One of the biggest environmental challenges we face is trying to make the outer suburbs and exurbs more energy efficient. The basic problem is that suburbia requires a car. That is a huge energy consumer and CO2 producer. Lance Mannion describes the problem very clearly:
To the degree that going green sounds like a plan to make us move into cities and give up our cars for bikes and buses Americans will resist and resent conservation efforts, and I suppose that’s how it might begin to sound as soon as the discussion switches from solar panels and fluorescent light bulbs and paper or plastic to mass transit and multiple-use zoning.
The object is to reduce the number of cars driving into and our of cities. This is good for the environment, a boost to our national security as it reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and good for the people who live in and around cities generally. It’s also good for smaller, local businesses.
It’s also a good idea for suburbs to reduce the number of cars on their roads by reducing the need for residents to get in the car and drive. The model should be the inner suburban towns around Boston and Chicago and not the sprawling developments surrounding Los Angeles and Dallas. Again, good for the environment, a boost to national security, good for people who live in these towns, and good for local businesses.
But basically everybody who doesn’t live in a city or the exurbs is excluded from this discussion.
That’s a lot of people.
And I’m one of them.
If I want to take the train into New York City I have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest station and hope that I don’t have to spend another 15 nosing around the parking lot vulturing for a parking space to open up. In 45 minutes I can be in New Jersey on the Pallisades Parkway. In 60 minutes I can see the top of the George Washington Bridge over the trees.
It would be nice if a train still ran from here to the City. I would probably make more trips into Manhattan if one did. But it wouldn’t change the fact that I have to drive 24 miles round trip to work, 24 miles round trip to the doctor’s, 24 miles round trip to the grocery store, 24 miles round trip to Barnes and Noble, 24 miles round trip to church, 24 miles round trip to see a movie—you get the point, and, yes, all those scattered places are 12 miles from our driveway.
Lance’s take on the freedom–or the illusion of freedom–that the car provides is very interesting (italics mine):
The question is, how truly free are we?
Cars free us up in many ways but [they] free us up to live lives that are dependent on having a car.
Theoretically, cars and good highways give us the freedom to live anywhere we want in relation to our jobs, as long as the distance can be covered within a reasonable amount of time, a reasonable amount of time being a subjective and idiosyncratic judgment. And maybe once upon a time they did give a goodly number of people that freedom.
But nowdays, people live where they can find a place they can afford and, if they have kids, that’s near or near-ish to a halfway decent school and accept whatever amount of driving living there forces upon them
Under those circumstances, a car isn’t a means to freedom, it’s a necessary tool of your trade, whatever your trade is, and a necessary living expense. You can’t live where you live without a job, you can’t have the job without the car. Filling the tank and paying for repairs and insurance are as liberating as paying the electric bill and property taxes.
I suspect few people do the calculations and tally up just how much owning a car costs them or if they do they don’t let themselves take in the costs.
It’s hardly liberating to know that you’re shelling out thousands of dollars a year mainly to help keep yourself tied down by your house and your job.
Loving your car for the freedom it promises is like loving your hot water heater for the freedom it promises.
What Lance is creeping up on is what I think might be the greatest–and most politically difficult–challenge facing the environmental movement which how do we reduce the costs from car use. And it’s not just using the car, it’s all the hidden, externalized costs that go into detached housing/automobile based living: everything from the energy and pollution costs of building and maintaining roads, to the amount of land converted to asphalt on the off chance someone might park on it.
So how do we go about fixing this in the long-term? I think we have to think long-term, since we are basically talking about a population shift not seen since the end of WWII. While work patterns have to shift, that, to me, is the easy part–economic incentives can convince many businesses to relocate. The hard part is schooling–and Lance is dead on about the importance of this.
It’s not as simple as saying “fix urban schools.” If they were easy to fix, they would have been fixed by now. It has a lot to do with zoning laws outside of the cities. Thanks to zoning laws, urban areas have turned into warehouses for the poor*. And most people don’t want to send their kids to schools that perform poorly–that is, have lots of poor children**. While this might seem, at first glance, many steps removed from the car problem, unless we make urban areas places people want to live–safe*** with good schools–car culture is here to stay.
Note: Any time I write about suburban areas, some people shut their brains off and enter a full-blown berserker rage, and make blanket, uninformed statements about how horrible cities are. Don’t feed the trolls.
*Along with our rural areas, but that’s a very different matter.
**The tragedy is that many urban systems do better than would be expected, and this includes educating poor children. The problem is that you can’t beat demography: a school system with forty percent of its students in poverty will never perform as well as one with a two percent poverty rate, yet this is seen as a failure of the school system and not our anti-poverty policies.
***While several decades ago, cities were in decline, in many cities, crime is typically confined to a limited portion of the city. I’ve never had to dodge gun fire walking across the Boston Common.