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My Other Car is a Bright Green City
Alex Steffen, 23 Jan 08

Today's cars are costly, dangerous and an ecological nightmare. What if the solution to the problems they create, though, has more to do with where we live than what we drive?

This is a rough draft of a long essay about why I believe building compact communities should be one of America's highest environmental priorities, and why, in fact, our obsession with building greener cars may be obscuring some fundamental aspects of the problem and some of the benefits of using land-use change as a primary sustainability solution.

It's very rough in some places. But I'd like to put it out there as an opportunity for discussion, and hopefully all you smart folks can help me make it better. So, what do you think about this issue and how can I improve this piece?



I. The Truth About Cars

Recently, I gave a talk at the IDSA conference, and, as it happened, my talk followed a presentation from the folks at Tesla, sharing the design process of their electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster.

Since I was there to talk about sustainability, and was talking to a big room full of designers, I tried to lay out how serious our environmental predicament has become, and how much we'll need to change if we want to steer clear of ecological catastrophe. Along the way, I shared a few of the reasons why I thought the Roadster, though undoubtedly cool, went nowhere near far enough to be called sustainable.

The response surprised me. After my talk, scores of people approached me or emailed me to ask, in generally polite tones, what the hell I was talking about? How could a car that gets 135 mpg-equivalent not be a major harbinger of sustainability?

Because the answer to the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we're not going to find a bright green future by looking there.

II. A Brief Digression About the Nature of the Problem

The U.S. economy, as currently configured, is destroying the planet. We are responsible for the lion's share of a great many global problems, including being both the largest historical carbon polluter and the leading source of global emissions today

In addition, for the several billion people in the developing world who are rapidly climbing out of poverty, our lifestyles are the measure of prosperity. If they replicate the American way of life several billion more times, our goose is cooked. The natural systems on which we depend cannot survive the tidal wave of pollution and ecosystem degradation it would take to enrich billions of people using current technologies, designs and lifestyle choices. And we're not going to talk people out of pursuing a more affluent life: it's insane to think that we can talk them out of pursuing affluence while we waste our way to wealth. If we're serious about saving the planet, we need to help them create better alternatives.

The single best way we can do that is to lead by example. By embracing our own models of sustainably prosperous living, we would do two things: we'd help change the cultural messaging about what prosperity really means, and we'd create some (perhaps many) of technologies and designs other countries will need to invent their own models. More importantly, we'd show that we're taking responsibility for the massive burden we're already placing on the planet, and show that we're again willing to show leadership on global issues. That alone might lead to reinvigorated global negotiations on a whole host of key problems.

So we need a one-planet America and we need it quickly. People hold differing views about what one-planet and quickly mean, but as we better grasp the nature of our predicament, it seems more and more likely that if we want to unveil our model in time for other countries to follow suit, we need to be living it by 2030, and if we take seriously the voices I find most credible on issues of climate change, ecosystem services and the like, that new model needs to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90%, drop our raw materials flows by a comparable amount, preserve ecosystem functions across broad swathes of the landscape and dramatically decrease the volume of toxic chemicals finding their way into our soil, air and water.

Lots of argument can (and will be) had about all of these goals. No one really knows for sure yet. But I am increasingly confident that these are in the right ball-park and may even prove to be moderate to conservative targets.

III. Fixating on the Tailpipe

Transportation generates over a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gases, according to the E.P.A.. A portion of that comes from moving freight around, but over 20% is personal transportation, and the vast majority of that is auto-related. In the Western states, the picture is even more severe. Researcher and ally Eric de Placesays, "More than half of all fossil fuel emissions in the WCI states come from transportation."

Our vehicle emissions are a major climate change contributor, but what comes out of the tailpipe is only a fraction of the total climate impact of driving a car, and the climate impact is in turn only a part of the environmental and social damage cars cause. Improving mileage will not fix these problems.

Don't get me wrong: we absolutely need to drive down tailpipe emissions. Teresa Zhang of UC Berkeley, in a recent environmental analysis of the average American car (PDF), found that the tailpipe emissions from the average car alone equal 50% of a one-planet footprint. "The actual footprint," she notes, "may range from 30% to over 100% of one’s ecological budget, corresponding to fuel efficiencies between 55 mpg and 12 mpg." And automotive emissions are still going up. So we can see the importance of cars that get the energy equivalent of 135 mpg.

IV. Beyond the Tailpipe

We want to drop tailpipe emissions (more on this later), but the exhaust we're spewing is really only the beginning of the story. We can't see most of the ecological and social impacts of our auto-dependence in our daily lives. And those impacts are so massive that arguing about fuel efficiency standards (especially in terms of gradual increases) fails to acknowledge what we're up against with this crisis.

First, there are the other non-exhaust direct impacts of the cars themselves. Studies appear to show that between fifteen and twenty-two percent of all the energy ever consumed by a vehicle is used in its manufacture; the sources disagree, but the procurement of the materials used to make and maintain that car (and then dispose of it at the end of its life) may mean that almost half of the direct climate impact of a car never comes out of its tailpipe. (For an excellent discussion of the difficulty of assessing these numbers, check out the comments on Erica's Prius post.)

This illustration handily demonstrates some of the inputs and impacts of the average car's lifecycle:

[[ILLO #2 to come]]

Second, lest we suffer from carbon blindness, it's worth stopping to consider all the car-related pollution that has little or nothing to do with energy used to make or move that car.

Road-building itself disrupts watershed hydrology. The crappy cars we drive today spew toxins in every direction -- motor oil leaks, lubricants burn, brakes wear away, particulates are thrown off the engine, batteries erode. Then, too, keeping roads clear involves road salt and roadside herbicides. As a leading study explains, "The Washington Department of Transportation estimates that meeting its stormwater runoff water quality and flood control requirements will cost $75 to $220 million a year in increased capital and operating costs," while the cost of the water polluted by cars in the U.S. alone

"totals $29 billion per year ... Note that this estimate excludes costs of residual runoff, shoreline damage, leaking underground storage tanks,reduced groundwater recharge and increased flooding due to pavement, so it is considered a conservative value."

With a massive network of roads and an average of more than three parking spaces per car (less in dense cities, more in the suburbs), auto-focused transportation infrastructure contributes mightily to the heat island effect, which worsens air quality and increases energy used on air conditioning. And while asphalt that uses lighter-colored rocks can offer some relief, the basic problem is the amount of paved surface itself, and cars demand the most pavement per person of any form of transportation -- (by the way, anyone got a link to one of those photos or graphs comparing the amount of pavement needed by 100 people driving, walking and taking the bus?)

But, water and ecosystem impacts aside, what about the indirect climate impacts of all that road-building? A study quoted in the 9/05 issue of the Journal of Urban Planning and Development estimates that the greenhouse gasses emitted while building and maintaining roads add an additional 45% to the average car's annual climate footprint. And we continue to build roads at a rapid rate, all across North America. Even many shrinking cities are seeing road-building on their suburban fringes increase.

V. Why Emissions Are Still Growing

The difficulty of tackling automotive climate emissions was highlighted recently here in Seattle, where, in advance of the US Conference of Mayors climate change summit, the City of Seattle released a major report detailing Seattle's progress towards attaining Kyoto. In general, Seattle should be at least a little proud, having cut emissions in all sorts of sectors. We're a long way from bright green, but we're making progress.

Except in transportation. Specifically, car and truck emissions. There, emissions actually grew. In fact, given recent and predicted growth in auto emissions, Seattle is actually losing ground on climate change. Worse still? Those numbers don't even begin to count indirect climate costs: all they count is tailpipe exhaust.

But Seattle shouldn't feel bad. Across much or North America,more people are driving more cars farther and more often:

"The number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than the population since 1980, and twice as fast as the increase in vehicle registrations... The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects total miles driven to increase by 59 percent by 2030, which the report's authors say would cancel out whatever reductions in carbon dioxide might be achieved by improving the gas mileage of cars and trucks."

All that driving takes some pretty big social tolls, too, of course. Car accidents are a leading cause of death and disabling injury in the U.S. Auto-dependence is a major contributor to obesity and other chronic illness. In addition, more and more people are finding themselves driving longer commutes: more than 3.5 million Americans now drive more than three hours a day to get to and from work, spending a month of their lives on the road each year. Meanwhile, people who live in the newer fringe-burbs are reportedly the least happiest of Americans, and the long commutes they endure are a major reason why

This is what economists call "the commuting paradox." Most people travel long distances with the idea that they'll accept the burden for something better, be it a house, salary, or school. They presume the trade-off is worth the agony. But studies show that commuters are on average much less satisfied with their lives than noncommuters. A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. People usually overestimate the value of the things they'll obtain by commuting -- more money, more material goods, more prestige -- and underestimate the benefit of what they are losing: social connections, hobbies, and health. "Commuting is a stress that doesn't pay off," says Stutzer.

