The Inflation Mitigation Act provides a $7,500 rebate for eligible electric cars and trucks over the next 10 years. That’s wonderful news, isn’t it? Maybe. Many Americans are dependent on the auto industry. Suppliers and assembly line workers, truckers and railroads, salespeople, banks and credit unions, advertisers, and a myriad of other people make a living from it in one way or another.
We at CleanTechnica have been reporting extensively on the EV revolution for more than 10 years. We’re obviously pleased that our advocacy has helped in some way to break down the barriers to EV adoption, and yet somewhere far back in our brains there’s a little voice that keeps asking an annoying question. Do we really need all these new cars?
Aren’t our cities and highways crowded enough? Are there alternatives to cruising around in two-and-a-half-ton steel and glass cocoons that give us instant connection to our favorite games, movies, TV shows, and social media feeds? Can it be that the private car madness is unhealthy for us humans and our planet? Wouldn’t our cities be more livable places if all of those parking lots and street parking lots were turned into bike lanes, flower gardens, al fresco dining, or playgrounds?
Robert Moses is credited with making New York totally dependent on cars. General Motors reportedly bought up the streetcar lines in Los Angeles and shut them down so they could sell more cars. Joni Mitchell sang about our insatiable desire to “pave paradise and build a parking lot”.
There are alternatives to the car
StreetsBlogwhich focuses on modes of transport other than private cars and trucks, points out that while the IRA offers billions in incentives for electric vehicles, it does nothing for alternative modes of transport like bikes, scooters and good old-fashioned walking.
It is mathematically impossible for the US transportation sector to meet its climate goals through vehicle electrification alone, even if the United States could meet its goal of selling 40% battery-powered new vehicles by 2050.
That’s because Americans already drive so much and drive such large vehicles that the remaining gas-powered monster cars on the road would negate much of the EV fleet’s emissions reductions. Even if Americans drove 20% fewer miles than they do today, the sector would still fall short. By contrast, radically reducing US auto reliance not only stands a far better chance of averting climate catastrophe, but would also help reduce US reliance on all foreign energy sources, green or not.
That’s because many active modes like cycling and walking don’t necessarily require a battery, and even those that do, like e-bikes and power wheelchairs, require a tiny fraction of the components and materials required to run a single electric car. A green car battery typically weighs around 1,000 pounds, with monster trucks like the Hummer EV weighing nearly 3,000 pounds — more than a Honda Civic. In contrast, an electric bike battery weighs about 8 pounds. Both vehicles are typically used to carry a single passenger.
StreetsBlog adds: “Cars need roads to drive on. That much is obvious. What is less obvious, however, is the extent to which roads (and cars) shape how our built environment is designed. In short, we’ve created a world that’s primarily about cars, with people, the environment, natural wildlife, atmosphere and just about everything else second.
“By deciding to build for cars first, we gave away a lot of our urban areas to them. Through roads, intersections, parking lots and other infrastructure. It’s not uncommon for American cities to allocate 50 percent or more of their downtown area to automobiles. This is land that could otherwise be housing, parks, cultural sites, or virtually anything other than parking lots.”
Cars & the Suburban Effect
In the suburbs that developed after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, communities were built entirely around the automobile. One reason was to attract as much federal funding as possible, since entire neighborhoods were being subsidized by the FHA through the construction of single-family homes. But a big reason developers built so many car-dependent communities was that they conveyed a powerful status symbol to the people who lived there. They represented the fulfillment of the American Dream. This subsidized entitlement to land, made possible by private vehicles, is ingrained in our national ethos.
This is a self-reinforcing system StreetsBlog Expectations. If you live 45 minutes from a city and there is no public transport nearby, you have no choice but to drive everywhere. Housing markets are responding by building more car-dependent patterns, bolstered by regulations and the perceived demand for driving, which is really just a last resort. Nearly one-third of all trips in America are a mile or less—easily walkable or bikeable. But because of our development patterns, these journeys have to be made by car. It is not possible to move in any other practical or safe way.
Senator Joe Manchin, who orchestrated the “Buy America” provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, argues that America should not “build transportation on the back of foreign supply chains.” The best way to do that – and save the planet – says street blogis to build a transportation system that doesn’t depend on people driving private cars everywhere.
take that away
Here’s a thought. We cannot “produce” ourselves out of the climate crisis. There are too many people, too many roads, too many cars and trucks, too many planes, and too many drafty old buildings that need heating and cooling. As Paul Simon once sang, “The planet groans every time it registers another birth.”
We will have to rethink many areas, one of which is that if we all start driving electric cars that run on electricity from renewable sources such as wind, sun or moonbeams, everything will run smoothly. It’s a beautiful fiction that could well be our deaths.
Everyone tweets about the shortage of battery materials, and yet we want bigger, bulkier EVs that need more of these scarce materials. Perhaps we should adjust our focus to focus less on private cars and more on footpaths and bike paths. Norway has invested $1 billion in high-tech cycle highways that people can use to get from their homes to cities and back. If a Nordic country can do that, surely America and other nations could too?
The secret is to shift our thinking from a paradigm that assumes we all need to use private vehicles all the time to a paradigm that prioritizes other modes of transportation. If we stubbornly cling to our vision of relying on private cars and trucks, we will likely miss most of our CO2 reduction targets, with catastrophic results.
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