Miracle Cars?

By Robert Bernstein   |   March 21, 2023

Soon after I was first elected to the Sierra Club board, a fourth-grade teacher invited me to speak to her class. I came prepared with a list of questions, rather than a speech.

I asked the class to imagine a car that runs on an unlimited source of energy that never runs out. And to imagine that this car puts out no pollution. Call it a Miracle Car. Then I asked them: What would be the environmental impact of such a car? Before reading on, please pause and ask yourself the same question.

Years earlier, I asked my high school physics students this question and they drew a blank. Same for most of my environmentalist friends. But the fourth graders’ hands shot up in the air. One boy eagerly offered this answer: “You would still have to cut down the trees and pave everything over for roads.”

Yes! Such a Miracle Car would still create most of the social and environmental impacts of fossil-fueled “Fossil Cars.” The biggest impact of private motor vehicles is creating sprawling land use. Which in turn causes forced dependency on cars.

Miracle Cars would also still injure millions of Americans in collisions. One-third of the U.S. population does not drive. They would still be stranded by Miracle Cars. In fact, this explains why the fourth graders knew the answer, but the teens and adults did not. For fourth graders, cars are an obstacle: Cars make it dangerous for them to walk or bike to school.

Miracle Cars would still sit in the same traffic jams as Fossil Cars. The average speed of cars in Los Angeles during “congested times” is 9.9 MPH – slower than the average bicyclist. And that does not even account for the time it takes to earn the money to drive. Motorists drive to work. But they also work a lot just to drive.

And that does not count the hidden subsidies for private motor vehicle use that I covered in a previous article. We all pay these costs, even if we don’t drive.

What is to be done? If congestion is the problem, can’t we just widen and add more roads? Right now, approximately half of all urban land in the U.S. is already paved over for roads and parking. At what point do we agree that there is no place left worth going to, because it is all paved over for the means to get there?

Canadian songwriter Joni Mitchell arrived in Hawaii and was inspired to write the famous line, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Civilized countries have helped solve this problem by investing in good public transit. And providing safe and pleasant spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists. Traffic congestion is not some mysterious force of nature. It is caused by too many cars. Each additional car delays the cars already on the road.

Singapore began “congestion pricing” in 1975 to charge motorists for the delays they caused other motorists. When London proposed such congestion pricing, there were predictions of riots or even revolution. Instead, the 15-pound fee to enter the congestion zone was quietly embraced and found to be successful.

What about electric self-driving cars used as taxis? Yes, this could be part of a solution. Currently, there are eight parking spaces for each car in the U.S. Self-driving cars could almost eliminate this use of land. They also could travel in tight pods, reducing land needed for roads. But such vehicles do not yet really exist for most real-world situations. And they could also lead to more sprawl, without proper planning and incentives.

Am I telling people they should not buy an electric car? No. They do use less energy and create less local pollution than Fossil Cars. But please don’t think buying one eliminates your transportation environmental impact. On the contrary, most of your environmental impact is still there.

As with most such problems, there are limits to what we can do as individuals. If you can commute on transit or on a bicycle or electric bicycle, that is far better than buying an electric car. Even if you keep your Fossil Car for occasional needs.

But we also really need to think about investing as a country in the infrastructure of the future. That may include some Miracle Cars. But it mostly means investing in good public transit and creating an environment that is friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.  


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