convince my mom in Ohio to change her habits because there is no mass transit and destinations are not accessible by bike. That’s a bigger problem that is not in her direct control. This video, however, has a chance at speaking to her.

  • I hear you Kate and I think if ED went and filmed this in a Home Depot parking lot in Staten Island, it would have made a ton more sense. But they filmed it in the middle of Manhattan and it really appears to be addressed to New Yorkers more than a national, suburban audience.

    To me, the bottom line is that ED’s message is just factually wrong. We can’t keep using our cars as we do and solve the looming problems presented by carbon emissions and climate change. Most of the data out there suggests that the carbon emission cuts that we need to make in the U.S. are far bigger than anything that better inflated tires are going to give us.

    Sure, the driving tips are great and that’s good info to get out there in the short term. But I think ED could have conveyed the "driving tips" message without giving the impression that this is all we have to do to save our kids’ generation from climate change. I am equally unimpressed by the video’s bike section. I think the ED guys are still working under the impression that bicycle commuting is considered a fringe activity. I really think they are behind in that thinking. Likewise, the pot-shot at the Hummer — sure, I take those shots too here on the blog. But it’s a lame, easy target.

    Additionally, my feeling is that a significant population throughout the country — not just in NYC — is ready to hear a much stronger message than what is conveyed in this video. You’ve got cities all around the country doing innovative transit-oriented development, congestion pricing and light rail and bike projects, you name it. In many ways NYC is a backwater on these issues, propped up on 100-year-old transit infrastructure and a naturally dense, walkable, bikeable environment.

    I even think you can convey this stronger message while still selling Yahoo’s Green Automobile Buyer’s guide, which is clearly a goal of this video.

  • Steve

    Kate, my first thought was that it was geared to a national audience and just happened to be filmed in NYC, but he repeatedly makes explicit recommendations as to what people in New York City should be doing. Whoever wrote this (it may not have been Dr. Bill) made a mistake. I would be with you if it had been filmed in your mom’s hometown/city in Ohio and made general recommendations to “Americans.”

    One of the most irritating parts of the video is where he coyly winks about what he calls “competitive driving,” and recommends against it on the grounds that it can save drivers $250 a year and limit carbon emissions. He fails to mention the most serious environmental impact of “driving competitively” in a congested city: it causes people to be maimed and killed every day. I know the clip is about global warming and you can’t fight every battle at once, but the script should have been reviewed and edited by someone familiar with the situation in NYC–my guess is that is was not.

  • phrozen

    You guys are nuts. Calm down. It’s just a video about how to reduce your CO2 output if you still must drive.

    For many of us, public transit just isn’t an option. For example, in Philadelphia there are many places you just can’t get convenient mass transit to where you want to go and it is much faster to drive.

    All of Dr. Bill’s comments were factually correct and reasonable.

    If you’re angry, you should be angry about the poor state of mass transit in this country. Go spend your energy working on that instead of ranting on a blog.

    Cars themselves aren’t the enemy. They are only the enemy in their current form. If someone develops a better battery, everyone will switch to electric cars and mobile sources of pollution will be eliminated. You could go work on that as well if you’ve got so much free time and energy.

    So really. Stop ranting and go get to work.

  • Hi folks, this is Dr. Bill. It seems that our latest video has caused some concern. Certainly not our intention. Let me jump in with a few words about why we did this video.

    Our “Ask Dr. Bill” features answer specific questions posed by our members, and they come from all over the country. The question this time: “I drive a car — what can I do about global warming?” An answer that advises car owners to give up their cars would not be very useful. We advocate for traffic reduction measures such as congestion pricing in areas that are well served by transit. However, this video was intended to answer questions from car owners. The folks we’re talking to here want personal actions they can take to make a difference.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that this video is not meant to be “about” New York City and its traffic. Sure, we filmed in New York City, but that’s because we are in New York City. Oh and by the way, I don’t have a car in New York and like most New Yorkers, I love the fact that I can get to just about anywhere by walking and taking the subway –- most Americans are not that fortunate.

    But we hope that what comes through most strongly is that with about 200 million cars on the road in the USA, the people who are driving them can make a difference. If we can help folks change their behavior by buying better cars, driving less aggressively, combining trips, telecommuting, not driving during high traffic/high congestion times, that’s good.

