Your Car Will Not Save the 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.

  • Pit

    Neither will buses, trains, TOD, transit villages, SB 375, or bicycles.

  • The Earth will be fine. It was here before us and will be here long after us.

  • @Pit, could you clarify? All the things you list are important tools for reducing negative impacts on the environment and on community… hence they do save the planet. I think that RidingInRiverside has a really good point… buses, trains, TOD, transit villages, SB 375, and bicycles will save the planet, much more than betting our future on the next green car. I don’t think that any of these mobility solutions do it all on their own – if we are to be resilient, then we need a diversity of transportation options. I think green cars are needed, but I think we’re not going to get to livable cities when they represent anything near an 80% modal share.

    @Spokker, have you ever heard of synecdoche? Sometimes “the planet” means all the life that we’ve come to know and love in our planet’s biosphere. Sometimes the “White House” means the presidential administration. (Synecdoche is mostly for bigger broader things. The counter-example is, of course, something very specific – for example: uninsightful poetry-impaired humorless troll almost always just means uninsightful poetry-impaired humorless troll.)

  • Excellent article. I remain a supporter of electric cars, they are four times as energy efficient as gas-powered cars and have equivalent mpgs frequently 100 or greater. This means that even without any improvement in solar or wind power infrastructure, electric cars could cut transportation fossil fuel usage by as much as 75%. If coupled with a robust solar and wind program, this figure could approach 100%. Also, electric cars require significantly less lubricant and coolant than conventional cars, a fact which isn’t mentioned in the article.

    But the article is right on the money when it talks about the effects of car-centric infrastructure on the environment and on society. Cities that cater to massive arterial streets and freeways are simply unpleasant places to be, and no amount of enviro-friendly vehicles will change that. the article also points out the negative environmental impacts of suburbia and large roads. We need to move away from car-centric cities, while simultaneously shifting the cars we do use from gas to fully electric.

  • “(Synecdoche is mostly for bigger broader things. The counter-example is, of course, something very specific – for example: uninsightful poetry-impaired humorless troll almost always just means uninsightful poetry-impaired humorless troll.)”

    Who is trolling?

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