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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Five Myths?

The authors say these are myths:

5 Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture, by Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, Commentary, Washington Post: They don't rate up there with cancer and al-Qaeda … but suburban sprawl and automobiles are rapidly acquiring a reputation as scourges of modern American society. Sprawl, goes the typical indictment, devours open space, exacerbates global warming and causes pollution, social alienation and even obesity. And cars are the evil co-conspirator -- the driving force, so to speak, behind sprawl. Yet the anti-suburbs culture has also fostered many myths about sprawl and driving…:

1. Americans are addicted to driving.

...Some claim that Europeans have developed an enlightened alternative. ... Europeans may enjoy top-notch transit and endure gasoline that costs $5 per gallon, but in fact they don't drive much less than we do. In the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel. In Europe, the figure is about 78 percent. And Europeans are gaining on us.

The key factor that affects driving habits isn't population density, public transit availability, gasoline taxes or even different attitudes. It's wealth. Europe and the United States are relatively wealthy, but American incomes are 15 to 40 percent higher than those in Western Europe. And as nations such as China and India become wealthier, the portion of their populations that drive cars will grow.

2. Public transit can reduce traffic congestion.

…Even though spending on public transportation has ballooned to more than seven times its 1960s levels, the percentage of people who use it to get to work fell 63 percent from 1960 to 2000 and now stands at just under 5 percent nationwide. Transit is also decreasing in Europe, down to 16 percent in 2000. ...

We have to be realistic about what transit can accomplish. Suppose we could not only reverse transit's long slide but also triple the size of the nation's transit system and fill it with riders. Transportation guru Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution notes that this enormous feat would be "extremely costly" and, even if it could be done, would not "notably reduce" rush-hour congestion, primarily because transit would continue to account for only a small percentage of commuting trips.

But public transit still has an important role. Millions of Americans rely on it as a primary means of transportation. Transit agencies should focus on serving those who need transit the most: the poor and the handicapped...

3. We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving.

Polls often show that Americans think that air quality is deteriorating. Yet air is getting much cleaner. … Air quality has been improving for a long time. More stringent regulations and better technology have allowed us to achieve what was previously unthinkable: driving more and getting cleaner. Since 1970, driving -- total vehicle miles traveled -- has increased 155 percent, and yet the EPA reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures. Although driving is increasing by 1 to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually. Pollution will wane even more as motorists continue to replace older, dirtier cars with newer, cleaner models.

4. We're paving over America.

How much of the United States is developed? Twenty-five percent? Fifty? Seventy-five? How about 5.4 percent? That's the Census Bureau's figure. And even much of that is not exactly crowded: The bureau says that an area is "developed" when it has 30 or more people per square mile. ... One need only take a cross-country flight and look down, however, to realize that our nation is mostly open space. ... The United States is not coming anywhere close to becoming an "Asphalt Nation," to use the title of a book by Jane Holtz Kay.

5. We can't deal with global warming unless we stop driving.

What should be done about global warming? The Kyoto Protocol seeks to get the world to agree to burn less fossil fuel and emit less carbon dioxide, and much of that involves driving less. But even disregarding the treaty's economic costs, Kyoto's environmental impact would be slight. ... Nations such as China and India were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol; yet if we're serious about reversing global warming by driving less, the developing world will have to be included.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change … expects the temperature to rise 1.4 to 5.8 degrees by 2100. What does the IPCC think the effects of global warming may be? Flooding may increase. Infectious diseases may spread. Heat-related illness and death may increase. Yet as the IPCC notes repeatedly, the severity of such outcomes is enormously uncertain.

On the other hand, there's great certainty regarding who would be hurt the most: poor people in developing nations, especially those who lack clean, piped water and are thus vulnerable to waterborne disease. The IPCC points out that … simple measures such as adding screens to windows can help prevent diseases (including malaria, dengue and yellow fever) from entering homes. …

Two ways of dealing with global warming emerge. A more stringent version of Kyoto could be crafted to chase the unprecedented goal of trying to cool the atmosphere of the entire planet. Yet if such efforts resulted in lower economic growth, low-income populations in the United States and developing countries would be less able to protect themselves from the ill effects of extreme heat or other kinds of severe weather.

Alternatively, the focus could be on preventing the negative effects -- the disease and death -- that global warming might bring. Each year malaria kills 1 million to 3 million people, and one-third of the world's population is infected with water- or soil-borne parasitic diseases. It may well be that dealing with global warming by building resilience against its possible effects is more productive -- and more realistic -- than trying to solve the problem by driving our automobiles less.

On (1), how does saying that Europe will soon drive as much as we do, that public transportation doesn't change driving habits much, and that if we get wealthier we'll drive more show that "Americans are addicted to driving" is a myth? Arguing that everyone in the world is addicted to driving doesn't prove Americans are not.

Point (3) seems hard to swallow too. The argument is that pollution levels have been declining even as the number of cars have increased, therefore there's no need to do anything to reduce driving. But that doesn't mean that cutting the number of cars wouldn't cut pollution even more. It's also notable that all the arguments are about particulate levels at the ground level, not about about green house gases.

All in all, a pretty lame defense of doing nothing to try and prevent global warming. Basically the proposal in the last paragraph is to forget about driving less to try and combat global warming. Instead, we should fight malaria and other diseases as a means of "building resilience against its possible effects." Let's fight those diseases with all our might anyway, but really, what a dumb idea for fighting global warming.

Update: Paul Krugman sends along this graph on the price of gas and fuel consumption.

    Posted by on Sunday, January 28, 2007 at 03:10 AM in Economics, Environment, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (67)

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