    In the long view I think most of our suggestions are in keeping with the agendas of this community. I think of the environmental movement as a big tent with people from all walks of life and living in many different kinds of communities. To win the battle against climate change, we’ll need solutions for all of them.

    Bill Chameides
    Environmental Defense

  • Steve

    Phrozen, you have no way of knowing what work I do or not do. So telling me to “stop ranting and get to work” is bascially your way of saying “shut up because I don’t agree with your opinion.” So is calling me “nuts.” Here’s my advice: take a deep breath, re-read my post and your own, and then tell me which is a “rant.” Then I’ll respond to the portion of your comment that is amenable to rational dialogue.

  • I recently read an article that could easily solve downtown traffic problems which would thus in turn cut down a lot of C02 output. you figure that if you’re running a car in one place for a long time, there is a lot of CO2 being emmited. Here is the article by the way:

  • Dr. Bill

    I think we are objecting most to your using New York as a backdrop for this.I don’t think we should automatically let folks who live here or anywhere off the hook by accepting that they “need to drive”. I know you guys are based here, but that doesn’t mean you can go somewhere else to do this to add context.

    Please don’t do segments on cars in New York because the environmentally friendly answer here should be different than outside the city.

  • Steve

    Hey Dr. Bill, I don’t want to kick you out of any tents and I’m glad you took the time to comment here. However, for many who comment on this site, fighting car culture is a branch-and-root kind of thing. Given the impact of cars on daily life in NYC, you can actually convince in NYC to reject cars altogether. So my personal view is that the clip is probably beneficial outside of New York City, but gives the wrong message to the extent it specifically tells New Yorkers (and it seems to do this at some points) that getting a fuel-efficient SUV is a meaningful step in the fight against global warming.

    I also take your point that you were just answering the member’s question, but was the question specifically “I drive a car in new York City — what can I do about global warming?” The video plays like that was the question that was asked.

  • mike

    I want to apologize for my first comment. I think we’re working for a common cause here, but perhaps our methods diverge. Some of us here seem to be misinterpreting the intended audience of the video. Still, to a New Yorker, it’s a bit galling to see NYC used as a background for a message that says that there’s nothing most people can do to reduce car usage. There’s a ton of things people can do, even in Ohio. I think it also should be recognized that global warming won’t be fought by making sure our tires are properly inflated. That’s patently ridiculous. Does it help? Yes, everything helps, but to suggest that people can wipe their hands and consider themselves green after doing so is not very forward-thinking.

    Still, I’m glad Dr. Bill has provided his input. I think this is a conversation that we need to have.

  • Dan Icolari

    I’m torn–feeling as though the hour is late and Dr. Bill’s message should be stronger; while recognizing that most Americans are only beginning to understand the environmental and land-use challenges we’re up against.

    What bothered me about the Dr. Bill video message was its sort of de facto approval of driving. I think a more responsible approach would have been to offer the same driving and car-maintenance tips as ways to get better value/performance out of the transportation system we have–as we work to develop more environmentally friendly alternatives in communities nationwide.

  • gecko

    Dr. Bill Chameides,

    If we started seriously eliminating cars from the world’s major cities we would be well on our way to solving one of the principal anthropogenic causes of climate change. Since cities contain half the world’s population and are terrific showcases for change, success of such a transition could have a broad and very positive affect.

    Sure, you can talk directly to car drivers. But, you should be talking more directly to city dwellers: the most affluent, influential, and dynamic people in the world.

    It’s really amazing how timid you are regarding doing and saying the right things when such much is at stake.

    Re: “If we can help folks change their behavior by buying better cars, driving less aggressively, combining trips, telecommuting, not driving during high traffic/high congestion times, that’s good.”

    This is minimalist incremental and will not have any effect on the current situation. Rapidly increased use, offsets “counting pennies” and incremental efficiency increases and have been ongoing for many years. It’s estimated by the Clinton Global Initiative and ITDP that urban emissions will triple in the next twenty years. What you are suggesting does not even come close to offsetting these increases. And you know full well if we were to stop emissions at this very moment that the earth would continue to heat up for the next 100 years. The scary part is that with the world economy rapidly heating up in Asia and elsewhere, global emissions are accelerating at an astounding rate and the world as scientists try to foresee it is entering into an unknown state and an extremely precarious and difficult condition for future generations. Your advice is like playing calming music leading beasts to their slaughter. And should stop!

