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Another billion cars and Obama's green initiatives

By: staff

Date: Sunday, 22. February 2009

If you think we've got congestion now think what it will be like in 20 years time, with twice as many cars!

If we project today's cars into the future and imagine what it will be like when another billion people around the world realize their dream of automobile ownership, we could be looking at a very bleak future indeed - a future filled with pollution, fuel shortages, congestion and constant roadway combat for scarce space.

On the other hand, we can have two billion cars, avoid congestion, save our environment, reduce pollution, and enjoy our automobile freedoms if we do things the right way, maintain transportation policy analysts Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

Gordon and Sperling have a book coming out in 2009 titled Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability . In a preview paper published in the Transportation Research Board (TRB) newsletter last November the two analysts reviewed the problems that more cars will bring in the next two decades unless big changes are made in car design, fuel alternatives, planning and lifestyles.

"The world can accommodate two billion or more vehicles, but a transformation of the auto and oil industries�and eventually, of transportation systems �will be required," write Gordon and Sperling.

The book might well be a blueprint for US President Barack Obama's green initiatives and a guide to upcoming projects and job prospects in transportation.

Daniel Sperling is an engineering and environmental science professor at the University of California, and a member of the TRB�s special task force on climate change and energy. Deborah Gordon is a transportation and energy policy analyst and a past member of the TRB energy Committee. Their paper was a focus of discussion at the TRB's annual conference in Washington this past January. The theme of the conference was Climate Change and Transportation.

They point out that vehicle miles traveled have outpaced population growth around the world, and even in the United States, despite its already-high level of vehicle ownership. Even after five years of increases in gasoline prices the increase has continued, with 2008 being the first year in decades in which vehicle miles traveled did not increase.

Aside from the current severe economic downturn, increasing incomes and the rise of the middle classes in countries such as India and China mean a boom in demand for vehicles. These rising middle classes want the same conveniences and privileges western countries have had during the golden years of the automobile. They're not too pleased when previously wasteful western countries tell them that now they have to cut back on auto mobility and meet pollution standards set by those same countries.

The key to freedom

Gordon and Sperling's paper makes one thing clear � the planet can't sustain another billion vehicles with the same pollution impact and oil demands that the previous billion had. But it can sustain auto mobility if the entire system of vehicle use, land use and energy use transforms into something more sustainable.

Cars offer "unprecedented freedom, flexibility, convenience and comfort � they bestow untold benefits on their owners." In other words, we're not going to give them up. Given that reality, we have to look at the options available to maintain auto-mobility without devastating the planet.

"The key to change is greater choice for travelers," the report says. However, in this regard, North America faces a huge obstacle to progress. Over the past half century the automobile has had such an impact on lifestyles and the layout of cities that it will take massive efforts to bring about change.

Cities that developed and grew under the influence of the automobile (such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston), typically have small commercial downtown hubs surrounded by sprawling residential and commercial suburbs. In these situations, public transportation doesn't work very well. In fact, transit buses in many cities have such low ridership that they are less energy efficient than car travel, measured on a passenger-mile basis.

Given this, and the social lack of acceptance of public transit, getting people out of their cars is a real challenge. It's going to take a transformation in energy use, vehicle use and mobility options.

"Innovations such as smart paratransit, intelligent carsharing, dynamic ride sharing and the use of telecommunications to rationalize and even replace tripmaking," are the way of the future, states the report.

The key to optimizing the use of these alternatives will be better land use management. Neighborhoods will develop to favor more walking, fewer trips, and more convenient and economical use of mass transit.

Alternative fuels

Other than ethanol in Brazil, write Gordon and Sperling, "alternative fuels have not dislodged, or even competed with petroleum fuels." The dominant fuels of the future, they say, will be a mixture of biofuels, electricity and hydrogen. "Electricity and hydrogen will fuel electric-drive vehicles, with biofuels gradually replacing petroleum fuels in combustion engines � probably including jet engines."

The Two billion Cars report doesn't see much future in ethanol, especially ethanol made from corn. The ethanol made from sugarcane in Brazil is a more attractive option but, says the report, the conditions in Brazil are unique and not likely to be replicated elsewhere. "The future of biofuels is promising," it adds, "but the principal fuel produced from biomass will not be ethanol and the principal feedstock will not be corn."

"The imperative for alternative fuels is not that the world is running out of oil but that it is running out of conventional oil." The unconventional oil which could replace it, such as Canada's tar sands oil, is expensive to produce and environmentally dirty.

"The question is whether oil companies will invest their profits to deliver a new array of low carbon transportation fuels. For this to occur, the oil companies would have to transform themselves into broader energy companies that supply not only petroleum fuels but also biofuels, hydrogen, and possibly electricity."

The future

The transformation described above require leadership, says the Two Billion Cars report.

"The desire for personal mobility can be accommodated even while reducing the environmental and geopolitical impacts. Two overarching principles are suggested. First, develop consistent incentives to empower and motivate people and organizations. Second, advance a broad portfolio of energy-efficient, low-carbon technologies.

"This vision requires pervasive changes over a long period of time."

Gordon and Sperling urge the transportation community to "summon its ingenuity and take a big step forward. Intelligence, leadership and a moral vision can transform the economy and society."

With an "upsurge in innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership" and new options in sustainable travel, "the planet will eventually be able to accommodate two billion cars."

Two Billion cars: driving towards sustainability, is being published by Oxford University Press.

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Any stimulus money that creates jobs also creates taxpayers. However, if the jobs are in these green industries then the payoff is multiplied. Instead of sitting around on unemployment, people working in these industries are not only being productive and creating wealth, they are also building a more sustainable future for all of us.


I'm a driver who commutes 50 km each way. Traffic congestion gets more frustrating each day. I'm in favor of anythign that gets drivers off the road and onto public transportation. I dont' have that option but others might, so I hope the Obama green initiatives will move quickly in providing transportation alternatives.


It's hard to give up your car, even with everything within easy walking distance and the subway across the street, as I have.

This situation is the best that urban life has to offer. There's even an autoshare across the street. But a personal car is always right there, night and day, and it can store stuff. It's like a living room extension. It's a fantastic convenience and freedom.

However, the cost becomes a big factor. Less trips, a more economical model, and public transit that is clean and efficient, all make it actually easier to maintain a car, even though it's not used anything like as much as a suburban dweller would use it.

Having the choice is a luxury that may be denied coming generations unless cars change dramatically.

texas walker,

I think it would be better to spend the billions going to the auto manufacturers on the kind of green initiatives mentioned above rather than supporting more cars. Sure we'll always want cars but we also want neighborhoods where you can get around without driving.

Where I live there are actually no sidewalks. Not much shops either unless I hop in my car and drive. i could rack up a hundred miles just with regular shoppng on groceries and goign ot the Wallmart


There could be no better investment in America than to invest in America becoming energy independent! We need to utilize everything in out power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil including using our own natural resources.Create cheap clean energy, new badly needed green jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.The high cost of fuel this past year seriously damaged our economy and society. The cost of fuel effects every facet of consumer goods from production to shipping costs. After a brief reprieve gas is inching back up.OPEC will continue to cut production until they achieve their desired 80-100. per barrel.If all gasoline cars, trucks, and SUV's instead had plug-in electric drive trainsthe amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota.There is a really good new book out by Jeff Wilson called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now.

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