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A Word from Richard Risemberg for September, 2000

Methadone for Road Hogs

There's been a lot of talk in the last few years concerning Zero-Emissions Vehicles, or ZEVs, which are supposed to cure global warming, end smog, and close up the ozone hole while still maintaining the great American privilege of driving anywhere farther than half a block in the air-conditioned, six-speakered, window-tinted comfort of your mobile isolation chamber. Electric cars, fuel cells, natural gas buses, various hybrids, and who knows what other nonsense. And I say "nonsense" for a reason, because, while ZEVs may put a slight dent into smog and global warming, they will do little to alleviate, and nothing to reverse, the damage done by our mad and profligate use of energy on this planet. In fact, they will, by encouraging more car use, actually worsen some of the biggest problems facing our cities--those of excessive paving, the fragmentation of our neighborhoods, and the stresses imposed on us as individuals and as a society by traffic noise and congestion.

Nevertheless, the concept of a Zero-Emissions Vehicle will certainly appeal to the American mentality, representing as it does another technological manipulation that solves a problem by putting it out of sight--for now. But what do the two major contenders really do for air pollution? The electric car moves its power generation out of the city and into the countryside, where most power plants, whether coal-fired, nuclear, or hydroelectric, exist, at a small gain in efficiency over newest generation internal combustion engines. Now, as well as lighting up Hollywood and Las Vegas, Four Corners will have to work even harder to power up seven million electric cars. Or perhaps EV technology will be cut off at the pass by hydrogen fuel cells, which make possible a ZEV that you can drive "just like a real car." But--where does the hydrogen come from? Well, there's two places: you can make it out of water, using a whole lot of energy; or you can refine it from--fossil fuels! Using a whole lot of energy. In physics, as in chemistry, you don't get something for nothing.

But that's not the big question. In my town, Los Angeles, for example, over 70% of the land surface is paved in dedication to personal automobile driving. Roads, freeways, driveways, parking lots, parking structures, curbside parking, home garages, and so forth--this is apart from the land covered by ordinary buildings. Neighborhood after neighborhood is gashed by broad no-man's-lands of two to eight lane streets, of eight to twenty lane freeways, bleak scars winding around the bruises of vast parking lots. What will electric cars do to make all that less necessary? What will they do to make it easier for a child or an old lady or someone in a wheelchair to cross Hawthorne Boulevard at rush hour? Traffic Jammin' What will they do to make a tranquil dinner at a sidewalk table possible, a softball game in the street in front of a young couple's house, a quiet evening on the porch, such things as nowadays are obliterated by the ceaseless passing of nervous, hurried traffic? Go stand over the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour and imagine that all the cars you see there are electrically or fuel-cell powered. Then go to any busy intersection, or into the parking lot at the mall, and imagine the same thing about the rows and rows of Hondas and Chevys there. They have all been suddenly changed into ZEVs. What's different about the scene? That's right: NOTHING!

Maybe the problem isn't what type of cars we drive. Maybe the problem is cars.

ZEVs are nothing more than methadone for road hogs.

Richard Risemberg is editor and webmaster of The New Colonist.

This is an expanded version of an editorial that originally appeared in Bicycle Fixation.

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