  • Dr. Bill,
    George Monbiot’s research (the Guardian/UK) says that the industrialized nations need a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 if we want to stave off dangerous climate change (the number is slightly different for all countries if we distribute the responsibility to cut back evenly). Other scientists have deduced the same basic premise, but Monbiot recent book “Heat” is the best to date research on exactly how much of a reduction is needed.

    I do not think that filling our tires with enough air, or driving slower is going to provide the 90% reduction.

    If the question is “I drive a car — what can I do about global warming?” the Answer is simple: Stop Driving – ar atleast stop driving 90 percent of the time.

    Anything short of that will simply allow the planet to heat beyond the point of no return.

    I understand these driving tips will make some change in overall fuel use, and that is just fine. Except that it won’t help in the long run – at all.

    We need bold ideas – and we needed them yesterday.

  • There is no green SUV

    Dr. Bill:

    Here are a few direct quotes from the film that I personally think could have been better.

    “We’re going to be walking around New York talking about how we can save greenhouse gases by driving the right kind of cars and doing the right kind of things with our cars”

    “Cars are a fact of life even here in New York City. We’re all driving cars. We’re all going places in cars.”

    “If I want to do something about climate, if I want to do something about global warming, does that mean I have to give up my SUV or my pick-up truck? The answer is ‘No'” He then recommends that people first choose the type of vehicle that fits their lifestyle, then look for fuel efficiency.

    “If your lifestyle demands an SUV or pick-up truck, get that type of car”

    lifestyle > environment

    Bad message Dr.Bill.

  • Lisa

    I think the video is appropriate for a national audience, and could be shortened and not lose efficacy. Why wouldn’t a scientist working for an organization in NYC make a video in this setting? I live in Maine and could relate to the message just fine. And this is certainly as good a non-urban environment as any to take issue with a Big Apple production. What he says is important, and the filming is very hip with the moving camera and close-ups. No fuel wasted to get an ad-agency slick piece made in the burbs. Just downhome good advice. What’s the beef, folks?

  • Frank

    I think people are making pretty clear what the gripes are, but let me try to summarize:

    1. The video is irresponsible. It conveys a message that Americans can combat climate change without doing anything about reducing their automobile dependence.

    2. The video is counter productive and even harmful to urban environmental efforts in New York City where a lot of work is being done to educate people that we can do better with fewer motor vehicles on our city’s streets.

    I appreciate that this message might play in Maine but neither in his setting nor his words does Bill appear to be addressing a national or suburban audience. "Cars are a fact of life, even in New York City," he says. Well, OK. But the fact is that more than half of New York City households don’t own cars (and the car-free share is way higher in Manhattan where he filmed this).

    Frankly, Bill’s video makes ED look bad. They should pull it and reshoot it.

  • There can be no more eloquent rejoinder to the ED / Dr. Bill video than Clarence Eckerson’s just-posted Streetfilm, “Curbing Cars in SoHo” (currently the lead item on SBlog).

    Clarence’s camera work, along with the findings of the study it’s reporting, document the utter wrongheadedness of “enviro’s” ever giving a moral free pass to driving in Manhattan.

    As well, each additional vehicle — including the ones greenwashed by Dr. Bill — adds to the difficulty of marshaling support for the re-allocation of street space away from private cars and toward mixed, other uses.

  • gecko

    Hi Lisa,

    Glad you “live in Maine and can relate to the message just fine.” And “What he says is important, and the filming is very hip with the moving camera and close-ups (and all). No fuel wasted to get an ad-agency slick piece made in the burbs,” when you can make something down home and funky in Gramercy Park.

    Nice writing!

    And you were careful not to write “Just down-home slick advice.” Or, “Where’s the beef, folks?”

    ’cause that’s the problem: There is no beef! (Is that ‘cause down home enough?)

    And what he is saying is flat out wrong and misleading and won’t change things at all.

    If the earth is going to heat up for the next one hundred years even if emissions were to stop this very moment, he is not even close to providing solutions of the scale necessary to make a difference, not to mention that 75% of global emissions come from cities and projected to triple in the next twenty years.

