Hybrids: Leaves on the Nevergreen TreeAugust 13, 2010 by: Samuel Scheib
Yahoo’s green blog had a post a few days ago that listed writer Lori Bongiorno’s green hypocrites. One of them was certain hybrid owners:
“Owns a hybrid, but drives all around town alone. The kind of car you drive is just one part of the transportation equation. Walking, biking, carpooling, and taking public transportation when you can are also important. Try to drive the most fuel-efficient car in the class of car you need. That car doesn’t need to be a hybrid. Remember that driving less overall by making shopping lists and planning efficient routes saves gas and reduces emissions.”
As far as green hypocrites go there is another type that drives me to distraction: people who work in transit—especially those who spend their days talking to people about the wonders of transit—but don’t use their own services. But that is a discussion for another day. I was glad to see Bongiorno’s post because she makes an argument for not driving around by yourself, even in a hybrid and she connects that to transit. What she omits is the reasoning; many of her readers took her to task for being a scold and at least on this point I think it was because she failed to make the argument. Let me fill it in.
Automobiles are the largest non-point source of pollution (a factory is a point source but taken in aggregate motorcars are one of the world’s great polluters). Motorcar manufacturers are naturally interested in pushing the green car image hence Subaru boasting a zero landfill factory (their cars? Not so much) and Honda’s short-lived environmentology campaign. A Toyota Prius advertisement shows an automobile made of sticks and leaves that eventually disintegrates. In case you haven’t heard, real cars do not do this.
Leaving aside the pollution involved in the manufacture and disposal of motorcars, and even the modest emissions from a Prius, automobiles, hybrids and all, still greatly contribute to ecological degradation and the ruin of cities. Donald Shoup established in The High Cost of Free Parking that there are 8 parking spaces for every car in the United States. That means no matter what you drive some one out there right now is planning heat-reflecting surface parking spaces (likely built on greenfields) for you to park your car. And Lincoln Navigators and Priuses get the same size parking space, with the rare exception of some garage compact car spots. That’s a bad start. But the automobile has a long tail that extends well outside the road and parking lot.
Motorcars influence lifestyle. For example, denser urban environments encourage frequent grocery shopping trips as part of a trip chain between home and work. As a result urbanites are storing far fewer groceries than their suburban counterparts who make weekly shopping trips. Grocery carts are a good indicator of this relationship. If you look at the small carts found in urban grocery stores the basket will be about 4,700 cubic inches or smaller. A medium-sized cart such as found in typical American grocery stores like Publix, Piggly Wiggly, or Kroger will be 8,700 cubic inches or larger. I had just come back from Moscow the first time I saw a Sam’s Club cart and was stunned by its caricaturish girth. These jumbo baskets measure in at a whopping 26,000 cubic inches!
It goes without saying that 10 or 20 thousand cubic inches of groceries are going to be carted home in a car. Once they get there they will be stored in pantries, kitchens, and refrigerators far larger than needed in an urban home. Or how about the extra refer/freezer kept in the garage, the hottest room in the home for much of the year, to hold extra meats and beer? There is a siege mentality to suburbia: once you get home from the jungle you are not going to want to venture out again. Better stock up.
A few years ago Martin Wachs estimated that in most cities streets, highways, and parking lots cover from a third to half of the land area. That is a bad atmosphere for pedestrians and transit and the mark of a huge carbon footprint. Batteries ain’t gonna fix that.