The Conversation

A weekly discussion of a topic important to Californians

September 21, 2008
A carless California
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This week's Conversation is about the future of the automobile in a carbon-stressed world.

carlesscali.JPGThe lead essay is by Daniel Lerch, author of "Post Carbon Cities" and program manager at the Post Carbon Institute. Lerch says our entire environment is built around the car and it won't be going away anytime soon. But he believes we could quickly adapt to a much more intensive use of public transportation, bicycles and walking if we want to. And he points to examples in Europe and the United States where people are doing just that. An excerpt:

With a peak oil conference in Sacramento this week and the 100th anniversary of the first mass-market automobile coming up, it's a perfect time to re-visit our relationship with that most ubiquitous icon of the American (and California) Dream: The Car.

Ford's 1908 Model T didn't just mark the start of widespread private automobile ownership. It heralded the complete restructuring of America around petroleum-powered cars and trucks. By mid-century we had discovered massive oil fields in Texas and the Middle East, and World War II had effectively modernized our industrial base. The stage was set for the true mass consumption of the car, a shift that would fundamentally change our economy, our landscape and even our culture.

These days it's pretty well accepted that we can't all drive everywhere. California was home to some of the earliest suburban sprawl, so its metropolitan areas experienced early on what happens when everyone tries to drive everywhere: unending congestion (despite more and bigger highways), more sprawl and overall greater dependence on oil.

For years we've tried to limit sprawl and promote transit, bicycling and walking - first in the name of conservation and quality of life, more recently to fight global warming. Today peak oil (the looming high point of global oil production) and the end of cheap oil make it more urgent than ever to reduce our dependence on cars.

There's a problem, though. We're stuck with the landscape we've built over the past 60 years, much of which is literally uninhabitable without a car. Trying to make our communities less car-dependent simply by adding more buses, streetcars and light rail is like trying to make a bowl of chicken soup vegan simply by picking the chicken out. It's just not that simple: like the chicken broth in my chicken soup, car dependence is an inherent property of nearly every city, town and suburb in this country and especially so in car-loving California.

To read the rest, go here.

Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy for the Reason Institute, writes a brief rebuttal. He thinks it would be a mistake for the government to adopt policies discouraging the use of the automobile. An excerpt:

Adopting a policy objective to reduce automobile use would be poor public policy, reflecting little more than a knee-jerk political reaction to a long-term environmental problem.

True enough, the passenger automobile is an important source of carbon emissions, but it's not the most important contributor. Industry takes that spot. More importantly, cars emit carbon because of the fuel they use, and that fuel source will likely change dramatically over the next several decades even without interventions from government.

Electric hybrid technologies already have the capability of cutting carbon emissions in half within certain classes of vehicles (e.g., four-door sedans), and more than 65 hybrid models will be available on the American auto market by 2010. Plug-in electric technology is close to becoming commercially viable at today's energy prices, and an electric power system that relies increasingly on nuclear energy, wind, and hydroelectricity means we can reduce carbon emissions without sacrificing the mobility provided by the automobile.

More fundamentally, public policy focused on significantly reducing automobile use in favor of other travel modes - whether it is mass transit,bicycling, or walking - betrays a stunning naivete about travel or a brazen disregard for the needs of everyday Californians.

To read the rest of Sam's comment, go here.

Tim Holt, a freelance writer who lives in Dunsmuir, explores one technique cities are using to encourage a new way of looking at the urban landscape: the temporary closure of streets to vehicles. An excerpt:

There's an easy, inexpensive way for Sacramentans to experience car-free streets. It's called a "ciclovía," or "cycle way" in Spanish. Every Sunday, Bogota opens up 81 miles of its streets to pedestrians and cyclists. It's a healthy exercise in open-air democracy: Families from the city's richest to its poorest neighborhoods mingle together in this year-round event.

Bogota pioneered the event 30 years ago as a way to promote public health. With record levels of obesity in the U.S., it's welcome news that the ciclovía is starting to gain a foothold here. This summer Portland, New York, and San Francisco have all had their own ciclovías, each one six or seven miles long, with Chicago and Baltimore ready to follow suit.

Imagine folks from Meadowview, the Pocket area, Curtis Park, and Land Park enjoying a car-free Freeport Boulevard, linked to midtown, and pedal-powered folks in east Sacramento cruising down Folsom Boulevard. The U.S. ciclovías have generally steered away from a "street fair" approach, avoiding the vendors that can take business away from neighborhood shops and restaurants. Instead, they've emphasized free activities for adults and kids - including free tango, yoga, and bike repair classes.

To read the rest of Tim's comment, go here.

What do you think? Should the government try to get us out of our cars?

Please comment by clicking here now.

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About The Conversation

Welcome to The Conversation, where our goal is to provoke and sustain spirited and civil debate on issues central to life in California. I'll offer a topic and starting point for a discussion each week, but we need you to carry it forward from there. Please dive in and join the conversation.
-- Daniel Weintraub

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