    Hope you have some good down-home good newspapers there in Maine the type read by national audiences. If you read some big city newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, the news is supposedly good, but skip the editorials. The New York Times seems to be OK.

    And if you ever get tired of writing some down-home good letters you might want to learn some down-home good science say at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory or any of the world class geophysical institutions and realize that very Senior LDEO Scientist Wally Broeker was right when he said that “you are not going to stop global warming by buying a Prius.”

    And for some down-home good science talks here’s a link to Columbia’s Earth Institute Events:

    Looking at what’s coming down the pike we are going to need a lot of really good scientists to get us out of this mess, so hop on board!

    And Lisa, . . . that’s a real nice name.

  • ddartley

    It’s just barely starting, but it’s starting: much like road rage, there’s online forum rage. It’s starting to creep in to the comments on Streetsblog and I, for one, don’t like it!

    Right, “you are not going to stop global warming by buying a Prius,” but by that same, correct logic, neither will you stop global warming by attacking *individuals* who are already concerned about it (like anyone posting here).

    It would be better to direct such anger to institutional polluters (car, energy, et al. industries and government), not individual polluters (which we all are). A lot of individuals, especially those who visit this site, probably have good personal pollution-controling habits, but as I bet Wally Broeker would point out, that hardly makes a dent. Institutional pollution is what can really hasten or prevent global warming. If you’re also going to get on individuals’ cases, might as well do it nicely.

  • gecko

    To all those concerned individuals reading and writing to this blog sincerest apologies and to ED, UCS, etc., you are doing one heck of a job.

  • someguy

    gecko – it’s easy to be condescending, sardonic and self-righteous on an anonymous blog. let’s try to keep it constructive.

  • gecko

    not as easy as you might think.

  • brent

    ddartly- To me, Streetsblog is primarily a cultural debate. People who have been underserved in public infrastructure are starting a backlash. They have a right to demand equity and the unfortunate fact is to get it, street space will need to be compromised. The process of change against status quo thinking will be ugly and people will be criticized! I am happy call this Dr. Bill video right-wing propaganda masquerading as eco hippy crap.

  • Steve

    Brent, there is a world of difference between calling the Dr. Bill video “right-wing propaganda masquerading as eco hippy crap” (which turn of phrase I found entertaining and on the verge of being clever) and attacking a commenter like Lisa PERSONALLY, attacking her way of expressing herself, attacking her presumed cultural background, etc., as I interpret gecko’s post as doing. Comments can be heated and pointed without getting personal. In the context of a blog, if you “win” by attacking someone so personally that they stop participating, what have you won? An increasingly limited and narrow-minded discussion. I’m new to this blogging thing, but isn’t the goal to get as many people reading and talking as possible?

  • Interesting how this video was viewed in so many different ways. It definitely shows the passion and commitment of the audience but also shows the divides on how aggressive we all should be when promoting earth friendly activities. The comments, in many cases, also fail to understand that there are multiple audiences out there and that each requires a different message.

    As New Yorkers, we are exceedingly lucky, and among the minority of cities that have comprehensive, reliable, fast public transportation. Many places do not (see Texas).

    An organization like ED can’t afford to always pitch a strident, aggressive message. There are millions of people who think global warming is made up science. For these people or others who simply aren’t as aware of the facts, a more moderate message is sometimes needed or the message will simply fall on deaf ears or worse, cause people to dig their heels deeper into the earth.

    Imagine the parents with 3 young kids who has 3 car seats, a huge bag of extra diapers and clothes, who must go shopping and take the kids with them, or go to the doctor. To this person a car may be perceived – right or wrong as necessary. They may want to be more environmentally friendly but are so overworked and stressed and busy they simply don’t know their options. Telling these people to take public transportation will get you a look that could be sold on Ebay for $1 million dollars. But giving them small ways that they can easily start folding into their lives opens the book to do more as they see the benefits and feel themselves becoming involved.

    It’s all relative, and even if it only helps fractionally, it still helps… and educates… and takes into consideration the myriad variables that are involved in this issue from geographic location, availability of mass transit, economic resources, personal time, etc.

    I like the piece and find it a nice addition to the arsenal.

