My Other Car Is a Bright Green City: A Second Look

Parked Prius cars plugged in and charging.

felixkramer / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Working on a post for our Minus Oil series, looking at the relationship of oil, cars and urban design, I keep circling around a post Alex Steffen of Worldchanging wrote two and a half years ago: My Other Car Is A Bright Green City." Alex describes how he was presenting to a group of Tesla engineers and designers and noted that "I thought the Roadster, though undoubtedly cool, went nowhere near far enough to be called sustainable."

Just because they are Priuses does not make it sustainable. Image: Kristian Widjaja

Alex writes:

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.

Alex writes that the collateral effects of automobiles are so significant that it really doesn't matter much what is under the hood. These include roadbuilding and maintenance, the heat island effect of all those parking lots, the water and ecosystem effects and more. But he finally gets around to the biggest problem:

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.

Here he gets it wrong for the only time in the post, titling the section "What We Build Dictates How We Get Around", which gets it exactly backwards. How we get around dictates what we build. Nonetheless, he is right about the answer:

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.

Two and a half years after Alex wrote this article, the super pluggies promised in the article still have not arrived. The Tesla is rolling in limited quantities for a few rich people. The American suburban real estate market has crashed and our low density suburban communities are unable to pay to police or maintain them. Alex says that "There's no need to wait on building bright green cities," except there is no money to do it.

alex steffen photo

But much still rings true. Alex concludes:

In building bright green cities we do more than help avert a monstrous disaster for which we are largely 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.

Read it all in Worldchanging: My Other Car is a Bright Green City

My My Other Car is a Bright Green City">first take on the article in January, 2008
More in our Minus Oil Series
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Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities
Prioritizing Plastics Key to Kicking Oil Addiction - Plus Reducing Waste & Pollution
Moving Beyond Oil: Restoring Meaning to the Word "Necessity"
Setting a Price on Carbon Will Help US End Oil Addiction - Not Just Combat Climate Change