We're driving farther and farther, we're less and less happy, and we're melting the ice caps. Yay!

VI. What We Build Dictates How We Get Around, and More

Our efforts to build a one-planet prosperity may involve an astonishing variety of new approaches, but in the U.S., we most need to adopt one solution that leverages almost all the others: stop sprawl and build well-designed compact communities. That's because the land-use patterns in our communities dictate not only how much we drive, but how sustainable we're able to be on all sort of fronts.

Sprawled-out land uses generate enormous amounts of automotive greenhouse gasses. A recent major study, Growing Cooler, makes the point clearly: if 60 percent of new developments were even modestly more compact, we'd emit 85 million fewer metric tons of tailpipe CO2 each year by 2030 -- as much as would be saved by raising the national mileage standards to 32 mpg.

In other words, there is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

And the amount of density the study's authors call for is extremely modest. They encourage building new projects at a density of 13 homes per acre, raising the average national density from 7.6 units per acre to 9 an acre.

To give you a sense of how gentle a goal that is, consider this: the turn-of-the-century Garden City suburbs, with their generous lawns, winding streets and tree-lined boulevards averaged 12 units an acre. New Urbanist suburbs, not particularly dense, weigh in at 15-30 units per acre. Traditional town house blocks have as many as 36 homes per acre. Parts of Manhattan, I've read, can reach 160 units per acre, but even without crowding together high-rises, many extremely livable parts of Vancouver have 40 homes per acre.

And we're getting better and better at designing density that works. We're finally rediscovering the art of placemaking, learning to build dense communities with plenty of open space, welcoming public places, thriving neighborhood retail and a tangible sense of place. Some of this is technical: understanding that surrounding neighborhood cores that have lots of people, many homes, shops and offices, with less dense but walkable residential areas can make for places that actually feel far more livable and relaxed than most conventional new suburbs (of course, compact communities are also safer). Good compact communities offer an outstanding quality of life (on that, more below).

In other words, we know that density reduces driving. We know that we're capable of building really dense new neighborhoods and even of using good design, infill development and infrastructure investments to transform existing medium-low density neighborhoods into walkable compact communities. Creating communities dense enough to save those 85 million metric tons of tailpipe emissions is (politics aside) easy. It is within our power to go much farther: to build whole metropolitan regions where the vast majority of residents live in communities that eliminate the need for daily driving, and make it possible for many people to live without private cars altogether.

VII. Deadlines and Realism

Some people make the argument that the built environment is much harder to change than the design of cars -- after all, don't we buy a new car every few years and a new home at most a few times in our lives? But the reality is not so clear.

Generally, we think of cars as things which are quickly replaced in our society, and buildings as things which rarely change. But that will not be the case over the next few decades. Because of population growth, the on-going development churn in cities (buildings remodeled or replaced, etc.), infrastructure projects and changing tastes, we'll be rebuilding half our built environment between now and 2030. Done right, that new construction could enable a complete overhaul of the American city.

This is especially true since we don't need to change every home to transform a neighborhood. Many inner-ring suburban neighborhoods, for instance, can become terrific places simply by allowing infill and converting strip-mall arterials to walkable mixed-use streets. This transition can happen in a few years.

In comparison, I've been told that it takes at least 16 years to replace 90% of our automotive fleet, and since it takes years to move a design from prototype to production, it looks likely that the cars most people in the US have available to them to drive in 2030 will not be all that different from the more efficient cars today -- I'm optimistic that we'll have at least some radically engineered, non-toxic, fully-recyclable electric cars on the road by then, but it's extremely unlikely that (barring massive government intervention) they'll be anything like the norm. We should not sit waiting for automobile design to fix this problem (again, more on this below).

There's no need to wait on building bright green cities. Better design solutions for buildings, communities and, in many cases, infrastructure either already exist or are mid-development. If we spend the next 20 years developing compact neighborhoods with green buildings and smart infrastructure, we can reduce the ecological impacts of American prosperity by jumps that are now somewhat hard to imagine.

And new innovation is exploding. Consider walkshed technologies, all those great mapping, locating and imaging tools that are helping to make substituting proximity for mobility more practical. Tools that let us map information over space have other benefits as well, though, facilitating as they do product-service systems, the dematerialization of retail impacts through home delivery, ride-sharing, greatly facilitated producer take-backs, smart energy grids, telework, even backstory activism. Taken together, these tech-powered innovations have the potential to rewrite the way urban people relate to their stuff, potentially in dramatically novel ways.

Car-sharing is the best-known and perhaps most illustrative example, but it's far from the only one. Take, for instance, Barcelona's phenomenally successful Bicing program, made feasible by cheap technology:

Once you register with the company (you have to be a resident of Barcelona, and it costs 24 euros) and activate your swipe card, you can use any one of Bicing's 1,500 bikes, which are designed to prevent people from stealing parts, and to be recognizable. The first 30 minutes of every trip are free, and you can return your bike to any Bicing location around the city (there are at least 100)--one key improvement on car-sharing services, which typically require a user to return the car to the location where he or she picked it up. Every half-hour over the initial free half-hour costs 30 eurocents, making Bicing the cheapest public transport system in Barcelona. You can keep any one bike for up to two hours, and you can always return a bike, run your errand, and grab another for no charge. The bikes seem to be very well-maintained, and everyone uses them—old people, little kids, teenagers on cell phones--everyone.

Wired urban living might very well soon evolve into a series of systems for letting us live affluent, convenient lives without actually owning a lot of things. If cities are engines for creating social connections, walkshed technologies might be said to make those connections into tools for trumping the hassle of owning stuff with the pleasure of using stuff to get the vivid experiences and deep relationships we crave. If that happens, we'll have a major leverage point to work with.

VIII. Transit Rises Again!

In well-designed, 21st century cities, we can even breathe life into some older technologies.For instance, when it comes to tranporting yourself from one place to another, it's pretty hard to beat the ecological efficiency of public transit. Transit in the U.S. tends be expensive to build, inefficient and often unpleasant. Good design and new ideas can change that, though.

Most roads in the U.S. don't pay their way: drivers are subsidized to a much larger tune than public transit riders (especially when externalized costs are counted). But it doesn't have to be that way.Road tolls, parking taxes and congestion pricing can serve a double purpose -- disincentivizing driving while generating enough funds to pay for new, comfortable and effective transit services. We can afford a serious shift towards transit, especially since oil production is peaking, and a turn to both dirtier and more expensive fossil fuel sources (coal, tar sands, etc.) seems to be the future of automotive fuels (biofuels not being much of a sustainable option in the near-medium term, for reasons we've discussed here before). Given full-cost accounting, transit actually already pays off in a great many urban settings.

Transit and smart environments might actually even help us solve the challenge of moving freight through crowded city streets. CityCargo has a brilliant scheme to use city tram or light rail tracks to distribute cargo as well, this increasing their efficiency and saving money. They've already been working on trials in the Netherlands, and (according to a conversation I had with CEO Michael Hendriks when I was in Amsterdam) apparently learning rapidly, but the basic idea is simple: freight is delivered to the edges of the city; freight trams pick up the cargo and distribute it to various hubs, where small electric trucks deliver it to the recipients. Now, it, obviously won't work where rails don't exist or where the freight is too large, but the advantages are real and it seems to me that it's a great illustration of how much innovation is possible even in traditional transit systems.

IX. Compact Communities Are More Efficient and Thus Cheaper Places to Live

When you build closer together, you also create the conditions for dramatic energy and cost savings. Researchers at Brookings note:

Transportation costs are a significant part of the average household budget. The average transportation expenditures for the median income household in the US in 2003 was 19.1%, —the highest expenditure after housing.

But that 19.1% figure is the median. How much individual households spend varies enormously, and how much we pay for transportation is determined largely by the location of our homes. People who are living in extremely dense areas, getting around mostly on foot, by bike and by transit, with the occasional use of a carshare vehicle (an increasingly popular lifestyle), can find themselves paying a small fraction of that 19.1%.