  • crzwdjk

    All you people who agree with the video make a valid point. But New York IS the one place in America with good public transportation, if you’re going to use New York for any propaganda it should be propaganda for public transportation: like, look at New York, and demand that your city build public transportation at least as good. If you say “cars are a fact of life” and “we all have to drive” go say it in a mall in New Jersey. At least then it will be true.

  • jennifer b


    It’s ED’s reponsibility as a major environmental group to not enable delusions of diligence with pollyanna prescriptions.

    i think we all agree that moderate messages have their strategic place, but in going for this embarrasingly easy pander, ED is missing a huge swath of potentially productive middle ground. (unless “productive” is defined as feel-good year-end fundraising)

    Dr. Bill is grossly underestimating the sizable portion of his membership that would go further than inflating their tires if effective encouragement (not moralizing) and a good case were made. What’s worse, this video perverts NYC’s role as a dense, transit rich and walkable beacon for other cities.

    And even if you are right and people balk, maybe that is just the kind of incitement that is needed to get America to wake the eff up to the fact that we cannot drive our way out of this mess. They should to pull the video and leave this type of thing to an environmental group with a far less impressive track record of leadership.

    -Jen b

  • Linda

    Curious that this post had so many comments, I had to watch this.

    So I did, it felt like it was over 10 minutes long and a chore to sit thru. It certainly needs to be cut down by two-thirds. Funny, from time to time I have thought some of Clarence’s videos on this site were a tad long, I’ll never complain again.

  • Clarence


    Thanks…I think…

  • Clarence

    Looking the video and having the benefit of all the commentary before me (plus having been doing these kind of productions for so long) I think just about all the criticism, praise, and questions are meant to be well meaning and productive.

    Let me just start out here – and this is not to knock it cause I started doing video the same way – but it’s obviously an in-house production. No microphone was used (only the camera mike) and it is also appears to be the first in the “Dr. Bill series” to do a video answer to the question.

    I’m also sure that they didn’t have a budget either, so being that they are based in NYC, they just figured they would go out on the streets of NYC to answer the question since, well, there are plenty of cars around…right?!. (BTW: With no mike, smart choice filming around Gramercy Park where you can *mostly* get away with no microphone due to low city noise.)

    I am sure it wasn’t too scripted and to tell you the truth for these things – sometimes it is best that way. Have some ideas you want to talk about but always go with the flow, I am sure they didn’t plan on finding that bicycle there near Gramercy Park or maybe even getting in that cab was a spur of the moment idea. Some of the best things in my videos were never planned.

    Yes it is too long. Yes they need tons more cutaways of things they are actually talking about (Example – like when inflating tires, you can show the air nozzle, cars driving by, tire closeups, a tire gauge if they had one, etc) Yes I wish they would have done more about encouraging alternatives and I don’t enjoy hearing the comment: “Cars are a fact of life even here in New York City. We’re all driving cars. We’re all going places in cars.”

    But if people outside of NYC are watching, these are good tips they should follow and if the average American were to watch, then it’s not a bad thing.

    Finally, I’ll say we need to encourage more videos on environmentalism. All us non-profits are working for the love of promoting a better world. Heck, by now I saw myself in the movie industry directing motion pictures by now making six figures, but this is much more rewarding and fun to work in. Non-profits can’t afford the expenditures to put these kind of things together like a Hollywood production, but I like seeing experimentation and attempts like this. And as you go along, you learn.

    If anyone at ED involved in producing the videos wants some free advice I am happy to dispense, feel free to email me at:


  • Sproule

    Clarence, thanks for chiming in as the experienced voice of reason. Just watched the video – what is the big deal? 95% of what Dr. Bill says is on the money. Sure, at the end he does say “don’t stop driving,” which we know would help the most, but the main thrust of the piece is to get people to think about the impact on world they have by driving cars and maybe they’ll drive LESS. He should get kudos here, not rotten tomatoes…riding bikes was his FIRST suggestion as an alternative to driving.

    The Ed Abbey “f#%* everyone who doesn’t see the light” school of thought is tempting, but ultimately unproductive, I think. Typical Americans have to drive, and if the 199 million cars outside of New York City had properly inflated tires, that would make more of a difference than if New York City residents sold their million vehicles tomorrow. Furthermore, working toward more efficient driving habits where people don’t have another option (like Maine) and toward less driving here in NYC aren’t mutually exclusive goals.

