Car-Sharing and the Case for a “Low-Car Diet”

Anyone who makes any effort to live more sustainably has been there
— facing the accusation that what you’re doing isn’t enough. That
you’re compromising, and that your willingness to deviate from a purist
approach invalidates your efforts. Sometimes these accusations come
from within. And sometimes they make you want to give up. It’s the old
problem of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

the burden of living a sustainable life wholly without blemish,
whatever that means, is in itself unsustainable — at least for a
person within arm’s reach of mainstream American society. (Take a look
at the very funny trailer for the upcoming documentary about the year Colin Beavan and his family spent when he decided to become No Impact Man.)

Which brings us to today’s post from the Streetsblog Network, from member blog BikePGH
in Pittsburgh. BikePGH, which is a multifaceted organization promoting
bicycling as transportation in that city, is going to have a table at
an upcoming "Low-Car Diet" event hosted by Zipcar. The group’s project
manager, Lou Fineberg, is already anticipating criticism, based on past
experience. But he’s ready to face those who think "that BikePGH should
stand on behalf of NO CARS not Low-Cars":

636495002_ae5aa67dc7.jpgPhoto by RcktManIL via Flickr.

for the record…advocating for NO CARS is pretty much the equivalent of
advocating for NO BIKES. Is it really anyone’s business to demand what
mode of transportation others use or don’t use? The U.S. was founded on
the principle of freedom. Start taking away people’s freedom — their
cars (thank you President Eisenhower and Jack Kerouac!), and people get
all revolutionary…. I can just imagine a NO CAR movement forming and
the militias that would arise to protect motorists’ rights…this is one
battle that can be easily avoided.

One excellent way to avoid a motorist uprising and slowly wean
ourselves from oil and cars much larger and faster than we need for
urban use is to employ and support Zipcar and other
car-share/ride-share options. Zipcar and services like it make the
economic impact of driving hit home because each time we choose to
drive we’re charged for it, and it makes most of us think two or three
times before we decide to use a car, which helps keep more cars PARKED.

The routine, intermittent, often exorbitant car expenses
we’ve come to take for granted aren’t so much associated with driving
as they are with the car itself; and here in lies an important
distinction. Currently car owners pay to keep cars. They do not pay to
drive, it’s the rest of us that pay each time one of us chooses to
drive in the form a poorer air quality and time lost associated with
traffic congestion. Time and clean air are two of the most precious
things people have on earth and the automobile has an interesting way
of depleting us of both. We should be paying to drive instead of
keeping cars because it’s the driving that costs society most.

share also provides an amazing opportunity to avoid the “second
largest” financial burden the vast majority of Americans will likely
come across in our lives — owning a car. That has HUGE implications
for local economies because most of the money spent to operate a car
goes to distant lands where they manufacture cars and produce oil. Car
share is one of the best ways to invite addicted motorists to think
differently about transportation without infringing upon people’s
freedom to use a car.

The success of bicycle advocacy will be at best limited
if we go at it alone, but when we develop strong partnerships with
others that promote alternatives to single-passenger owner-occupied
vehicles we dramatically increase support for mutual objectives — to
make our streets safer and less congested. This is no longer a fringe
perspective. In fact thoughts like these echo similar ones being
expressed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In a recent post on
his blog LaHood makes clear “we must implement policies and programs
that reduce vehicle miles driven.” As bicycle advocates this is an
opportunity to squarely put our agenda in the mainstream.

More from around the network: St. Louis Urban Workshop on how investing in transit could save that city millions of dollars; Cycling Solution meets David Byrne in Budapest and talks biking; and Green Wheels has some bad news for bike lanes in Humboldt, CA.

  • marcos

    The problem with this analysis is that the impacts of individuals “not living green” pale in comparison to the industrial impacts of corporations. My understanding is that if everyone adhered to minimalist impact strategies, that would only solve 1/4 of the footprint problem.

    This approach gives corporations a free pass to pollute by shifting the spotlight away from corporations.

    We can see the whining as Cap and Trade moves forward, that business should bear no consequences and they should all be outsources, put off-books, into the shoulders of individuals.

    Progressively, most all taxes should rest on the shoulders of the industrial generators of impacts, that is corporations, rather than on the pedestrian impacts of individuals. In this manner, individuals, in our role as consumers, would be able to pick and choose which industrial processes to patronize with our dollars based on an honest cost accounting of those industrial scale impacts.

    Now the corporate perpetrators of 4/5 of the impacts run free, shifting their nastiness from their bottom line onto the public and planetary balance sheet, and individuals are guilt tripped by well meaning liberals into out doing one another in conforming to the scripture which distracts the burden from where at least 80% of it should be borne.

    Let’s focus where the impacts are, not be distracted to where the impacts are not. This approach reflects the larger tension between making the political personal through lifestyle changes versus confronting the political personally, conveniently leaving the real centers of power which command environmental holocaust untouched.


  • Pat

    I agree with the sentiment of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good but I just have to disagree with his characterization of driving as a right. It is completely not a right, but a privilege granted by the government that one must apply for. There are no driver’s rights.

  • mcas

    But, Marc– 50% of GHGs in SF (and 48% in the Bay Area) are caused by transportation, and the lion’s share of those are through personal autos– so, your facts don’t hold up. Nationwide, things are a bit closer, but in the end, the best thing that anyone can do to help reduce their acceleration of climate change is to stop (or severely reduce) driving. As for corporations getting away with murder (literally)— yes, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean that the individual actions don’t have an impact as great or greater, collectively.