What's more, the public burdens created by car-free or car-light lifestyles are so minimal that some municipalities (like Seattle), are actually finding that it makes good fiscal sense to encourage people to give up their cars by subsidizing transit passes and car-sharing memberships.

People in compact urban areas also pay substantially less in other energy costs. As we've discussed frequently before, dense neighborhoods are far more energy efficient than even "green" sprawl already and all the innovation trends seem to me to benefit compact development. Carbon taxes can incentivize even more energy-efficient developments as they may soon in Portland.

Density is not just green, it's blue. Studies show that urban dwellers tend not only to use less water overall, but generate less water runoff per person:

[T]he study found that higher-density scenarios generate less storm water runoff per house at all scales - one acre, lot, and watershed - and time series build-out examples. For the same amount of development, the EPA says, higher-density development produces less runoff and less impervious cover than low-density development. For a given amount of growth, the agency found, lower-density development impacts more of the watershed.

Given that water supply and water integrity are huge issues now, and that both the pumping of water from distant sources and the treatment and control of storm water are not inconsequential contributors to our climate emissions as a nation, this is worth paying attention to.

Finally, there's another angle here that we shouldn't be too delicate to mention: compact communities are better able to support the kinds of distributed infrastructure that lends itself to neighborhood survivability and disaster resilience. Long Emergency fantasies of small-town independence are just that -- fantasies, especially when overlaid on big-lot suburbs of the exurban fringe. There are very few systemic advantages and many liabilities out in McMansion-land, whereas walkable communities with distributed infrastructure and close proximity to emergency services can actually offer quite a bit of resilience. But enough about that.

[[The usual retort to these common-sense arguments is that far-flung suburbs offer such a superior quality of life that we'll never curb sprawl or pry commuters out of their cars, but, even more to the point, the existence of affluent, car-dependent, large-lot suburbs is just the voice of the people, speaking out their desires. Any opposition to its unhindered continuation is not only government interference in the free market, such people (usually development lobbies and right-wing think tanks) say, it's downright social engineering.

[[Which is nonsense, of course. The upper-middle class American McMansion suburb is one of the most socially engineered and publicly subsidized settlement patterns on the Earth. I won't bother to go into the arguments here, since a whole flotilla of books, reports, and journalistic investigations has flayed the "free market choice" talking point alive. If you're interested, you can go look it up.]]

X. Tailpipe solutions

At first glance, prospects for a green car look promising. But when we look deeper, we begin to see that there are severe limits to how far we can go with "personal mobility upgrades", and how fast we can get there.

I'm deeply skeptical of the possibility of a techno-fix here, but I'm going to do my best to act like a believer and try to spin a scenario in which we come up with a green car.

Here's what we need: a very-low carbon vehicle, with a rapidly shrinking materials and toxics footprint, that reduces rather than increases the need for purely automotive infrastructure (e.g., parking space, freeways), and that, ideally, reduces the cost burden on regular people.

To my mind, the only green car approach that has a chance of reducing its carbon footprint enough is the plug-in hybrid (or "pluggie" as I like to think of it).

The arguments are many and complex, and there are a lot of uncertainties. As Alan Durning reminds us:

"Plug-in hybrid-electric cars hold great promise, as long as we can fix the laws. And the technology. Oh, and the price. None of those fixes are gimmes. Without the first—and specifically, without a legal cap on greenhouse gases—plug-ins could actually do more harm than good. And without the second two fixes—working technology and competitive prices—plug-ins won’t spread beyond the Hollywood set."

These are all huge challenges. That said, I think Joseph Romm sums it up well enough for scrimmage here when he says:

Transportation is the toughest sector in which to achieve deep carbon emissions reductions. Of the three major alternative fuels that could plausibly provide a low-carbon substitute for a significant amount of petroleum:

* I am excited about the near-term reality (next five years) of plug in hybrids and electric cars.
* I am hopeful that cellulosic biofuels could be a medium-term strategy rather than a long-term one, especially for long-distance travel by air, sea, and land (which batteries probably can't handle).
* I am increasingly convinced hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end...

There are a lot of reasons to love pluggies. (Note to self: Stop trying to make pluggies happen!) The best, though, is that plug-ins are ideally suited for creating a distributed vehicle-to-grid system.

With vehicle-to-grid systems, our cars not only recharge themselves from a smart-grid, they become the back-up storage batteries for that grid, shaving off the peak demand that (the coal lobby says) demands we build a fleet of new and dirty coal power plants. The operative concept here is "smart garages" where our plug-in hybrid electrics recharge when not in use, offering increased storage capacity to the grid and thus lowering the amount of generation capacity power companies need to keep on hand for the peak surges. In other words, enough plug-in cars could actually reduce power company emissions. It could also save the utility money: RMI estimates that reduction in peak-demand to be worth about $600 a car!

And, of course, things get even more interesting if the smart grid the cars are plugged into includes significant amounts of distributed energy, which I am confident is going to continue to look like a better and better investment in places with abundant sunshine, regular winds and the like. (For more on the whole vehicle-to-grid concept, it's worth watching the video The Smart Garage: The Fleet Meets the Grid in a Carbon Constrained World.) Check out the graph:

But, remember, this option demands a set of technologies that is at best new and at worst not available; a massive shift towards renewable energy; the development of more distributed energy; the recreation of electrical utilities around the country to support smart grids and net metering; and finding some way to swap out cars more quickly that the current 16-year cycle -- without just sending those cars to the developing world!

And the pollution from a car isn't limited to its emissions and leakages. That new car smell? Toxic. We currently have no replacements for most of the bad components, and while green chemistry appears from casual observation to be asking some great questions about non-harmful industrial lubricants and the like, and nanotechnology I'm told, may well deliver more precise and thus less polluting engines, filters, bearings, etc., we are still a long way from a non-toxic car or any kind.

We don't appear to be much closer to a truly recyclable car. William McDonough & Michael Braungart articulate the challenge thus:

"Building a truly sustainable automobile industry means developing closed-loop systems for the manufacturing and re-utilization of auto parts. In Europe, the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive, which makes manufacturers responsible for automotive materials, is encouraging companies to consider design for disassembly and effective resource recovery more seriously. Cradle-to-cradle systems, in which materials either go back to industry or safely back to the soil, are built for effective resource recovery. In such a system, each part of every car is either returned to the soil or recovered and reused in the assembly of new cars, generating extraordinary productivity and consistent employment."

The best try of which I'm aware is the Model U, McDonough's collaboration with Ford, which is an interesting start, but a long, long way from a closed-loop car. (If anyone a better example, by the way, I'd love a pointer.)

That said, there are a bunch of smart folks hard at work on these issues, and some enormous stakes are being laid. Wired has a truly excellent story describing the Automotive X-Prize, $10M for the winner of a race between 100-mpg prototype cars. And some pretty exciting designs are already on the way, cars that are definitely a big step forward, even if not a giant leap. For instance, "Aptera plans to introduce its vehicle — a three-wheeled electric two-seater with a 120-mile range and room in back for a surfboard — by year's end. Price tag: $26,000 to $29,000."

Some real wildcards are in play as well, like the collaborative efforts of the Vehicle Design Summit, whose mission is

[T]he global consortium will design, build and bring to market the VDS Vision 200, a hyper-efficient 4-6 passenger vehicle earmarked for India that will demonstrate a 95% reduction in embodied energy, materials and toxicity from cradle-to-cradle-to-grave.

They claim they'll have the whole thing on the streets by August. I'm really skeptical of that timeline (though fully supportive of the goal). If we can, in fact get such a car on the streets quickly, then we have more room for a variety of transportation/land-use approaches. However, citing the desire to build such a car as evidence that we don't need to act on the basis of current reality seems to me to be gambling with the future, a sort of transportation hail-mary.

We can see a sort of ecological footprint Pascal's wager here: if we decide not to change our urban form and green cars arrive in time (and all the other associated techno-fixes work out), we experience some limited gains, mostly for people who now lead car-dependent lives and don't have to change; if we don't change urban form and they don't arrive, we've just willed our descendants a coupe thousand years of climate chaos.

XI. What If There Is No Real Downside?

On the other hand, what if we do change our urban form? I think whether or not green cars arrive, building bright green cities is a winning strategy: if the cars don't arrive, land-use change is clearly needed to save our bacon; if they do arrive, they might well fit quite nicely into the new fabric of sustainable urban life, and we're all better off for it -- the air's that much cleaner, the grid that much smarter, our economic advantage in clean technology that much greater.

