Monthly Archives: April 2012

Why Hybrids and Increased Fuel Economy Won’t Save the Environment

For the purposes of this article “fuel efficient” and “hybrid” will be effectively interchangeable even though they are not the same thing. I’m sorry to all the auto-lexical purists out there. 

Ad professionals are pretty smart. Or, maybe more accurately, they’re pretty perceptive, able to pick up on trends, memes, and slang and insert them into slick commercials that have almost become events in themselves. Most of the time the ads are for mass consumption—I’m sure that if I was sitting with a petroleum engineer he or she would have something to say about Chevron’s commercial offerings, same thing with a grease monkey and those really annoying Dennis Leary-narrated Ford spots—so expecting any sort of nuance within those 15 or 30 second spaces is asking for a lot. But sometimes, when ad teams are feeling especially bold and knowledgeable (I’m sure expert consultants are involved), they insert themes into commercials that are, for lack of a better word, profoundly misguided. Like this one:

Alright so I can’t find the car commercial I was talking about in the vast archives of YouTube so this will be kind of funny: essentially a pretty standard 30-something is driving a sedan and he alternately looks out the driver and passenger side windows to see things symbolizing power and things symbolizing environmentalism. Not terribly creative but gets the point across plainly in the course of a 30-second ad, i.e. you don’t have to sacrifice power for being green. I swear I spent a few hours looking for this stupid commercial. I’ll link it if it comes on TV again and I can actually remember the make and model. 

This guys gets to have the best of both worlds! He can have a humming 200 horsepower engine and not drop a mint every time he hits the pump! It’s a goddam miracle. He’s an environmentalist and a fun driver, the two paths have finally met in a sepia-toned wood.

I understand that CAFE standards have sort of been the Grand Compromise between the Federal Government, leaning ever so cautiously towards environmentalism, and the American auto manufacturers who are looking for the best way to make a buck without triggering another economic catastrophe. The latter ends have been wildly successful, and while the stock prices have been more Siberian than Himalayan for Ford and GM they aren’t groveling at the steps of the Capitol anymore—not by a long shot.

hybrid lot Why Hybrids and Increased Fuel Economy Wont Save the Environment

Better MPG ratings for cars have injected new life into these car companies for two interesting and opposing reasons: lighter wallets and greener consciences. The first reason is of course a more general economic driver, especially since American families are spending higher and higher percentages on their transportation costs as a proportion of their overall income. The days of Escalades and Yukons in middle class suburbs are most likely over for good (yes, I know how much that exact sentiment is aped in the general press) because most people can’t afford to put down $120 every time they fill up. (You can also expect that number to go up in the medium term for the typical peak-oil-finite-resource-conflict-zone reasons. Also, if we see the same sort of stagnant wages for the middle 50% of Americans in the next two decades like we did in the previous two—well you can draw your own conclusions.) Cars with higher MPG-ratings are going to start moving towards that golden market share (>50%) once the secondary market gets inundated with Prius (Prii?), Insights, Camrys, Accords, etc. because of the nature of the car game. For the consumer without financial worries, though, buying a fuel-efficient car like a Prius or Insight is based on ostensible environmentalism—or as a good friend of Radials puts it: “conspicuous conservation”.

Let’s back up before we deconstruct that point, though. I understand the point of ads is to push product and that, most of the time, subtlety and nuance is not rewarded with higher volume sales and that building around a kernel of high concept truth (e.g. “Oil consumption is bad for the global environment”) is often enough to garner interest from the parties you’re trying to reach. Advertisements for high mileage vehicles are based in sort of a foggy reality where, unfortunately, the majority of progressive-minded people live when it comes to transportation. (I’m not saying I don’t live there when it comes to things like clothing; I’m a vegetarian yet still wear leather shoes. We confound our beliefs everyday, you just have to admit it to yourself.) We allow ourselves to be deluded because it’s a lot easier than dealing with hard realities or depressing truths, even when we think we’re facing those realities and truths. Ad professionals know those anthropological intricacies really well, and they know exactly how to make us feel better about doing something that might not be all that good for the world.

Fuel efficient and hybrid cars might be one of their greatest successes. The realities around the car industry are pretty simple: (1) buying a new car is always worse for the environment than buying a used one, even if the used one is a Ford Bronco and the new one is a Camry Hybrid and (2) just because you use less gas to get around doesn’t mean you are actually reducing petroleum consumption and, by proxy, saving the environment. (I understand that some hybrids are technically “zero emission vehicles” but in reality the difference between conventional combustion engines and hybrid-electric ones is a 30% reduction in CO2 release—also the reason that we’re using hybrid and fuel efficient interchangeably.) The first point is self-explanatory, but the second one takes a little more explanation and is an axiom that is well known in transportation circles but not necessarily outside of them.

