‘Can’ the Car or ‘Green’ the Car? The Future of Autos

Cars vs TransitMost major transit initiatives can currently be divided into two camps: those that want to make our transportation landscape greener by creating alternatives to car travel vs. those that want to create a greener generation of automobiles. Arguably, both pursuits can lead towards the same goal of reducing environmental impact but each option brings with it significant directional decisions as to the future of our culture and how we design the built environment. In the end there may not be one universal option that fits a country like the U.S., but different courses whose implementation should follow the demands between urban and suburban development.

To Drive or Not to Drive?

There has been a rising chorus of proponents to significantly change the infrastructural network of transportation and minimize car traffic. Their songs point to pollution and carbon emissions that are significant for supporters of climate change initiatives. Roadways also have a tendency to serve as dividing events that separate neighborhoods or townships. Cities like Boston saw entire neighborhoods claimed by state or federal governments to be decimated for I-93, also known as the Central Artery. Robert Moses and his Urban Renewal plans for New York brought much of the same results with the riverside highways effectively cutting off the inner portions of the island from its coastlines.

Car travel is also easily the most dangerous (and costly) for Americans. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 41,059 highway deaths and 2.49 million injuries in 2008. (To appreciate the number, the next closet is waterborne transportation with 769 deaths, or less than 2% of highway travel.) All of this brings a price with it as well. The estimated cost of motor vehicle crashes in 2000 was $230 billion, or $820 per U.S. citizen.

Though we have heard it a great deal, I would be remiss not to mention the gas and oil factor. The Department of Energy claims that we Americans used 137.8 billion gallons of gas in 2008. Given that it requires 42 gallons of crude oil (one barrel) and 55 kWh of electricity to make 18.5 gallons of gasoline, we spend an amazing amount of money and power to facilitate driving. All of that could power one quarter of all homes in America and at today’s prices, represents $560 billion spent on oil.

Alternative or public transit options bring with them a series of benefits. By and large, at the current level of automotive technology many transit systems are more energy efficient than a national fleet of cars. Surprising to many people, hybrid electric buses with steady ridership are actually extremely efficient in transporting people. However, these solutions also carry a hefty price tag that often cause legislators to recoil from their implementation.

clinton square syracuse

This photo of Clinton Square, Syracuse in 1917 shows the streetcar network running through the center of town

Many of the parts of the country that once had more mature transit systems have since removed them in deference to road construction. Syracuse, New York was once connected by an intricate network of streetcars that snaked through the entirety of the downtown and even linked the city center to the University and affluent suburbs. Unfortunately, the downturn of the city in the middle of the last century contributed to the system falling into disrepair and eventually fading from existence. Since then, Interstate 81 has carved the city in half and only contributed to its urban degradation. Working backwards to reintegrate is a complicated task wrought with costs and reorganization of how people move through our towns and cities.

Even if we could front the money to create these networks, it could take some time to lure people away from their cars enough to create the ridership that allows them to run efficiently—a quality that plagues slow, isolated transit initiatives. Most of our country was not designed and planned around systems of alternative transit which makes it difficult to create a transit system that can rival the convenience of car travel—rendering it only harder to attract new users and revenue in order to continue expanding networks. In effect, part of making alternative transit stronger is making driving and parking more cumbersome.

Another important catch is that getting rid of cars does not mean getting rid of roads. Even if the most basic travel needs were supplemented by alternative options, other integral parts of our daily lives need the lanes of pavement to continue functioning. The transportation of goods, emergency services and virtually any form of commercial service business would require that our roads be maintained to safe standards yet would need to do so without the billions of dollars that is collected from gasoline taxes. It is possible that without cars, our roads would have severe funding problems that could result in just more tax dollars upkeeping a system that is used less.

Green Fork in the Road:

The next generation of cars currently being designed will already be a significant step in the right direction. Car companies are battling to prove which option can help redefine vehicular travel across the world. When most people hear “green cars” they think Toyota Prius, the world’s most advanced hybrid to date with its estimated 51 mpg. In truth, hybrids will most likely be a transitional phase that helped paved the way to be “leap-frogged” by newer lines of technology. The rising stars for car replacement are plug-in hybrid-electrics (PHEV), electric vehicles (EV) and compressed natural gas(CNG). Ford, Toyota and Honda have all entered the Hybrid-Electric marketplace while GM’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf are targeting the Electric Vehicle possibilities. All of these solutions reduce the tail-pipe emissions of cars and largely shift the onus of becoming greener onto the power grid (akin to most other new transit models.)

Next Generation Automobiles

The next generation of cars: Toyato Prius PHEV, Camery Natrual Gas, Nissan Leaf

At the same time, this is a costly transition—not just because of more expensive cars but the infrastructure that is needed to support them. Just as cars have become engrained into our culture, so too has the traditional ways of running them. Any one of these options will require something to complement or replace our network of roughly 162,000 gas stations. Whether they are sites to rapidly charge batteries, swap batteries out altogether, or pump natural gas, an enormous amount of effort will dive into reformatting our current system.

There is indisputably a great deal of force behind automobiles in our country—much of it due to mere inertia—that could prompt the argument to retain allegiance to their existing reign. Quite simply, in 2007 there were an estimated 254.4 million cars registered in the United States according to the Department of Transportation. 90% of households own a car and 58% own more than one. Clearly, our infrastructure is designed to accommodate vehicular travel and it is all that generations of Americans have known. Furthermore, every aspect of a car has a job market based around it from production, to maintenance, to roads. Decreasing the amount of cars used by Americans would have material effects in the realm of employment which is shaky ground coming out of a recession.