Most arguments against land-use change presume that building compact communities is a trade-off; that investing in getting walkable, denser neighborhoods, we lose some or a lot of our affluence or quality of life. What if that's not true, though? What if the gains actually far outweigh the costs not only in ecological and fiscal terms, but in lifestyle and prosperity terms as well? I think that's the case.

I believe that green compact communities, smaller well-built homes, walkable streets and smart infrastructure can actually offer a far better quality of life than living in McMansion hintersprawl in purely material terms: more comfort, more security, more true prosperity. But even more to the point, I believe they offer all sorts of non-materialistic but extremely real benefits that suburbs cannot. Opponents of smart growth talk about sacrificing our way of life -- but it's not a sacrifice if what you get in exchange is superior.

Many people agree with me. Development expert Christopher B. Leinberger insists that we already have a market in which the majority of consumers would prefer to live in compact communities, and that, in fact, we are suffering a shortage of the kind of homes they want: smaller homes in more walkable neighborhoods.

Given the 50 years of negative branding cities have gotten in American popular media -- you know, gritty urban scenes of despair, full of pollution, political corruption and crazy black men -- I suspect that there's a lot more persuasion possible here. I suspect that the vast majority of Americans would, given a chance to see the merits of both in a clear light and knowing how much is at stake, happily live urban lives or work to transform their existing communities into more livable, sustainable places.

I think we need to not be ashamed to note that Sarah Susanka's probably right when she says, "We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space. Instead of thinking about the quality of the spaces we live in, we tend to focus on quantity. But a house is so much more than its size and volume, neither of which has anything to do with comfort."

Just as a home is more than the building in which it resides, a life is more than the stuff we pile up around it. We all know this to be true. And it may just be that in building bright green cities we do more than help avert a monstrous disaster for which we are larger responsible, that in fact we may find that the fruit of our labors to transform our footprints is, in fact, to transform ourselves, and we might just awaken on the other side of this fight to find ourselves prosperously at home in the sort of communities we thought lost forever, leading more creative, connected and carefree lives.

(Illustration of Aptera from Wired article cited above.)

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Alex, I love it! Of course I haven't read it carefully yet, but the overall picture on a quick scan is exactly right. Hope to have more comments later, thanks.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 24 Jan 08

Jeez as someone that founded a carbon offset company, I find little fault with the thesis -- long term sustainability must reduce the need for carbon emissions in the first place. And reducing

SanFrancisco style density (yes you can have a little yard, or a shared yard) is totally livable

Another tidbit to consider, the financial and environmental paybacks for things like plug ins actually go down as you reduce your transportation needs. Celebrate the 1,000 mile a year old car hanging out in a dense neighborhood.

Posted by: Tom Arnold on 24 Jan 08

I totally agree with the basic premise of this article. It is already a reality in our world that population of developed/developing countries are concentrated in big cities. How we design or redesign our cities to be more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists can drastically cut down on the pollution from automobiles.

Some U.S. commuters routinely spend 1-2 hours daily on the road. Average people can walk a mile in 20 minutes easily. It is conceivable that people can walk, instead of drive, to their destination if the distance is less than 3 miles, and the roadway is relatively safe and direct. Cities like San Francisco already have a good start.

I also couldn't help but think of all the futuristic landscape numerous artists envisioned. Most of them have gleaming high rises surrounded by pastoral landscape. There must be some wisdom in leaving our open space as pristine as possible, instead of covering them up with freeways and on-ramps.

Posted by: Linda on 24 Jan 08

here's that image that you were looking for...

Posted by: Brice Maryman on 24 Jan 08

This essay serves as an excellent example of the sort of 'light to bright' education that's needed at 'the end of the beginning' to address the 'what do we do now?' syndrome.

It is meaty stuff and, if this is the rough draft, the final version should be nominated for something!

My suggestions have more to do with layout than content. After starting with what needs to be done I would probably then discuss the pros and cons of roadster-like vehicles. As you say, they're certainly cool, but having discussed them in the context of what needs to be done, you can then lead into why they're missing the main point (ie that such fuel efficient eco-friendly cars only partly offset our eco-unfriendly lifestyles and commute patterns), which leads you into a discussion of your 'other car' (ie the benefits and attainability of a bright green city).

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 24 Jan 08

Hi Alex,

You were looking for nifty pictures of how much space people on the move use in bus, car, mass transit? I saw this in one of the worldchanging comments bar ... no credit to me, but thought you might want to take a look and use it ...

One more thought - one of the main "culprits" in the increasing use of space per capita is...ta da!!!: the private automobile. There's a great set of images on page 48 of the new GEO4 report
that illustrate the amount of space required to transport the same number of people by car, bus and bicycle.

Posted by: Ainslie Kincross on October 30, 2007 2:10 PM

.... on another note, Asian cities like the one I live in, Singapore, are showing how to build green, multicultural, high density, clean liveable neighborhoods with good mass transport (no to cars!) with jobs, Universities, museums etc the whole mix ... in fact in Singapore we are having the world cities summit in June I think, check out ...

Posted by: Chor Pharn on 24 Jan 08

There is another photo of people driving, bicycling and taking the bus:

Posted by: Mark Vanderbeeken on 25 Jan 08

The vehicle emmissions chart for the bay area is misleading. You see that blue-red contrast between the urban and suburban areas and it at first appears like a huge difference. But in fact, it is only a difference of "9" and "11.5"! So even if we revolutionized our way of life, emmissions would still be approximately the same! The 2.5 number is dark blue-- but there is no dark blue on the graph, so that's a non-sequeter. Seems like we're doomed...
If only there was a source of mass energy that was virtually carbon free, we would be saved. O wait, there is! That's why France has the cleanest air of any nation in the industrialized world!

Posted by: Matt on 25 Jan 08

Ok, had a chance for a more careful read now. Still a great article; I hope you can get the final version in as widely read a forum as possible!

A few points:
* I think the most important point is the time-scale for change that is possible. How much can suburban landscape change in 10 years? Turning strip malls into walkable centers can be done, but that's just one piece. It has to at least be combined with better public transportation in the suburbs. Both of those things will involve capital expenditures and short-term releases of CO2 in the effort to build them up, even with their clear benefits in the long run; probably should try to quantify.

* Another benefit to higher density is the larger potential for electrification of transportation: distances needed to travel are shorter, electrified public transit works better, and you need a smaller distribution network for electric recharging. That moves emissions from the tail pipe to electric generators, where we can move ahead with whatever makes most sense to cut CO2 (renewables or nuclear).

* One central question remaining, I think, is the degree to which varying degrees of urbanization works. The Growing Cooler study shows benefits even at 13 per acre, but there are clearly additional benefits at higher density - can we get numbers, and think about a means to encourage what will do the most?

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 25 Jan 08

Great thoughts. Clearly the best we for us to reduce emissions is to promote high density living. Couple thoughts to add. Multi-unit buildings have shared walls which lowers energy use. And compact cities allow for not only shorter drive times but less daily trips.

Posted by: daver on 25 Jan 08

Also most new car owners of the future will be living in emerging mega-cities, where people may drive fewer places and shorter distances, so an urban green car with an urban green way of life could really work for them.

Posted by: Jen on 25 Jan 08

Alex, I completely agree--except I would add that much stronger incentives will be needed to get people out of "McMansion land" and into cities. Branding is no longer as much of an issue as it used to be--cities are increasingly the places people strive to live. The bigger issues now are affordability and family-friendliness. Cities need affordable (and family-friendly) housing, grocery stores, public transportation, schools, and parks before families will live in them--until cities have that infrastructure, suburbia will always be a more appealing option.

Posted by: ECB on 25 Jan 08


This is great! And you hit the heart of the work I am actively doing. So this is a long email with lots of comments. I'm sure it isn't quite what you had in mind.

While I very much like your emphasis to stop the talk about "what we drive," I quibble a bit about the solution being only "where we live." Think about Beijing and Shanghai -- some of the most dense cities in the world where people are buying up cars as fast as they can afford them.

I neglected to invite you to the blog I've been writing for the last 4 months on these topics. I believe that while we must have the cities you describe, we must also price driving and parking accurately so that we, as rational beings, can rationally choose between driving, walking, biking, transit. When the pricing signals are screwed up, the wrong choice becomes the preferred choice.