410784077 e16a47c690 o Why Hybrids and Increased Fuel Economy Wont Save the Environment

Oregon DOT VMT Tax Pilot Program Courtesy of PortlandTransport Flickr

We drive a lot more than we used to. From 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%,” says a 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal, thought the intermittent price spikes for gas have created a relatively flat VMT chart from 2007-2012. (VMT = vehicle miles traveled, an important term for transpo-nerds.) Best antidote to that flatline? Better fuel efficiencies which can effectively offset gas price increases and balance demand back to normal levels, meaning we’ll drive more even if the costs are marginally higher. There’s been a lot of chatter about setting VMT reduction goals and some government bodies are even working to base insurance and gas taxes off VMT, a more accurate representation of an individuals driving habits and thus their relative risk-levels and proportional benefits from gas tax receipts. I know that last sentence was extremely boring to read, but honestly those sorts of programs will probably change everything about car ownership.

Environmentally, nothing short of reduced driving will really have much of an impact and that means to stop thinking we’re saving the world by actually consuming more. The commercials can tell you over and over again that you’re being “green” by getting that hybrid in your garage but at the end of the day that’s a decision that is based solely on your wallet, and advertising professionals apparently know that better than we do.

The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

Radials probably doesn’t spend enough time talking about cycling. It could be because I’ve been relocated to Southern California for a few months, a place so unfriendly to casual cyclists and pedestrians that I’ve actually been honked at for walking through a crosswalk at a stop sign. Longtime friend of Radials Abe Finkelstein may be the solution to our velo-needs as he is a devoted bicyclist living in San Francisco, one of the bastions of progressive cycling policy here on the west coast. Abe will be contributing to Radials as long as he stays in the good graces of the editorial staff which, knowing Abe, might not be that long. Here’s his first post. 

A recent incident here in San Francisco, where a pedestrian was mowed down in a crosswalk by a cyclist, has led to major uproar and has caused a push by the city to get tough on bicycle scofflaws.  The incident happened at the busy intersection of Market and Castro, where pedestrians, cars, bikes, buses, trolley cars, and even dogs are “frequently entangled in amusing and not-so-amusing ways.”

ba chronwatch14  SFC0099768009 part6 The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

(Credit:  San Francisco Chronicle)

This comes at a time when more and more American cities are seeing vehicular homicides outnumber all other homicides.  The street has become the danger zone, a place where pedestrian injury accounts for over $20 billion annually.  Almost every day you hear about the life of another pedestrian or cyclist ruined by a gas-guzzling machine. It may seem like automobiles are the only culprit.  However, a moving bicycle on a city street is a dangerous vehicle too.  Even though pedestrian deaths by cyclists are rare, there needs to be more of a shared attitude about the law.

Almost 40 percent of land within American cities is devoted to public streets.  Streets are the foundation that makes a city a great place to live, but also a place where people of all modes of transportation are jumbled together into a complex madness.  There is a competition for claims on public space, causing a disconnect in the way we treat each other on the road and the way we want to be treated.

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(Credit: Spacing Magazine via Flickr)

A lack of respect for space exists between both cyclists and motorists alike.  

On a bicycle, you are completely exposed to the dangers of the road.  Cyclists will take command of a street not to be rude, but because they have to in order to stay alive.  Hordes of oblivious drivers move through traffic as fast as possible, drifting lanes and swerving around everything in their path.  A cyclist who takes the lane to avoid dangerous obstacles would otherwise get swiped by someone trying to squeeze by.  Sometimes on a bike you need to keep moving just to survive.

From the motorist point of view, it seems cyclists are renegades who refuse to obey traffic signals.  My observations while commuting to work (as a cyclist myself) through San Francisco are that some bikers will just keep on rolling, right through red lights and busy crosswalks (again, see above for a fast-moving example) unless there is an imminent threat of slamming into a truck or city bus.  The above-the-law riding habits are of some cyclists are atrocious, and a major headache to all others on the road.

According to the motorist, bicycle facilities are a traffic headache as well – valuable street space previously intended for car lanes and parking are given away to these entitled cyclists, who don’t follow the rules to begin with.  Unless we want more people to get hurt and things to boil over, something’s gotta give.

roadrage1 The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

Every cyclist spends time in an automobile at some point or another.    

As a city dweller, I do not own a car, nor do I plan to own one in the near future.  I use my bicycle and public transit to traverse the city streets for daily purposes.  One thing I’ve found however, is that I need to use a car every once in a while (read: often) for long distance trips or to move large items.  Riding in a car is not a bad thing; it’s become a necessary and enjoyable part American life.

