Wednesday, January 13, 2010

You Cannot Have Your Car And Your Planet Too

If you listen to many environmental activists, especially out here in the IE, you regularly hear talk about alternative *fuels*- electric cars, hybrids, hydrogen vehicles, even cars that run on compressed air. We are convinced that we will be able to continue doing what we're doing, driving about, enjoying our 30+ mile commutes and our freeways, our sprawling lots and huge McMansions miles and miles away from anything "worth caring about", in J. Howard Kunstler's phrasing.

I want to make this clear to folks: We cannot drive our way out of this crisis. No wundercar is coming. None of the technologies listed above, or any others that I am aware of, will come to fruition quickly enough to transform our transportation system in time to make a difference in our climate footprint. Experts agree that we need to make drastic changes over the next decade, to reduce our C02 emissions to below 1990 levels and be well on the way down from there, by 2020. Without a government program the size of which this world has never seen, none of these technologies will have an adequate distribution network, nor will a large enough proportion of our fleet switch over to them quickly enough to make this sort of change. And as far as massive government programs, the political will simply doesn't exist. A substantial portion of our country doesn't even believe in climate change. Now, look at what it took to pass even the meager health care reforms that got through our Congress last year- and remember that we all universally believe disease exists.

Even if we were to manage to switch to any one of these technologies, they all have their faults:
  • Electric cars: Not only would you have to get people to buy them and build an infrastructure that allowed for quick charging (because part of having cars is going road-tripping), but you would also have to get clean, green power to charge them up. Right now, most power in the US is still fossil-fueled (coal on the east coast, LNG on the west), with an appreciable dent made by large hydropower in the Pacific Northwest. Add to this a national energy grid able to handle the stress of providing all of our automotive energy needs when it currently struggles to run our air conditioners. While I think that we need to do most of these grid-related things anyway, we wouldn't need to build nearly as many windmills and solar panels if we didn't have to worry about charging electric cars as well.

  • Hybrids: Fossil fuels cannot make up a significant portion of our transportation energy mix. We all know the problems they cause. Current hybrids are simply fossil-fueled cars with a more efficient drive train. The 2010 Prius gets an EPA-estimated 50MPG, which is a significant improvement over a fleet that currently averages around 18, but this still isn't a high enough bar to avert serious environmental catastrophe over the next few decades.
    Besides all of this, in some ways the environmental footprint of a hybrid is greater than that of a comparable gasoline-driven model. The massive batteries involved in hybrid drive demand large quantities of heavy metals that take significant resources to extract and transport.
    Don't get me wrong, if you have to buy a car right now, by all means get a hybrid- and drive it as little as possible.

  • Plug-in Hybrids: Manage to combine all the polluting and manufacturing-related troubles of a normal hybrid with the energy grid troubles of pure-electric cars.

  • Hydrogen vehicles: Despite the fact that hydrogen is the single most abundant element in the universe, it has the unpleasant tendency of becoming easily chemically bound up in other compounds here on Earth. Most industrial hydrogen production today is actually done through reforming- you guessed it- fossil fuels. ('Nuff said.) The greenest way to produce elemental hydrogen is the electrolysis of water, which uses electricity to separate the bonds between water's hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The trouble, though, is that (consistent with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) you don't get more energy out than you put in. Therefore, hydrogen fuel is not actually a fuel per se, but an energy storage method, like a chemical battery. And, as a battery, it's not a very efficient one. So, since hydrogen is about producing electricity, it has all the energy grid troubles of electric cars- and then troubles involved in storing, transporting and selling hydrogen fuel. These aren't insurmountable, but they're more difficult than gasoline. Oh, and because it's rather inefficient (compared to modern batteries), we need even more green electricity.

  • Air cars: Similar to hydrogen, compressed-air cars are simply a way of storing energy produced via an electric (probably) compressor and releasing it in a car. The main issue with this is that, to get any appreciable range out of a car, you have to store very, very high-pressure air, and so the containment vessel required increases in complexity. If you've ever seen the Mythbusters playing around with compressed air (and chickens, or perhaps the creamer cannon of doom), you know that, if compressed air is released rapidly, it does so with explosive consequences. Contrary to what you've learned in the movies, gasoline usually doesn't explode during collisions. Imagine a compressed air tank exploding during a collision.


All of these are technical and political problems, and they could, theoretically, be worked out. I highly doubt it, and would rather not bet the future of the human race on it, but it's possible. However, even 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. The technology behind transit vehicles- buses, trolleybuses, and electric streetcars and trains- is well-tested and easily implemented, and is more suited to renewable energy than the mass implementation of electric vehicles. The bicycle has remained in more-or-less its present form for most of the last century, and that is because it works delightfully well. Not to mention that man has been walking upright for several million years. A growing fraction of the American public has expressed a desire to live in denser, more walkable neighbourhoods with more transportation choices. As it stands today, these people are a minority, but a large one (~35-40%), and they are a majority of my generation. Numerous analyses have shown that urban living is safer and healthier than suburbs. Our downtowns are ripe for redevelopment and reinvestment. 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.

(It seems that this post has been featured on Streetsblog. Welcome, Streetsbloggers, and thanks for this honour.)

14 comments:

  1. Well written. People do tend to focus on fuel economy and ignore the problems w/ alt. fuels, the environmental impacts of making, maintaining and disposing of cars, and the impacts of cars and car infrastructure like roads and parking on our urban form and society.

    Cleaning cars is important, but it is no substitute for better urban design that allows for more than one mode of transportation.

