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Housing and transportation energy costs are closely linked. But where should a discussion of reducing those costs begin? Do we focus on urban planning and density? Trains and buses vs. automobiles? Combustion engines vs. electric cars? Walking vs. every other mode of transit?

According to Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a charismatic urban planner from the UK, many assumptions about how people can or should move from place to place are grounded in false assumptions that ignore both current trends and human behavior.

“For the first time ever, our cities and towns have become redundant,” he says. “We no longer have to come into town to buy the things we need. There’s no functional necessity for them, so the only reason cities will survive is because people want to congregate.

“So much of what we put into public spaces is based on assumption,” he adds. “Too often we don’t look at the human relationship to a space. We overlay decisions that make no sense to create a cluttered, dysfunctional space.”

For example, Hamilton-Baillie notes that our streets tend to contain redundant safety features that aim to limit risk, such as guard rails, signage, and road symbols. “But that’s not how drivers think,” he says. “Social protocols determine human behavior. People slow down when they see a pedestrian nearby. If you try to do all of the risk aversion for drivers, they stop using their own judgment, and you get unsafe drivers.”

Baillie’s focus is automobile traffic. Not everyone is convinced that the personal vehicle will remain the dominant transit mode that it now is in the U.S. But most have accepted that the American love of the car won’t vanish overnight. One possible green transition: widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

EVs: Segway or Sustainable Solution?
So far, the launch of the first commercially available electric vehicles in the U.S. haven’t broken any sales record. According to, as of March, fewer than 1000 Volts had been sold since December, and only about 173 Nissan Leafs. It’s premature to read much into these figures, however. Leaf shipments have been severely curtailed due to Japan’s nuclear nightmare, and other supply-side factors have hurt Volt sales. Time will tell.

In the meantime, the electric car has many advocates in the U.S., including environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. They make some compelling arguments. Electric vehicles aren’t without their environmental cost, but they produce only about half the CO2 emissions of combustion-powered equivalents. They also require less maintenance and address other issues such as noise pollution and localized air pollution. Many of the criticisms leveled at them, as detailed in the sidebar (p. 59), are either demonstrably false or less significant than detractors like to think.


For the past several years, vehicle miles traveled have increased far more rapidly than population or developed land, as homes were built at greater distances from jobs, schools, and amenities.

Albert Dahlberg of Brown University coordinates the Rhode Island chapter of a non-profit organization called Project Get Ready ( The group hopes to put tens of thousands of plug-in EVs on the road nationally—10,000 in Rhode Island alone—by 2015.

“We’ve got a wide group of people on board,” Dahlberg. “Electricians, car buffs, technology geeks, environmentalists. The reason we feel electricity is the best option for automobiles is that it’s cheap, it can be produced domestically, eventually without fossil fuel—and it’s ubiquitous. You can get it anywhere.”

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