Mobile Americans and Energy Equity

Article excerpt

WITH one of our two cars in the shop for the past week or so, our three-driver family has had time to contemplate the place of the automobile in American life. The garage is filled with other modes of transport - mountain bikes, skis, kayaks, and a canoe - and we can (or could) walk most places in a town that's safe and charming. But we sure do miss the old Subaru!

This attitude is typical of most Americans, it seems. Roads and highways go just about everywhere. Fuel is relatively cheap (less than before the "oil shocks," when inflation is factored in). We can easily rationalize the time saved in comparison with waiting for the bus. Driving is just so convenient and efficient.

But is it? In "Energy and Equity," writer Ivan Illich figured out that the typical American male spends more than four hours a day in activities related to his car - driving, parking, and idling but also earning the money to pay for it plus its fuel, insurance, upkeep, etc. In the end, Illich wrote, "The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles an hour."

Economic productivity losses due to traffic congestion, according to the General Accounting Office, cost the United States some $100 billion a year (only marginally offset by car phones and fax machines). Photochemical smog is estimated to cause annual losses of up to 20 percent of important California crops like cotton and grapes, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

And what about the other negative impacts of the automobile, particularly on the environment? A recent report by the Greenpeace organization gathers together some of the bad news:

Motor vehicles are the single largest source of atmospheric pollution, including 47 percent of nitrogen oxides, 39 percent of hydrocarbons, and 66 percent of carbon monoxide emitted in the industrialized countries of the OECD. Greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, acid rain - all are higher than they otherwise would be thanks to the internal combustion engine that powers cars and the air-conditioning systems that keep their drivers comfy.

"Extremely low fuel efficiency, excessive automobile dependency, incomplete combustion of gasoline and diesel fuel, fuel evaporation, and the use of fuel additives cause a major portion of the world's air pollution problem," the Greenpeace report states. …