Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

What If All Cars Were Zero Emission?

Posted by Roobs on June 15, 2011

I recently completed my first year at UCLA’s Urban & Regional Planning program.  In one of my final lectures in a class discussing transportation, land use and urban form, my professor led me to consider one question: What if tomorrow all cars were zero emission.  More specifically, how would this affect the arguments in favor of dense, mixed-use developments? It’s an interesting scenario to consider and one that asks us as planners and environmentalists to review the ambitions of our two goals.

Two Arguments

Over the past several decades, environmentalists have been arguing that urban sprawl has increased our dependence on automobiles, thus causing people to push more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, Los Angeles being the poster child of this type of development pattern.  Many have focused their efforts to call for an increase in fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, if not outright alternative fuels.  The goal is an acknowledgment that if we are to have automobiles, let them be zero emission vehicles.  And by many standards these groups are being successful.  We have seen a surge of awareness of the negative externalities our dependence on fossil fuel burning automobiles has had on the environment.  Vehicles being produced now and designed for the near future are the cleanest burning vehicles we have ever seen, including the now famous Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and soon-to-market Chevy Volt.

Another front on the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been from urban planners.  Many urban planners have been calling for an increase in density and use of mixed-used and transit-oriented developments in existing urban areas.  It is complimentary to the work of those who want zero emission vehicles.  Instead of sprawl that requires residents to drive far distances from home to work (and vice-versa), the goal is to create communities where residents live close enough to work that they may walk or take a short transit ride instead of drive.  In this way, urban planners are also working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they are creating an environment where people drive less.  But it is in this second argument where the fissure may exist.  It is here where total success on the first front may negate this second front.

If All Cars Were Zero Emission

If all vehicles suddenly became zero emission, would urban sprawl really be considered as negative as we currently view it?

The argument against urban sprawl has largely been formed around the environmental narrative, specifically the facilitation of a lifestyle that produces abundant emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  If the success of activists and groups who focus on making cars more fuel efficient and, yes, zero emission, then the extreme scenario would be a world where urban sprawl DOES NOT facilitate greenhouse gas emissions through driving.  If everyone in the San Fernando Valley owned a 100% electric vehicle (assume we actually had the electrical grid to support such a dream) and had a job in Downtown Los Angeles, their commute, though still grueling, would not add any emissions to the atmosphere.  If driving is no longer the cause of much of the greenhouse gas emissions, do we still need dense, mixed-use and transit oriented developments?  Environmentalists who’s goal is to solve the emissions problem from vehicles have already achieved their goal.  Planners on the other hand who are trying to promote a new urban form are left without a strong ideological backing.

I posed this question to a few in my urban planning program. Their responses were what you would expect from urban planners: Yes, urban sprawl would still be bad and we would still need dense, mixed-use and transit oriented developments.  I will briefly go over five points and state my opinion in how it addresses the hypothetical.


Though vehicles may be zero emitting in this scenario, their physical presence remains the same.  That means Los Angeles infamous traffic congestion wouldn’t be solved.  Would curbing congestion be as strong of an argument against urban sprawl as environmental arguments?  This is the more interesting response.

While we live with both congestion and the polluted air from emissions, congestion is a more tangible subject for people to grasp.  They are physically in a vehicle on a freeway moving at slow speeds if not at all.  For this reason, alleviating congestion may be a strong enough argument to promote denser developments over sprawl.  The best way to alleviate congestion is through the controversial policy of congestion pricing – charging drivers a toll for using the freeway in an urban area.  The result of such a policy can push people off the freeway and onto public transit.  A ultimate result can be residents choosing to live closer to work to enjoy a shorter commute by transit or the ability to walk to work, both outcomes requiring denser development concentrated around job centers.  This is probably the best hope for planners who wish to continue to work towards a more compact urban future in the face of increasing success in zero emission vehicles.


A great argument in favor of dense urban form is around infrastructure. Cities are having an increasingly difficult time maintaining existing bridges, streets, power lines, water supply lines, sewers, treatment plants, you name it. It’s a utility that is well beyond its original expiration date.  And with current funding from local, state and national levels, many of the problems we have seen (Minneapolis bridge collapseGas line explosion near San Francisco) will only continue and get worse for the upcoming decades causing wider gaps between expenditures and tax incomes. Dense urban developments take advantage of existing infrastructure, and additionally allows for their update and improvement to the benefit of other surrounding users… and it all boils back to being less energy-intensive.  This is an argument that you can take to policy makers as well as members of the community, especially if their gas line just exploded.

