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The Truth About Cars, the Potential of Cities

This article was written by Alex Steffen in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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?

Thanks,

Alex


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.)


My Other Car is a Bright Green City is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Posted by: Hugh Love - Certified Representative on 28 Sep 08

I remember this was a very insightful piece when it was published. Did Alex ever get to work more on the draft?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 28 Sep 08



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