O’Toole: Cars Benefit the Environment

by David Bier on January 31, 2012

in Blog

In The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, Randal O’Toole (known as the Antiplanner over on his blog) defends the car against its environmental foes. He lists many benefits, most of which should go without saying unless you’re talking to an environmentalist, including mobility, increased incomes, lower transport costs, social freedom, and even health and safety. He concludes by defending the car against the accusation that it destroys the environment through urban sprawl.

Best Laid Plans was published in 2007

Automobiles are blamed for “wasting” land in the form of urban sprawl. Yet autos actually have produced significant land-use benefits. Consider first the land supposedly wasted by sprawl. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urban land increased from 15 million acres in 1945 (the earliest year for which data are available) to 60 million acres today. During this time, urban populations increased by 160 percent, so if densities had remained the same as in 1945, urban areas would occupy only 39 million acres today. Thus, some 21 million acres of urbanizations might be attributed to postwar automobile-oriented sprawl.

Of course, whether this is waste depends on your point of view. Low-density development brought the American dream of owning a home with a yard to far more people than ever before. Large yards do not destroy open space so much as they convert one form of open space—farms and forests—to another—backyards. From the point of view of watersheds and certain kinds of wildlife, backyards may even be better than intensely managed croplands.

Still, automobiles have more than made up for the 21 million acres of low-density development. Thanks to autos, trucks, and tractors, farmers across the country no longer needed to dedicate tens of millions of acres of land to pasture for horses. As a result, between 1920-1970, farmers returned 82 million acres of pastureland to forests. This is almost certainly the largest area of deforested land ever to be reforested. The number of acres reported as forestlands has declined since 1970, but nearly all that decline resulted from the transfer of federal forestlands to the National Park Service, which (by the Department of Agriculture’s reckoning) takes them out of the forestland category.

Forests provide much more biodiversity than pastures. Instead of producing fodder for horses these lands now offer habitat for wildlife, wood for housing, and cleaner water for fish and downstream users.

At the same time, farmers converted millions of other acres of pasture to croplands. When horses were the main source of farm power, virtually all farms had to dedicate a portion of their acreage to pasture. Now, farmers can dedicate their most productive lands to growing crops, while less productive lands are used for range or forests.

As of 2002, the United States had about 442 million acres of cropland, about 40 million more than it had in 1920. Nearly all this increase came from pasturelands. Since pastureland is one of the least valuable uses of agricultural lands, this conversion contributes to overall agricultural productivity. By any measure, the total amount of urbanized land represents no more than 5 percent of the United States as a whole, and urban sprawl has had a negligible effect on farms, forests, or open space. As the Department of Agriculture says, urbanization is “not considered a threat to the nation’s food production.”

Yet the automobile’s positive effect on the nation’s forests and croplands has been much more significant, as it increased croplands by 10 percent and forests by more an 13 percent. When adding the 82 million acres of forestlands to the 40 million acres of croplands, autos improved the management of nearly six times as many rural acres as the 21 million acres that have been developed into low-density urban areas since 1945. On balance, autos, trucks, and tractors did far more good than harm to America’s overall land uses.

 Excerpted from pages 219-220

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