    Back-biting on blogs is getting old, people. Gotta agree with ddartley here. Channel the venom into organizing and action. How about writing some letters to your city council people, gecko and brent? ED is on our side, albeit as centrist group. Criticizing them for moderate stances would be like vilifying Greenpeace for putting out white papers – we’re talking about different spots on the environmental spectrum. We need both the wonks and whackos.

    It’s fun to get riled up and read these well-travelled posts, but without the follow-up, it’s an empty exercise. I’m sure many people here have experienced successful political action, and we simply have to refocus our efforts to get results on these issues. Hopefully StreetsBlog will facilitate some movement away from the keyboards.

  • ABG

    Sproule wrote, “if the 199 million cars outside of New York City had properly inflated tires, that would make more of a difference than if New York City residents sold their million vehicles tomorrow.”

    Is that true? I’m not sure, but it’s an empirical question, and one that Dr. Bill might know the answer to. He seems to feel that way. If we haven’t scared him away, I’d like to know the science behind this.

    At what point do actions like the ones Dr. Bill recommends become insignificant in the face of the problem? At what point do they encourage people to think (as some acquaintances of mine here in NYC do), “Well, I’ve got a hybrid, so I’m helping the environment. I can drive my car as much as I want.” Again, these are empirical questions that can be answered definitively. Right?

  • ABG

    Oh, and the focus on emissions (or consumption) leaves out the whole (immediate) death and destruction issue. Is that not an environmental problem?

  • Micaela

    nice intentions, but the fact is that incremental change is not going to cut it anymore, folks. ED is fiddling while the earth burns. Enviro groups need to take more risks and use their influence to wake up and challenge people to change their behavior in fundamental ways, and to challenge their electeds to do things like the carbon tax. it is an acheivable goal for all americans to drive half as much. car pooling, trip linking, transit, bicycling, eliminating discretionary trips… there are many ways.

  • Sproule


    Although I was using round numbers to make a point, your question encouraged me to get the hard data. According to the US Bureau of Transit Statistics, there are currently 225 million passenger cars and trucks registered in the U.S. The EPA estimates that generally speaking, overall fuel economy would improve 3 percent if the tires on all those vehicles were inflated properly (the link below is to a simple guide, but the 3% number is all over the EPA website):

    So, again making some generalizations, if Dr. Bill’s message got out there in a big way, and everyone checked their tires, it would have a similar effect on emissions and oil consumption to taking 3% of total passenger vehicles off the road, which would be like taking 6-7 million cars off the road, rather than the 1 million I mentioned. That sounds pretty significant to me.

    And we can focus on both emissions reductions and the carnage caused by cars…who said we were leaving that out? Take a look at the posts regarding Eric Ng’s death on the West Side bike path. I’d say we’re quite tuned in to that issue. I commute by the Ng Ghost Bike every day and I’ve had two cars race by me on the bike path at night in the same area. That topic is far more emotional to me than auto emissions.

    So, incremental change like Dr. Bill’s tire pressure advice would have a HUGE effect regarding emissions, Micaela. While I don’t share your Earth is burning/the sky is falling take on things, I do heartily agree with your push to “challenge people to change their behavior in fundamental ways, and to challenge their electeds.” I see that as our collective responsibility, not a role only for green groups.

  • I don’t think this video was meant to be the encyclopedia environmentia. Seems more likely it was geared to be an easily digestible reminder that the small stuff matters too. Especially when the small stuff is multiplied by millions.

  • ABG

    Whoa, Sproule! The way I read the site you linked to, that 3.3% number is the maximum that each individual car can increase its fuel economy.

    But how many of the 225 million cars (minus the ones that aren’t on the road for whatever reason) have under-inflated tires? And of those, how many are not that under-inflated, and thus wouldn’t see the full 3.3% increase?

    Also, does a 3.3% increase in fuel efficiency automatically translate into 3.3% less emissions?

    Finally, how many of the under-inflators could Dr. Bill reasonably expect to reach with that video, and how many could he convince to keep their tires properly inflated for the rest of their lives? Compared to that, how many families could someone with Dr. Bill and Environmental Defense’s status potentially convince to give up a second (or third, or fourth) car, with a similar video?

