Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Negative Externalities of the Auto

An article in The Dallas Morning News about particulate matter and the DFW area got me to thinking about a new post for my blog. I won't go into too much detail about the piece, other than more and more studies are showing that particulate matter pollution at lower levels are more harmful to the general public's health than previously thought. The majority of this pollution comes from the tailpipe.

It is articles like this that reinforce my stance that cars need to come further down in use and into a more balanced transportation system as a whole. While I can think of numerous other reasons, I haven't put them into one comprehensive post before. So without further ado, here's some of the reasons I know of car's negatively effecting the general public.

My number one personal reason has and most likely will always be for environmental reasons. Supporting this stances, and said far more eloquently than I ever could, are books similar to Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation. The North Central Texas Council of Governments tracks the pollution data locally, but the one that everyone has been focused on nationally is ozone. The numbers may be old, but 47% of all smog causing agents came from exhaust in DFW. Compound that with expected increase in auto travel and the ability to fight that regional becomes much harder. Barring lobbying for stricter pollution controls and emission standards, this is out of the reach of any regional or smaller government. That means near half of the emissions are untouchable. Sure there are programs that they can do that will encourage people to buy newer and less polluting cars, but that is minor when spread over a region of six million people.

Now, it appears that particulate matter is next on the list of pollutants that are more harmful than we knew before. How many more health harming pollution issues are going to keep arising? The list from the past is long too. Lead, carbon dioxide, smog, ozone, etc. have all been targeted in the past with varying degrees of success. Each time progress is made, another issue or pollutant becomes apparent.

On top of all that, the above only accounts for direct use. There are pollution and environmental concerns for manufacturing, disposal and maintenance for the vehicles. Fuel, transmission fluid, brake fluid, battery acid and other components also cause environmental degradation. Even when the vehicle in in motion, bits of tires are being sanded off. When you brake, metallic brake dust is being ejected. I consider this a hidden environmental cost of car use. Many people are focused on reducing gas consumption through increased fuel efficiency as the answer. I know several environmentally-minded people who think their hybrid is the answer. However, that doesn't account for what was listed directly above and only marginally reduces overall fuel consumption. In my opinion, the real answer is going to have to come through whole scale changes in the way we build our cities.

Speaking of cities, I mentioned some previous posts about how a car-favored city will always struggle to have a great urban environment on any large scale. The best that can be done are small, quaint downtowns surrounded by surface parking, as seen in cities like Grapevine, Carrollton or even Arlington. Transit can help, but until zoning codes reflect a more urban-style development, it will always struggle. The main reason is the space needed to store cars is tremendous. In the Sunbelt, the number one use of land is for parking (one of my biggest gripes is even this is hidden, as the land is actually categorized by its zoning classification). A number that I have seen floated around (though never with a source) is that the City of Houston has 34 parking spaces per resident. That is more space than their house and workplace combined.

That leads me to...the actual infrastructure, which is extremely inefficient in numerous ways. The first is the amount of land required. Since our roadways are effectively conduits for the car and little more, they are basically car infrastructure. The closer into the old urban core you go, the more likely you are to see transit, pedestrians and cyclists on those streets balancing the transportation system, but they are increasingly the exception. If those car-centric streets are added in with the freeway system and the parking from the previous point, the vast majority of the land in a "modern" American city is dedicated to storing and transporting cars.

Consider this point. One freeway lane can transport 2,000 cars an hour. In peak direction, U.S. 75 can handle 8,000 cars an hour (despite the diminishing returns of adding more lanes, I use that number for easy math). At full capacity, a light rail line can carry roughly 10,000 peak direction, on 1/5th the land. As I have explained in previous entries, cities like Dallas may struggle to reach capacity based on the system design and city layout. But, all things equal, transit is the better choice for moving the most people on the least amount on any distance. The most efficient mode of transport is walking. Sidewalks can carry thousands upon thousands of people in a short time. But, since this is America and very little is walkable or even in walking distance, it is rarely chosen. In places where the design supports it, that is usually the most common choice.

By my rough estimate, there are 23 freeway lanes leading out of downtown. That means roughly 46,000 cars an hour. At an occupancy rate of 1.2 per vehicle, downtown evacuates 55,000 people an hour. Downtown employs 130,000 people. That math doesn't add up. Add in the fact that only 20 percent of the traffic around downtown during rush hour actually comes from downtown and the shortcoming becomes quite apparent.

In a way, the takeover of the street from a multi-modal system to what it is now is another externality. A road built for only the car will see little walking, transit or biking activity. It will also mean less everyday activity, which is another problem.

Health and safety is another big issue for me. I mentioned the pollution, but that is not all. The obesity rate in this country would decline is more people were able to get out and walk to accomplish day-to-day activities. This review of another book I own documents this quite effectively. Bottom line, you know there is a problem when doctor and medical groups are beginning to speak out against current development patterns.

On that same note, it would take 50 years of average Iraq War casualties to equal one year of auto fatalities. A big reason President Barack Obama beat out John McCain for president was the general public's war weariness. Yet cars go on at a much greater rate unnoticed by the general public. Now I will grant that the number of fatalities has decreased over the past two decades, much of it due to safety features of newer cars, but it can be a mixed blessing. Accidents that previously would have killed occupants only severely injure them now. In 2005, there were 42, 636 people killed in car crashes. There were almost 3 million injured. While the deaths are decreasing, the injuries are rising.

I tried to keep this post on the public costs, but there certainly are private concerns for users in picking their transportation mode. My opinion, though, is for each person to be able to have that choice. Sadly, particularly in my neck of the country, there is little choice to be had. That is one of the big reasons I wanted to pursue planning. If we can correct some issues, build in moderation, allow connectivity of the built environment, many of these negatives will be reduced.

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