Tag Archives: SUV

Why are SUVs More Rare in Europe than in the United States?


By Dom Nozzi

December 16, 2002

Why do Europeans seem to use sport utility vehicles (SUVs) less than Americans?

I believe that the following reasons can help explain.

Most all of the European towns and cities were built for pedestrians. What that means is that their communities are scaled for humans, not cars. Streets are modest in width. Daily destinations are usually within walking distance. Parking lots are small in size and located so that they are not obstacles to walking. Parking spaces are nearly always priced (not free). Buildings are mixed in use and designed to be convenient and interesting for the pedestrian. Transit is readily available and frequent.

In stark contrast, American cities have mostly been built to make cars happy. They are scaled for motor vehicles, not people. In other words, our urban areas have an ENORMOUS amount of space set aside for cars compared to European communities. It is relatively easy dsc_5732to drive around with big cars and find free parking. No need to be obligated to own a small car in order to be able to fit into human-scaled spaces. No need to try to squeeze into a tiny parking space, for example. It is un-American to not be able to find lots of parking for monster vehicles ANYWHERE.

I don’t believe Europeans are “more sensible” or “smarter” or “more environmentally conscious” than Americans for mysterious or genetic reasons. Americans are perfectly capable of buying smaller, smart cars, and otherwise behaving in sustainable ways. Americans don’t do the sensible things we see Europeans do because our “material conditions” are different. Our urban areas were built after the emergence of the car, and our “market signals” scream at us every day…COMPELLING us to buy big vehicles, consume lots of gasoline, drive EVERYWHERE, and live in remote, sprawling locations. That is the rational thing for Americans to do.

Since WWII, a growing number of us have been conditioned to become cheerleaders advocating for the needs of our cars, not the needs of humans, the environment, or our businesses. Today, nearly all of us spend a good portion of our lives campaigning for our Camry’s and Chevy’s.

We have met the enemy and she or he is us.

High gas prices are a helpful way to modify behavior, but studies and logic show that there are other factors that are MUCH more effective:

  1. Charge market-based fees for parking, and keep the supply of parking modest.
  2. Keep roads modest in size instead of building 4- and 6-lane roads.
  3. Build walkable, mixed use, more compact neighborhoods and commercial areas that will bring destinations within the range of walking and bicycling.
  4. Charge “congestion fees” on highways and major city roads.
  5. Pull buildings up to the street and require them to face the street.

An important thing to keep in mind is that a better future is not going to be achieved merely by reducing the purchase and use of SUVs or other forms of “undesirable” vehicles. The revolution will not arrive simply because we are all driving solar-powered small cars.

No, the key is that we need to build communities and create market signals that make it possible for us to live a lifestyle in which our vehicle (be it an SUV or a tiny solar car) is hardly ever used because it is rarely needed. In other words, our future would be a lot brighter even if everyone had a rarely-used SUV in their driveway, as long as most of us lived in a compact, mixed-use, walkable community with narrow streets and little free parking.

A great deal brighter than a community in which everyone had heavily-used solar cars in their driveway while living in a sprawled community scaled for vehicles (big, free parking lots, free and big roads, huge distances between destinations). A community where every trip — be they by SUV or solar — is obligated to be by motor vehicle.

The problem is designing our lives in such a way as to FORCE us to make EVERY trip by motor vehicle. It is a recipe that locks us into an inevitable downward spiral of increasing suburban sprawl, lowered quality of life, lowered civic pride, social isolation, and financial bankruptcy.

Only in minor ways is our problem the type of vehicle we choose.


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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

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