I recently came across an interesting post over at DC Streetsblog. It calls into question the notion that electric cars are green, and can solve our environmental problems. The article cites research that "considered the full environment costs of electric cars, including the manufacture and disposal of their batteries, which found no benefit compared to conventional cars."
Reading this reminded me of an excellent piece by the late Jane Holtz Kay called No Such Thing! that I read in Orion Magazine back in 2001. In it, she handily dismembers the notion that electric car is "green," pointing out, among other things, that even the cleanest cars result in tremendous pollution during production, before they ever hit the showroom floor. Twelve years later, it is still worth a read.
While they are certainly cool (especially the Tesla!), and we should continue to experiment with them, it is dangerous to look at electric cars as the "silver bullet" cure to all that ails us. In America we love to solve problems by buying a new toy, but this one is not only inadequate but a distraction.
- Pollution. The cars themselves do not emit carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and other unhealthy pollutants. That is nice, because the smoke and soot is not being dumped directly into our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the pollution is simply shifted to the power plant, and from there it blows around and wreaks its usual havoc on our bodies. Worse yet, in states which rely heavily on coal, electric car use may result in MORE pollution than gasoline or hybrid cars.
- Traffic. Even for people who love cars and driving, traffic is a pain. For those who hate driving but must due to a lack of options, it is a misery. Electric cars don't do a darn thing to avoid or minimize our time stuck in linear parking lots.
- Road Fatalities. Tens of thousands of Americans die on the road every year. Simply changing fuel sources won't alleviate this carnage.
- Parking. Acres upon acres of parking dominate our cities. Parking lots take up valuable space that could be used for housing, businesses, and parks. They result in polluted runoff into our waterways. They make cities too spread-out to walk, and they are ugly. Unfortunately, electric cars need just as much parking as other cars.
- Highway Costs. Highways, roads, and other car infrastructure are enormously expensive. Electric cars do nothing to get this unsustainable spending under control.
- Sprawl. Switching over to electric engines will do nothing to slow the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat that comes from spread-out car-oriented development.
Electric cars don't solve any of these problems... not even a little bit. Worse, they may delay our solving of these problems by making us feel like we have done enough to deal with the issues. We'll be too busy patting ourselves on the back to do what really needs to be done.
However, a war on cars is not the answer (there is no war on cars, by the way). A lot of people really like to drive, and in a free country they should be able to. A lot of people really need to drive, too (such as contractors, farmers, people who work in out-of-the way locations that can never be served by transit), and their needs will never be addressed by alternatives. Luckily, we don't need everyone to stop driving to make big strides toward improving the problems that I listed above. Here's what we really need to do:
- Increase Transportation Choice. We have to provide transportation alternatives for everyone who wants and needs them. Millions of people are eager to get rid of a car or drive less often if walking, biking, and transit were viable alternatives. By making cities walkable, bikable, and well-served by transit we can take millions of cars off of the road -- not by force, but by providing choices to people who presently lack them.
- Improve Land Use. As we grow, we need to design and locate new development in a way that will make the remaining car trips as short as possible. Housing needs to be placed into business districts to shorten commutes. Retail needs to be decentralized whenever possible, broken into smaller increments and placed closer to housing. All of it needs to feature a walkable grid of small blocks and interconnected streets and sidewalks.
- Clean Up the Cars. There's no doubt that the remaining cars (of which there will be many) need to be as clean as possible. Electric may be part of the program (if used in combinations with cleaner power plants), but we also need to continue to improve hybrids, and higher fuel mileage gasoline-powered cars.
In the absence of good transit and good urban planning, we will continue to expand outward and overwhelm any gains that we make with technological improvements. So, as we clean up our cars, let's not lose focus of the need for walkable neighborhoods and transit. Only a comprehensive strategy can address our needs.