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."

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.

  • brianna

    The author makes a good point. But look how difficult it is just to build infill housing in San Francisco. We have all of the urban infrastructure for residents to easily live car-free, yet even if you manage to jump the thousand hurdles to actually build an apartment building, you absolutely cannot build it with no parking. Ridiculous. If San Francisco can’t build a shining, functional example of post-automobile urban living, who will?

  • Well, there is legislation coming before the board of supes today authored by Pres Chiu that in effect makes it more difficult to build garages in buildings that had been vacated via an Ellis Act Conviction.

    I’m on North Beach Neighbors and I have been arguing that we need stricter policies in place to stop the addition of garages in North Beach. We have the densest neighborhood on the west coast, we don’t need more parking. People don’t seem to grasp that even if you park the cars off the street, you still have to drive the car to the garage, you will have blank/ugly garages doors all over the neighborhood, and worse yet the added costs to the units will put housing even further out of reach for the working class.

    But brianna, you are right on. If we, as a dense city with great transit options, can’t do it – who will?

  • Andy N

    “If San Francisco can’t … who will?” Detroit. Baltimore. Maybe Philly.

    San Francisco cannot, and will not, because every last square inch of the city is already worth a huge amount money, as-is, where-is, no matter how broken.

    To reinvent urban space in the pre-automotive mould, look to the crumbling cities founded before the rise of the automobile. Detroit does not exist because of the auto industry; the french name is a clue to it’s colonial origins. Detroit sits astride a major transportation route between the eastern seaboard and the midwest. The auto industry settled in Detroit to take advantage of that resource. Since 1825, it’s been possible to float cargo from NYC, NY to Duluth, MN with little more than a barge, a donkey, and time. There is a reason for human beings to live the place called Detroit – in contrast with an outer suburb of Las Vegas, which exists only as long as the water comes. Outer-Vegas-burb is not worth saving; Detroit is.

    You can get started tomorrow on building the shining functional example of a post-automobile city – for the money in your checking account. Median home price in Detroit for Dec 2009 was $7,500. Loosely speaking, your urban renewal efforts can be 100 times more effective in Detroit than in SF. I love SF as much as anyone, but for all our good intentions, I’m certain of this: the revolution will begin elsewhere.

  • Alex

    Great post, I had to link to it on Twitter, and hopefully it isn’t too long for people less geeky than me to read.

    Just imagine if we’d used the auto bailout $ to pay Detroit to retool their factories to build streetcars, busses, trains and bicycles? The gov’t got Ford and GM to build war planes 70 years ago…. and I’ve seen the phrase ‘moral equivalent of war’ applied to the kind of political, economic and industrial transition that the climate crisis demands.

    Sigh…. Maybe in an alternate universe USA all that came to pass already. It doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, but it’s pretty daunting to see the gap between what infrastructre we have in this country and what we would need to have in place to get people out of their cars.

  • 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.


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