Should “Greening” Cars Be Our Top Priority?

By Dom Nozzi

I’ve never been a get-rid-of-all-cars extremist. As my books and speeches point out, motorized travel will always be an appropriate, helpful part of our lives. No, my efforts are not to “get rid of them all.” I just want cars and drivers to behave themselves. For there to be equity and fairness. Otherwise, they tend to inequitably dominate our world and severely harm our quality of life, as the past several decades have shown. We need to be the master of cars. Not their slaves.

All lifestyles (including the travel needs of each) should be accommodated, as long as it is done equitably and without harm to the quality of life of others.

So yes, those who have a lifestyle that requires car travel should be allowed to continue that lifestyle. I only insist that the lifestyle be pursued fairly. The more miles one travels, the more one has an obligation to pay more for a cleaner car, as well as more for road construction, maintenance, military costs to protect oil, environmental mitigation, etc. I don’t believe that one should be allowed to unreasonably externalize the cost of their lifestyle on others.

I seek to rein in high levels of car dependence and promote more in-town living because several decades of large government subsidies have distorted the market so that there is an artificially high demand for car-based travel and a car-based lifestyle.

Due to demographic changes, prices and fear of future costs, we are already seeing a return to town center living and a decline in suburban living (migration patterns and housing values show this over the past few years).

I agree that yes, clean & efficient cars has a role to play to improve fairness and quality of life. But I am not convinced that it has the potential to significantly improve fairness and quality of life (or promote sustainability) in the same way that I believe growing the number of citizens who live a lower-impact lifestyle would.

I believe that there is an artificially low number of citizens living a low-impact, walkable, in-town lifestyle because of abundant and cheap oil. There is also an artificially low number of such citizens because of government subsidies — largely for gas, road-building, land development codes and required parking. Remove those subsidies – which I believe will inevitably happen soon because we are losing the ability to afford them – and we will see a substantial growth in the number of people living a low-impact, walkable, in-town lifestyle. And that would yield substantial, sustainable benefits.

I am convinced that green cars, without a meaningful shift in the number who lead a lower-impact lifestyle, is not sustainable. To be fair, I should also note that shifting many to live a lower-impact lifestyle is, itself, not a silver bullet. We need to couple that with the green car (which we don’t intend to entirely get rid of…).

In the end, I see shifting more to live a lower-impact lifestyle (via the libertarian paternalism of a reduction in subsidies, the reform of development codes, etc.) as more of a pressing need in this time of crisis. One that is more likely to lead to societal dividends sooner and more sustainably than green cars.

So let’s continue to pursue green cars. But let’s also think about bang for the buck and what a sustainable future will require. I’d rather have a big number of people shift to a lower-impact lifestyle WITHOUT green cars, than a lot of green cars WITHOUT a shift in the number leading a lower-impact lifestyle. Preferably, though, I want both. And my preference is to prioritize lifestyle shift (for some, not all) as our first order of business.



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1 Comment

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One response to “Should “Greening” Cars Be Our Top Priority?

  1. yason

    When it’s $10 a gallon on the meter, both downshifting and greener cars will happen in masses. But due to political reasons, that won’t be allowed to happen until at some point nothing can stop it.

    By the way, thanks to the essays on your website and the posts on your blog, I bought and am currently reading “Road To Ruin”. Good read so far; will have to check out your latest at some point. Reading this stuff over and over has taught me to see what isn’t there to be seen: when I look at a noisy, scary street crossing I now see what it could look like instead of the monstrosity it now presents.

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