Our cars and the way we live

As a feel-good buzz word, "sustainable" seems as though it's been around since, oh, the Summer of Love (that was 1967 for all of you who never even thought about hitch-hiking to San Francisco). It fits right into the same linguistic pigeon hole as "green energy," "smart growth" and "Al Gore."

Mock at your own risk. Especially at a time when a reckless easy-money binge has left us with the worst wealth- and jobs-destroying hangover since the 1930s, it couldn't be clearer how vital it is to live within our means -- in other words, to make sure our lifestyles and social choices are sustainable.

These are not abstractions. If the Triangle region acquires so many new people that the water supply no longer is adequate, its growth is not sustainable.

If we let factory farms pollute the air and creeks and groundwater, then our penchant for cheap meat is not sustainable.

And if most of us continue to rely on cars to get us where we need to go, we will remain at the mercy of a transportation network that is 1) prone to disruptive traffic jams, 2) a source of unnecessary air pollution, 3) cost-inefficient and 4) an inducement to land-gobbling sprawl. Sustainable? No -- something would have to give.

Fortunately, the powers that be in these parts are increasingly keen to the value of giving people more ways to move around. Plans for beefed-up bus systems and, a few years hence, rail transit are taking shape.

It's no simple matter to develop a consensus for mass transit improvements, especially a rail component, given the cost and people's habitual fondness for their personal set of wheels. But the Triangle is filling up, and car commutes that once were painless have degenerated into teeth-gnashing ordeals. What the savvy players such as David King, chief of Triangle Transit, realize is that opportunity arises amid all those bumper-to-bumper back-ups on I-40 and Capital Boulevard and Davis Drive.

As King reminded us the other day in a visit to the paper, transit shapes growth. That makes it a formidable tool to help the region cope with an ongoing surge of new residents that in the past few years has transformed communities such as Apex, Clayton and Knightdale from farm towns into outposts of the East Coast megalopolis.

To be non-sustainable in the economic and environmental spheres suggests a heedlessness about the future, a willingness to sacrifice long-term viability for today's profit or convenience. And indeed, there's something non-sustainable about our typical American land-use model, so dependent on cars and highways but also so vulnerable to overload.

A family may have moved to Clayton thinking they could get a good buy on a house and have a straight-shot commute to Research Triangle Park on I-40, but then scads of others had the same idea. Now the interstate regularly clogs up. Yes, something will have to give.

This pattern of auto-dependent suburbs must evolve to provide other transit options or risk choking on its own success. Ironically, the car industry that was a cornerstone of the American economy for so long and that (together with highways built with huge public investment) gave people the coveted option of moving out and away from the big cities now itself has fallen onto hard, desperate times. So desperate, in fact, that the industry is receiving multi-billions in bailout funds courtesy of the taxpayers. What should the public expect in return for its generosity?

A piece by Emma Rothschild in the Feb. 28 New York Review of Books -- "Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?" -- offers a glimpse of how these puzzle pieces fit together. The car companies' fortunes have crumbled, she writes, "But the auto-industrial society, with its distinctive organization of American space, cities, highways, social entitlement, and energy use, has continued to flourish. Some 90 percent of Americans drove to work in 2007, 76 percent of them alone. Less than 5 percent went to work by public transportation." Many if not most of those had no choice.

The domestic car industry, in the face of relentless and innovative foreign competition and years of shortsightedness, is on the cusp of being non-sustainable. It has too much capacity, too many legacy costs, and there are too many cars on the road that no longer are so shoddily built that they must be replaced every three years. Petroleum supplies are dicey, and Rothschild makes a good case that switching to plug-in hybrids will not work on a large scale.

The underlying question she frames is this: Why throw money at Detroit to prop up these companies without requiring them to help solve problems related to land use, air pollution and energy demand that are in large measure their fault? Put them to work upgrading the nation's public transit networks -- a "new deal for Detroit," and one that doesn't harbor the seeds of its own destruction. In a nutshell, one that is sustainable.