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  2. Alternative fuel cars are like a "training bra" (do they still make them?). Their only real function is to transition to a fully developed new way of living. What has to go hand-in-hand with the transitional alt fuel car is to "cease and desist" and STOP BUILDING NEW SUBURBS (like a MORATORIUM ON COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS) and focus on the vision, put all energies into developing the living structure that will sustain and nurture life.

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  3. I actually drive an alternative fuel powered vehicle, but I still agree with this sentiment.

    I wanted to point out a few things:

    -About 50,000 people die in auto accidents annually in the US alone. Worldwide the # is in the low MILLIONS, not just thousands.

    -The manufacture of even "perfect" vehicles would require energy and materials to manufacture.

    -No matter what energy source we tap, we always find ways to use more of it when its available. If we were to find a way to reap megawatts of power from a "clean" source, it would only be a matter of years before the average American felt they "needed" their own personal helicopter. We invent ways to use energy far faster than we find ways to produce it, which is inherently unsustainable regardless of how clean it is.

    -Roads themselves take up an enormous amount of space, materials, and energy to build and maintain, no matter what type of car drives on them.

    The solutions are obvious and easy, but unfortunately, as long as the dollar is the bottom line for decision making in this country, none of them are going to happen anytime soon.
    January 14, 2010 at 12:28 pm Link # 5

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  4. @Jacob-
    I'm glad you, and all of your eco-conscious ilk, drive an alternative-fuel vehicle. It's a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, many think it's also the last step, and I'm therefore also glad you don't think that way. Like I said in the post, if you *have* to drive, drive the lowest-impact car you can. (Personally, I only *have* to drive on very rare occasions, and I drive a small, fuel-efficient car when I do.)

    Sadly, I'm pretty sure you're right about our penchant for energy consumption. Or consumption in general, for that matter.

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  5. Ah... and I also wanted to mention (though I lost my train of thought earlier) that I don't think that the dollar is the problem. For example, I noted above that walkable developments are disastrously under-supplied in this country (reports I've seen put demand at about 40% of housing stock, and supply at about 10-15%). Many developers would cheer enthusiastically at the prospect of the repeal of parking minimums, as they would get more revenue from the same space. Livable streets bring more customers to all of the businesses along them, which should make any good, greedy capitalist happy. No, a lot of these issues, especially land-use issues, are problems not of greed, but of politics, and of a lack of vision.

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  6. I can't wait for the next Ice Age... florida sucks. So pedal to the metal boys!

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  7. David-
    I'd probably make a pretty penny off my new beach-front property... maybe I've been going about this sustainability stuff all wrong. :D

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  8. Wow. Great writing. So few people get it about the auto. And your readers are smart too. The best medicine for the car and sprawl (autosprawl) is to make public transit fare-free. Just google free public transit - there is already an international campaign for it.

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  9. FPT, I love the idea of fare-free transit. I actually ride free on a college pass, and our local transit system offers free rides to many. It's got a lot of operational benefits, like reduced dwell times and the elimination of the expense of fare media and ticket printing. However, even if you made our system free here in Riverside, I still don't think it'd make an appreciable dent in auto sprawl. Our transit needs to be *good* above all. Seeking stable, non-fare revenue sources (as is required for a free system) is a good step in that direction, but it's not the only one.

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  10. Think biosphere, not Riverside. Watch the movie "taken for a ride." The auto replaced the bus, which replaced the streetcar. The process was deliberate and contrary to the "market." We can reverse that. But we have to address the $trillions in autosprawl subsidies, the biggest of which is bus fare, which has become a restraint-of-trade tariff, the main purpose of which is to discourage ridership.

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  11. Bus fares are the biggest subsidy to autos? I'm gonna have to ask for some numbers to back that up, sorry. Compared to construction of roadways (subsidized at around 96-97% per VTPI), minimum parking requirements (nearly unquantifiable, but see Shoup, "The High Cost of Free Parking"), the Interstate system, segregated zoning codes... I agree that bus fare is designed to discourage ridership (mostly by those the government deems "undesirable"), but I can't see it as the biggest giveaway to cars. We've had so many others.

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  12. Agreed. Great summation; you and I are heading in the same direction: http://placemakinginstitute.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/a-truer-cost-of-sprawl/

    Even if alternative fuels do become feasible for individual commuters to use, those who use those vehicles will still be stuck in traffic and complaining about congestion because we as a society can no longer afford to build enough roads. Simple as that. Culled from the Texas Transportation Institute: If a region’s vehicle-miles of travel were to increase by five percent per year, roadway lane-miles would need to increase by five percent each year to maintain the initial congestion level. It would be almost impossible to attempt to maintain a constant congestion level with road construction only. Over the past 2 decades, less than 50 percent of the needed mileage was actually added. This means that it would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding to attempt this road construction strategy. An even larger problem would be to find suitable roads that can be widened, or areas where roads can be added, year after year.

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  13. As an addendum to our aforementioned post as well as your post I'm replying to: In the following 2008 AAA report, the composite cost per mile average for driving climbed from 62.1¢ per mile in 2007 to 71¢ per mile (about $10,000/year):
    http://www.aaanewsroom.net/Assets/Files/200844921220.DrivingCosts2008.pdf

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  14. Cars are going to continue to an attractive proposition as long as gas is cheap and suburban land is much cheaper than urban. People want to do the right thing, but they won't if they have to pay more to have less. Tax gas and land in lieu of taxing income and magical things will happen.

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