This New York Times article today echoes several themes of Chapter 7 of my Green Cities book. Suburban growth in Dublin and other cities increases the likelihood that people commute by car rather than by foot or public transit. The article does not appear to discuss road pricing and congestion charges as a means to mitigate road congestion.
Transportation economists such as John Kain have argued that the world income elasticity of vehicle ownership equals 1. So, a 10% increase in per-capita income increases a nation's vehicle ownership rate by 10%. That can add up over time! How many vehicles will there be in Beijing in 2050? Will Ford have built any of them?
January 7, 2007
Car Boom Puts Europe on Road to a Smoggy Future
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
DUBLIN — Rebecca and Emmet O’Connell swear that they are not car people and that they worry about global warming. Indeed, they looked miserable one recent evening as they drove home to suburban Lucan from central Dublin, a crawling 8.5-mile journey that took an hour.
But in this booming city, where the number of cars has doubled in the last 15 years, there is little choice, they said. “Believe me — if there was an alternative we would use it,” said Ms. O’Connell, 40, a textile designer. “We care about the environment. It’s just hard to follow through here.”
No trains run to the new suburbs where hundreds of thousands of Dubliners now live, and the few buses going there overflow with people. So nearly everyone drives — to work, to shop, to take their children to school — in what seems like a constant smoggy, traffic jam. Since 1990, emissions from transportation in Ireland have risen about 140 percent, the most in Europe. But Ireland is not alone.
Vehicular emissions are rising in nearly every European country, and across the globe. Because of increasing car and truck use, greenhouse-gas emissions are increasing even where pollution from industry is waning.
The 23 percent growth in vehicular emissions in Europe since 1990 has “offset” the effect of cleaner factories, according to a recent report by the European Environment Agency. The growth has occurred despite the invention of far more environmentally friendly fuels and cars.
“What we gain by hybrid cars and ethanol buses, we more than lose because of sheer numbers of vehicles,” said Ronan Uhel, a senior scientist with the European Environment Agency, which is based in Copenhagen. Vehicles, mostly cars, create more than one-fifth of the greenhouse-gas emissions in Europe, where the problem has been extensively studied.
The few places that have aggressively sought to fight the trend have taken sometimes draconian measures. Denmark, for example, treats cars the way it treats yachts — as luxury items — imposing purchase taxes that are sometimes 200 percent of the cost of the vehicle. A simple Czech-made Skoda car that costs $18,400 in Italy or Sweden costs more than $34,000 in Denmark.
The number of bicycles on Danish streets has increased in recent years, and few people under the age of 30 own cars. Many families have turned to elaborate three-wheeled contraptions. (Beijing, meanwhile, has restricted the use of traditional three-wheeled bikes.)
On a recent morning in Copenhagen — which is flat, and has bike lanes — Cristian Eskelund, 35, a government lobbyist, hopped on a clunky bicycle with a big wooden cart attached to the front. The day before, he had used the vehicle, a local contraption called a Christiania bike, to carry a Christmas tree he had bought. This day, he was taking his two children to school, then heading to the hospital, where his wife was in labor.
“How many children do I have?” Mr. Eskelund said. “Two, perhaps three.”
There are high-end options, too. At $2,800, a three-wheeled Nihola bike costs as much as a used car, but many people insist it is far more practical. Sleek, lightweight, with a streamlined enclosed bubble in front, it is good for transporting groceries and children.
High taxes on cars or gasoline of the type levied in Copenhagen are effective in curbing traffic, experts say, but they scare voters, making even environmentalist politicians unlikely to propose them. When Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, revealed his “green” budget proposal, it included an increase in gas taxes of less than two and a half cents per quart.
Other cities have tried variations that require fewer absolute sacrifices from motorists. Rome allows only cars with low emissions ratings into its historic center. In London and Stockholm, drivers must pay a congestion charge to enter the city center. Such programs do reduce traffic and pollution at a city’s core, but evidence suggests that car use simply moves to the suburbs.
But Dublin is more typical of cities around the world, from Asia to Latin America, where road transport volumes are increasing in tandem with economic growth. Since 1997, Beijing has built a new ring road every two years, each new concentric superhighway giving rise to a host of malls and housing compounds.
In Ireland, car ownership has more than doubled since 1990 and car engines have grown steadily larger. Meanwhile, new environmental laws have meant that emissions from electrical plants, a major polluter, have been decreasing since 2001.
Urban sprawl and cars are the chicken and egg of the environmental debate. Cars make it easier for people to live and shop outside the center city. As traffic increases, governments build more roads, encouraging people to buy more cars and move yet farther away. In Europe alone, 6,200 miles of motorways were built from 1990 to 2003 and, with the European Union’s enlargement, 7,500 more are planned. Government enthusiasm for spending on public transportation, which is costly and takes years to build, generally lags far behind.
For instance, Dublin and Beijing are building trams and subways, but they will not reach out to the new commuter communities where so many people now live.
The trend is strongest in newly rich societies, where cars are “caught up in the aspirations of the 21st century,” said Peder Jensen, lead author of the European Environmental Agency report on traffic.
Peter Daley, a Dublin retiree who has five children, said: “We used to be a poor country and all the kids used to leave to find work. Now they stay and they need a car when they’re 17. So families that would have had one car 15 years ago, now have three or four.”
As a result, traffic limps around Dublin’s glorious St. Stephen’s Green. Just as skiers can check out the snow at St. Moritz on the Internet, drivers can monitor Dublin’s traffic through the City Council home page.
In the past two years, the city has completed two light-rail lines. During the holidays, the police provide extra officers to direct traffic at all major junctions. But nothing helps much.
When the O’Connells returned from London four years ago, and could not afford the prices of Dublin’s city center, they bought a wood and brick semi-detached house in one of hundreds of new developments. Today, it seems that every home has two or three cars out front.
“No one thought, ‘How will all these people get home from work?’ ” said Mr. O’Connell, an architectural technician, who said the commute took just 20 minutes at first. Ms. O’Connell’s job at the National College of Art and Design in downtown Dublin comes with a parking space. So their gray Toyota Yaris is their lifeline.
One day a week, Mr. O’Connell does take the bus. But if he does not leave home by 7:30 a.m., the buses are all full and simply speed by his stop. On a recent evening, their 18-year-old daughter, Imogen, missed her art class in town because the bus ride took two hours; when she tried to get home, all the buses were full, leaving her stranded.
So they drive. “I complain and I moan, but we continue,” Ms. O’Connell said. “I suppose if petrol got really expensive or I lost my free parking, we’d face up to the fact that we shouldn’t be driving so much, and try to figure something else out.”
John MacClain, a cabdriver in Dublin for 20 years, said that on a recent trip to Prague, he liked the architecture just fine. But what really impressed him, he said, was “the tram system.”
“Now that was beautiful,” he said. “I could get everywhere with ease.”