More cars, more trouble

It’s a daring vision: a sustainable transportation future. Daniel Sperling, UC Davis professor and founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, and Deborah Gordon, a transportation policy analyst, offer it to readers in Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.

The “two billion cars” of the title, double the current number on the road, is the authors’ estimate for 20 years hence. Still, they offer a vision of a country that’s redesigned to foster pedestrian- and bike-friendly community centers, neighborhood electric vehicles and energy-efficient cars.

But there are some problems with that vision, starting with the assumption that “clean energy” technologies (hydrogen fuel cells, plug-in hybrids, electric cars and biofuels) will be sustainable over the long haul. Their analysis supports this assumption—while they seem to favor pure electric and hybrids and note the problems with hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels.

Nonetheless, promises of “clean fuels” must be viewed with some skepticism. The diversion of agricultural land to produce biofuels brings a number of problems. Then there’s the issue of producing the electricity necessary to provide what we’ll need for both plug-in hybrids and plain old electric cars. And finally, producing hydrogen fuel cells in a way that doesn’t cost at least as much as energy as they provide has yet to become a proven technology.

Sperling and Gordon emphasize additional government funding and business investment in alternative fuels. That holds out hope for a clean, green “magic bullet” that will let us keep using our cars the way we want to, and leads directly to the second problem with the book. Even though Sperling and Gordon devote a chapter to the necessity of “motivating the consumer”—that is, convincing Americans to drive less in more efficient, sustainable vehicles—they never fully reject the underlying American assumption that we really need our cars.

Yes, they write of redesigning our cities so that mass transit, walking and biking are viable options. But options they remain, and a willingness to acquiesce to the all-American ideal that personal automobiles are a necessity is never really addressed. It’s also worth noting that, since Sperling has ties to the auto industry and Gordon has ties to the oil industry, they may be predisposed to tweaking the current system rather than trying something radically new.

On the plus side, though, Sperling and Gordon provide a coherent discussion of the oil companies’ role in our current environmental and transportation difficulties. The chapter devoted to California’s “pioneering” approach to air quality and energy efficiency in vehicles, as would be expected when the authors are involved in policy, has a cheerleader quality to it (Sperling is a member of the California Air Resources Board).

Sperling and Gordon’s most salient point is that systemic change is the only way to solve our environmental and transportation problems. If we are to have a sustainable transportation future, beyond simply inducing individuals to change their behavior, the entire system needs to change.

But until we all acknowledge that cars aren’t the answer—that sustainable transportation has to be about moving goods and people in large numbers and not about individuals cocooned in personal vehicles—we’ll continue to be disappointed.