Energy-Efficient Personal Vehicles of the Near Future

Smart Growth advocates are concerned about the energy consumed by America’s many cars and the emissions they produce. With gas nearing $4 a gallon, it’s hard not to share these concerns. However, the solutions commonly proposed–densification to support rail and bus travel–often don’t work well in practice. Many homebuyers resist being packed into dense neighborhoods where costs per square foot are high, greenspace is scarce, roads are congested and parking is hard to find. And, too, commutes by public transit typically take twice as long as commutes by car.

The May/June briefing from describes how companies are working to combine the convenience and comfort of personal vehicles with the need to be gentle on the environment. These innovators include:

Honda (FCX Clarity)

Tesla Motors

Dodge (Zeo)

Chevrolet (Volt)

Myers Motors (NmG)

Subaru (R1e)


Nissan (Pivo)

La Petite Reine (Cargocyles that move goods around a city at lower cost)

These vehicles won’t resolve all the issues surrounding sprawl and growth, but they may well address some important problems more effectively–and with greater consumer satisfaction–than “transit-oriented development” and throwing more money at rail and bus systems.

Rapid and welcome innovations in transport underscore one of the difficulties of urban planning: unpredictable changes in technology. Major, hard-to-reverse sacrifices–such as paving over in-town greenspace in the name of densification–become harder to justify when more palatable and flexible solutions are in the offing. A good urban plan, with few exceptions, is one that is cautious, humble, gradual, broad-minded, respectful of citizens’ preferences, and adaptable.

See also:

Metro Portland’s Long Experience with Smart Growth: A Cautionary Tale
home price inflation was found to be greater than expected in most of
the states that embraced smart growth, including Oregon, Washington,
Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Colorado…

growth policies actually caused increased suburbanization in Portland,
which now has the 10th greatest suburbanization rate in U.S. As home
prices went up in the site-restricted metropolitan area, families moved
further out to find affordable housing…

There is very little
evidence that other aspects of restricted growth policies have reduced
households’ costs in other areas to offset the increased costs of
housing. In economic terms, it is safe to say that restricted growth
policies are not family-friendly…

Portland Suburb Successfully Staves Off Densification
In 1995, county planners came to the neighborhood and said they wanted
to rezone the area to make it easier to walk around and ride bicycles.
There are no sidewalks in the area, but because the area is so low in
density, people do not hesitate to walk or ride bicycles.

…people don’t want to live in high densities, especially when there are
planner-induced parking shortages. A state regulation requires Portland
to reduce its parking by 10 percent, so new developments are often
built with limited parking. Since developers won’t build what they
can’t sell, planners have to subsidize them to get them to build
high-density developments.

People Cannot Live on Boutiques Alone: The Myth of Northwest 23rd
Northwest 23rd Avenue in Portland, Oregon sounds a bit like Main Street
in Northampton. It is “lined with classy shops and restaurants” that
attract visitors from a wide area. To be sure, these are both pleasant
destinations. We are glad to have them around. However, they are not
sufficient for meeting all the core needs of most residents with any
degree of efficiency. Cars and big box stores currently offer a
compelling value proposition that must be acknowledged. If planners
want to do away with them, they need to present alternatives that will
be cost-effective and time-efficient for people with ordinary incomes.

LA Weekly: “City Hall’s ‘Density Hawks’ Are Changing L.A.’s DNA
The shift is pushing L.A. from its suburban model of single-family
homes with gardens or pools — the reason many come here — toward an
urban template of shrinking green patches and multistory buildings of
mostly renters…

LA Weekly: “What’s Smart About Smart Growth?” (5/30/07)
caption:] 11.7 m.p.h.: Average speed of L.A. buses. Yet City Hall pols
hope buses will somehow handle the human crush once their plans for
multistory living take hold…

[Sharon] Tohline decided to do her part and hop on the bus. Now, she has a commute that consumes three hours each day…

[Pasadena resident Barbara Hamilton] can’t imagine living in the
apartments — at $2,030 for a one-bedroom — built above the railroad
tracks. “They say the windows insulate them from the noise,” she
declares. “But wouldn’t you want to open the windows now and then?”

Scrape-Off Redevelopments Provoke Backlash in Denver Neighborhoods
Supporters [of lower-density zoning] said the increased density from the multiple-unit structures
was ruining the character of the two neighborhoods, which are comprised
of predominately single-family detached homes.