I.e. My family lives in just such a city and neighborhood (Cambridge MA near transit stop) as you describe. My husband and 14 yr took their bikes on the commuter train to get the the suburban rock gym outside of Boston. It took them 55min and cost $20. By car it is 35 min and "just the cost of gas." In the Zipcar model where you pay by the hour, the transit becomes a contender. But in a world where we pay appropriate user fees to cover road maintenance, congestion pricing, carbon taxes, accurate parking rates, real prices for fossil fuel (and hopefully all in real dynamic time), every decision about whether to drive or take some alternative mode would be dramatically different.

My blogs on this are here:

I think if we get the pricing right, the decision about where to build, shop, work, live all fall into place. We will demand the type of environments you describe. This issue is what I spent my Fellowship year at Harvard thinking about and this is where I came out. Correct pricing is the fastest, shortest way to overcome all the jurisdictional, zoning, and different building incentives that complicate fixing the tendency to sprawl.

OK, onto your blog entry -- which I want to repeat is EXACTLY where my speaking engagements take me using some different numbers than yours. I gave a talk last night and your words echo mine. Here are some responses below:

"if everyone of those billions....our goose is cooked"..I would put this another way. "even if we alone continue on this path, let alone anyone else joining us, our goose is cooked." or something like that.

Timeframe: my talks start with and focus everyone on the next two-three years. This is where the action lies. We've got to get worldwide co2 emissions tipped by 2011 for a good chance of averting catastrophic effects. More on this can be found in my blog entry here:
I'm attaching the science slides I've thrown together to bring this point home (I don't use them when I talk). I think your blog is going to talk about major infrastructure changes that do need to get underway for 2030 goals, but right now, whenever I get a chance, I tell people that yes we need significant reductions by 2030 and 2050 and we need to start today on the infrastructure and investment changes that need 5-25 years to unfold, BUT/AND we have to focus on making meaningful reductions within next 2-3 years, meaning behavior change. A nice slide I created to illustrate this point can be found here:

I'm hoping to work with state of MA on a public educaiton campaign and near term goals for this state...I'm enclosed another short slide set that shows when infrastructure that we start today will play out in signficant CO2 reductions.

Most recent numbers I have put transportation at 32% of us CO2 emissions, and our cars at 20%. Re your math, I've used another: our 5% of world population produces 25% of world CO2, and our cars are 20% of that 25% (5% of world's emissions)-- this means that just our driving is equal to our population's share of emissions, before we have grown anything to eat, or warmed or illuminated ourselves.

Alex!!! this blog is on the topics I have been spending all my time one, and so I'm going to attach another slide on the enumeration other miseries cars bring, and then stop here. Let you digest, and tell me if you are wanting this much feedback. I'm feelling like I am overwhelming you.

I'm glad you are doing this,


Posted by: Robin Chase on 25 Jan 08

"(by the way, anyone got a link to one of those photos or graphs comparing the amount of pavement needed by 100 people driving, walking and taking the bus?)"

Here you go:

You are welcome to use these photos, but please attribute them to the website.

Posted by: Andrew E on 25 Jan 08

Nicely thought out Alex. You might want to check out and Claude Lewenz's book "How to Build a Village".
An interesting note is that the twenty years of research Claude did in bringing out this concept was initially spurred by a desire to qualify what living arrangements make for the happiest citizens. The amazing thing about this idea is that it is totally doable on a local scale. Your City Council holds the key to make this happen, and is called Zoning Laws! Be or find a developer who will push for it. We can change the world one town at a time.

Posted by: Gregory Yurash on 25 Jan 08

Thank you Alex! I'm so tired of this green car bull. You touch on some of my favorite reasons why I'm tired of the promotion of green cars, but overemphasize, in my opinion, the environmental reasons and downplay the social ones. Why is global warming so bad? It's really not because the earth can't handle it. The reason I want to prevent the most extreme scenarios of global warming is because human beings will suffer, worse than they already are.

Looked at this way, it focuses my efforts related to global warming. People's suffering today is due not to environmental problems but social ones. We have enough food, and housing, and steel, and copper; we just don't distribute it fairly. The rich recovered from Hurricane Katrina quite well; the poor have not. We have enough energy; we just don't distribute it fairly. We have enough water; we just don't distribute it fairly.

If we solve the problem of inequitable distribution of resources, we'll be in a good position to protect people from suffering caused by global warming, not to mention eliminate the divisions between peoples that prevent us from agreeing on stronger measures to prevent the worst of global warming.

There are fewer than 600 million automobiles on Earth, for some 6.6 billion people. Car ownership, regardless of the type of car, is itself a symptom of a grave and severe maldistribution of resources. Measures to support car-free living such as those you mention in the article not only support living patterns that reduce global warming, they also help redress the inequitable redistribution of wealth. Tax breaks and other incentives to encourage rich people to make smarter decisions when buying their cars exacerbate the disparity in wealth and should be opposed. If the government wants to hand out tax breaks, start with car-free people!

Posted by: Dave Snyder on 25 Jan 08

Alex, great start on putting "Plan B 3.0" into practical action. Everyone knows the benefits of higher density. The only things standing in the way are
2) Production builders

I like the idea of a future car being "no car." If more people loved the place they lived, and if we as a society worked together more on collaborative projects (rebuilding neighborhoods, cities) then I'm sure your ideas would get more traction.

As it is, most are worried about paying their bills and work and immediately family. So changing corporate culture is going to have to be part of this too.


Posted by: Tim G. on 25 Jan 08

Nicely done, Alex. Really good stuff.

I'm just about to leave on vacation, so I apologize for my superficial remarks here. In the interest of time, I'm just going to make a couple of quick points:

1. "...when it comes to tranporting yourself from one place to another, it's pretty hard to beat the ecological efficiency of public transit." Strictly speaking, this isn't really true. A full passenger car can be more fuel efficient than a full bus. (In fact, a half-full SUV competes with the avg occupancy bus. Annoying, I know -- but that's me!) Later, I can share with you the details and analysis. Sightline will soon publish some detailed new charts on this stuff.

2. My WCI fact is true, but it's also misleading in this context because it doesn't include Wyoming and some other Western states where the transportation emissions share is much much lower than on the West Coast.

3. You should check out as one instance of the emerging revolution in thinking.

4. Consider this fun fact: "You save more fuel switching from a 13 to 17 mpg car than switching from a 50 to 500 mpg car." This is my big huge obsession these days.

The point here is that MPG is a TERRIBLE HORRIBLE GOOD FER NOTHING GAWDAWFUL measurement. It doesn't mean what we think it does. The correct measure is Canadian style: gallons per mile (or liters per kilometer). Among other things, MPG leads us to obsess about super-efficient vehicles. But because of the counterintuitive reciprocal involved in MPG, all of the real fuel saving are at the low end. There's a vanishingly small difference between a Prius and that magic new Tesla. (Over 1000 miles, the Tesla would save less than 13 gallons of fuel. That's not nothing, but the difference between a Durango and Tacoma is more than twice as big -- and they're both incredibly crappy.)

Where I'm going is that we get all of our ginormous efficiencies at the low end. So we shouldn't worry so much about tomorrow's inventions; but we should worry a lot about today's laws, policies, and incentives. Reducing VMTs -- and good urban planning does that -- is really where it's at. (Also, boosting minimum standards.) Hyper-efficient cars are a dangerous mirage.

Please see my post here for a full explanation and the math:

Okay, that's it for now.

Rock on!


Posted by: Eric de Place on 25 Jan 08

Well argued - and I'm a 'car guy' who started his obsession in the 70s.
To your point "...the exhaust we're spewing is really only the beginning of the story."
I'd suggest its actually the middle. Before it is the embodied energy of the car itself (not to mention the unsustainable activities to mine and manufacture the raw materials), and after it is disposal. And as you say wrapped around all that is the infrastructure and the death and destruction caused by our obsession with the car.
OK, gotta run...have to get in the car and drive halfway across town to pick up my daughter from school...

Posted by: David Fox on 25 Jan 08

It's heartening that more people are understanding the points that you made.

I have just finished reading Richard Registers's "Ecocities- Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature". He writes a lot about the dependence on the auto and not only environmental concerns but social isolation. He is one of the organizers of the Ecocities World Summit in SF this April.

Thanks, Kundan

Posted by: Kundan Ewan on 25 Jan 08

Wow, great article. Thanks for all that work. As much as I lust after the latest electric vehicles, I can't deny that the real solution to our transportation mess does not lie in vehicle design.

Posted by: greensolutions on 25 Jan 08

Thanks for posting this in unfinished form. The conversation is a valuable result, not just the final draft essay.

I might suggest that wherever you mention higher densities, that you couple it with "a pedestrian-scaled mix of uses". There are places where high density is still all residential, and the benefits in reduced driving are much lower.

