David Suzuki: Our obsession with private automobiles is unsustainable

Are we driving ourselves into oblivion? Or will new automobile technology save us from the environmental impact of the fossil-fuelled tanks we use to get around?

On the extreme end of the consequences of our auto-centric societies, we need only to look at the recent massive traffic jam in China that stretched for 100 kilometres and lasted almost two weeks. Apparently it’s becoming a common occurrence in China, where use of the private automobile and truck transport are increasing.

On the brighter side, automobile technology has improved a lot over the past few years, partly in response to stricter fuel-emissions standards in countries including Canada and the U.S. But is it enough? We’ve had commercially available hybrid cars now for more than a decade, but they still use fossil fuels. Electric-car technology is picking up, but it doesn’t resolve all of the issues, especially as the electricity still must come from somewhere, and in many places, that means coal-fired power plants. Car manufacturing is also energy-intensive.

To resolve some of these issues, an Alberta company has developed an electric car made out of hemp fibre. Beyond reductions in fossil-fuel use to power the car, the materials used to manufacture it are also more sustainable. Hemp grows easily outdoors with little water or pesticides, and it can be used in lightweight but durable composites to build the cars.

One invention that partly avoids the problem of charging electric car batteries using electricity sources that may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions is U.S. inventor Charles Greenwood’s inexpensive HumanCar. It can operate as an exercise-based, human-powered vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric. Power can be generated by one to four people who “row” the car. It can reach speeds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Of course, it has its drawbacks, especially as one must be pretty healthy to operate it.

Cars powered by solar cells and hydrogen are also being developed, along with cars that use alternatives to fossil fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel.

The need for solutions is obvious. Cars not only contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but they also cause water pollution from fuel-storage leaks, improper disposal of oil, and runoff from roads that washes into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Noise pollution, death from road accidents, and the impact of cars on the shape of urban environment are all issues as well.

Technological developments are welcome, but maybe it’s time we started rethinking our car culture as whole. The average car in North America carries 1.5 people, which means that most cars on the road only have a driver in them. Is it really efficient to use more than 1,000 kilograms of metal to transport 100 kilograms of human?

And, as an article on The Mark News Web site argues: “Requiring about 90 square metres for home storage, 90 square metres for storage at destination, 180 square metres while traveling and another 60 square metres for repairs, servicing, or sale, an automobile occupies more than 400 square metres altogether – more space than most apartments.”

Using a life-cycle analysis, which takes into account manufacture and disposal, as well as operation, you find that cars are inefficient products.

We aren’t likely to do away with private cars in the near future, especially in rural areas with low population density. But we can at least start to think differently about our “need” for them. That means improvements to public transit, urban design that is less car-centric, and other innovative ideas to reduce our reliance. Walking and cycling when possible is also great, and it improves health.

When we must drive, we should try to use cars that are fuel-efficient, and drive in ways that cut down on fuel use, such as combining trips and shutting the car off rather than idling when stopped.

Even in China, it’s not all bad news. Although car culture is growing, the use of electric bikes is exploding. In 2008, people in China bought 21 million e-bikes, compared to 9.4 million autos. China now has 120 million electric bikes on the road, up from about 50,000 a decade ago.

We take our cars for granted, but really, they haven’t been a part of our human culture for that long, and they needn’t be an essential part forever.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



agree, stop urban sprawl, stop TransLink ...

Aug 31, 2010 at 9:31pm

David, what about regional TransLink transit, isn’t it unsustainable? I do agree with you about cars being unsustainable, or should I say the attitude of most people driving being unsustainable, and meant to say hello when I rode my bike past you as you were walking at Kits Beach one morning this summer around 7:30 am, maybe next time.

I own three cars but only drive occasionally on weekends, around 1,000 km annually, mostly in a Honda Civic getting 10 times the fuel mileage of the average diesel bus, and cycle to work every day. Today was rainy and of course, most people didn’t cycle. Too bad, if you have the proper gear, riding in rain is more pleasant than riding on hot days when the temperature is over 30 C. My carbon footprint is next to nothing but the same can’t be said about diesel buses getting 3 mpg and driving empty much of the time, except for a few peak hours in the morning and afternoon.

Regional transit sprawl isn't any better than cars traveling on freeways. TransLink likes to make a big deal about "removing cars from the roads". I don't remember a car making me recoil from the stench of toxic emissions or a car shattering my eardrums in recent memory, but on a daily basis the B-Line diesel buses do without fail. Transit does not remove cars from the roads, at least not to any significant extent.

Transit has a high turnover. People are continually taking transit, becoming disillusioned and driving a car while at the same time, new people start to take transit. Transit use is increasing in Vancouver but so are the number of people moving here. Many of these people can't afford $500/month to finance a car, up to $400/month for insurance, $100/month for fuel and $300/month for parking: approximately $1300/month in total, and they have no choice but to take transit. When they or others can afford a car, they invariably get off the loser cruiser to escape the creeps who make transit such a wonderful experience.

TransLink doesn't take cars off the roads; TransLink with its regional transit just sets people up to drive after they get fed up with it. Do me a favour and do something to rid Vancouver of the B-Line and TransLink the scam if it comes to it.

PT Barnum

Aug 31, 2010 at 9:46pm

It's interesting to inhabit the perspective of never having driven a car. It's hard to understand how they became so important that even an environmentalist describes them as "part of our human culture" and implies they are currently "essential", but hopefully not forever.
To me it looks like an addiction.