The outcropping of multifamily structures has cast shadows on gardens,
increased traffic and created parking wars, among other quality of life
issues, they said…

Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’
Steven Greenhut, a columnist for the Orange County Register, is critical of [Bozeman’s] Portland-style growth controls:

Creating unattractive and high-density projects in a place
awash in open space only pushes people farther out into the
countryside. In Belgrade, eight miles away, one finds market-driven
suburban-style subdivisions. That city does not have many restrictions,
and those who cannot afford Bozeman or who want a bigger place simply
move away, thus promoting the sprawl that Smart Growthers are trying to

Randal O’Toole: “Dense Thinkers” (Reason Magazine, January 1999)
“decline” of cities that officials worry so much about is due to the
fact that cars, telephones, and electricity make it possible for people
to live in lower densities–and most choose to do so…

“Sprawl and Congestion—is Light Rail and Transit-Oriented Development
the Answer?”

The motor vehicle has enriched our lives in countless ways. It has
provided the easy connectivity that enables modern, highly
interdependent, urban societies to thrive. It has eliminated rural
isolation. It has enabled workers to choose employers rather than
accept whatever employment opportunities are within walking or transit
distance of their homes. The personal truck allowed craftspeople and
artisans to carry their tools with them and enter the middle class by
becoming independent contractors. The motor vehicle has enabled people
to live outside urban centers and still participate in mainstream

The car is an amazing piece of technology that has
greatly extended our range of choice as to where to live, work, shop,
and play. No other form of transport can compete with the automobile in
terms of door-to-door mobility, freedom to time one’s arrivals and
exits, protection from inclement weather, and comfort, security, and
privacy while in transit.[2]

…There is a misconception that rail is an energy efficient,
environmentally benign technology. While that impression has
considerable truth when applied to long-haul freight, it is not true of
rail as a passenger device in US urban communities. The automobile
consumption of fuel per passenger mile, in 1993, was 3,593 BTUs. Rail
transit was higher, 3,687 BTUs.[20] But actually, the picture for rail
is considerably worse. The automobile takes its passengers directly
from origin to destination, but rail typically requires supplemental
trips to and/or from the station, whether park-and-ride, kiss-and-ride,
or by bus…

Further, urban rail systems require local transit
operators to alter bus routes to “feed” the rail, due to the limited
coverage of its stations and its higher capacity. These feeder lines,
as in Portland, are among the least cost-effective and least
energy-efficient of the bus lines. And buses are far more
fuel-consuming per passenger mile than automobiles (4,374 BTUs/mile vs.
3,593 BTUs), and are even less fuel efficient than trains (3,687

…not a single light rail line in America carries as many passengers as one conventional freeway lane…

[Locales like Portland are tempted to embark on boondoggle rail
projects in order to avail themselves of federal government subsidies:
“It’s predictable that public bureaucrats, the construction industry
and unions, certain professional service providers, and even business
associations would promote such projects, each reaching for a chance to
cash in on some piece of the action.”]

NY Times Magazine: “The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)”
Even with $5-per-gallon gasoline, the number of cars per capita in
Europe has been growing faster than in America in recent decades, while
the percentage of commuters using mass transit has been falling. As the
suburbs expand, Europe’s cities have been losing people, too. Paris is
a great place to visit, but in the past half-century it has lost
one-quarter of its population…

Intellectuals’ distaste for the car and suburbia, and their fondness
for rail travel and cities, are an odd inverse of the old aristocratic
attitudes. The suburbs were quite fashionable when only the upper
classes could afford to live there…

Some…especially the
young and the childless, are moving back to cities, and once again
there are private developers ready to meet their desires, which now run
toward lofts and historic town houses with modern kitchens. But for
most middle-class families, the ideal of city life conflicts with the
reality of their own lives. Even if they’re willing to do without a
yard, how can they afford to live in a decent neighborhood within easy
commute of their jobs? How will they go shopping on a rainy day with a
child in tow?

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Scott proposes guidelines to reduce the potential harm from plans. These include:

Take small steps. In an experimental approach to
social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our
interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer
wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then
plan the next small move…

Favor reversibility. Prefer
interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be
mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.
Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect,
given our great ignorance about how they interact…

Plan on surprises.
Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen…
In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for
accommodating changes in family structures or living styles…

Plan on human inventiveness.
Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the
project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to
improve on the design… (p.345)