Are Toyota Prius Owners Environmentally Friendly or Just Complete Tools?

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NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- After 12 years without a car, I caved. I didn't have to buy a car, but it made sense.

Since 1999 I never had a problem getting around by foot, bike and public transit in San Francisco, Irvine, Los Angeles and now, Santa Monica. In all four locations, local travel -- say within a 5-10 mile radius -- was easy. Outside of 10 miles I biked practically everything, even in the pouring rain.

If I ever needed four wheels, I rented them. But, as airport travel and CNBC appearances become more frequent, the car-dominated landscape of Southern California necessitates car ownership.

So, like some people buy a pack of gum, I went to Toyota ( TM) of Santa Monica (go see Luis Caldas. He's a no-hassle salesman!) and, in less than two hours, took ownership -- via Toyota Finance -- of a 2013 Toyota Prius.

I knew I wanted a Prius. Why? Like I said in the video that accompanies this article, I got a Prius because it's a quiet car. I could have gone electric (like Dylan did at Newport), but that would have cost more and my plug-in situation isn't ideal.

While I like the good gas mileage (I logged 58 MPG on a recent 15-mile highway/city commute), I am under no illusions that I am somehow saving the world by driving a hybrid. I just like the car. It's comfortable. It's the right price. If it ran on the sweat of young Chinese factory workers instead of a mix of gas and electricity, it wouldn't make a difference to me. A car is a car. You drive one and, from a social-environmental standpoint, quit fooling yourself, you're probably not making matters better.

When Caldas told me the Prius was the best-selling car in California in 2012, I hesitated to believe him. But it checked out: Californians registered 60,688 of them last year. That helped Toyota's overall lineup account for one of every five cars sold in the state in 2012.

I shouldn't be surprised. The Prius is ubiquitous, particularly in Santa Monica.

Dig this data: Caldas said he sold something like 20 cars in December; 19 of them were Prii. (The plural form of Prius officially embraced by Toyota in Feb. 2011.) A week after I bought mine, I saw the same model parked in front of my house with the same Toyota of Santa Monica plates and temporary registration.

My friend Manoj Rao of Media 11:11, who co-produces TheBeach on TheStreet, saw Lisa Ling buffing her brand new Prius at a Santa Monica gas station last week. You can't walk a half block without seeing multiple Prii.

When we went out to tape "b-roll" of Santa Monica Prius saturation, it took 30 seconds to see six Prii parked on one side of one city block, including three in a row. And then, as we were shooting a parked Prius, several conveniently drove by. I promise we planned none of this. That's just how it is here and in parts of Hollywood, San Francisco, Berkeley and elsewhere.

For goodness sake, most of the cabs in Santa Monica are Prii.

I plan on following up on this introductory piece by diving into academic literature on the subject, but I have working theories that (a) many folks buy a Prius because it serves the do-gooder self, as if somehow the decision makes them better than a non-hybrid owner; and (b) If you're even slightly sanctimonious about Prius ownership, you're a complete tool.

I developed these suppositions empirically, particularly as a cyclist riding alongside all types of vehicles, driven by all kinds of people. I wish I had written them all down, but, over the years, I think I have collected enough observations to say, with scientific significance, that, as a cyclist, you're better off in the company of an SUV driver than you are your standard Berkeley liberal navigating a Prius.

Listen. This isn't a joke or a lame attempt at humor: I really believe a meaningful chunk of Prius owners think they're better than the rest of us ( wait! I am a Prius owner now) because they made the decision to Go Green.

But that's a crock.

They think the rules of the road don't apply to them. As if hybrid ownership comes with a free pass. Like you're providing a public service if you drive a hybrid.

There's lots of stuff online that says exactly what I have thought all along and believe even more strongly after nine days of Prius ownership. This entry from the Freakonomics blog sums my stance up nicely:
Whether at home or abroad, the fact remains that more and more of us are developing an environmental ethic around the idea that "consumption itself has environmental value if the energy using devices it depends upon are 'green.'" It's been deemed "the Prius Fallacy." According to David Owen, the fallacy leads to "rebound creep," thereby resulting in the very opposite of what the technology was billed to accomplish in the first place: reduce energy usage. Rebound creep could happen with a Prius in any number of ways: you might use the money you've saved on gas to buy a ticket to the opera, located in another city; you might draw upon the virtue you've banked by purchasing a Prius to justify not riding your bike to Whole Foods when it rains; you might decide to drive to the gym during rush hour because Terry Gross is on, and your Prius is a quiet place to sit and be left alone. No matter the scenario, the end result is that the supposedly ameliorative form of consumption -- the hybrid -- leads not to greater efficiency, but to easier, more comfortable, and greater rates of energy usage.

Bingo. As a guy who comes fresh off a decade of not liking cars much, I sure dig connecting my Apple ( AAPL) iPhone, via Bluetooth, to the Prius's entertainment system and rocking a crystal-clear stream of Pandora ( P) that I can actually hear because this beauty barely makes a sound.

All the while, I'm probably getting better gas mileage than the cats next to me (wait, they're all driving Prii now!).

But, I'm not that easily duped. That's why I rarely sign petitions, give money to political parties or take everything Rachel Maddow says as gospel.

Shockingly, the academic research in this area is thick. I'll follow up this rant with the gist of what it has to say later in the month. Make my article history a daily habit, if you will.

In the meantime, I can endorse the purchase of a Prius. Awesome car. Great experience at Toyota. Just don't get all pious as you cruise out of the lot in EV Mode.

-- Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is TheStreet's Director of Social Media. Pendola's daily contributions to TheStreet frequently appear on CNBC and at various top online properties, such as Forbes.

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