Subsidize Green Neighborhoods, Not Green Cars

DC writer Alec Dubro questions the pursuit of the green car, concluding we should cease its financial support. Though people may prefer the car culture, it would make more sense to pursue a ‘post car future’, citing Portland’s compact neighborhoods.

"The real problem is, though, cars don't move people, cars move cars."

"Even if we were able to produce a 100 mpg, zero pollution vehicles, we'd still need to maintain the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and energy distribution. That means steel, concrete, asphalt and plastics. Just concrete production alone generates as much as 10 percent of all greenhouse gas.

And there's another intractable problem: the very thing that makes tires so useful – comfort, stability, adhesion – also produces immense rolling friction. One reason trains are able to transport people using far less energy per passenger mile is that there are fewer wheels per person and steel wheels have much less rolling friction.

But there's an even more profound problem with building more efficient cars. In 1865, English economist William Stanley Jevons discovered an efficiency paradox: the more efficient you make machines, the more energy they use. Why? Because the more efficient they are, the better they are, the cheaper they are and more people buy them, and the more they'll use them."

Thanks to John Hartz

Full Story: The Myth of the Efficient Car



Not Even Close to Realistic

There is no realistic way to make people abandon their cars in large enough numbers to stop catastrophic climate change in time. Promoting walkable neighborhoods is a laudable goal which we should all support, but we have to power cars with clean-renewable electricity, which means we have to get our electricity from clean-renewable sources.

Not enough people want to live in the dense, mixed-use walkable neighborhoods that would make abandoning cars feasible. I wish more people did, and the trend seems to be shifting, but they don't yet.

Even if we wanted to, which we don't, we couldn't change the built environment fast enough.

We have to green cars and promote smart growth at the same time.

it has been convenient to doom our children

DJB, you're probably right that we don't have time to create energy-efficient communities to deflect our climate course away from catastrophe. But the point of the article is that neither do we have enough time to convert our 250 million strong fleet of cars to clean energy sources, when Obama's plans, even at their most ambitious, would provide for one percent of that fleet to be converted.

While I hate to be a pessimist, it is hard to reach any other conclusion than our children are going to live in a vastly more challenging environment, and all because we thought it was neat to be able to drive everywhere.

Less VMT And Cleaner Cars

Clearly, we need both. There have been studies showing that, if we continue our past development patterns, growth of VMT will wipe out all the gains from more fuel efficient cars, so we won't reduce emissions at all.

We are not going to eliminate sprawl in the next few decades, and we need more efficient cars for those who are still living in sprawl. But we also need to direct new development to more walkable neighborhoods in order to start reducing VMT. (DJB: that includes compact streetcar suburbs, where people drive less than in sprawl suburbs, as well as "dense mixed-use neighborhoods.")

I think we will find that the same is true of the economy as a whole. Economic growth will wipe out many of the gains from greater energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources, and we will find that we have to rethink consumerism and economic growth to deal with global warming.

(Incidentally, the author of this article doesn't understand Jevons Paradox. As explained in, Jevons Paradox applies only when demand is elastic. In the United States, demand for gasoline is relatively inelastic, so more fuel efficient cars will reduce total fuel consumption. On the other hand, I can imagine that in China or India, introducing cheap fuel efficient cars could stimulate such a great increase in driving that Jevons paradox could apply.)

Charles Siegel

Just discovered this interesting quote

Arthur C. Clarke on the Automobile:

"Looked at dispassionately, it is an incredible device, which no sane society would tolerate. If anyone before 1900 could have seen the approaches to a modern city on a Monday morning or a Friday evening, he might have imagined that he was in Hell - and he would not be far wrong.

Here we have a situation in which millions of vehicles, each a miracle of (often unnecessary) complication, are hurtling in all directions under the impulse of anything up to two hundred horsepower. Many of them are the size of small houses and contain a couple of tons of sophisticated alloys - yet often carry a single passenger. They can travel at 100 mph, but are lucky if they average twenty. In one lifetime they have consumed more irreplaceable fuel than has been used in the whole previous history of mankind. The roads to support them, inadequate though they are, cost as much as a small war; the analogy is a good one, for the casualties are on the same scale."

-from Profiles of the Future, 1962

we don't necessarily need to abandon driving

Green neighborhoods alone won't be the solution, at least not quickly enough, but neither will green cars. So we need to pursue both. Allow me to plug my group's new website, which shows possible step-by-step transformations of 70 sites across the country from obsolete uses or vacant lots into walkable, green neighborhoods, and a post on my blog introducing it.

Most of the transformations we show are moderate, not high, density that could have broad appeal, especially given shifting market dynamics that are reducing the relative number of families with kids, who have tended to prefer free-standing houses with larger lots in the past.

That said, one thing that often gets overlooked in the discourse is that smarter planning can reduce greenhouse gases and auto use not just through shifting people to other modes, but also by shortening driving distances. That is the biggest factor in most modeling that shows transportation benefits from smart growth. So, even if most of us keep driving, we can still bring the mileage and emissions down through better land use.

Kaid Benfield, NRDC

Western Realities

I notice Mr. Dubro lives in the Wash DC area where they have the densities and transit infrastructure already in place. I wonder how he thinks people living in the western states are going to get around? I'm fortunate because New Mexico, where I live, recently started commuter rail in the central Rio Grande area and I can take a train to work. Like most of the other western states, this is a huge state with people living in small towns and remote areas. While some are locating into urban areas where there is employment, this is not a solution for many who are unable to sell their homes in the rural towns or have established lives there. Perhaps trains will once again connect the small towns, but that appears far in the future, if at all. In the meantime, people will be driving and it makes more sense to develop fuel efficient cars until then.

I agree that clean cars are

I agree that clean cars are a very inadequate part of the mix of solutions to climate change. If cars produced zero emissions, the rate at which they would be used by a western-style developing world would ultimately decimate the vegetated space displaced for roads and parking, and the petroleum resources to build them.

A large part of the world equation for non-sustainability is the assumption that a developed society must follow norms of rich (northern, industrial) countries. But if you watch the Travel Channel, you’ll see how much in demand are richly textured, green and resourceful third world places that have not yet been westernized. Not finding ways to adapt, stabilize and enhance these places based on what they already are, instead, thoughtlessly destroying them to make room for “modern” built environments, may be a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The point is that any development that is not contextual, preserving the essential physical and cultural character of historic or traditional sites is contributing to the overuse of the automobile.

The current unsettled state of world affairs offers an opportunity to do something different. Surely rich countries can come together to agree to immediately STOP sprawl development dead in its tracks. Compact, walkable communities cost more and take more thought than sprawl to build. But look at the costly economic and environmental meltdown that results from the status quo!

Planners should be forefront in bringing this change.

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