Your Car Will Not Save Your Planet

Today on the Streetsblog Network, member blog Riding in Riverside sets out to explode the myth of the "wundercar" — a vehicle powered by sustainable fuels that will allow us to hold onto our driving lifestyle and all its accoutrements, while saving the planet and feeling "green."

That kind of futuristic fantasy isn’t going to solve our problems, writes the blog’s Justin Nelson. The answer, he argues, lies instead in older patterns of development and mobility:

3936973020_bc1a9152e6.jpgThis is not an environmental silver bullet. (Photo: bindermichi via Flickr)

[E]ven if we were to devise a perfect car, one made out of recycled tires
and printer paper, one that harnesses photosynthesis to not only be
carbon-neutral, but actually make energy from atmospheric C02, even if
we could make a car with no direct environmental impact, it would still
be an environmental and social disaster. Our waterways are contaminated
by engine fluids and lubricants that run off of road surfaces. Our
natural groundwater tables are falling because rainwater is unable to
penetrate pavement.

Cars still allow sprawling development that eats up
wild lands and spits out bland suburbia. Species’ ranges in the few
precious areas of wilderness that we have are disrupted by highways. We
would still live in a society where we shut ourselves off from one
another in our own private boxes, promoting inequality and a lack of
respect for shared humanity. We would still leave our inner cities to
dangle. Our streets would still be unsafe places for children to play,
and we would still kill thousands every year in automobile crashes.
Alternative fuels are, on a perfect day, a solution to only a few of
the myriad problems that cars cause.

On the other hand, instead
of pursuing unproven technologies in a desperate last-ditch attempt to
hang on to the way of life we’ve been living for the last 50 or so
years, why don’t we look ahead and try to build a better world… Instead of a risky gamble to maintain a failing
lifestyle, we should spend our resources on forging a bright future
based around principles of city-building as old as cities themselves.

Also today on the network: The WashCycle on the importance of snow removal if bikes are to be useful as transportation. Next Stop STL on the annoyance of loud music on public transit. And The Naked City on the growing debate over the megaregions concept.

  • Good urban planning vs. green car technology is a false dichotomy. Why wouldn’t we pursue both?

  • Indeed, Todd. We will have private auto traffic with us for a long time and it makes sense to do what we can to lessen its impact in the short and middle term. But “green car technology” must be expanded to include technologies like this one, and lower profiles, enhanced visibility of other traffic from driver’s seat, reductions in noise and in speed capacity, and other modifications that demonstrate sensitivity to urban environments and car’s destructive potential. The exhaust issue is not the end-all and be-all of “greening” motor transport.

  • Andy

    There will always be cars, and those that remain would be much better if they were higher fuel economy cars. The problem is when these “solutions” are looked at as a way to keep up the current standards. We simply won’t be able to support that, no matter what magical fuel and technology breakthroughs we come up with.

    I’d be okay with a world with 1/10 the amount of cars. Carpool commuting can be more efficient and convenient than other transit forms, so going completely car-free isn’t necessarily the best choice either.

  • J:Lai

    I think its an important point, because if we acknowledge that there is no sustainable-fuel panacea which will allow us to indefinitely sustain the status quo, then we can focus on more feasible solutions like drastic improvements in the fuel economy and efficiency of vehicles that run on petroleum.
    The fantasy that we can switch the fuel that powers our cars and keep everything else the same leads to pie in the sky quests for hydrogen cars, etc, that distract attention and valuable resources from improving efficiency (which we could do right now with proven, existing technology) AND from transit and transit oriented development.

  • “The fantasy that we can switch the fuel that powers our cars and keep everything else the same leads to pie in the sky quests for hydrogen cars, etc, that distract attention and valuable resources from improving efficiency (which we could do right now with proven, existing technology) AND from transit and transit oriented development”

    Apply this to dwellings, and their support systems of gas, oil, electricity, heating, air conditioning, plumbing for fresh water and sewage all neccessary for supporting the densities of people seen in cities.

    If you actually think about it, without the roads that literally feed them (unless perhaps a city like Detriot that has the land for farming), cities are unsustainablee.

  • TKO

    I hope that some will tackle the cars of the sky, the airplane. They need to go too. Can’t have those and continue our world.

  • I found this chart very helpful in understanding these issues.

    And Doug? Nice try, but one reason the cities are so dependent on roads is that we’ve torn up so many of our railroads. Any dwelling is dependent on systems to get fresh food, air and water and get rid of waste. Cities with walkable apartment housing are more efficient at doing it than any other structure.

  • Cap’n Transit:

    You did it again.

    “Roads” include “railROADS”, which carry railCARS.

    Simplistic use of terminology usually wrapped as slogans, continue to serve as a substitute for critical thinking.

  • reality check

    Mr. Willinger, an advocate for critical thinking?! Haha!

  • OMG Doug caught me! Here I thought I would get away with using “roads” to mean just car roads, but he’s too sharp!

  • This is a very important idea that cars cannot really be green since they by nature require too many resources: space, materials, energy.

    Personal transportation should be as close to human size as possible and optimally much smaller to be completely distributed and on-demand.

    And ultimately, more of a low-cost commodity like computers or cell phones than durable goods.

  • J:Lai

    Neither personal cars nor airplanes need to disappear, but both should be more expensive to use (they should price in the externalities they create.)

    If we want to seriously address the environmental impact of automobile use, the best thing to do would be to use the existing production and transportation infrastructure, and create incentives to make the vehicles more fuel efficient instead of bigger and faster. That type of change can happen very quickly, and it can have a massive impact on energy consumption. It would, however, require something like a really high gas tax.
    On the other hand, we can try to figure out a way to run all our cars on other sources of energy, but this depends on developing unproven technologies, and even if these technologies can be developed, it will require replacing large amounts of existing infrastructure. I think a 100mpg internal combustion engine is a much better target than a plug-in electric car.

    And of course cities depend on roads, and on some way of transporting people and goods to and from the city. That is a fairly trivial point. As cap’n transit points out, the relative efficiency of transporting people and goods in terms of energy/time/resources is far higher in densely populated cities than it is in low-density suburban and rural areas (yes, this is true even with bad traffic congestion!)

  • Sprawl and the waste of the individual car are unsustainable even after fossil-fuels are gone. The quickest and least painful fix is to make urban public transit fare-free and gradually increase transit use until the impact of the individual private auto is negligible. Many side benefits in the interim!
    Sarah, your perspicacious posts are a breath of fresh air.

  • amazing headline. thank you.

  • “Our waterways are contaminated by engine fluids and lubricants that run off of road surfaces.”

    Which are somehow not mitigated by the downscaling of combustion engines?

    I suppose we should go back to animal power ’cause the pollution is more organic?

    ‘Realty check’-

    critical as my critics of how the DC North Central Freeway was botched, versus say the ‘new urbanist’ betrayal of the public with the $1 giveaway to Phizer of the Route 34 freeway right of way because elitists Yale only cares for its pedestrian skybridges, and the more recent real estate scam just south of the Yankee stadium to cram in 10,000 residents directly next to I-87 so developers can make their money quicker rather than a filtrated tunnel box through lands before they are built over.


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