Going green? Debate shifting from what you drive to how much

The connections between transportation, energy, global warming, and neighborhoods continue to make inroads into national political discourse, even while the legislative debate on global warming continues to focus on cap-and-trade systems for industry and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles

In Los Angeles, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson (currently governor of New Mexico) spoke on June 11 about the need for more light rail in the nation's cities, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report by Michael Blood:

If elected, he said he would “make it a major effort to refocus transportation construction of roads into light rail and more energy efficient transportation,” the New Mexico governor told reporters at a news conference. “I would make light rail at least an equal partner” with highways, he said. With more rail and clean-running buses, “it's going to improve the quality of life in this country.”

Over on Capitol Hill, Rep. James Oberstar's (D-Minn.) H.R. 2701, The Transportation Energy Security and Climate Change Mitigation Act of 2007, would add new federal investment dollars to transit as a way to address climate change. You can read more about it at WashingtonWatch.

And from the Motor City, Joseph B. White (the Wall Street Journal's Detroit bureau chief) steps into Washington's war of words over fuel economy with this revelation: it's only half the battle. A visit to Portland, Oregon (where, incidentally, it seems every other car is a hybrid) brings the realization that life in an "Ecotopian" city requires far less driving than life in conventional suburbia -- and that this has deep implications for the national energy debate. Full article here (may require subscription)

In Washington and Detroit, the discussion has devolved into an argument about technology and credibility... This argument is worth having, but the two sides miss a critical point, which is that "fuel economy" is really a code word for a more fundamental debate about the way Americans live...

Portland's efforts to limit sprawl have helped to sustain the value of properties in the city's old neighborhoods, which in turn has encouraged people to renovate older homes and apartments within walking or biking distance of downtown businesses. To a tourist from Detroit, Portland feels like a super-sized college town, not a city as I know it. But guess what? Even Detroit is trying to revive the "walk to work" lifestyle, encouraging conversion of abandoned downtown buildings into loft apartments...

In Suburbia, the nation where so many Americans live, homes and businesses are usually segregated. That segregation is viewed as desirable, even though it can turn a routine shopping trip into a 20-minute drive. The Ecotopian urbanite, by contrast, accepts that within walking distance of home there could be: A world-class bookstore, three coffee shops, a liquor mart, a grocery store, an art gallery, a service station, a chummy neighborhood restaurant, a concert hall, a designer furniture outlet and a sex-toy shop...

In this Ecotopian lifestyle, the car becomes an occasional means of escape to adventure, not a daily commuting appliance. I found my way, by rented Subaru Legacy sedan, to a walk on the beach, a roadside record store housed in a barn packed floor to ceiling with vinyl LPs and Elvis memorabilia, and a stand that sold elk jerky for $10 a package...

So are we ready, as a nation, to live like Ecotopians? How many of us could do so, even if we wanted to try? How long would it take for businesses and homes to move back together in central hubs, otherwise known as cities? How much money are we willing to spend on subsidizing urban mass transit and intercity bullet trains instead of subsidizing new highways? How much are we willing to spend to make central city schools places that everyone wants to send their kids?

Those questions are as important to the energy debate as whether or not GM can make a car that gets 35 miles per gallon.


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