Don't buy the hybrid hype

This Op-Ed piece also appeared in the Eureka Reporter on March 27, 2007 and in the Times-Standard on on April 1st, 2007.

Efficient and alternative fuel vehicle technology is definitely worth developing and using. But a dominant line of thinking needs to be examined — the belief that the sustainable transportation of the future looks and works exactly the same except for differences under the hood. You can see this thinking at work in the governor's hyrdogen Hummer, or one of the 2006 gubernatorial candidate's claim to virtue that his family owned several hybrid cars, one for each daughter.

As a society, we're making a disproportionate (and hopeless) investment in relationship counseling to reform the automobile, with tax credits for hybrid purchases and sponsored alternative fuel research. Programs like these are necessary but must not come at the expense of public attention toward more effective solutions, like creating walkable cities, improving public transportation, and making personal automobile transportation follow an efficient and socially just pay-for-use model.

We need to first recognize that the costs and problems with automobiles include much more than fuel consumption and emissions, but include infrastructure costs, traffic accidents, social equity issues, and health issues. New, efficient vehicles not only fail to address these other issues; in fact, they can even exacerbate them. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute's paper "Efficient Vehicles vs. Efficient Transportation" finds that fuel efficiency gains in new vehicles such as hybrids breed more driving, creating a "rebound effect." This not only cancels out some expected efficiency fuel gains but adds new problems — more driving means more accidents, pavement, parking demand, and infrastructure costs, and continues to feed transportation inequity issues. Increased congestion leads to more costs for lost productivity and time, and further intimidates and discourages people from using active transportation modes like biking.

As Jamie Lincoln Kitman wrote in the New York times, "Like fat-free desserts, which sound healthy but can still make you fat, the hybrid car can make people feel as if they're doing something good, even when they're doing nothing special at all. As consumers and governments at every level climb onto the hybrid bandwagon, there is the very real danger of elevating the technology at the expense of the intended outcome — saving gas" (Life in the Green Lane). Just when we thought things were getting better, they might be getting worse.

Instead of popping the hybrid or alternative fuel pill to treat just one symptom of our diseased transportation system, we should be taking a holistic approach to treat the underlying problems. "New urbanist" planning for walkability and bikability will not only reduce driving, but facilitate healthy, safe, just, equitable, and happy communities. Instead of just pushing more efficient SOV (single occupant vehicles), we should be working to promote rideshare (Want to quintuple your car's efficiency in 2 seconds? Just put 5 people in it!) and improving public transportation with more routes and service, and by using next-generation websites to make developing public transit trip iteneraries as easy as MapQuest. Note that hybrid regenerative breaking technology really shines when used for buses, which stop and go frequently.

At the same time, we can acknowledge that people's need for personal automotive transportation isn't going to go away any time soon in the United States. That's where carsharing and pay-for-use services such as FlexCar come in. FlexCar, and other services like it, is a service available in Portland, San Francisco, and many other major metropolitain areas. FlexCar subscribers pay a low monthly fee to have access to the service. When they need a car, they reserve one online, and then pick it up at a designated parking space. Most of the FlexCar fleet are hybrids. A magnetic card lets them into the vehicle and they are billed for the amount of time they use it.

My friend Matthew used to live in Arcata and commute to work in Eureka. When he compared the cost of driving his Honda Civic and taking the bus, he found driving the Honda was less expensive. He made the comparison how most people would: fuel cost vs. bus fare cost. If he had factored in the cost of insurance, vehicle purchase, registration, and other high "fixed costs," he would have found the opposite, that commuting by bus is much less expensive. But his occasional need for a car meant that he paid those fixed costs whether he drove to work or not. FlexCar, or a similar service, could have allowed Matthew to cost-efficiently take the bus to work while still having access to a car when he needed it, leaving him with more money in his pocket, and our planet and community better off. For more ways to re-think transportation as an efficient use-based service, check out the excellent book Natural Capitalism. You can even read the chapter on transportation for free online at www.natcap.org.

If you're concerned about the environmental impact of driving, and think a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle might be a good choice for you, it probably is. Afterall, our cities aren't going to turn into walkale new-urbanist wonderlands overnight. Go ahead and buy that new vehicle, but ride your bike, take the bus, do a walkability audit with the Humboldt Partnership for Active Living, and make a point of participating in land use or transportation planning public process, too (Humboldt County is currently updating our General Plan). It's important not to fall into a trap where hybrids and alternative fuels are like a nicotine addict's filtered cigarettes. Instead, let's think of them as the patch, an interim step to ween us off oil addiction.

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About Aaron Antrim