Chris Rall’s Transportation Tirade: A heretic in the land of the exalted hybrid

First, 10 percent of the energy consumption associated with a car’s life cycle is from manufacturing the car.


Published March 20, 2007 by The Arcata Eye 
By Chris Rall 


Transportation is responsible for 45 percent of Arcata’s greenhouse gas emissions<sup>1</sup>. This is an issue where each person’s actions are what could really make the difference. In eco-groovy Humboldt County and other liberal enclaves, many folks have taken to buying hybrid cars so they can feel like they are doing something good for the environment. There is good sentiment here, but a big problem. Hybrids aren’t all that great for the environment.

Let’s start with manufacturing. When you buy a car, any car, you are responsible for huge environmental impacts. First, 10 percent of the energy consumption associated with a car’s life cycle is from manufacturing the car. But more than half of the toxic emissions associated with the car lifecycle are associated with making and disposing of a car. Hybrids are no exception in this regard. So buying a brand new hybrid instead of using the car you already have might help reduce energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, but it will increase production of toxic chemicals<sup>2</sup>.

The second issue is all the impacts of driving that have little to do with energy use or air pollution. Automobiles take up a lot of space, using up land that might otherwise be parks, farmland or wildlife habitat. In the U.S. an area the size of Ohio has been paved over<sup>3</sup>. Hybrids are no different than any other cars in contributing to congestion that provides impetus to widen roads and provide ample parking that contributes to this problem.

Car-dependent transportation also creates a dangerous environment which leaves one third of our citizens stranded. Dangerous environment, you ask? How does a 9/11 attack every month sound to you in terms of danger? Cars are even deadlier than that, killing about 3,500 Americans every month<sup>4</sup>. When a hybrid is in an accident, they have to bring in the HazMat team in case the big batteries spilled. Public transportation is five to 10 times safer per passenger mile<sup>5</sup>, but we view car dependency as an essential American freedom. Does the carnage associated with car-dependency buy us freedom? Not really. The young and old who cannot drive represent a third of Americans, and then there are those that can’t afford cars. They are not feeling very free in car land.

Owning a car costs $5,000 per year on average<sup>6</sup>. Our car dependent arrangement on the landscape causes major financial hardship for those struggling to make car payments or pay the insurance or repair bill on their old beater. By buying a hybrid, one buys into this system that keeps the poor struggling. Are you not forcing others to be car dependent? Can other people easily visit your far flung house without using a car, such as friends, workmen, gardeners or cleaning service workers?

A looming question with hybrids is whether they are actually successful at reducing emissions. Here’s the rub. People with hybrids drive further, so they do not reduce emissions as much as the improved fuel efficiency might have you believe. The increased use of a cheaper service (in this case the ability to drive further on a tank of gas) is called “takeback effect<sup>7</sup>.” The likely increase in driving by hybrid owners means that their contribution to a dangerous, congested and car-dependent street environment is likely increased.<sup>8</sup>

When you look at the magnitude of our energy problems, and the meagerness of energy savings, hybrids don’t cut the mustard. If we want to reduce emissions by 80 percent sometime in this century, and we all switch to hybrids and keep driving, we might cut our automotive carbon emissions in half (which is grossly optimistic given the EPA’s over-estimates of hybrid fuel efficiency, the automotive industry’s emphasis on performance, rather than efficiency in hybrids, and the “takeback effect”). Since this still leaves substantial transportation emissions in place (22 percent of the original total) we could completely eliminate all other emissions (no more home heating or hot water) and still would not reach our goal.

Switching our automotive fleet to hybrids could begin to help us face global warming and oil depletion problems, but if we are lulled into viewing it as a panacea, we are in for a rude awakening. If you want to help slow global warming, consider going car free or reducing the number of vehicles your family owns. If you must buy a new car, get a hybrid, or some other fuel efficient car. If you already blew $22k on a hybrid, don’t let the “takeback effect” take you! Walk, bike, ride the bus, carpool, and only drive alone as a last resort.

<sup>1</sup> City of Arcata. 2000. Community Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Forecast.


<sup>3 </sup>Elvidge, C. D., C. Milesi, J. B. Dietz, B. T. Tuttle, P. C. Sutton, R. Nemani and J. E. Vogelmann. 2004. U.S. Constructed Area Approaches the Size of Ohio. Eos 85:233-240.

<sup>4</sup> National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2006. Traffic Safety Facts: 2005 Data.

<sup>5</sup> Todd Litman. 2005. Terrorism, Transit and Public Safety. Journal of Public Transit 8:33-46.

<sup>6</sup> American Automobile Association. 2005. Your Driving Costs.

7 Alexander, M. 1997. The Takeback Effect in Energy Conservation, PhD Dissertation

8 Litman, Todd. 2005. Efficient Vehicles Versus Efficient Transportation: Comparing Transportation Energy Conservation Strategies. Victoria Transportation Policy Institute.

Chris was inspired to write this column by his friend Sara who hates all cars, including hybrids, and by the fact that he got way better fuel economy per passenger mile in a Ford Expedition with three other people than you could ever get driving alone in a hybrid. He is a member of Arcata’s Transportation Safety Committee.