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Synthesis/Regeneration 43   (Spring 2007)

Responding to Climate Change and Peak Oil

The Real Costs of Transportation

by Don Fitz

As Moses smashed the Ten Commandments on the golden calf and again climbed the mountain for a back-up copy, little did he know that he would return to find those who worshipped a silver calf. For they imagined that substituting silver for gold would mean their behavior was no longer idolatrous. Those who worshipped the silver calf begat followers, who begat more followers, and so on, until they begat those who use biofuels and drive hybrid cars with silver calves as hood ornaments. And they imagine that placing the silver calf on the hood means their car is no longer an idol.

As gas and oil supplies dwindle, more people find it impossible to pay the price of heating their homes. Simultaneously, epidemics of asthma and other diseases associated with burning fossil fuels continuously worsen.

Cars are a big problem, both for global warming and the exhaustion of oil reserves. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the US produces 25% of carbon emissions. [1] Transportation causes a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. [2]

The wastefulness of the automobile is so staggering that “only about 10% of the chemical energy stored in the fuel tank actually drives the wheels.” [3] Amory Lovins computes that, with a 10% efficient car with a driver, passenger and luggage weighing 300 pounds (which is about 10% of the car weight), “only 1% of the fuel’s energy in the vehicle tank actually moves the payload.” [4]

There seems to be an unending stream of stories in the corporate media that biofuels and hybrid cars are the answer. Biofuels promise to reduce oil use and decrease pollution by making fuel from corn and soy instead of petroleum. By generating their own electricity, hybrid cars should emit fewer greenhouse gases because they use less gasoline.

Such techno-fixes look at only one part of transportation: the use of fuel to make a machine go. In reality, transportation is a system for moving around. That system requires energy for manufacture and disposal of machines, land use for moving and storing the things that move, many related impacts of transportation, and an ideology that weaves transportation into a society.

To get an idea of the real cost of transportation, look at the table which lists types of transportation systems across the top and consequences down the left side. [5] To get an approximation of real costs, put a “–10” for each consequence of gasoline. This represents current negative social and environmental effects of petroleum dependency. As you read this article, put negative or positive numbers for consequences of each type of transportation. A “–10” indicates that it is just as bad as gas; a “+10” that it is as good as gas is bad; and numbers close to “0” indicate consequences that are less clear.

Table 1. Types of Energy for Transportation and Their Consequences
Consequence A.
Mass transit
1. Energy to create               
2. Energy to operate               
3. Energy for disposal               
4. Land use to operate               
5. Land use to store               
6. Other effects               
7. Ideology of idolatry               
Total consequences               

The horror of the car

Let’s look at why gasoline gets a “–10” in every area.

1. Manufacture. According to Richard Heinberg, “more than half of the energy consumption attributable to each vehicle on the road occurs in the manufacturing process.” [6] Thus, unless an alternative mode of transportation has a significant reduction in manufacturing, it is not even addressing half the issue.

2. Operation. Driving cars results in huge releases of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Discussions of transportation typically limit themselves to this phase.

3. Disposal. A car battery has one of the widest arrays of toxic chemicals short of a nuclear dump. They contaminate areas throughout the world and poison countless generations.

4. Land use for roads. Roads break up neighborhoods, farms and animal habitat and contribute directly to global warming. Paved surfaces convert sunlight to heat and do not convert sunlight to photosynthesis as do the plants they eliminate.

5. Land use for storage. What could be uglier and ruin more urban areas than parking lots? Vast expanses of parking lots contribute to “urban warming,” which makes cities warmer than the surrounding countryside. [7]

The problem is not just parking lots at shopping centers, work, school, church, hospitals and sporting events — we have our own little parking lots at home. The millions of little driveways to home parking garages (which are mini-parking lots) comprise an extremely inefficient use of land and are contributors to urban warming.

