Home > Articles > Great Places & Communities

Green Cars Are Not Enough — We Need Green Cities

by Jay Walljasper - April 10, 2008

I'm a good-natured guy and, on top of that, a lifelong Midwesterner well trained in the art of non-confrontational conversation. But holding my tongue is becoming increasingly difficult at social events when talk turns to the usual topics of work, family, homes and cars.

The trouble for me is hybrid cars. Well, not the cars themselves, but the boastful owners who believe they've fixed every woe caused by the automobile in a single purchase.

Hybrids, of course, are a step in the right direction, but there are still a lot of car problems they don't solve. I am desperately seeking a friendly way to express this thought to proud hybrid drivers who talk about their cars in the same rapturous way an art lover discusses a Rembrandt masterpiece.

Indeed, a hybrid like the Prius doesn't even post the lowest carbon emission score of cars on the road today. That honor belongs to Volkswagen's new Polo BlueMotion, powered by an internal combustion engine, which according to the Financial Times, spews 99 to 104 grams of carbon per kilometer compared to 106 for the Prius. Toyota's own internal combustion Aygo model comes close at 109. The Financial Times also points to some environmental researchers' concerns about extra pollution and natural resources involved in manufacturing hybrids, which require two separate propulsion systems.

But even if hybrids or the BlueMotion produced no emissions and used a plentiful fuel like water or broccoli leftover from a third grader's lunch, they still would not qualify as truly green. That's because there's a steep environmental price tag for auto manufacturing, road building and maintenance, parking lots, sprawl, pollutants from motor oil, brake fluid, batteries, brake lining, and tires that find their way into our air and water.

Alex Steffen, one of the masterminds behind worldchanging.org, a website bursting with great ideas and keen insights about changing the world, of course offers a smart, in-depth look at why green cars are not enough to ensure a green future for our cities.

He's keen on seeing cleaner cars hit the streets and finds particular promise in Ford's Model U, now being developed by sustainable design pioneer William McDonough.

But Steffen is inspiring and convincing when he urges us to concentrate on creating greener cities more than on manufacturing greener cars, offering a wealth of examples of how this is already happening in many places. "If we spend the next 20 years developing compact neighborhoods with green buildings and smart infrastructure, we can reduce the ecological impacts of American prosperity by jumps that are now somewhat hard to imagine."

"It is within our power," he writes, "to build whole metropolitan areas where the vast majority of residents live in communities that eliminate the need for daily driving."

And at thegreenguide.com, check out "Deep Fried Fuel Efficiency" for installing veggie oil fuel systems and "Is My Car Offgassing VOCs?" for the environment inside your auto.