The other big issue that this coupling brings into play is the scale of retail, the fact that the draw area for a typical grocery store is too big for pedestrians. The cheap trucking that forms the basis of the big box business model is a big puzzle piece in our current land use and energy use pattern. Of course, reforming this supply system will also benefit local communities and local economies.

Posted by: Roy on 26 Jan 08

Alex, you know I'm behind you 95% on this entry. Part of that 5% skepticism is your idea that:

You talk about a Pascal's wager that says if we're able to figure out the green car thing in time, we'll be all set, but if we don't the downside is so terrible we're crazy to ignore it.

That best-case future scenario doesn't exist if we hold our car usage patterns constant and just swap out the car.

POPULATION GROWTH AND URBANIZATION: Growing populations and increased urbanization mean that more than 70% of the world's population will be living in dense urban areas. The value of physical space (if we finally get around to pricing it correctly) will not support the one adult-one car world we have in America today. [Actually, since 2002, we have a 1.1 to 1 car:drivers ratio in this country). Space to actually move those cars between expensive parking spaces is even more valuable. Moving humans that consume maybe 4 square feet of space in metal/plastic boxes that require 120 sq feet of space is impossible, even if we reduce the car dimensions to 70 sq feet, we just don't have enough room.

AGING WORLD POPULATIONS. Another near-term problem with a car dependent society that you haven't mentioned yet, is the aging population. Already, 50% of the US population can't drive or doesn't own a car. That percent will be moving toward 65% over the next 25 years. If we don't offer non-car mobility options that work for the elderly, we'll have to be driving them around everywhere which is going to make an enormous strain on our city, county, state, and federal budgets.

ECONOMIC: Today, Americans spend 18% of their income on their car. The future holds rising road tolls for every mile driven, congestion pricing, realistic parking rates, carbon taxes -- all of which will push that 18% up. Are we really ready to continue to build a society in which one out of every 4 or 5 dollars earned goes toward necessary mobility? Think about what important things are being squeezed out of our budgets to accommodate that "necessity."

Posted by: Robin Chase on 26 Jan 08

Re-enforcing a comment made way above. We need to focus more on passenger-miles-to-the-gallon (and per square foot of space) if we are going to come out with better solutions.

And my most visionary mobility friends tell me to talk more about access and not travel at all.

But this is a car-related piece you are writing. So, think passenger miles per gallon and space, and I think you'll find the car-part of our mobiity needs will be satisfied by a green carsharing vehicle that is filled to capacity using ridesharing.


Posted by: Robin Chase on 26 Jan 08

A great paper, sir, and commendably comprehensive compared to the usual narrow view of these matters. There's a Sustainable Mobility Conference Feb 5-8 at Art Center College in Pasadena. It costs a lot to attend, but this paper should be made available to attendees. Or are you going to be there as a speaker? Art center hatches many of the World's auto designers. They are just now waking up to the real situation, and needs all the help they can get.

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 26 Jan 08

A great paper, sir, and commendably comprehensive compared to the usual narrow view of these matters. There's a Sustainable Mobility Conference Feb 5-8 at Art Center College in Pasadena. It costs a lot to attend, but this paper should be made available to attendees. Or are you going to be there as a speaker? Art center hatches many of the World's auto designers. They are just now waking up to the real situation, and needs all the help they can get.

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 26 Jan 08

Thanks for all the amazing comments -- and keep 'em coming! Really great stuff to think about.

I'll respond Tuesday in a more detailed way.

Sidenote to Jay: Yes, thanks, I know about Systems, Cities and Sustainable Mobility Conference. In fact, I'm the opening keynote speaker, and part of my wanting to finish a draft of this piece is to knock my thoughts into shape for that talk.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 26 Jan 08

I am a thirty year environmentalist, having designed the 2nd Greenpeace anti-sealhunt poster in 1977 and having started a company in the 1980's called Greenbuilt Environmental Building Products & Design Services with two environmental pioneers Duncan Taylor and Doug Patterson. Today I am working on sustainable eco designs for many projects the largest of which is 'The Villages of Loreto Bay' a New Urbanist planned, walkable resort and wellness community on the Baja in Mexico.
Your points are brilliant in that they focus on real solutions as opposed to the GreenWashing and GreenScaping that is sweeping the continent and absolving consciences without making substantive change.
Yes we actually need completely new models of living (possibly based on historic models with a redefinition for today) where walking, community, sustainability and general wellness of ourselves and our environment will be the paradigms. Last year after 'Gaining Ground' a sustainable leadership summit in Victoria, BC I coined a term "Indigenous Gardeners" for what i believe we all need to become, which is stewards of the planet with a respect for nature and our role in it, modelled on healthy & traditional indigenous cultures.
I have a presentation entitled Why Go Green Now which will be given at Design NorthWest Feb 14th, in Vancouver, which is happening on a day that I like as it will be my valentine to our planet, our home.
I enjoyed finding out about you, your publication and your thoughts through Spark on CBC. I am including slides from environmental friends whio are answering two questions for me:
1. What personal green habit do you have which you consider most important?
2. What professional or activist environmental eveny that you have been involved in do you consider most significant?
If you would like to answer these and include graphics or images< i will be happy to include you as an important voice in this most important of topics. This is our World War, and we need to win. JC Scott, Victoria, BC Jan 26th, 2008

Posted by: JC Scott on 26 Jan 08

Responding mainly to Dave's comment - by all means build smart, accessible cities that let people walk in their local community instead of spending 10 hours+ a week locked in a metal box, therefore making everyone better off, in the broadest sense of the term. But I'd say welcoming, usable sub-metropolitan communities are going to suffer exactly the same price competition for the centre of town. Look at New York, or London, or Singapore - nice central districts with an accessible community are very expensive, and most commuters with families live further out because it's out of their budget. There is then another type of fairly rich long distance commuters coming from rural or rural-ized areas further out (eg the Home Counties around London).

I suspect this is driven by the availability of the resource involved - land near interesting city centres. It becomes more of a competition for those resources, which in turn means you'll get a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect instead of a true redistribution.

Other Green innovations would be different, eg sorting out Beijing's air pollution would probably benefit the poor more than the rich.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 26 Jan 08

This is a great piece, Alex, it wants to be a book (or a series of commentaries) and deserves wider exposure. Would be great to see auto "fuel economy" labelling that took into account the manufacturing and life-cycle energy cost so that consumers could be gently taught to see beyond MPG. Once that happened, a lot of people would become more susceptible to thinking about community design, the true costs of roads, etc. You're on a good roll here.

Posted by: Ted on 27 Jan 08

I think you definitely have some good material here. I feel so inspired! I would agree with the comments about just needing some organizing and transition work -- but you probably already know that. I would spice up the lead and add a directional intro, a reader road map if you will. It might also be cool to include a resources section, say some links to your top three fav businesses, orgs, info sites, etc.

Posted by: Sarah Kuck on 27 Jan 08

Sorry So Long!
First, great piece; it’s well written, and badly needed. You continue to be one of the most articulate voices on the web for sustainability – the reality, not the nice idea.

I’d begin with the exciting new car-of-the-future, personally. What’s being done, what the promise is… and then backtrack. Follow with the question – why do we need new cars? Because there are all these problems (DUH!), right? Well, then – it’s reasonable to ask whether the new cars will solve the problems, or even come close. The answer – no – may surprise people. Then you can explain yourself. The problems are too big for car technology to solve. A logical ending would be to explain what role cars may have in this future you’re encouraging – plug-ins, carsharing, etc. with the final point that the (largely) car-free future could be a better one.

The bit on the ‘commuting paradox’ and the ‘free market choice’ fallacy can be tightened and combined with the ‘grim urbanism’ bit (which is being replaced these days with ‘grim suburbia’, btw) into one section on the relationship between tax law, housing affordability, schools, and the crime/ smart growth relationship.
Put simply: in order to bring cities into a sustainable density (required to lower VMT and free people from the tyranny of long commutes) the city must become more than livable, it must become wonderful.

The section on units per acre, etc. could probably be tightened down to the main point, made again near the end of the essay, that the markets exist (or living downtown wouldn’t be so expensive), and if the designs are done right, these are places with high quality of life (placemaking). This could be joined to the above section on what it would take, and the libertarian bulls**t about choice.