6. Other effects. Negative effects from cars which are even less likely to make it into official equations include horrible pollution from burning off (“flaring”) unwanted gas from pipelines in Nigeria and elsewhere and over a million animals killed on US highways annually. Health effects from toxic automobile emissions could fill many volumes (and probably have).

“more than half of the energy consumption attributable to each vehicle on the road occurs in the manufacturing process.”

7. Ideology of idolatry. I remember going to church as a kid and hearing the preacher say that “idolatry” is not limited to worshipping a little carved figure but is any groveling after material possessions. US society has no idol as perverse, as pervasive and as evil as the automobile. The car is the apex and the focus of the ideology that the accumulation of objects is the source of all happiness. This accumulation of objects is killing Life on Earth. Any proposed energy plan that leaves the car unchallenged is a plan to increase the destruction of life and is not a plan to preserve it.

Biofuels, hybrids and motorcycles

Biofuels such as ethnol from corn and biodiesel from soy are often touted as the world’s great salvation from the scarcity of oil and its polluting consequences. Biofuels introduce problems even worse than oil. Brian Tokar concludes that “as a solution to long-term energy needs…the costs [of biofuels] would appear to far outweigh the benefits.” The small reductions in greenhouse gases from burning biofuels are outweighed by their environmental damage of increased deforestation, pesticide usage, nitrate runoff, and water depletion. One widely quoted study, from Cornell University and UC Berkeley, found that all domestic biofuels produce less energy than is needed for growing and processing crops. [8]

Biofuels do nothing to lessen the energy used for manufacturing or disposing of cars or lessen the harm of land usage for driving and parking cars. But biofuels require massive land use for growing crops, which means less food for people. Widespread use of biofuels would massively increase world hunger and transform wars for oil into wars for land to grow biofuel crops. If the “other effects” for gasoline are “–10,” should the rating for biofuels be even more negative?

Hybrid cars, on the other hand, offer real advantages by combining the use of electricity with gasoline. According to Consumer Reports, “All hybrids save fuel by using an integrated starter motor. It automatically shuts off the gasoline engine when the vehicle comes to a stop, such as at a stop sign or traffic light. The engine automatically starts again when needed.” [9] This results in less carbon dioxide emissions from the use of less gasoline.

The advantage of hybrids is much less than their enthusiasts might have us believe. The Consumer Reports rating for overall fuel economy of Toyota’s Prius is 44 mpg (not 50 to 60 mpg). This is better than 34 mph for the Volkswagon Jetta TDI, but hardly a night and day difference. [10]

Since hybrids average $3000 more than comparable cars, it is reasonable to ask if they require more energy to manufacture. Maybe not, because the $3000 could include initial costs for research and development. But a higher cost could be hidden by government tax credits to help hybrids gain a share of the market. [11] Though it is not possible to be certain without a full comparison between manufacturing hybrids and traditional cars, there is a real possibility that hybrids transfer energy from the driving portion of their use-cycle to the manufacturing phase.

There is no reason to believe that hybrids offer any advantage over conventional cars in terms of energy used for disposal, land used for roads or parking lots or road kill. The amount of fuel needed for driving is a real issue and no one doubts hybrids excel in this area. The hybrid with the best fuel economy is the Honda Insight, which Consumer Reports rates at 51 mpg. [12] To get this fuel savings, the Insight is a two-seater.

This leads to the question: If the greatest fuel saving in a hybrid comes from reducing the number of passengers, why not reduce it again from 2 to 1 and ride a motorcycle? Are there advantages of hybrids that have not been available for decades via motorcycles?

There is good reason for suspecting that motorcycles might have less total negative effect than hybrids. Being smaller, they certainly require less energy for manufacture and disposal than any car. Though they require road space, a “motorcycle lane” would be more enforceable and narrower than a “carpool lane.” Parking 1000 motorcycles would certainly require less space than parking 1000 cars. As for “other effects,” motorcycles have the worst noise pollution of any individual mode of transportation, but I have no idea of their contribution to road kill. Worship of motorcycles as idols of consumerism is perhaps a little less than that of cars.

