The much-hyped automobile future is, we are continually reminded, just around the corner. Autonomous vehicles will take over the tedious and aggravating task of chauffeuring ourselves around town, freeing us to repurpose billions of annual car hours with more gratifying activities: reading, eating, napping, tweeting. Perhaps these vehicles will operate in hyper-efficient, networked fleets, enabling them to merge, mesh, and “platoon” in ways that dramatically increase the ever-coveted (by traffic engineers) grail of vehicular throughput.
In a further relief of tedium, the cars can be sent off to perform vexatious errands on our behalf: a run to the pharmacy, driving the kids to hockey practice, bringing the dog to the groomer, etc. What’s more, tomorrow’s cars are green. Driving becomes an act of environmentalism. The new “eco-cars” don’t burn fossil fuels, they do not emit greenhouse gases, they don’t fill the air with particulate, disease-causing plumes, and they don’t even generate much noise pollution.
Major safety gains also lie in store. By removing the many and well-documented fallibilities of human drivers from roadway choreography, we will eliminate the causes of the great majority of dangerous and lethal crashes. The current condition, with in excess of 40,000 annual car-crash deaths in the U.S. alone and 1,250,000 worldwide, will come to seem a barbarous artifact of motordom’s primordial age.
A bright future indeed. Startup and early-stage businesses in mobility-related sectors have attracted intense interest, with over $7.5 billion raised from VCs and capital markets in Europe alone.
The problem is that most of the latest wave of mobility “solutions” simply reinforces the current, car-centered paradigm. Under the guise of innovation, rather than realizing a green transport revolution, we are simply on a path of improving a deeply flawed model that is devastating to human and planetary health and flourishing. Here are some of the problematic aspects of current trends in mobility:
- We continue to enable sprawl. Automobile-induced patterns of settlement and development– characterized by sprawl, single-use zoning, and dependence on cars to perform nearly every basic human activity– are choking the planet. Ecocity Builders and other practitioners of sustainable urbanism have long recognized that if cities are to have any chance to play a constructive role in ecosystems and broader livability, they need to be organized on a principle of access by proximity: mixtures of uses, sensible densification, transit-oriented development, walkability, bikeability, and people-centered public spaces. The next wave of mobility technologies promises only to further embed cars within culture and will do nothing to promote healthier patterns of settlement.
- Vehicular obesity. Our cars keep getting larger. The shift from cars to SUVs has been so rapid and dramatic that some automakers are ceasing production of cars altogether. And even the non-SUV cars remaining in production have been steadily growing larger. All of this is terrible news for the climate, due to the intensification of the energy demand to power heavier vehicles, the corresponding carbon emissions associated with producing that energy, as well as emissions and pollution associated with the additional demands of production, extraction, transportation, and ultimately disposal of these larger vehicles. Moreover, SUVs and larger cars have dramatically more kinetic energy than a traditional sedan moving at the same speed. They therefore pose much more danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers. This is one of the two principal reasons why road deaths have risen so dramatically in recent years (the other being distracted driving).
- Assault and battery. The batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs) require large amounts of cobalt and other rare earth elements, much of which are mined in conflict zones causing devastating environmental impacts and human rights violations including child labor. Unsavory characters such as Blackwater founder Erik Prince have entered the cobalt market seeing a potential financial bonanza. Disposal of these batteries will be another huge environmental problem. So the convenient image of EVs as a clean, environmentally safe means of transportation is really a fantasy.
When it comes to ecocities, cars and SUVs — whether electric or internal-combustion, whether autonomous or human-driven, whether owned or shared or ride-hailed — must take a back seat.
Steven Bercu is President of Ecocity Builders. He is a practicing attorney and CEO of Lime, llc., lawyers for interactive media. He is a Director of the Helen and William Mazer Foundation and a former Director for Business and Legal Affairs for Atari, Inc. Steve is an enthusiastic bicyclist and does pro bono legal work through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and Creative Capital specializing in intellectual property rights. His foundation has been important in supporting Ecocity Builders’ major San Francisco 7th International Ecocity Conference, redesign of Berkeley’s major downtown street link from the regional transit system to the University of California and the Ecocity Builders’ International Framework and Standards.