Public Health

One of the better arguments I’ve heard is from a public health perspective.  It’s ironic that public health is considered a “emerging” theme in the discussion of the negatives of urban sprawl since it was public health that promoted suburbs to begin with.  Nevertheless, the argument is gaining significant support.  Not only are we considering the health implications of greenhouse gas emissions (think smog) has on the lungs, but also our own physical health.  By creating suburban communities that facilitate driving over alternative means like walking, cycling or transit, we are holding back our physical activities.  This holding back promotes our own obesity.  We have become an increasingly sedentary society.  Hell, we drive to the gym.  By creating denser, mixed-use communities, the belief is that we can instead facilitate a more healthy lifestyle of walking and cycling to work, school, etc.  If your gym was only a few blocks away, would you now consider walking (or jogging) to the gym instead of driving?  The hope is yes.  Therefore, the public health argument may prove strong to promote a new, dense urban form.

Social Benefits

Human beings are social creatures.  Many have been arguing that the suburb actually takes some of this social interaction away and argue in favor of cities for their social benefits: bringing a diversity of people to live together. Cities are themselves social entities.  In a previous post where I took a look back at one of my favorite childhood cartoons: Hey Arnold! Animating the Benefits of Urban Design, I describe how the cultural narrative that is revealed in the thoughtful cartoon is one that could really only exist in a dense city.  Suburbs don’t allow for this same type of social interaction.  If we are required to drive everywhere, then we do not meet up with other people.  Sidewalks are empty and the streets are full and yet we still have no interaction outside our metal boxes.  The opening monologue of the movie Crash, also make this same point.

It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.

While this is a great argument and one that appeals to my sociology background, I still must admit that this is probably not the best argument to move the movement forward if we lose the environmental component.  Imagine walking up to a stranger and saying: “We need density to increase social interaction and improve community cohesion.”  I don’t think you will get very far.


One argument, believe it or not, was on aesthetics.  This student claimed that urban sprawl is simply unpleasant.  My own personal opinions aside, this doesn’t answer my hypothetical at all.  Aesthetics are entirely subjective and any person attempting to say that, objectively, a suburb is more beautiful than a city (or vice versa) is wrong.  Some people find the City of Irvine quite beautiful. Others think its bland and ugly.  Some think New York is beautiful. Others think its cold and unappealing.  In either case, its really up to the individual where even accepted architectural or artistic truths can be applied to either a suburban or urban form.  We cannot legislate people’s opinions of beauty.  This response does nothing.

Concluding Remarks

This post is by no means an approval of the suburban form.  But it is also not a condemnation of it.  It is also not meant to suggest planners and environmentalists are at odds with one another.  The purpose of this post is to look at a fundamental part of the anti-sprawl argument – environmentalism – and what would happen to that argument if we no longer had the environmental component.  If your focus is not on the automobile itself but instead on the pollution it brings, then a scenario of clean running cars is your goal.  However, planners are looking at the car itself, with reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a welcome by-product of their efforts.  If all cars were suddenly clean running, then planners could no longer use the environmental card as well as they do now.  Instead, we are left with non-environmental arguments.  The real question is whether or not that is enough.

Roobs is a masters student at UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development and has a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology from UC Berkeley. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and former paralegal for a law firm specializing in real estate development.


One Response to “What If All Cars Were Zero Emission?”

  1. Shadrach said

    Great Post! Nice work.
    A few quibbles. 1- Historically the main environmentalist argument against sprawl is that it reduces habitat and destroys the existing natural environment GHG emmissions may be popular now, but that is recent phenomenon. Zero emission vehicles does nothing to negate this argument. And you kind of ignore this entirely, and then dismiss the Enivro argument out of hand. ?
    2- There is absolutely nothing wrong with an aesthetic argument against sprawl. Better aesthetics of human habitation is one of the original justifications of urban planning (we used to be landscape architects). By contrast transportation concerns came much later (so did economic).
    3- Jane Jacobs? Life and Death of American Cities, check out Chapter 2 on the social function of sidewalks. Then read this: Community health, and for that matter mental health of individuals should also be an important consideration when designing the urban form

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