Despite their popularity among environmentalists, both biofuels and hybrids leave the consumerist mentality untouched. For the category of “ideology of idolatry,” both could receive the same rating as gas-powered cars. Or perhaps give them an “11” or “12” for creating an obscenely false sense of security, much like advising someone to put a band-aid on an arterial wound.

Biofuels could have a positive but minuscule role as a use for discarded vegetable oil from restaurants. The potential for hybrids is much greater. If hybrids were promoted as part of a larger plan to reduce automobile production by 95% and require that those few cars that are manufactured be hybrids (or get equivalent gas mileage), we could be far more enthusiastic about them. I don’t think that is what Toyota and Honda have in mind. At least Philip-Morris pretends to believe that smoking is bad. The current fad for hybrids has more in common with a campaign to improve health by smoking low tar and nicotine cigarettes than it does with confronting the need to quit the addiction.

Sharing transportation

Shared rides and mass transit involve collective solutions rather than individual life style changes. There is so much hype over individuals making the decision to share rides that it is easy to overlook the fact that ride sharing is a collective approach to a social issue.

Car pooling, even with designated lanes, will have minimal environmental effects if the same number of people own cars and simply rotate whose turn it is to drive. Though it does reduce the number of cars on the road, it has no effect on the energy to manufacture cars and little, if any, effect on car ideology. Getting over the hang-up of paying for a ride (or accepting payment for a ride) might help the floundering car pool movement. It would definitely increase eagerness to seek out people who need rides. Perhaps many people would decide that, if they can get where they need to go by paying friends a few dollars, they would save money by not having a car.

Hitchhiking can be thought of as car pooling with a new friend. Since those who hitchhike are less likely to own cars, the practice is a strong plus for combating the ideology of consumerism. Perhaps the greatest barrier to hitchhiking is that it can land you in jail. For politicians who whine that environmentally friendly transportation is too expensive, a zero-cost option would be repealing laws against hitchhiking. It would cost very little money to encourage picking up hitchhikers by designating stops for those who agree to pay a specific amount per mile.

Motor pooling goes beyond car pooling because it involves an intentional reduction in the number of cars. Many state agencies and businesses have cars that employees can reserve for job-related travel. One of the most practical ways to decrease cars would be for housing cooperatives or co-housing groups to have a certain number of cars for every 100 families. People could use mass transit, bicycles or walking for the vast majority of their travel. They would reserve a car only for trips where mass transit was unlikely or they had to haul material. Mass transit must exist for motor pooling to effectively reduce the number of cars.

Mass transit is often promoted as one of the best options for energy reduction. The recognition is well deserved. Nevertheless, there is a downside to mass transit: a lightly loaded bus or train will use more energy per passenger than a car.

Auto companies have done their best to push car addiction and undermine mass transit. In the 1940s auto companies bought up several urban rail systems and ran them into the ground. Many US bus systems are so awful that it takes over two hours for what would be less than a 30-minute car ride. This includes long waits in what is often cold or wet weather.

Biofuels and hybrids actively undermine development of environmentally friendly mass transit…

Biofuels and hybrids actively undermine development of environmentally friendly mass transit in two ways. To be effective, mass transit must have a large number of users. Promotion of individual modes of transportation lowers the average occupancy on buses and trains. In addition, low costs for mass transit are based on people living in close proximity. Since biofuels and hybrids require the same land use for parking lots, they help spread out space needed for living and working, thereby working against the high density that mass transit depends on.

However, shared rides and mass transit are not positive across the board. Though definitely less damaging than gasoline-powered cars, they must still receive negative scores for energy to manufacture and energy for disposal. Mass transit requires less land use for operation and vastly less land use for storage.

One of the greatest positive effects of these collective modes of transportation is rejection of the ideology of individual consumption. I’ve never seen anyone bow down and worship a bus the same way many worship cars. Mass transportation represents a way of thinking that seeks solutions as a society.

