A Fuel-Efficient Car is Less Important Than Where One Lives

By Dom Nozzi

James Howard Kunstler has made the point that we should “not give a fuck” whether a person drives an SUV or a Toyota subcompact. That over reliance on either worsens everyone’s life. That lifestyle decisions matter far more. That technology, as conservatives like to claim, won’t save us.big-car-and-small-car-parked-photo246

Is Kunstler right?

Let’s consider two households:

Household/Lifestyle A lives in a historic, town center neighborhood and works at a job about a mile from the neighborhood.

Household/Lifestyle B lives in a remote suburb and works at a job several miles away.

Household B commutes about 10 miles per day and drives 8 miles per day for errands. Household A commutes about 2 miles per day and drives about 2 miles per day for errands.

Gas consumption implications:

1. Let’s be generous and assume that Household B owns a super gas miser that gets 30 mpg in city driving.

2. Let’s look at worst case scenario and assume that Household A owns a gas-guzzling SUV that only gets 10 mpg.

Obviously, the disparity on the mpg difference between households would almost never be as large as in my hypothetical. I’m just using worst case scenario.

The result of the above assumptions, which I believe are, in anything, biased toward Household B:

Household A car travel per year = 1,460 miles=146 gallons of gas consumed.

Household B car travel per year = 6,570 miles= 219 gallons of gas consumed.

Even if you believe my assumptions are unfair for Household A, Household A (with the gas hog SUV still wins. For example, even if we are overly generous and assume that Household A drives 5 miles per day, we still find that Household A consumes 36 less gallons of gas than Household B.

Note that gas consumption is only one of several impacts that a motorist has on the quality of life of the community. For our purposes, it seems safe to use it as a proxy for overall quality of life impact on the community. That is, more gas consumption equals more per capita delivery of the following suburban insults to the community: more noise pollution, more wildlife road kills, more air pollution, bigger asphalt parking lagoons, bigger and less safe and higher speed roads, bigger and more cluttered sign pollution problems, more glaring light pollution problems from places trying to attract motoring customers with their lighting, more water pollution, more soil pollution, more loss of wildlife habitat, more flooding, more injuries and deaths, more loss of independence for those who do not drive, etc.

How many people who adopt and defend the unsustainable suburban lifestyle believe, pathetically, that they are “environmentally friendly” simply by driving a Honda that gets a zillion miles per gallon? That owning such a vehicle neutralizes their contribution to the ruin of their community?

That it forgives them of the subsidized sin of living in Sprawlsville?

That they can ease their guilty conscience?

In sum, it would appear that lifestyle and location decisions (and the ecological footprint such a decision creates) are far more important than the car a person decides to buy and drive.

 

 

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Bicycling, Energy, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

One response to “A Fuel-Efficient Car is Less Important Than Where One Lives

  1. Reblogged this on smalltownurbanism and commented:
    I’ve often thought the same thing articulated in this blog. I live in a place where it seems that driving a Prius to shop at Whole Foods is all many people do in the interest of ‘sustainability.’ While it’s great to drive a Prius if you have to drive, better yet to leave it home and walk or bike.

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