The Environmental Cost of Cars
What’s so bad about cars? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Driving a private car is probably a typical citizen’s most ‘polluting’ daily activity.”
The environmental impact of a car in use is only part of the problem. Making cars consumes huge amounts of resources and produces large quantities of waste and pollutants. So does scrapping the car at the end of its life. The following list is based on European data; North American figures are probably greater, as vehicles tend to be larger.
Life-Cycle Pollution from a Single Car
- Extracting raw materials: 26.5 metric tons of waste, 922 million cubic meters of polluted air
- Transporting raw materials: 12 liters of crude oil in ocean, 425 million cubic meters of polluted air
- Producing the car: 1.5 metric tons of solid waste, 74 million cubic meters of polluted air
- Driving the car: 18.4 kg of abrasive waste, 1,016 million cubic meters of polluted air
- Disposing of the car: 102 million cubic meters of polluted air
These figures are for a medium-sized car with a three-way catalytic converter, driven 130,000 km (about 80,000 miles) over ten years, and averaging 100 kilometers per 10 liters of unleaded fuel (approximately 23.5 miles per gallon).
Car Dependence Promotes Urban Sprawl
Most cars on the road are single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs), which represent a very inefficient use of fuel, materials, and space. One lane of urban road can, theoretically, move about 750 vehicles per hour; in reality, turning and parking movements cut that by a quarter. The same lane can easily move ten times that number of people (and it’s people that should be counted, not vehicles) if the space is devoted to either public transit or human power. And the space used to park one car in a paved lot could accommodate ten to fifteen bicycles.
The saving of land now used by roads and parking lots will be very important in the future. As the world’s population grows and oil becomes scarce, we will need more land close to where people live just to grow food. And that is actually the least of the benefits we will achieve by “depaving.” If people drive everywhere, they need much more space — or rather, their cars do. The environmental benefits of compact urban areas include the ability to protect land needed for food cultivation as well as green space for recreation and biodiversity.
The Dangers of Paving the Planet
Paved areas (roads and parking lots) create all kinds of local environmental problems. The most obvious is the polluted water that drains from these surfaces in wet weather. Oil, grease, antifreeze, and heavy metals combine to make a toxic soup that drips from the underside of cars. Anywhere cars are parked, you can see oil on the pavement and the drips from leaky antifreeze and transmission hoses. When it rains, these substances accumulate in puddles and runoff.
In many cities, stormwater drains are designed to catch this water and direct it to treatment facilities. In heavy rains, however, the excess flows directly into nearby open water (streams, lakes, and oceans), where it harms aquatic life and contaminates our water sources. According to the Sightline Institute, polluted runoff long ago surpassed industry as the number one source of petroleum and other toxic chemicals that end up in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Reducing the Environmental Cost of Cars
While there is a great deal of interest in producing cars that do not run on gasoline, the alternatives have their own problems. They are still cars, so they occupy no less space, and they take as many — or more — resources to build. Hybrid cars use less energy to operate but need special batteries. These batteries require rare earth elements that must be mined at considerable environmental cost. Battery production is already creating significant local pollution problems in China.
Moreover, many so-called alternative fuels come from the same sources as gasoline: natural gas and propane are just different types of fossil-fuel hydrocarbons. Electric cars would require a huge investment in charging infrastructure as well as more generating capacity. Hydrogen is similarly problematic: processing it into automotive fuel requires huge amounts of electricity, and it is extremely difficult to store and transport.
How electricity is produced is going to be critical — coal and nuclear power are more likely sources than renewable sources such as wind, solar, or tidal generation — but the time and resources used in any alternative-fuel strategy will only delay the inevitable need to reduce car production, use, and dependence.
Health & Environmental Benefits of Public & Human Transportation
Short car trips (over distances that could easily be bicycled) are much more polluting than longer trips on a per-mile basis because 60 percent of the pollution resulting from auto emissions is released during the first few minutes of operation of a vehicle. Bikes, by contrast, use no fossil fuels, emit zero carbon in use, and deposit very little polluting material on the paved surfaces they travel. Making bikes uses a lot fewer resources than building cars, and environmentally conscious bike builders are producing even more efficient bike designs.
Designing communities for human-powered travel has many benefits. People in compact, well-serviced neighborhoods are less likely to drive. People who live in such areas are also healthier. Denser development leaves more space for growing food locally and protects green space from future development.
The capacity of any transport system to carry people is more important than its vehicle capacity. We ought to be measuring mobility in terms of how easily people can get around, not how easily we can drive. But we also need to keep in mind that transport is not really a benefit in and of itself: it is mostly a way of achieving other objectives. By building more compact urban areas, we increase accessibility, which is much more important.
If more of us start making our daily trips by bike, foot, and public transit, we can dramatically reduce environmental harms and begin building the kinds of compact, bike-friendly communities where we can work, live, and play without killing the planet.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life
edited by Amy Walker.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. ©2011 by Amy Walker. www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Stephen Rees was born in England over sixty years ago, moved to Canada in 1988, and worked for Vancouver’s transit authority from 1997 to 2004. They gave him a free bus pass, but he found it was quicker to ride his bike home. He has long advocated more sensible policies to better integrate transport and land use. Visit his blog at http://stephenrees.wordpress.com
About the Editor
Cycling advocate Amy Walker is the cofounder of Momentum Magazine, a North American publication about the cycling lifestyle. Her work on the magazine since 2001 helped create a model for accessible, encouraging transportation cycling stories and images – a trend which has continued in other bike publications and in mainstream media. Momentum’s website is www.momentumplanet.com Amy Walker believes that being “self-propelled” applies to more than just transportation – indeed it can be practiced in all aspects of life. She is currently developing a reality television / travel show about cycling in cities. Amy Walker blogs at www.OnBicycles.com.