Cars that get five hundred miles per gallon?  According to this piece by LA Times editorialist Max Boot, it’s possible using today’s technology, including plug-in hybrids and "flexible fuel" vehicles that run on both petroleum and biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Now, I’m inclined to agree with the editorial’s main points:  North America’s petroleum dependence is a profound strategic and economic vulnerability; and we can make our transportation system much, much more fuel efficient using existing technologies–and without waiting decades for new technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells, to catch on.

But what about this statement:  "How to do better? Biking to work or taking the train isn’t the answer. Even if Americans drive less, global oil demand will surge because of breakneck growth in India and China."

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What on earth is he talking about?

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First, the point defeats his own argument:  you could just as easily say "Driving more fuel efficient vehicles isn’t the answer. Even if Americans use less fuel, global oil demand will surge…"

Second, Boot’s whole point is that we should be encouraging lots of different ways to reduce petroleum dependence. And designing cities and neighborhoods to facilitate biking, walking, and transit is–quite demonstrably–a great way to reduce fuel consumption. That’s why New York is America’s most fuel efficient state: New York City, which has a sizeable chunk of the state’s population, is dense enough that most people are able to get around without a car. And as a result, residents of New York City are far less vulnerable to petroleum price shocks or supply interruptions than perhaps any other part of the country.

People who live in compact, transit and pedestrian-friendly cities use less gas.  Period.  So if Mr. Boot’s aim is really to reduce America’s petroleum dependence, it’s profoundly unhelpful to denigrate the importance of good urban design. Technology is important; but no more so than the physical context in which it’s used.

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