Transit measures also come in wondrous variety. While High Speed Rail (HSR) and Light Rail Trains (LRT) often get plenty of time in the limelight, using commuter rail systems, hybrid buses and even bicycles are all infrastructural components that help serve different commuters and travels at different distances. I have written before on alternative transit being an infrastructural ecology of solutions at different scales that works most efficiently when functioning together. Having a HSR line that drops passengers into a city with no complementary, local transit degrades the appeal of the system and discourages new travelers. Well-rounded development is key to making these individual systems a collective success.

Alternative transit brings its own deluge of cost problems, largely based in the fact that most new proposals need to start from scratch. Anticipated prices for the new High Speed Rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco is $45 billion, or $130 million per track mile. There are over 5,300 miles of designated HSR corridor (and I am generously leaving out the Northeast Corridor) which would equate to $689 billion to fully build out new track systems everywhere; nearly all of what we have allocated in federal stimulus. Despite being an advocate for subways, they come with a crushing blow to the piggy bank. New York’s new 2nd Avenue subway is being constructed at nearly $1 billion per mile. Nonetheless, I am not a proponent of using “well we already have this system so let’s keep using it because that’s cheaper” as a defense for avoiding progressive change.

Government Direction:

In true federal fashion, the government has taken the road of trying to please everyone and therefore not chosen a side. Instead it has provisions that provide support to both endeavors. The Obama Administration’s allocation of $8 billion in stimulus funds to new High Speed Rail service in the country clearly leans towards removing long drives from the roadways. Another prime example is funding for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). Another stimulus measure, TIGER revolves around awarding funds to transit projects on merit-based criteria and all examples that I have seen thus far have been alternatives to car travel.

On the other hand, the President’s EPA staff is preparing to make American cars more sustainable by regulating car emissions through their newly honed weapon of the Clean Air Act. The push would raise mandatory fuel economy by 42% by 2016 to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of vehicles. The government bailout of General Motors is another instance where Capitol Hill continues to support our car culture. The $110 billion dollars loaned to keep General Motors, Chrysler and Ford alive puts a paltry HSR funding in perspective.

To be fair, these companies are not sitting idle on the task of transforming a failing business model into a line of greener, more culturally responsive products. GM has already indicated that it is shuttering its Hummer line (it is about time) after a failed attempt to sell it to an Asian buyer (who would not bite for sustainability reasons.) GM also recently announced progress on their heat reclamation technology that would capture waste heat from exhaust and turn it into energy—an impressive advancement that could raise gas mileage by an anticipated 10%.

To Each His Own:

At this juncture, neither option is a silver bullet, but instead each direction can be paired with a development pattern that suits it best. In their current likeness, suburbs are less conducive to moving away from cars while it is realistic to create city centers that can rely on alternative means of travel.

suburban america

Turning this into something transit friendly is a difficult task beyond current feasibility

I am not one to say that anything is beyond salvation, but feasibility requires prioritization. In a recent blog post, Kaid Benfield of the NRDC points out that “For most of us, how we get somewhere depends on how well each available mode meets our needs.” I agree with him in that many people may be willing to migrate from their cars if the options were available, but presenting those options across suburban American is a tall order. We have spent decades developing suburbs around automobiles. Roadways are the veins of suburban life, providing the essence of transport to virtually every activity. Re-engineering this system, though possible, could be one of the largest undertakings the U.S. has ever known.

The money and effort it would take to transform the circulation methods for areas of lower density would most likely not correlate well to the number of people it would move or cars it would displace. Perhaps more importantly, suburbanites are less likely to willingly move away from automobiles. For this population, creating a cleaner car maybe the easiest and most accepted solution to achieve quicker results. New suburban developments could certainly revolve around transit-oriented design to compliment this effort.

Conversely, cities are primed for removing cars from their centers. Urban conditions are continually more adverse to automobiles as the number of pedestrians rise and land for parking lots decreases. Unless integrated with other uses, parking facilities are one of the banes of active streetscapes, creating bare sidewalk corridors and vacant streetwalls. The fewer of them that line the street, the better. The heavy concentrations of people and the dispersal of amenities make walking, biking or taxis convenient substitutes for a car while the amount of business related to autos per capita is unsurprisingly lower in urban centers. Perhaps fellow urbanites can attest to how easily one can get around in the city without having to own a car.

before after carsNew York City is one of the best examples of tackling this problem. The city has constructed dedicated bike lanes, improved their bus transit systems and continuously reevaluates their avenues for transit renovations. They are one of the only cities in the world actively expanding their subways. Parts of popular ‘Broadway’ including Madison Square Park, Herald Square and Times Square have already been blocked to car traffic and turned into public, pedestrian plazas. The crowds consistently gathered there are a testament to their success. Other initiatives include the long-debated Vision 42, which proposes turning 42nd Street into a pedestrian thoroughfare with a streetcar system to transport people across the grid. As a resident of the Big Apple, I think that the only vehicles on the island of Manhattan should be cabs, service/delivery and buses.

On the contrary, there are plenty of cities, like Boston, that epitomize the reverse example. Instead of focusing on improving their transit systems, the city has spent an enormous amount of time and money trying to make it easier to get cars in and out of city limits. These programs are only perpetuating the cyclical process of inducing more car traffic into the city so that years later, they will be over capacity again.

The practice of cities using their larger budgets and tax bases for more comprehensive transit infrastructure can be complimented by the distributed investment approach of each suburban family eventually purchasing a greener automobile. Together, these can present a realistic path for a net evolution to a sustainable society.

Photo Credit: Acela paulbuckley14059.wordpress.com Prius earthfirst.com Suburbs sanfranciscoschtuff.com Syracuse Streetcar web.presby.edu