(TNS) -- In California, cars have long held dominion over both the state's transportation network and the public's imagination. It only takes a drive during peak weekday commute hours on a Bay Area freeway to understand just how dependent residents are on the automobile.
But while environmentalists and transportation experts agree that reducing the region's auto dependency is paramount in stemming climate change, there's no evidence to think that cars will be disappearing from city streets and highways anytime soon.
In the meantime, drivers hoping to keep their behind-the-wheel habit green can look over some alternatives to traditional gas guzzlers at the third annual AltCar Expo at Oakland City Hall on Friday and Saturday. Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Nissan will showcase hydrogen fuel cell cars, electric vehicles, hybrids, and natural gas and renewable diesel vehicles. Attendees can test drive the vehicles for free both days, and experts will be on hand to answer questions about making the shift to an alternative-fuel vehicle.
Withnearly 26 million cars and 1 million trucks gobbling up roughly half of all the energy that Californians consume, changing what kind of cars residents buy is critical to reducing the state's greenhouse gas emissions, said John Kato, the deputy director of the fuels and transportation division of the California Energy Commission.
"The single most important thing to know about sustainable transportation is you, the consumer, drives the trend for acceptance of alternative fuels and vehicle choice," Kato said, adding that there has already been a growing trend in consumer acceptance of alternative fuel source vehicles.
Nationally, California leads the nation in buying hybrid electric vehicles, with 20.1 hybrids for every 1,000 people, according to U.S. Department of Energy. It also leads the nation in hydrogen fueling, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, and electric vehicle charging stations.
Timothy Lipman, co-director of UC Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center, attributed much of the state's dominance in alternative fuel production and infrastructure to a combination of state-led incentives and mandates.
"It's happening partly because of who Californians are but it's a policy-driven change," Lipman said.
Legislators in 2007 approved Assembly Bill 118, which created the Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program and provides up to $100 million annually for projects that will "transform California's fuel and vehicle types to help attain the state's climate change policies." Those early investments are now starting to pay off, said Kato, who pointed to the growth in hydrogen fuel stations as one example of the program's impact and an increase in biofuels production as another.
But as policymakers look to the future of transportation around the state, both Lipman and Kato said the real challenge will be integrating renewable fuel sources with emerging technology, including self driving vehicles, to create transportation networks that make it easy for people to opt out of owning a car.
"In the past, we were looking at electric cars, or the transit system, or ride-sharing," Lipman said. "Now those things are coming together, and we need to change our thinking to think about it more as a system that is changing very rapidly."
Kato said the future might have a transportation landscape that looks dramatically different from the gridlocked freeways of today. Planning and development will be more supportive of closely knit communities where goods and services are accessible on a localized level, he said. With the advent of ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles, cars could be summoned on demand.
"We won't be slaves to petroleum," Kato said. "The future is evolving to where you and I as a consumer feel comfortable changing our behavior from relying on cars and on our petroleum-based lifestyles."
©2016 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.