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Reasonable People Disagree About Electric Cars

Public transit advocates and road warriors have always competed for funding and attention, but now electric vehicles have introduced a sort of...


Public transit advocates and road warriors have always competed for funding and attention, but now electric vehicles have introduced a sort of third choice, one that industry, government, and (most) environmentalists support. The 2009 federal stimulus package set aside $2.4 billion for electric vehicle investments—that’s in addition to $30 billion for roads and bridges, while mass transit got about $13 billion. Electric vehicles generate less greenhouse emissions and reduce our reliance on oil. But they’re also typically plugged into a coal-fired grid and, well, they’re still cars. So is the promotion of EVs just a supposedly “green” path that will keep us stuck in traffic? Next American Cityeditor-in-chief Diana Lind says yes. Plug-In America co-founder Marc Geller says there’s room for electric buses, trains, and automobiles.

Electric Cars Are Still Cars

by Diana Lind

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 lower’s 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.

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?

People Want Cars, Give Them Better Ones

by Marc Geller

A veteran advocate for electric vehicles, Marc Geller is on the board of directors of the Electric Auto Association and co-founded the association’s San Francisco chapter and the San Francisco Electric Vehicle Association, as well as and Plug In America.

Greater support for mass transit and appropriate land use policies that make mass transit accessible are essential. They are essential for more livable communities and more efficient use of resources, including energy. However, we have created a nation that is dependent, for the foreseeable future, upon the automobile. And many of the rest of the world’s inhabitants aspire to automobile ownership. China has opened up high-speed rail lines while the United States fiddles. Yet simultaneously, China has overtaken the United States in the number of automobiles sold annually.

Despite billions of dollars of investment, in most of the United States only a tiny percentage of people use mass transit regularly. The latest report by the American Public Transportation Association documents a 3.8 percent decline in ridership overall in the first nine months of 2009. Designing our cities and regions around mass transit is something we must do, but it is a multi-generational project.

In other developed countries—in Europe and Asia, for example—clean, electric public transit is the principal means of transportation. In most of the developing world, public transit remains the only viable means of getting around. But the commuters in poorer nations usually travel in a haze of pollution created by petroleum-powered trains and buses. The basic problem that faces transportation today isn’t whether people travel on mass transit or in automobiles, but rather the technology and fuel employed.

The question that faces us is how to ensure that our mass transit and private cars minimize the negative environmental impacts of travel. To do that we must set our nation, and the world, on a path to eliminate petroleum as the predominant fuel for transportation. To continue to rely on petroleum is to accept as inevitable the immense political power of the world’s wealthiest corporations and the resultant pollution, climate change, and war. There is no catalytic converter that can fully scrub the toxics that result from burning oil. And there is no way to democratize the production and distribution of petroleum.

There is, however, an alternative path: Electricity. It’s been around a long time and powers just about everything we use except transportation. It’s ubiquitous, relatively price stable due to government regulation, and is created in many ways, increasingly including renewable—such as solar, wind and geothermal—sources.

Of course we need energy to create electricity, and just as we’ve been burning petroleum for a century to move us and our stuff around, we’ve been burning oil and coal and natural gas to create electricity. While burning all those fuels has caused pollution just as surely as gasoline cars and trucks, we have options. As aging, filthy coal power stations are retired, they are often replaced with cleaner-burning natural gas generators. And now we are making a commitment to renewable electricity generation. Multiple sources of electricity generation make the grid reliable. In contrast, there is no effort to protect our transportation “grid” from vulnerabilities to petroleum’s monopoly.

While our electricity generation is becoming cleaner and more renewable due to state and federal mandates, switching to electricity for transportation immediately lowers emissions. On the existing U.S. electric grid, half of which is powered by dirty coal, an electric car already is less polluting and emits fewer greenhouse gasses than the average gasoline car. In the worst cases, like some nearly 100 percent-coal-powered states, the emissions profiles may be a wash. In others, like California and Texas, which use a preponderance of natural gas, it’s truly a slam dunk for electric transportation. Given our commitment to ever more solar, wind, and other renewables, electric transportation will only get cleaner.

Only with an electric car could you aspire not only to zero-emission driving, but to making your own zero-emission electricity to feed it. Putting solar photovoltaic panels on one’s roof is not rocket science, nor out of reach for millions of homeowners. With renewable power and plug-in cars, we can begin to get control over our energy destiny.

A central goal of the twenty-first century must be to bring the revolution of electrification to transportation—and that will include both mass transit and personal vehicles.

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