HG Wells

Sep 1, 2010 at 1:38am

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

- H. G. Wells


Sep 1, 2010 at 5:16am

If you want to give up your car that's great. I am keeping mine and I consider it a god given right. I'd just as soon see anyone who tries to take it away dead.

In the year 2000

Sep 1, 2010 at 7:50am

I don't disagree but as housing prices go up, and people move further out to the boonies while sustaining a job downtown will liken to the idea of driving their own vehicle. Especially when transit is always packed during rush hour. And where's my affordable electric vehicle?

petr aardvark

Sep 1, 2010 at 12:39pm

I think the answer is a grid of prts (personal rapid transit vehicles) that seat up to 4 people on an elevated track - which can be fairly light since the prts are light and small.
each trip would be on demand, dedicated direct & private journey without stopping. So no empty buses moving around. No worrying about parking at your destination.

for instance www.gettherefast.org
it is an idea that's been around for a long time but no city has yet built a system although there are a couple in the works...

china is unsustainable not cars

Sep 1, 2010 at 12:57pm

David, as much as I respect your opinion, you are off track: cars aren’t unsustainable, China with it 1.3 billion people is. The Chinese understand this and are working hard to develop EV cars. You have never become main-stream in popularity because you are continually preaching gloom and doom; yet, we’re still here. You don’t see the incredible benefits which cars offer: freedom and liberty and a better quality of life.

I’m not worried about China building power plants burning coal and natural gas for EV cars. These power plants are twice as energy efficient as diesel powered transit buses and gasoline powered cars. Power plants meet very stringent environmental regulations to limit noise and pollution and are built far away from populated areas so that people are not exposed to high levels of toxic emissions and harrowing transit noise.

I’m not worried about China on the other end of the globe; I’m very worried about Vancouver and TransLink. TransLink diesel buses don’t go through AirCare because TransLink administers AirCare and conveniently cheats to exempt its smoking diesel buses which would never pass AirCare. That way TransLink can cover up its fiscal incompetence to rob from the trolley bus budget in order to buy cheap diesel buses on the B-Line route, for instance. People on the B-Line route live within 15 m of TransLink’s stinking diesel buses and are exposed to alarming levels of toxic emissions such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

Where are the regulators in all this diesel bus mess? They are in bed with TransLink and taking it easy to quietly collect their pay checks like good little deadbeat government employees. David, I’m not giving up my non-toxic car to join the Tokyo sardine club with the fool taking mass transit on polluting regional transit in Vancouver. I’m going to drive and save the planet!

chemcial engineer

In the years 2010 - 2015

Sep 1, 2010 at 1:19pm

A bigger factor than housing prices will be the price of oil over the coming years:

“A supply crunch appears likely around 2013”¦ given recent price experience, a spike in excess of $200 per barrel is not infeasible.”

While some people will be able to afford electric cars ($41,000 Chevy Volt anyone?) many more of us are gonna be squeezing onto transit and saddling up onto electric and foot-powered bikes in the interest of saving $$$. It happened in a few years ago:

"During the gas price rises of 2006-2008, U.S. citizens turned to public transportation in record numbers. Light rail ridership was the biggest winner, as was an old and reliable form of gas-free transportation, the bicycle. The biggest losers: SUVs (RIP Hummer) and personal automotive use. Across the nation, people substantially reduced their driving for the first time in decades, particularly in metro areas that had other mobility options." (http://goo.gl/1mVk)

unknown sample

Sep 1, 2010 at 1:55pm

Mr. Suzuki's article seems pretty balanced overall as it acknowledges the fact that cars aren't gonna go away.

A multifaceted approach may involve the following:

- electric cars powered by cleaner and/or renewable sources. solar, hydro, tidal generation, geothermal and thorium based nuclear (which produces much less bomb potential from waste and more abundant than uranium).

- tax breaks/rebates for using electrical vehicles.

- increased transit/cycling.

- denser neighborhoods (less driving and makes cycling more practical).

- an understanding that the era of cheap energy is coming to an end. cheap, easy to extract oil is becoming harder to find and turns our environment into a toilet.

I'm sure there are many things I am missing, but a multi-pronged approach to dealing with pollution and congestion are what we need.

Petty infighting about singular parts of the solution from both sides of the debate makes us lose sight of the big picture.


Sep 1, 2010 at 4:34pm

This is not news. Everything remotely connected with an automobile is highly toxic and the end result is an urban humanity greatly in peril of destroying the entire globe. The unfortunate fact is JIM PATTISON and his generation infused in the mind that to have your own wheels was the greatest of freedoms; was even connected to democratic rights. JIM PATTISON, I mention because he is the Vancouver entrepreneurial icon for many here, made his first million(s) selling used cars. He is the icon for many in his generation and especially the generation that followed. That type of thought/mind-set has to be rubbed out and JIM PATTISON and his car loving culture has to GIVE A LOT MORE to the renewal process. Sorry JIM, your 2% of millions does not cut it. You started the fire now give greatly to fix it. WE NEED AN ANDREW CARNEGIE that GAVE EVERYTHING AWAY, in this quaint, greatly polluting little nation of ours. It`s complete and utter nonsense the postmodern Canadian city is created around a symbol that is destroying MOTHER EARTH.