Cleaner Cars or Fewer Cars: Is One Approach Better?

We think they both make sense.

In the transportation research world, there are competing opinions about which pollution reduction and energy saving strategies are most effective: those that aim to make vehicles cleaner or those that encourage people to drive less. The clean vehicle camp emphasizes technological advancements and policies that reduce emissions per mile and conserve fuel, such as fuel efficiency standards, rebates to buy certain cars, fuel improvement regulations, and many others. The other crowd favors strategies that reduce total miles driven (also called transportation demand management or TDM) – these include transit improvements, smart growth policies, parking management, commute programs, and innovative programs like our very own Park it Pledge.

In a recent article, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute compares these two approaches and proposes a comprehensive framework for evaluating their respective impacts (side note: we’re big fans of VTPI as a reliable knowledge base for all things transportation). Just as there has been disagreement about the value of each approach, research findings have also been conflcting. Some studies have concluded that cleaner vehicle strategies yield the most bang for the buck, but Litman points out that these analyses ignored a number of important factors, such as the rebound effect (the increased driving that accompanies increased fuel efficiency), lifecycle analysis (that considers all of the resources and energy used during a vehicle’s entire life starting from production), land use impacts (e.g. congestion and traffic), and health benefits, among others. He concludes that when a more thoughtful analysis is conducted, TDM strategies  prove optimal and cost society less.

What did we take away from this article? Really, both approaches are necessary and go hand-in-hand. As a society, it’s not prudent to perpetuate our over-reliance on cars just by making them cleaner. With that said, cars aren’t going anywhere and so we need to make them as efficient as possible and at an affordable price (if they are priced out of reach, the majority of our population will continue to drive polluting vehicles).  At the same time, we need to continue to enhance our local transportation system to make it more accessible without a car. CarShare Vermont bridges the two approaches—cars are an essential aspect of our service (60% of our are hybrids, by the way), which in turn helps people drive less. Yea for car-sharing, yea for clean cars, and yea for driving less!

Wanna nerd out some more? Check the whole article.