Yes, We Need More Electric Vehicles, But We Also Need to Drive Less

Throughout the Democratic presidential debates, and even at our own Climate Forum 2020, candidates emphasized the need for America to transition to more electric vehicle use. In fact, many of the Democratic candidates’ climate plans include sizeable investments for electric vehicle infrastructure, even offering “cash for clunkers” programs. However, as City Lab recently argued, before we think that EVs will be a silver bullet for climate change we have to take steps to help Americans drive less overall especially if we’re to meet decarbonization targets in the next decade. 

Candidates Must Think More Critically:  Switching to EVs is important but few of the 2020 candidates had plans for how to rejuvenate communities to make them less car-intensive. For instance, Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan, which is one of the more comprehensive plans, increases funding to build more roads which will only incentivize more driving. Additionally, building more roads requires the use of cement which is a big emitter of CO2. As Transportation For America (T4A), a program by Smart Growth America that pushes for more state and federal investment in public transportation noted: federal funding that expands roads instead of improving transit undermines progress on climate policy.

How is CA Handling It?

California has more drivers than any other state in addition to having some of the most traffic-congested metro areas in the country. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has worked to reduce emissions from California’s transportation sector by 20% by 2035. As City Lab reported, CARB outlines three things that need to happen: more electric cars, greater use of less-carbon-intensive fuels, and fewer miles driven. Also worth noting is that although fuel efficiency standards increased in the state since 1990, vehicle miles traveled, or VMT—increased by 50%, more than canceling out the technological gains.

What Are the Solutions?: More accessible and better functioning public transportation is certainly important but there are other steps like encouraging ridesharing and using pooled ridesharing as a mini bus system.  As East Metro Strong, a transit advocacy group in the Twin Cities, explained: “One shared vehicle takes about eight to 11 private cars off the road.” Additionally, we should be encouraging teleworking and rethinking neighborhoods to ensure that people are within walking and biking distance of stores and other necessities.

How Did We Get Here?: As City Lab explained in a 2017 article:

we subsidize roads, socialize the costs of pollution, crashes and parking, and even legally require that our communities be built in ways that make it impossible to live without a car, we send people strong signals to buy and own cars and to drive—a lot. As a result, we drive too much.

Additionally, transportation is now the biggest source of GHG emissions in the United States having surpassed energy generation.

Why This Matters: We’ve built many of our communities so that if you don’t own a car, you can’t get around very easily. In fact, some have made the case that if we want to save the planet, we have to get rid of suburbs altogether. However, for many people who are priced out of cities, or enjoy life in quieter communities, there’s the case to be made for how we can fix suburbs to make them more walkable, ride-shareable, energy-efficient, and less dependent on cars. We just need policies to incentivize the switch.

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