Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coming Soon To Our Planet: Two Billion Cars.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Over the break I've been reading Daniel Sperling's book Two Billion Cars, an exploration of how the planet can handle the two billion vehicles that will be in service by 2025.

Is this number inevitable? Sperling says yes: There are over a Billion vehicles today, and 2.4 Billion emerging consumers in China and Indian interested in 'personal motorization'. He also points out that most automakers are focusing their efforts on building and conquering these new markets. His projections actually show roughly 1.2 Billion cars, another 500 Million trucks/buses, and 500 Million motorcycles and scooters, but the forecasted growth in each segment is still staggering and a little scary.

We clearly live in what Sperling and his co-author call a "gas-guzzler monoculture". Only 2% of passenger travel in the U.S. is via public transportation, and even in Europe where fuel is expensive and trains plentiful, 80% of travel is via automobile. He calls this car-centric western lifestyle "an extravagant consumer of resources and producer of greenhouse gasses."

On the Daily Show earlier this year, Sperling stated that one of the problems is that "There is no value placed on carbon production." I totally agree, and whether we end up with cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, low carbon fuel standards, or voluntary offsetting, factoring the environmental cost of burning gasoline into the cost of ownership is needed to start to change consumer behavior. So is an honest assessment and forecast of how much oil is left and what it will cost. Sperling is pretty optimistic about oil reserves, but does see the price of oil driving supply, and therfore an end to cheap oil.

Unfortunately, he also sees a lot of this higher cost and regulatory action focused primairly on driving automobile and fuel innovation...hybrids, biofuels, lighter cars, and more. Clearly these are needed: the book compares a 1976 Honda accord (2000 pounds, 46 MPG) with a 2008 model (3600 pounds, 29 MPG) to demonstrate the stagnation in innovation related to the resource intensity of automobiles. But two Billion vehicles? Isn't there a better way for us to plan communities and get around?

Sperling presents some interesting and promising alternatives including 'smart paratransit' (point to point public transport like airport Super Shuttles), carsharing (think Zipcar), small powered vehicles (Smart Cars and Segways), and ridesharing (Pickup Pal). He also discusses the idea of redesigning roads to be more bus (and bike!) friendly. All of these seem to be gaining traction, but none are growing as fast of personal vehicle ownership.

Part of this is financial, I suppose....we pay endlessly for roads and (hidden) oil subsidies, while underfunding light rail and other alternatives -- expecting them to pull their own financial weight in a way in which automobile travel does not. Part of it is also the desire for the 'freedom of the open road', an aspiration which will become more elusive as cars and traffic multiply. Maybe its time take some focus away from automobiles and highways, and to re-imagine and fund infrastructure that creates a different future.

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