    I’m not saying that the answer is automatically in favor of giving up cars or inflating tires. I’m saying that it’s possible to base a decision like this on research rather than a gut feeling. Yes, there are a lot of variables, but there are techniques for weighting them, etc.

    Again, this is not to fault Dr. Bill. He got a question and he answered it. It’s more about, “what should we do in the future, all of us who care about global warming, the oil supply and saving people’s lives?”

  • Sproule

    Well, ABG, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that more properly inflated tires makes a difference, and millions more make a BIG difference. How much more research do you want? Let’s say I’m a wild optimist, and the increase in efficiency is only a third of what I mentioned earlier. That’s still close to the equivalent of 2 million cars off the road. And let’s say that a 3.3% increase in efficiency yeilds only half that much reduction in emissions. We’re back to my original assertion that this would be equivalent to taking a million cars off the road.

    Obviously, like you, I’m a details guy, but what are you quibbling with here? You think a video put out by a moderate environmental group could convince people to give up their cars entirely versus convincing people to take 5 minutes a few times a year to check their tires? Are you nuts? As goofy as it is, I think this video is spot on. What we should do in the future is think about how our consumption decisions affect the planet and take the small and large steps to mitigate the unnecessary impact like lower efficiency of our cars because the tires are low. Who’d a thunk Dr. Bill would stir the pot so much?

  • gecko

    For someone driving 100 minutes a week 3% improvement in efficiency is like missing 3 stoplights a week or driving only 97 minutes and not much of an improvement if any with all the other variables.

    The efficiency of cars has improved dramatically over the years and much better than 3% but the problem is increased use. Manufacturers build and consumers want and buy bigger and bigger engines which have been offsetting any efficiency improvements and emissions have been increasing dramatically with the increase being 3% in the last year alone.

    Regarding the “earth is burning sky is falling” notion as being delusional, the Great Barrier Reef has been described as a vast underwater ecosystem that is ready to collapse from a combination of the increased heat and high CO2 levels in the worlds oceans, and the projected ice-free Arctic Circle during summers 20 years hence is very serious since most likely the rate of global heating will accelerate since there will be no ice to reflect heat-causing solar radiation back into space.

    Not well understood, scientists do know that we get a huge amount of benefit from the world’s oceans and bodies of water and the ongoing collapse of vast underwater ecosystems is very troubling. Other accelerating and amplifying natural processes are known and more are discovered each day further heightening the concern, not in the least, how much we do not know.

    Scientists used to think that dramatic global climate and temperature changes happened over thousands of years. Current scientific wisdom is that changes can happen in just a few years. As things change dramatically all sorts of feedback systems can kick in either accelerating the heating process or moderating it with lots of unknowns and potentially catastrophic consequences which is why scientists describe the current global situation as one experiment they’d prefer not to make.

    Scientist James Lovelock described the situation just recently at the New York Academy of Sciences as that in which the earth’s population will eventually move to the poles. Nobel Laureate naturalist E.O. Wilson has been designing eco-corridors to facilitate species migration and hopefully at least, lessen projected mass extinctions.

    Taking two million cars off the road out of 200 million cars does nothing to mitigate the ongoing and accelerating environmental devastation and increases in use of the technologies causing it. Scale is a very important concept extremely misunderstood and undervalued.

    When someone goes to a doctor for a checkup they want to know if they are sick. If they are sick they want to be told what to do about it. Scientist James Lovelock describes the situation as so dire that anything we do will be like performing triage on a gravely ill patient only delaying the inevitable. Most likely we can do better but time is running out according to NASA scientist and director James Hansen who has been preaching that there is only a 10-year window to act before the tipping point is reached and nonlinear feedback systems accelerating heating kick in and any remedies we implement will have no effect. A 3% increase in efficiency by properly inflating tires does not speak to this call to action.

    There are things we can do and people, institutions, and organizations, etc. positioned to provide this type of leadership and guidance are not doing it at anywhere near the required scale. Most likely, many do not know what to do even though they say they do. The enormity of the situation is so large and so unreal most remedies may appear to be quite bizarre, not practical, and not feasible. But, they do exist and will have to be implemented. Eliminating cars from the world’s great cities is one of them. Hybrid human-electric transport possibly in a form similar to recumbent bicycles and tricycles seems to be the type of technology that can support such a dramatic change from which we all will benefit.


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