Late one afternoon this past summer while riding my bike down Brooklyn’s Court Street, a horn-blaring Ford Explorer sports-utility vehicle (SUV) nearly side-swiped me as it sped by — confirming yet again, SUVs are the angry hippos of narrow New York City streets. Size is precisely why so many Americans are in love with SUVs. But that’s also the reason why the increasing popularity of SUVs poses a grave threat—not only to the city’s pedestrians and cyclists—but to our planet’s survival. Simple physics dictates bigger, heavier, and less aerodynamic vehicles gulp down more gas and expunge tons more planet-warming greenhouse gasses (GHG) into the atmosphere than smaller, agile cars.
And therein lies a potential conundrum for automobile drivers who on one hand, profess concern about global warming, but on the other, have succumbed to the allure of extra legroom and rugged cargo hauling space an SUV offers.
Transportation has replaced electricity production as the largest contributor of total U.S. carbon emissions in the United States according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In New York City, a place better served by public transit than any other area in the nation, carbon emissions, primarily from transportation, increased by 27 percent from 1990 to 2017 according to a recent New York Times analysis of data.
SUVs are the cause of a 3.3 million barrel-a-day increase in oil demand from passenger cars between 2010 and 2018, according to a November 2019 study from the International Energy Agency (IEA). If consumer demand for them continues to grow at the same pace seen in the last decade, big cars and trucks will add nearly two million barrels in global oil demand every single day by 2040 the study says.
Demand for SUVs in America shows no sign of dissipating. The majority of the top 25 best selling cars in the nation, so far in 2019, are SUVs and large trucks according to Car and Driver. In the state of New York, at least seven of the ten most popular models registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles are SUVs or trucks.
Of the 2,186,273 registered vehicles in New York City—of which only around 7,500 were electric— most any city bicyclists will tell you SUVs are the dominant model.
That’s a baffling observation considering New York City is such a progressive and Democratic party stronghold. Climate change is at the top of the party’s official platform and more than 80 percent of Democratic voters say climate change is a major threat to this country’s well-being according to July 2019 Pew Research Center survey .
But cheap fuel and slick ad campaigns touting all terrain features on the wide open road can contribute to convenient blind spots. So too can easy financing, car envy and economic privilege.
In my largely urban-professional Brooklyn neighborhood Carroll Gardens, the average age is 37, homes sell for about a $1,200 per square foot and Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by as much as 85 percent in some neighborhood precincts during the 2016 presidential election.
The area is part of Brooklyn’s community district 36 which also includes a slice of Park Slope and Red Hook. It’s well educated, and the 2017 median annual income —$137,000—was 121 percent higher than the rest of New York City.
It’s the sort of neighborhood where someone just might throw side eye in the checkout line at Whole Foods if you’ve forgotten your eco-bag . Home to countless young families, parents here are more than likely raising their children to believe climate change is a very real thing.
But it’s not just stately trees and majestic brownstones that line Carroll Gardens streets, there are a lot of cars, the majority of which are SUVs.
One Wednesday this past October, at around 7 p.m., I did a loose census of the automobiles that park free of charge each night on several one-block stretches of the streets surrounding the intersection of Carroll and Clinton Streets where I live. By my own count, more than 60 percent were SUVs. And while it’s not exactly clear who among the neighbors owns the growing herd of SUVs, it’s a safe bet, many of them are sufficiently concerned about global warming.
At some point in our future, facts, public opinion and perhaps policy will compel automobile drivers to face the music about the impact their driving choices are having on the planet. Over the past five years, global air temperatures have been the warmest ever recorded.
While composting, banning plastic bags and straws or attending climate change rallies—are all critical in raising awareness and fighting climate change—in the grand scheme of things—they barely begin to offset the destructive impact carbon emissions from our traffic choked cities is having on the atmosphere.
New York City will become the first city in the nation to implement congestion pricing sometime in 2020 as both a revenue stream for mass transit improvements and a means to incentivize cars off crowded city streets.
Perhaps it’s also time to impose a tiered tolling system that takes in account an automobile’s fuel performance as well as the added risks SUV width, weight and height pose to pedestrians and cyclists. Or maybe it’s just time to just ban SUVs from congested cities like New York altogether.
Cody Lyon is a New York City-based journalist.