Human-powered transportation

Cycling and walking require close to zero energy to operate. This is only one portion of their positive effects. Energy required to manufacture and dispose of bikes is tiny compared to autos and mass transit. Manufacturing to prepare for walking includes an extra winter coat and a hat for a sunny day.

Both require land use for travel paths, which is minuscule in comparison to roads for cars. Bikes require a little storage space and walking, none.

For every machine mode of transportation, operation involves road kill and the release of toxins which make the “other effects” a negative number. For cycling and walking, the “other effects” are a positive number. They are the only forms of transportation where people actually receive health benefits from moving from place to place. With our proud country suffering epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, it is unpatriotic to oppose tearing up roads and replacing them with walking paths. Osama bin Laden could not harm as many Americans in a lifetime as General Motors does in a day.

The most valuable part of person-powered transportation is that, to be effective, it requires a collective reassessment of how we want our society to change. We must decide together how we want to construct urban space so that people can readily get to where they need to go without contaminating their community.

The way we move about is not an isolated issue unrelated to other areas of our lives. Types of transportation we utilize affect other modes of transportation and how our communities are structured. If a society emphasizes biofuels and hybrid cars, it undermines mass transit. Bicycling and walking can only become major ways to get around if our homes are located in communities near work, schools, churches and recreation. Since these modes of transportation encourage social thinking rather than greedy individualism, they might be rated higher than “+10” for “ideology.”

Deep green vs. shallow green

If you don’t think it’s too corny to put numbers in the table, write them down now. The big picture will become much clearer as you add up the “total consequence” for each type of transportation. It should be “–70” for gasoline-powered cars, more negative for biofuels and a little less negative for hybrids. Totals should be a lot less negative for shared rides and mass transit, with a positive score under “ideology” for mass transit. For bicycles and walking, there should be several scores near zero and positive scores for “other effects” and “ideology.”

It cannot be stated too often that the value of biking and walking is not limited to saving the fuel from driving a machine. It must include savings from the fuel used to build and dismantle the machine, land usage and storage, bodily movement instead of breathing contaminants while watching animals die, and the creation of communities which share resources instead of mindlessly consuming.

There is a sharp divide between a “deep green” look at the social nature of ecological problems and the “shallow green” approach of corporate environmentalism. Deep greens emphasize that America can improve its health and quality of life while manufacturing fewer objects. Shallow greens are loath to say anything about the need to produce less and flee from addressing moral and political dilemmas of a growth economy.

Shallow greens often accuse deeps of being uncompromising and refusing to accept small steps in the right direction. Mass transit shows the opposite to be true. While mass transit has its negative aspects, it is a step in the right direction because it reduces the number of cars.

But mass transit needs population density and high use to be effective. Preserving cars via biofuels and hybrids requires using land space for driving and parking, thereby lowering population density. They lower usage by encouraging people to drive cars instead of ride trains. In both ways, the shallow green approach undermines mass transit. Chasing after techno-fixes to a social problem is not a small step in the right direction — it is a blind step in the wrong direction.


1. Stix, G., A climate repair manual. Scientific American, September 2006, 47.
2. Heywood, J., Fueling our transportation future. Scientific American, September 2006, 60.
3. Ibid, 61.
4. Ibid.
5. Many other types of transportation are not included in the table, such as air, water and animal.
6. Heinberg, R. The party’s over. New Society Publishers, 2003, 161.
7. Fitz, D., Ultra-storms, trees and urban warming. Synthesis/Regeneration, Winter 2007, 5–7.
8. Tokar, B., The real scoop on biofuels, Synthesis/Regeneration, Winter 2007, 8–9
9. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/pricing/guide-to-future-hybrid-models-406/overview/index.htm
10. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/buyingleasing/most-fuelefficient-cars-206/index.htm
11. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/new-cars/high-cost-of-hybrid-vehicles-406/overview/index.htm
12. ttp://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/buyingleasing/most-fuelefficient-cars-206/index.htm

[2 apr 07]

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