Electic Cars are Still Cars


As Editor in Chief and Publisher of Next American City, Diana Lind is constantly looking at ways to make cities sustainable. She also produces NAC’s signature events, Next American Vanguard and Open Cities.

Who wants to argue against the positive impacts of small steps toward sustainability? I don’t – but I have to.

There’s no doubt that small efforts are meaningful. Using compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent ones lowers humanity’s carbon footprint. Recycling instead of throwing away plastic and paper saves acres of trash from landfills, and using plant-based detergents instead of harsh chemicals keeps harmful toxics out of our ecosystems. But taking a long view, these are minor ways to counter monumental climate change and the degradation of our natural environment.

photo of a light-rail train in a shiny cityCity of PortlandPortland’s mass transit system has made it a model for sustainable development.

What if, instead of promoting slight modifications to our behavior, we created new systems that led us on a radical path toward sustainability? What if, instead of promoting recycling, we taxed disposable items that could not be reused, making a plastic bottle of water cost $5 instead of $1? Think about how many bottles of water would never be purchased and instead how much more urgently the public would fight for clean tap water.

There are countless ways we could rethink our consumption and our carbon-fueled behavior, but instead we rally around “smarter” choices – compact fluorescent bulbs and recycling plastic, for example – that merely delay, rather than prevent, inevitable environmental catastrophe. Case in point: the move toward electric cars and the investment in new car infrastructure to accommodate these new vehicles.

Sure, electric cars may offer an improvement upon gas-fueled cars, but this innovation is insufficient to create the kind of social, economic, and environmental sustainability our planet needs. You’ll hear electric car advocates praise the fact that hybrids can be fueled by solar and wind energy, rather than coal-sourced electricity. But recent estimates show that solar, wind, and geothermal energy account for only about 7 percent of the world’s total energy. While I am hopeful that one day our country will run on renewable energy, it is naive to assume that the country’s 250 million vehicles would, if plugged in anytime soon, be fueled by anything other than coal. That’s the very same coal whose high carbon emissions are guaranteed to push us past the ecological tipping point.

In any case, changing the source of a car’s fuel does not change the fact that the car still contributes to a number of other major environmental and socio-economic problems. To name just a few: Cars fuel sprawl, create hideous hours-long commutes, contribute to the obesity epidemic, and are accomplices to our ever-worsening social isolation. Consider the fact that car-oriented communities are much less sustainable than walkable communities. For example, our auto-dependent suburbs and exurbs typically are zoned for larger houses and bigger commercial spaces, all of which consume much more energy than compact, dense cities.

If you then agree that cities are the key to sustainability, then mayors and transportation directors shouldn’t be encouraging car usage. As Dean Kamen, the creator of the Segway, will tell you, cars move at a speed of about eight miles per hour in cities – they actually aren’t suited to the fast pace of urban places. Bikes, buses, and subways move much quicker and provide the public with a variety of other benefits – from the health benefits of biking to the economic benefits of inexpensive public transportation. Will cars ever really be “plug-in-and-play?” I don’t think so. And I fear cash-strapped cities are going to end up with a new kind of electric bill – the kind that pays for new infrastructure to service electric cars, at a time when economic strains should be encouraging greater public transit.

We are fortunate to live at a time when all major municipalities are serious about sustainability. But shouldn’t the advent of the electric car provide a perfect moment to rethink how cities incorporate cars in their urban fabric? Instead of creating new electric car plug-in infrastructure, which will undoubtedly become outdated within a decade or two, is it not time to rethink personal mobility altogether? What if cities outlawed private cars for leisure purposes? What if money otherwise spent on plug-in infrastructure went toward feasibility studies for car-free downtown centers?

Anyone who thinks that this kind of transformation in cities is beyond our capability for change should remember this: We once ripped up public transportation infrastructure and built highways through our downtowns. It is no more outlandish to think that we could reverse these changes today if we created comprehensive plans to wean cities off cars. Wouldn’t that be smarter?

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