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Customer Review

on 28 February 2009
Written by highly reputed scholars, the authors accomplished the feat to produce a book accessible to the general public but also useful for students and practitioners. Even technical jargon such as "price elasticity" and "marginal cost" appears just a couple of times. Well researched, the book is intended for readers of all countries, though the authors at some points inadvertently take a very American-centric view. Their account on how modern society got into the unsustainable car-centric society predicament is both concise and comprehensive.

The chapters recounting the evolution of automobiles, and the behind the scenes doings of Detroit Big Three and Big Oil are not only very interesting but specially revealing regarding the magnitude of their influence within the American political decision making process, and also very helpful to understand why the US was left behind by Europe and other countries in terms of transport sustainability and more efficient and clean vehicle technology. A very enlightening complement to these chapters is the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which investigated another huge blunder by one of Detroit's automakers.

Chapter 2 presents a very comprehensive analysis of all the dimensions that explain why the car-centric American model is unsustainable, for the US and the rest of the world. The authors briefly go into each of them, from the dangers and consequences of oil dependence to the inefficiencies and negative impacts of ever increasing auto use and urban sprawl, as land use has a large effect on vehicle use, and of course, climate change is the chief concern and the main focus of the book. As a result, most of the following chapters are devoted to the analysis and expectations regarding conventional oil, low-carbon fuels and alternative fuel vehicles, particularly hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen, this one, considered the Holy Grail by automakers, some politicians, academics, and environmental groups.

Unfortunately, the discussion regarding how to curb urban transport demand and how to stop urban sprawl disappears from the book only to reappear briefly at the end, as part of the authors recommendations regarding consumer choices and government behavior. In total, only six pages in Chapter 2 and seven pages in Chapter 9, out of 260, were devoted to these critical issues. The light treatment of such key issues is regrettable and the book's main shortcoming. This part of the solution equation is probably the most difficult to accomplish in a reasonable time, and as the authors recognize, the biggest hurdle to reach "Futurama III" by 2050, the authors' dream low-carbon transport system.

Back to the book's main focus, I think there is a missing piece in the comprehensive discussion of alternative fuels is biofuels. The authors summarily dismiss biofuels as a sustainable option, particularly American corn ethanol, explaining the rationale in just a couple of pages. Nonetheless, they present in a nutshell a comprehensive account of the successful Brazilian experience with sugarcane ethanol and flex-fuel vehicles, and call it a policy model and the most successful alternative fuel to day, yet they consider Brazil just as an outlier case not replicable elsewhere. So, biofuels were left out of the book. Another regrettable omission is the absence of a discussion regarding the array of policies implemented in various Nordic countries in order to reduce their carbon footprint from transport, particularly the Swedish case, not even mentioned once in the book despite being another biofuel leader.

Although I agree that the US does not have the conditions to replicate the Brazilian bioethanol model, I don't think Brazil is such Black Swan, as several tropical countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa have the right conditions, and actually a few are already moving in that direction. They have the right climate and experience with sugarcane farming, Brazil is already transferring its advanced agricultural technology for free, and automotive fuel demand in most of those countries is relatively small enough, as to not have to dedicate too much arable land for cane bioethanol production. Particularly for poor Africa there is quite an opportunity in adopting the Brazilian model.

In regard to the chapters devoted to California I was disappointed. I was looking forward to learn about the innovative policies that have been implemented lately, such as how they are curbing urban sprawl. Unfortunately it seems the authors wrote this chapter with the heart and put more detail in the politics and decision making process, some of which they were personally involved. The chapter of China is probably the weakest. There is too much speculation, wishful thinking and even a small dose of the patronizing. Guys, did you forget the political system that is in place at China? Because this chapter seems to assume that the Chinese internal market will behave like a regular democratic western country.

I think they could have use a good part of the chapters on California and China rather to discuss more deeply the necessary changes regarding available alternatives to increase public transit use, and policies to reduce auto demand and limiting urban sprawl. For a complementary book covering these key and painful subjects I recommend Robert Cervero's The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry. This book presents the inner workings of the policies not discussed in Two Billion Cars, illustrated with a dozen cases of islands of excellence that were able to achieve harmony and sustainability between their urban transport system and land use. Though published some 10 years ago, the book is not outdated yet, and it is only missing the new congestion pricing schemes that went into force in London, Stockholm, and Milan, and also the global embrace of Curitiba's transit model (BRT), now implemented in several countries, including the US and China.

The recommendations presented in the final chapters make quite a contribution to the sustainable transport debate. I particularly liked the proposal of establishing a variable gasoline tax with a price floor to compensate for the market failures of oil supply. If Americans could afford $4 a gallon, this tax will guarantee that prices stay at the selected level when world market prices are below the floor, like right now. But if market prices go above the floor then the tax will shrink. Revenues could go to R&D to develop low-carbon, alternative fuels, and innovative mobility options. At the same time it will reduce uncertainties for investing on these new fuels, and it avoids the windfall to go to petro-dictators. I agree with the authors this mechanism is much better than trade-and-cap. Also the recommended general strategy of establishing performance the goals to be met by any technology is much better and efficient that the government picking the winners, as happened with corn ethanol.

Despite my criticism, I believe the book does a significant contribution to the discussion about the future of the urban transportation system. Highly recommended. Even if you do not have the patience to read the whole thing, at least borrow it from a friend and read Chapters 2 and 9, you are not going to regret it. Or peek a bit with Amazon's Look Inside tool. Only if all citizens get a basic understanding of the concepts behind the ongoing discussion and the real magnitude of the sacrifices required, the world is going to move to a more sustainable transport and energy systems. And we better start preparing now to make the choices wisely and voting with our wallets and on the ballot, without exaggerations, apocalyptic prophesies or radical positions whether from environmentalists or from or ultra-conservatives, because all of us are going to pay the price and the consequences for doing nothing.

And finally, the book is written under the assumption that climate change is already happening and the science is settled. All the language used in the book is consistent with this premise. Considering all the other reasons presented in the book to abandon the car-centric model, I think the authors unnecessarily scared away the "skeptical" readers. It is a shame because changes in consumer choices and behavior must also include the non-believers. The automobile-dependent model is not sustainable whether global warming is manmade or not. Pandemic traffic congestion will gridlock many cities in the world in a few decades; air pollution from auto emissions is already a serious health problem in many places, to the point that several Latin American big cities already have been rationing road space for several years through restricting entrance by plate number; and because most countries need to quit from oil addiction for all the well known reasons.

Further readings recommended. If you want to know what lies ahead beyond transport, and particularly clean energy, read Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America, or just to get more details on hybrids. plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles read Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that will Recharge America. For a no nonsense critic on the economics behind the mitigation measures proposed for climate change read Lawson's An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming. If you want to know more about American corn ethanol read Sustainable Ethanol: Biofuels, Biorefineries, Cellulosic Biomass, Flex-fuel Vehicles, and Sustainable Farming for Energy Independence. In order to take a wise decision we have to hear all points of view. Furthermore, most scientists, engineers, and economists that have and will develop the technologies and policy solutions usually lack social and political sensibility. On the other hand, most politicians are more sensible but their chief concern is to stay in office.
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