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Beware the Green Car

by Aaron Houck

August 7,2008

Urban enthusiasts are enjoying a “told-you-so” moment. Current indicators suggest that interest in denser, walkable neighborhoods with a mix of uses is rising with every jump in gas prices. Those who despise auto-centric development are celebrating. But these champions of a more pedestrian friendly future may be overlooking a significant threat to their vision – the green car.

Most of those who think about cities and planning, regardless of their political philosophy, agree that suburban sprawl is a problem. They attribute its rise to different causes – some blame too much regulation, others argue there has been too little. And they identify different faults with sprawl. Architects argue on aesthetic principles that it is ugly. Sociologists criticize its corrosive effects on community building. Ecologists are angered by sprawl’s environmental impact. Economists frown upon its externalities. Health professionals decry its contributions to obesity. But the multiple objections show that hostility to sprawl is fairly broad based among academics and planning professionals. 

These critiques are nothing new – they have been made for years, even while more and more suburbs were being developed. So why are people only now showing interest in closer-in neighborhoods? Surely some of the delay can be explained by inertia. Cities, builders, bankers, and homebuyers got accustomed to (and good at) sprawling. Thus, the argument goes, it just took time for things to change. But forty years is a very long time – plenty of time to change our mode of development.

What about the argument that new attitudes and preferences among new generations can also help us understand recent interest in city living? Adults who grew up bored in the suburbs and who enjoyed shows like Seinfeld and Friends are attracted to the idea of living in an exciting urban environment. But even Monica and Chandler moved to the suburbs in the end. Living in the city was fine for young, hip singles – the ultimate goal was always marriage and a quiet life on a cul-de-sac.

By and large, homebuyers adhere to the economic maxim “more is better” and still prefer suburban life. The general public has not been convinced by the exceedingly precious arguments advanced by urban theorists, who themselves know as well as anyone else that their voices have been ignored for years. Has that changed? Not exactly.

Four-dollar-a-gallon gas will make people start looking for answers. For the first time, large numbers of citizens are willing to listen to the urbanists, who – thrilled to finally have an attentive audience – bang them over the head with the high costs of commuting. It is the most effective arrow in their quiver, and they use it extensively, to the point that other arguments are largely ignored, arguments about the stresses sprawl puts on community relations, infrastructure, and the environment.

Enter the green car. What could possibly be wrong with the green car? In theory, nothing – higher efficiency is clearly a good thing. But in the context of discussions about our built environment, the green car may turn out to be an enabler of the status quo – the savior of suburban sprawl.

You have already seen the commercials. Advertisements for hybrid SUVs tell us we don’t have to sacrifice room or performance to get better gas mileage. And fewer fill ups mean you can get back to the life you led when gas cost $2.50. The marketers for such automobiles are showing a better understanding of their audience than the urbanists.

Even the most innovative cars, like the Chevrolet Volt, will help to maintain sprawl’s dominance. The plug-in hybrid is designed to get forty miles on an electric charge. Will it reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Sure. But a forty-mile range helps to keep suburban living economically feasible. There’s no need to give up the half-acre lot after all!

In fact, urbanists themselves seem to be falling prey to the same weakness that has led our society to embrace sprawl – short-term convenience over long-term sustainability. In the short term, arguments about gas prices have proven effective. But to convince our friends and neighbors of the need to develop our communities more thoughtfully, we’ll have to continue to educate them about the various problems associated with sprawl. And beware the green car!

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