Section on timeline/ deadlines: if we’re going to densify, things will have to be rebuilt anyway, not counting population growth. Nearly all of the expected growth in the next 30 years (+/- 100 m people) will go into 10 megaregions – all urbanized. Ed Mazria at Architecture 2030 has some nice figures on the square feet of housing that will be built in the next 20 years.

When discussing cars, we’re talking about two different things – you hint at this, but may want to make it overt, to clarify your argument.
One is cars themselves, and the problems they cause – air pollution, GHG emissions, accidents, etc.
Two is the supporting infrastructure, and the problems *that* causes – the divided cities, heat island, wasted space, etc.
Connections abound, of course, and your section on water pollution from runoff highlights this nicely.

*We are trying to solve a systemic problem by addressing only one part of the system – sure to fail.*
LA serves as an instructive example of this: at my work we are pushing for major infill and redevelopment, greater densities, etc. in the city’s core. People fight like hell against it for one reason: increases in population = increases in traffic. This is because everyone here drives (I know, I know, all you LA people, it’s not really “everyone” – just most people). So the equation needs to change from more people = more cars, to more people = less cars (people in Pasadena will get this instinctively). The *density reduces driving* argument is only true when the other pieces are also in place! This is a central tenet behind the bright green city, but it requires a level of civic and professional participation and cooperation seldom seen in the US.

A Missing Piece (imo):
As you say, cars are not the problem, so they cannot be the solution. They are a response to other forces, and shifting those is far more difficult – in fact, downright Herculean. You again hint at, but do not make explicit, the layers under the layers of your recommended solutions. It requires, as you point out, new transit (which requires new thinking and new policy at the federal level to shift funding); it requires good urban design (which requires developers and local politicians to understand urban design); it requires affordable housing and good schools, both in short supply in urban centers (which require new tax structures for school funding, and new tax structures for urban v suburban housing). Now, most of the taxes mentioned are federal, schools are their own districts with their own boards, municipalities have land use and zoning/ code authority, while transportation is county & regional, and developers are private.

*The single biggest piece to the bright green city is shifting the ‘silo’ mentality in which pieces of the system are tweaked without regard to the function of the system itself. New governance, funding, and development structures are required.*

As you say, we don’t have much time, but it will take time. In the interim, we still need solutions. One of the best is the electric car, and the Tesla makes that car exciting and sexy – it could help usher in the era of fully sustainable automobiles, for eventual use in car-sharing, corporate and city fleets, rental cars, etc. – all the uses to which cars will be put, even in the bright green city.

Other brief thoughts:
“And we're not going to talk people out of pursuing a more affluent life: it's insane to think that we can talk them out of pursuing affluence while we waste our way to wealth.”
Not only insane(ly unrealistic), but highly immoral. We would have to deliberately (militarily) hold them in poverty – not to say we haven’t done it before.

“…we may find… ourselves prosperously at home in the sort of communities we thought lost forever, leading more creative, connected and carefree lives.”
This is the key! Life without cars could be better!

Posted by: justus on 28 Jan 08

"I believe that green compact communities, smaller well-built homes, walkable streets and smart infrastructure can actually offer a far better quality of life than living in McMansion hintersprawl in purely material terms: more comfort, more security, more true prosperity. " ...You can add more FREEDOM, as well, including more freedom of movement for everyone (not just for those who can own/drive cars). I just spent 5 months living in Maastricht, the Netherlands, where everything is designed for bikes and pedestrians, with buses and trains as options for longer trips. The amazing thing to me was not so much that I could go anywhere without ever needing a car, but that the bike lanes and pedestrian zones got so much use from disabled people in wheelchairs, elderly folks in little electric carts, children -- people who in our culture would be shut in all the time waiting for someone to give them a ride somewhere. The cost in IMMOBILITY of our emphasis on personal (auto)mobility is rarely figured into calculations about standard of living/quality of life, maybe because the immobilized constituencies are so invisible in our society. Anyway, I strongly advocate adding the "freedom" dimension to arguments for density; sprawl is often associated with a kind of libertarian ideal, but it does not promote liberty.

Posted by: Rachel May on 28 Jan 08

The general statement: that the problem is our real estate design paradigm, and not our cars, is unassailably correct. It's a point that other people have made, and a point that can certainly stand to be made again, as eloquently and publicly as possible.

But getting people to change their values, their behavior, and what they consider "normal", is hard. Really hard. It doesn't matter if the problem is clearly stated, and the solution is relatively straightforward. Simple is different from easy.

How do you motivate billions of people to change what they want, to change their goals and aspirations, to change their daily behavioral patterns? I desperately want to believe that it's possible for us to do something in advance, to fix the problem before the crisis, but I don't have a lot of historical examples of that happening. Mostly large societal changes seem to be motivated by crises of some kind. War, famine, drought. Disruptive technological change. Economic collapse.

If an ice sheet collapses catastrophically, and we watch Holland, Florida and Bangladesh disappear beneath the waves, then we'll start changing our ways in earnest. If the north Atlantic current shuts down, and Europe freezes over, we'll notice. But without a crisis? What else can motivate us on that grand scale? What else has ever motivated humans on that scale? To pre-emptively change their world for the better? I just don't know.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 29 Jan 08


The problem with shifting the emphasis in popular thinking from better cars to better cities is that 'better cars' is a much easier goal for the individual to grasp and feel able to achieve. (eg: I'm contemplating going one step better, and getting an electric motor conversion kit for my bicycle so I can commute to work in a reasonable time)

Opting for 'better cities' involves discussing with the other several million inhabitants and interest groups what a better city might be: a daunting prospect, however worthwhile!
(eg: Melbourne's 2030 plan which specified high density dwellings near community centres appears to have foundered in a morass of political expediency)

But then, there's no reason why we can't contemplate both options, is there? (and I think that's part of Alex's working title for this piece)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 29 Jan 08

Another image to ponder: the typical mcmansion (aka neo- georgian no. 1s) with its vast driveway to the double garage...

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 29 Jan 08

"What is backstory activism? You drop the term casually as if everyone should know what is meant.
I understood and agree with your article. Needs a proof reader for some spelling and sentence flaws - very minor. Go for it. Sue

Posted by: Susan Axtell on 30 Jan 08

This is definitely something that needs to be talked about more often. I agree with everything I read here.

One comment though, the image showing CO2 emissions of automobiles in the bay area is quite interesting, but remember, it only shows automobile emissions--there is the issue of "respending." People living in dense neighborhoods without cars often have extra income (because they don't own cars) that can be used to fly to exotic locations. Of course, people in sprawling suburbs go on vacation too, but the "respending" issue should not be ignored.

Posted by: Eric on 30 Jan 08

This is an article that Al Gore must read!!

On the issue of the maps showing per household, transportation-related carbon generation by location around the Bay area, I'd direct your attention to similar maps for the LA and Chicago metro areas by the same great team at the Center for Neighborhood Technologies. You'll see that even LA has multiple areas (downtown, Pasadena, Glendale?) where dark blue indicates per household transportation-related carbon emissions as low as 2.5 tons. In the Chicago map, great swaths of Cook County (pretty much anywhere the CTA goes) are dark blue. It's very likely that the color coding is off for the the Bay area maps.


Posted by: Steve FIlmanowicz on 31 Jan 08

Excellent piece. I have been banging on about the need to do land use and transportation planning together for many years now. Yet in Metro Vancouver BC our supposedly nation leading ghg reduction government wants to build more freeways!!

I think the starting point is designing places to live around the needs of people, not their cars. Which sounds simple but is in fact revolutionary. Because our economy is based on ever increasing car ownership. But cars are bad for us. They make us unhealthy. They also kill and maim more of us every year than Al Quaeda and the Iraqi insurgents put together!

And when places are built that allow for car free living, people love them and cannot buy them fast enough. The most expensive place right now being downtown Vancouver, where most people have realised they do not need to own a car anymore, but can have the lifestyle that others only dream of.

Yet our stupid developers want to keep on converting farmland and green space to low density suburbs - because that is the way they have been making money up to now. The change in land value alone makes it worthwhile, and you do not have to do anything difficult. Like thinking.

Posted by: Stephen Rees on 31 Jan 08

Stop subsidizing autosprawl.

Start with Free Public Transit.

Posted by: socialscientist on 1 Feb 08

You are right of course. We need to halt all constructions that do not meet the model of compact communities - the old villages and cities of our grandparents - That's a given as far as I am concerned and should be a part of the environmental policy of every city.

Still, that does not solve the problem of existing suburban sprawls, hence the need for a public transportation infrastructure that can compete with car transportation on convenience, and also cars that are carbon neutral thanks to technology.