It is also important to note that each and every person on a city street who uses a vehicle, whether it be a bicycle or an automobile, must also become a pedestrian at some point.  Once you park your car or bicycle at your destination, you will find yourself walking the very same streets.

usa nyc bike car conflict The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

(Credit: NYC Bicycle Coaltion)

The major issues related to pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile interaction on a city street boil down to conflicts on perspective and design.  

Depending on which mode you may be currently using at the time, your perspective on safety and responsibility will change drastically.  The place of the pedestrian, cyclist, and automobile on the designed infrastructure within the urban network should be agreed upon in order to prevent these conflicts.  This means the ways in which we interact with facilities, signage, and other vehicles must be implicitly clear. If we want to have safe and positive interactions between all groups, we need to start taking these issues seriously.

Abe Finkelstein is a transportation engineer living in San Francisco and an avid cyclist. Recently, he rode from coast-to-coast in the summer of 2011 in coordination with Habitat for Humanity on their annual Bike and Build trip. You can get in contact with him here

Spongephalt! Or: Harvesting Rain in California

Radials usually isn’t the place for discussing newfangled ideas. We pride ourselves on stodgy pragmatism (see: the party line on California high sped rail) and stick mostly to the dry, boring policy analysis that ends up being supremely important somewhere down the line. But it rained in Southern California today—a torrent! with wind! and felled palm trees!—and since California drivers have absolutely no idea how to navigate wet roads I had a lot of time to look around at the asphalt while rolling around at 15 MPH.

It’s been a dry year in Southern California, but that’s typically how it goes—you don’t come to Los Angeles for the lush green and windbreakers. There have been worse years and I remember dead lawns and short showers during especially parched seasons, but there’s no doubt that we’ll see a bloated number of forest fires when the summer rolls around like we do in most thirsty years. Since we can’t control the weather (alright, maybe the Chinese can) California sort of has to make due with what it has, even if that includes pilfering water from inland lakes to run faucets in Beverly Hills. But what if we could stop dehydrating aquifers in inland California and maybe start pulling our own weight?

HWY35%20 %201 Spongephalt! Or: Harvesting Rain in California

If there’s one thing we have a lot of here in the Southland, it’s asphalt. We drive everywhere and we pour tons of blacktop into every spare inch of space, leaving plant life on perfectly rectangular, well-manicured islands. Asphalt, as many people know, creates a lot of problems for the environment. It’s low permeability means that water rushes downhill flooding drainage grates and dumping any and all terrestrial flotsam into the ocean and waterways, and its low albedo (much like tarred building roofs) creates a lot of ambient heat, increasing temperatures in city centers and making metropolises into effective blackbodies. There’s been a lot of talk about “green asphalt” which has a higher albedo and isn’t a processed petroleum product, both significant upgrades over our current strategies, but that seems a little too uncreative for something so ubiquitous.

How about Spongephalt? I’m not an engineer, so I won’t go into the schematic details (but since I wouldn’t know where to begin, this should probably be encouraging) but here’s the idea: create a surface of semipermeable asphalt that allows rainwater to seep through (it can double as a filtering layer—bet you didn’t think of that CalTrans!) into a “spongy” polymer that drains into a reservoirs purified by water treatment centers. Yesterdays storm inundated Southern California, with most of the water getting contaminated by cars (and I know that sounds simplistic but “cars” will be an all-encompassing term for our purposes) and then running off into the ocean and wasted. This is rain catching for the 21st century, and with water becoming an increasingly strategic resource it seems as good a time as any to harvest as much as possible.

There are, of course, problems with this idea, mostly from the engineering side. How do we deal with the problem of potentially engorged sponge layers that may end up cracking and distorting the top layer of asphalt? The honest answer: I don’t know. But it seems like a problem that could be solved by having a robust drainage system with stress sensors interspersed between the layers. That’s a suggestion coming from a policy guy, so I’m sure some of my friends with a few more engineering classes under their belts can discuss this a little more fully.

Roads haven’t changed much in recent decades. Yeah, they’ve gotten more durable and smoother and maybe even more efficient, but the whole concept of streets as a single-use piece of infrastructure seems, well, boring doesn’t it? Can’t roads be more than just something we travel on? At least it’d be make me feel about the long showers I take on especially hot days in California.

UPDATE (04/16/2012): A good friend of Radials (Abe Finkelstein, trained engineer) pointed me towards Pervious Concrete which does exactly what I described in this article. So, problem solved.