    And unfortunately, in this rugged individualist society, personal responsibility is the best way to explain how choices on actions (be it corporate or personal) make direct impacts on the larger system to the uninitiated. Anti-corporate talk doesn’t ‘click’ with most folks– it might make you and me feel good and righteous, but that’s not how we are going to change hearts, minds, or actions of the vast majority of people– which is the only way things will get better.

  • patrick

    I think the point in taking personal responsibility for your environmental impact is to ensure that it is taken into account by the consumers. If enough people make their buying decisions with environment impact as a factor, industry will follow.

    I agree that the producers of waste should be responsible for safe disposal of that waste in whatever form that waste takes, and should be taxed accordingly, but it’s also important that we take individual responsibility for the choices we make.

  • marcos

    @mcas, yes, there is a magic bubble surrounding the Bay Area which keeps our GHG levels contained and prevents others emissions from penetrating, so as long as we each change our practices we will achieve nirvana.

    Don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but SF rarely rates on air pollution, all of our emissions blow east to further compound the industrial pollution of the inland valleys where agribusiness consumes the lions share of water, electricity and fuel.

    Since there is so little manufacturing and industry left in the Bay Area, and there are 6m of us, more than 5m totally car dependent, you prove my point that the lion’s share of environmental impacts come from industry. Throughout the rural parts of the nation, the number is much, much higher.

    You would have us focus on solving a large fraction of a small fraction of the problem, leading at best to a small fraction solution, rather than going for some fraction of the large fraction of the problem.

    Such solutions might make people feel as if they’re making a contribution, but statistically it ignores the mathematics of footprints.

    It does not matter if you change hearts when that leaves almost all of the problem unaddressed. People always like to shift the burden from themselves onto others, and in this case, if we all drove cars all day long while watering our lawns and filling our pools, and had industry paying half of its fair share for its footprint, we’d be better off towards lowering our collective footprint than if we all lived like vegan ascetes.

    Of course, the nonprofits which promote this are largely funded by corporations and those who have secured their wealth through corporate activity and now wish to appear “green,” but not at the cost of killing their golden gooses.


  • marc – in the end corporations exist and do what they do because individuals (and governments representing individuals) give them money. If the entire US population decided to live green by not eating beef, McDonalds would be out of business in a day.

    your argument is based not on a decision by individuals to “live green” but to “save green (dollars)”. And certainly time has proven that to be the only incentive that 99.99% of humans respond to. And realistically it’s the only enforcable method because someone could decide to live green by only buying sustainably raised wood, which is shipped on diesel polluting trains to a bunker fuel run cargo ship, which ships it across the world to a manufacturing center, etc…

    The whole cap and trade thing makes me laugh. In “Murph’s advanced theory of economics” charging for emissions drives an economy towards *capitalism*, whereas not charging for them is “socialism”. As it stands, the companies screw up stuff and the collective society has to “pay” to deal with the consequences. If instead the company paid for their impacts, the market would decide if their product is worth the real cost of production plus margin. Cap and trade should be a free market economics Republican’s wet dream!

  • marcos

    We need to be making the cost of each McDonald’s hamburger reflect the impacts that industrial beef production imposes. We need to make the cost of each HFCS product reflect the impacts that industrial corn production imposes.

    Otherwise, we are socializing impacts and privatizing benefits.

    The way that people will live Green is if the costs are truly Green. That means placing the majority on the burden on the majority of the impacts. That means taxing industrial activity for its impacts and allowing those real costs to determine consumer market behavior.

    My grandfather was a criminal defense attorney in New York City in the mid 20th century. One of his clients was infamous bankrobber Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, he answered “because that is where the money is.”

    Let’s put our focus where the real impacts are and not give corporations a pass.

    Combined with the focus on individual responsibility to the exclusion of corporate responsibility, the support by the “livable streets community” through their [Superlative] [Infrastructure] initiatives for projects that invariably serve as windfall corporate welfare for developers while not achieving stated TOD goals, I’ve got to wonder if I’m not finding myself amidst a Junior Green Chamber of Commerce here.


  • Sprague

    Good piece, Sarah, and an interesting discussion afterwards. As long as the financial costs that American drivers pay remain cheap and affordable, most of us will conveniently overlook the impact of our daily choices. Sarah’s point that car sharing services help drive the cost of driving home to those who car share (and that many Americans take the financial expense of car ownership for granted), is an enlightened point of view. Thank you.

  • I much prefer people using car sharing for their motoring needs to people buying Priuses. Car sharing does away with the need for personal car ownership, the significance of which is hard to overstate. Car sharing is financially, logistically and psychologically very different from owning a car – however “green” (you think) your new car is -, as it is truly weaning people off cars.

    murphstahoe: “in the end corporations exist and do what they do because individuals (and governments representing individuals) give them money.”

    I agree with your post’s general point, but I would say that most corporations exist to sell you stuff. The difference of what I just said to what you said may seem subtle but it is significant and we can’t have this discussion without exploring this issue. Corporations spend many millions of dollars to pay some of the most brilliant brains to figure out ways to make you keep wanting to buy their stuff, as well as government lobbyists to make sure the government allows them to do what they want. They use all psychological tricks in the book and outspend any other advocacy group or voice of reason by several orders of magnitude. It is not a fair game and a lot of consumers are in fact not making up their own minds about their consumption patterns.

    This is why, if I was given free hand to “fix this mess”, as the first step, I would severely punish and prune back both the advertising industry and government lobbying, two of the most evil instruments ever invented.

    marcos: “We need to be making the cost of each McDonald’s hamburger reflect the impacts that industrial beef production imposes.”

    I would agree with this. But I think this alone wouldn’t solve the problem either and which is why I agree with murph as well.


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