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 1 Feb 08

Awesome site - I've linked to it.

Hope this comment doesn't classify as a troll comment :)


Posted by: Simmons on 3 Feb 08

Hi, one brief comment. I'm all for compact cities, but I'm curious what the impact on home ownership pricing is with density. Where I am people like suburbs only because it's possible to actually buy a house out there with something like a middle class income. Just seems like a significant issue, the denser your cities, the more expensive the land prices and housing. More people vying for the same spots.

Which means simply that any strong program promoting compact cities should probably include a fairly serious, maybe even leading role for affordable housing advocacy and affordable home ownership. There are a variety of more recent ownership regimes that would conform to these principles, especially community land trusts but also the more traditional housing cooperatives. other policies include strong inclusionary zoning and good old fashioned rent control (if done properly, though honestly the other mechanisms mentioned seem to work a little better).

The way I look at it is this. Much of the population would love to live in more compact cities and they'd love to spend much less on gas and have good public transit. But they also don't want to be renters giving away a third of their income to landlords for the rest of their lives, and they don't want some nightmare of density out of an anime movie (or New York) with global level plutocrats owning all of the property. That's sort of the dilemma, and I fear that a compaction of cities will lead to some version of that in the absence of pre-emptive efforts to expand stable urban property ownership for lower income and middle class people.

Posted by: Donald Jackson on 3 Feb 08

Hi Alex,

Awesome Article!

I think what Spain's Bicing and the French Velib programs are very telling of the future. Being a Portland native I have grown up with close proximities and to be honest I love ditching my car to ride around on my ten speed for the week. But I feel the problems with bicycles and even the infrastructure, for Americans, are not just the distances of point A to B but adapting to the elements and the reliability and stability of owning one trusty steed. Ownership and the feeling of freedom of movement is one of the most seductive forces driving car sales today.

I agree cities with compact density is one part of the solution and would set the stage for less driving. I am convinced that we need to package transportation in something exciting that isn't necessarily fast or off road capable but something that captures the experience in a safe and predictable manner.

There needs to be stepping stones to ween the US off of oil sucking mediums. The are a few methods that attain this Car sharing, which fundamentally promotes less cars on the road. but another way, I believe, there should be less of a car on the road. I think the European C.l.e.v.e.r. is a good response to this ideology. I hope to introduce an American version. The Clever's the major flaw is that it is not designed to be allow for disassembly in case of accidents where parts the chassis will be re-used and it's mechanisms are complicated.

I am working for a start up car company that is in development to be poised as a flexible regional specific car company (sale/manufacturing plant/services/rebirthing center) that could engineer the structural components to sequentially fail allowing for replacement case of an accidents which probably is the biggest contributor to end of life cycle. Thus salvaging the vehicle life and preserving the embodied energy. I think biomimicry in cat's bone structures are the key for engineers and designers to pursue for chassis design. Which may lead to better impact distribution and a longer lifecycle.

oh my name is Danny Kim I am a 28yr old Junior in ID at RISD. I went to Reed college for bio and phys, Berkeley for architecture but left both to pursue an extensive interdisiplinary education in designing, building, and producing cars.

I am trying to do research for my a senior project next year in Biomimicry. Do you know anyone who might specialized in structural mechanics using Biomimicry?

Thanks I love your posts. Very very inspiring and bring me much hope. I will be at the Art center summit hope to see you there.


Posted by: Danny kim on 6 Feb 08

What a detailed and fascinating read. As a Seattle resident, it's difficult to hear that we're sliding backwards on environmental measures due to transit. It's shocking to me that this isn't more widely publicized. But sprawl continues to grow in the Seattle area as we push towards the mountains, and commutes and traffic continue to increase. We are the largest metropolitan area with no light rail transit system.

What I don't understand is how cities, and our nation overall, can sustain continued growth of sprawl with a relatively constant population? Are there ghost towns and highways all over America?

We live in a semi-urban area. It's near a grocery store, a movie theater, and a shopping mall. While work is still 5 miles away, this reduces our need to transport ourselves anywhere except to work (and we're hoping for mass transit sometime in the future to accomplish this). It's a shockingly convenient and safe way to live, and makes it easy to keep down our carbon footprint.

Posted by: Brave New Leaf on 6 Feb 08

[Alex Steffen, the founder of, a popular Web site and book on sustainability, recently posted an essay on this that is well worth reading, called “My Other Car is a Bright Green City.”]

Dot Earth

Posted by: dan bloom on 10 Feb 08

Nice work, Alex. How do you influence local planners? Will planners listen to the citizens they serve? Will the citizens demand changes in planning? Will employers and planners begin cooperating on live/work centers? Can the Web be used more effectively to make the connection between planners, citizens and employers?

There's a shitload of work to be done and a correspondingly huge amount of communication that needs to take place to change peoples' assumptions about how things work.

Posted by: Cliff Figallo on 10 Feb 08

Right on! I live in a city where I don't need a car ( Buenos Aires ). It makes my life more simple, economic and interesting. The buses here are disgusting polluters, but I wouldn't be surprised if my way of getting around is "greener" than the latest yuppie-mobile. We need to face it: most of this new "green" technology for consumers is just about fending off guilt and increasing our personal self-esteem and peer status. Which are fine problems to be solved... by a psycho-therapist.

Posted by: Eric on 11 Feb 08

Part of compactness is reducing the need for getting around. More people moving around (particularly by car) requires wider streets. These in turn result in a more spread-out area.

Seldom do people get married because of compatible workplace locations. Increasing specialization in the employment market continues to exacerbate this.

Function follows form more than the other way around, and more is needed than compactness for its own sake; but action is needed anyway. The perfect must not be allowed to become the enemy of the good, but where is the start?

Posted by: David Ocampo G. on 11 Feb 08

Aqui pueden ver otra imagen
saludos desde Santiago de Chile seguimos con mucho interes sus articulos..

Posted by: ppvaz on 11 Feb 08

I'd like to echo the praise and the caution: changing our settlement patterns requires collective action -- which 20+ years of the Reagan/Thatcher Revolution has taught us to not just distrust, but to deny. You've written eloquently before about how environmental solutions inherently cannot rely solely on individual choices, and borrowing some of that language might help here. Similarly, it's a challenge to juxtapose different potential solutions against one another; when faced with a crisis of global warming's proportions, our society will need to learn to speak of "both/and" rather than "either/or."

Thank you in particular for pointing out the rate at which our built environment changes. Perhaps it's because I've lived in fast-growing places for most of my life, but the cities I've seen have changed immensely in the past decade. In fact, our built environment will probably change more, 2008-2030, than our electric generating mix over the same time period -- and although everyone has ideas for future inventions to revolutionize "the other people" who run the oligarchic electricity sector, we are overlooking a proven and cost-effective technology that we the people can use to effect similar change in the broadly-held building industry.

Density by itself is a necessary, but insufficient, part of a "bright green city." I like to sum up the New Urbanist vision as "compact, diverse, and walkable," and more alliterative sorts say "compact, connected, and complete." Even I won't walk if I have nowhere to walk to, nor a pleasant way to walk there. A thriving, resilient human ecosystem (err, community) must house a full range of people and a complete array of activities, all arrayed along streets designed to make walking enjoyable -- both traits of which require density beforehand, but which do not necessarily follow from it.

I hope that those who understand this message, and perhaps who further understand that such communities do a superior job of fulfilling the triple bottom line, will help to fight NIMBYism on the ground. With some prodding from the citizenry, the vast machinery that churns out conventional suburban sprawl with breathtaking efficiency can be re-trained. However, even in the tiny slice of America where a developer can legally "do the right thing", the political and social realities (from block-club politics to municipal infrastructure decisions) can still make doing so nearly impossible.

@Donald Jackson, the lower housing costs in far suburbia typically balance out against higher transportation costs, especially as fuel prices increase. Many residents of sprawling suburbs spend more on their cars than their houses, and those of us living closer in can ditch that money-pit of a car and spend more on housing instead.

@Brave New Leaf, yes, indeed, the American landscape is littered with dead malls, dead subdivisions, dead office parks, dead towns, dead cities, the works. Detroit is but the largest example of a city that's been left to the dogs, but hardly alone; I've seen long stretches of abandonment and decay even in several Sunbelt boomtowns. If you thought disposable plastic bottles exact an immense environmental toll, how about throwaway cities?

Posted by: Payton Chung on 11 Feb 08



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