Here in Portland, Oregon, the self-proclaimed green capitol of the world (a lot of which is true), the politics of the automobile are in plain sight. Hordes of Toyota Prius and other hybrid cars glide silently by on the streets (as one friend says, decreasing the smog but increasing the smug). A growing number of gas stations sell locally-made biodiesel, and some businesses and government agencies have/are converting their fleets to this fuel. These are positive trends for the environment and the economy, and they demonstrate that individuals can make choices that are "correct." What troubles me, however, is that these correct trends might also be ignoring the real issues, what I call the politics of the automobile.
The lead story in today's newspaper Autos section reads: "Lexus brings GS hybrid up to speed." The article, about the 2007 Lexus (Toyota) GS 450h, is about, in the writer's words, "the world's first luxury hybrid hot rod." For only $55,000 or more, you can get a hybrid car that does 0-60-miles per hour in just 5.2 seconds!! Great - a totally luxurious car that goes real fast, and is a hybrid, meaning it's also a "correct" car. Well...not exactly. Like a lot of the new hybrids on the market, both Japanese and American, this automobile has the hybrid technology primarily for one reason, greater acceleration. The Lexus GS 450h is EPA rated at 25 city/28 highway gas mileage. That's what we get with our 1993 V6 Toyota Camry XLE (see my Automobile Part 1)! A quick look at a government site about fuel efficiency reveals the following:
2006 Lexus GS 300/GS 430 (non-hybrid): 22/30 MPG, $1566 annual fuel cost
2007 Lexus ES 350 (non-hybrid): 21/30 MPG, $1566 annual fuel cost
2007 Lexus GS 450h (hybrid): 25/28 MPG, $1507 annual fuel cost.
So the new Lexus hybrid uses slightly less fuel in the city and more on the highway than last years non-hybrid model, and saves about $60 a year in fuel costs; now that's progress! To be fair, the new hybrid has a much better EPA rating for air emissions - a good thing.
What am I trying to say here? While hybrid technology and alternative fuels are good things, let's not overlook the basic fact that these are all variations on a theme - the automobile as the basic mode of transportation. I've often thought that if we had to do an Environmental Impact Statement for the automobile, we might not be driving them in the future. The automobile has been the driving force (pun intended) behind a lot of our urban design and many other social and economic aspects of our culture. Too many of us define ourselves by the car we drive, hence the development of the fast luxury car and the monster SUV - machines that really don't make a lot of sense.
Meanwhile, back in Portland, the green capitol of the world, it seems like a growing number of people are thinking about the politics of the automobile. During the daily commute, some streets look like the photos we used to see from China, with hundreds of bicyclists peddling to and from work. Buses and light-rail commuter trains are filled with people. Urban development in and around the downtown is booming, attracting many new city dwellers away from the burbs. Streetcars, once the norm in Portland as well as most American cities, have reappeared. And people seem to be (gasp!) walking more than before. So maybe there's hope after all that we'll understand the politics of the automobile and make informed choices.