Aiming at the Right Target

The automotive system, at the center of Figure 1.4, exemplifies many of the challenges of sustainability. Even a cursory evaluation of the automotive system indicates that attention is being focused on the wrong target, thus illustrating the fundamental truth: a strictly technological solution is unlikely to mitigate fully a problem that is culturally influenced. Engineering improvements of the vehicle—its energy use, emissions, recyclability, and so forth, on which much attention has been lavished—have been truly spectacular. Nonetheless, and contrary to the usual understanding, the greatest attention (so far as the system is concerned) should probably be directed to the highest levels: the infrastructure technologies and the social structure. Consider the energy and environmental impacts that result from just two of the major system components required by the use of automobiles. First, construction and maintenance of the "built" infrastructure—the roads and highways, the bridges and tunnels, the garages and parking lots—involve huge environmental impacts. Second, energy required to build and maintain that infrastructure, the natural areas that are perturbed or destroyed in the process, the amount of materials demanded— from aggregate to fill to asphalt—are all required by and are attributable to the automobile culture. In addition, a primary customer for the petroleum sector and its refining, blending, and distribution components—and, therefore, causative agent for much of its environmental impacts—is the automobile. Efforts are being made by a few leading infrastructure and energy production firms to reduce their environmental impacts, but these technological and management advances, desirable as they are, cannot in themselves begin to compensate for the increased demand generated by the cultural patterns of automobile use.

The final and most fundamental effect of the automobile may be in the geographical patterns of population distribution for which it has been a primary impetus. Particularly in lightly populated and highly developed countries, such as Canada and Australia, the automobile has resulted in a diffuse pattern of residential and business development that is otherwise unsustainable. Lack of sufficient population density along potential mass transit corridors makes public transportation uneconomic within many such areas, even where absolute population density would seem to augur otherwise (e.g., in the densely populated suburban New Jersey in the United States). This transportation infrastructure pattern, once established, is highly resistant to change in the short term, if for no other reason than the fact that residences and commercial buildings last for decades.

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