Paul Dorn: Hydrogen Fantasies
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Hydrogen Fantasies
By Paul Dorn

Article published in the CalBike Advocate, quarterly newsletter of the California Bicycle Coalition, May 2004


In April Governor Schwarzenegger visited Davis, California, to promote clean, efficient, and sustainable transportation. Unfortunately, the Governor's visit to Davis--a city with a well-deserved reputation as the most bicycle-friendly community in North America--wasn't about bicycling.

Governor Schwarzenegger came to launch his proposed "hydrogen highway." During a visit to the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, the Governor signed executive order S-7-04, which declares "the State of California is committed to achieving a clean energy and transportation future based on the rapid commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies."

During his UC Davis appearance, Schwarzenegger filled the tank of a hydrogen Toyota SUV and pledged to build hydrogen fueling stations along major highways in the Golden State before the end of the decade. "This is the future of California and the future of our environmental protection," Schwarzenegger said. "This starts a new era for clean California transportation."

In fact, many are skeptical about hydrogen-based transportation, which even proponents acknowledge is a decade or more from broad implementation. Hydrogen also has inherent environmental impacts, as extracting it from either water or non-renewable natural gas requires considerable energy expenditure. As columnist Novella Carpenter writes: "(Hydrogen vehicles have) zero emission at the tailpipe, but where do you think the hydrogen comes from? You can't just grab it out of the air."

The many negative impacts of automobiles, no matter how they're fueled, include:

- Expansive land-use. More than 50 percent of the land area in many urban regions is paved over for streets and parking, which drives up the cost of land for homes, stores, offices, parks, schools, hospitals or other useful facilities. Extensive paving negatively impacts ground water and run-off from rain, and automobile-related sprawl consumes agricultural land and wildlife habitat.

- Expense. Many Californians can't afford to own a car, and those who can are diverting money away from savings or other spending, which harms our non-automotive commercial economy.

- Toxic byproducts. California is already severely challenged disposing of used cars, tires, batteries, fluids, lubricants and other automobile-related detritus, a situation likely to continue or worsen with hydrogen vehicles.

- Danger. More than 4,000 Californians--including many pedestrians and bicyclists--are killed in car crashes each year, and many thousands more suffer injuries requiring hospitalization, which drives up the cost of healthcare. Additionally, motorists kill thousands of wild and domesticated animals every year.

- Health. Californians are suffering a pandemic of obesity, in part because of the sedentary nature of driving. Driving is a highly stressful activity, and traffic noise and danger are significant sources of additional stress.

- Diminished community life. Long distance commuting reduces available time for civic involvement, cultural events, and family activity; the isolation of driving often reduces social interaction to road rage.

Hydrogen vehicles are no environmental panacea. Creating a transportation system based upon private motorized vehicles, no matter how minimal their emissions, is rife with negative social, economic and ecological impacts.

The goal shouldn't only be cleaner cars, but fewer cars.

Many of us share Governor Schwarzenegger's desire for clean, sustainable transportation for every resident of our state. However, this means a balanced, multimodal system that encourages transit use, walking, car sharing, and, of course, increased use of the bicycle--the most efficient means of transportation ever created.

On his next visit to Davis, Governor Schwarzenegger should pedal instead of pump.

Related Articles by Paul Dorn
" Bike Commute Tips Blog - the true zero emissions mode
" Bike Commuting Tips - suggestions for successful travel by bicycle
" Pedaling to Save the City - the Critical Mass bicycling movement
" Cycling in Osaka, Japan - the use of bicycles for transportation in Japan
" Class and Traffic - the often overlooked costs of auto-dependency
" Baseball, Apple Pie, and...Bicycling? - bike facilities lacking at California ballparks

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