Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Electric Cars Won’t Save the Planet

with 3 comments

Tesla Model S

There is a lively debate going on first as a result of some research at North Carolina State and then some rebuttals at web sites like Slate. I was going to join in there but there are already 197 comments there – and anyway I am going to drag this off. It is not about the emissions – or lack of them. As I have said here before, the problem is that they are still cars. Cars are the problem. An electric car is a little bit better than an internal combustion engine car – but then a Smart car is better than an SUV or a Car2Go smart car is better than either. And in actual experience the emissions performance is better than expected.

Smart EV front off

But cars are still a leading cause of death and ill health. They take up far too much space in cities – moving and parked. We can easily accommodate the next million people who are coming to this region, but not if they insist on driving everywhere. Even the President of the Ford Motor Co recognizes that. It is bad enough what cars do to us – as the result of collisions and the inevitable congestion – but even worse is what it does to the places we live in. The interconnectedness of society is irreparably damaged by infrastructure designed simply to get cars through urban areas as quickly as possible.

We can easily electrify our transportation systems using existing technologies. We could build streetcar systems within towns and interurbans between them – and still live like they did in the 1920s. We could add electric high speed trains to cover longer distances, and reduce not just car travel but jet aircraft too – and that really does make a significant difference to emissions.

But the greatest benefit would be the ability to live without owning a car and getting everything we need within walking distance. We would abandon the ideas that have been so bad for us – like separating out land uses, and building single family home subdivisions which waste so much valuable farm land (which we do not value properly). We could protect much more of the wilderness and watersheds as a result. The reduced need for fossil fuels may be what drives this progress but the benefits in terms of health and quality of life are going to be the unique selling proposition that gets people on board. The sort of places which keep cars under control and make them largely unnecessary are going to be the ones that are most successful. While we now think that being “Green” is good, I think that “livable” may have been a more accurate term for what we want from urban regions.

But as long as there are lots of  “thought leaders” being seen in their Leafs or Teslas, we will continue to think that we can continue to live as though it was still the 1960s.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2014 at 10:31 am

3 Responses

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  1. You cover some interesting ground here, Stephen.

    This issue was addressed in a similar fashion in economist Edward Glaeser’s 2011 book, The Triumph of the City, where he points out just how much space cars really need. A parking space occupies about 14 m2. Each car requires a parking space at home and at work, then additional floaters for intermediate destinations. In other words, perhaps around five parking spaces per car, or 70 m2, are need on average to support one car, which translates into 70 square km for every million cars, a phenomenal amount of land and resources just for parking. Road space for travel is in addition to that.

    By comparison, he calculated that the entire world’s population would fit into one city less than the size of the state of Texas even if every person had a 150 m2 townhouse. Of course, that’s just a fun little exercise but it helps illustrate how ludicrously vast car dependency has become. Agriculture and economic sustenance will expand that footprint, but the point is made that civilization does not require the per capita ecological footprint of the West in the last half of the 20th Century to thrive in relative comfort.

    Glaeser also explains how the cost of car dependency is an acceptable fact in family budgets in places like Houston where the cost of housing is lower (fewer restrictions on building housing, therefore they meet demand and keep prices affordable … though sprawl is not sustainable in the long run), and where the national mortgage tax interest write-off in the US (which is one of the biggest subsidies on Earth) is even more effective in terms of family affordability because there is no state or municipal income tax, therein families have more disposable income. These people will probably just spend more on a Prius or Leaf when fuel prices climb in earnest, and they will vote for politicians who accept donations and influence from the road lobby. This will make places like Houston particularly hard to change even when peak oil and dust bowl conditions are truly upon them.


    February 5, 2014 at 4:23 pm

  2. The 1920’s are a romantic image for urbanists, but the reality doesn’t match our rose coloured viewing of the past. Cities were dirty places and vast numbers of city dwellers were working poor who had no choice but to live close to transit. Wealth was highly concentrated in the hands of the few who could afford to live where they wished. Getting out of the core was the goal of everyone, but few could achieve it. The stage was set for the post-war exodus to the suburbs.

    Affordable cars and new highways meant that big houses with big yards were no longer the exclusive domain of the rich. An economic boom combined with the most equal income distribution in history filled those houses with children. The greatest era for the middle class was also the greatest era for the automobile and many people still see the two as inseparable.

    Today we’re right back where we were in the 1920s with a few super rich living it up while the rest are keeping up the illusion of wealth with reverse mortgages or trapped in paycheque to paycheque existence. As before much of the clamour to be near transit is being driven by economic necessity. Unlike the 1920s the city core is a desirable place to live rather than one to escape, but the bulk of the population now lives beyond the reach of efficient transit in auto-oriented suburbs. Better roads are their number one priority and it’s clear that many still haven’t managed to see through the illusion that having the widest bridge in the world must make us the most successful city in the world.


    February 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm

  3. I don’t have the hands-on knowledge David has about the 1920s, but my maternal grandparents, both very much blue collar workers, build a house with a sizable garden in the 20s, across the river from downtown Bordeaux (from the age of 14 on, on sunny days I biked from their home to my high school in Bordeaux, biking back to their home at noon time for lunch, then back to school).
    their house was one of several, all owned by blue collar workers that didn’t make big salaries. My grand dad had a small truck..

    Many years later, in my very first job (late 60s), I rented a furnished Art-Deco house on the outskirts of a small medieval town. That house was built and owned by an average family, and it had a garage. (my rent was 10% of my modest wage and included weekly cleaning! it wasn’t usual..many landlords didn’t ask much as they didn’t wanted to pay too much taxes)

    Judging by the number of single family homes (each with a small garden) that were built in Bordeaux itself, from the 1850s to the 1910s, mostly for blue and white collar families, Even families of modest means could afford a home.

    Middle-class, when I was growing up, meant someone that owned a business–in the wide meaning of the word–had employees, and owned at least 2 homes (a principal residence and a weekend/vacation home). Each home had several full-time staff. My boss–a builder, was definitely middle-class, so were doctors, pharmacists, notaries, lawyers etc.
    Some of our clients were upper-middle class, others aristocrats, the later not necessarily richer than the former.
    They were all penny pinchers to a fault. More to the point they looked for value. Something had to be of the best quality possible, but not necessarily very expensive.

    It is not true that in the late 19th century and early 20th century cities were dirty. Some areas were–usually in the East side of towns, with industries mixed up with tenements..but there were also/are pleasant districts.

    In Paris, where even the super rich live in apartment buildings (big to huge apartments, with high to very high ceilings, mind you) there are some areas with rows after rows of single families houses, with a tiny garden, that were originally owned by working class families.
    They are now relatively expensive (1 million Euro and up, up).

    La Mouzaia district, in the 19th district, just east of the Buttes-Chaumont Park, is one example..

    Another is La Butte aux Cailles (the thrushes’ hill?) in the 13th..

    Unfortunately, due to the increase in population and also thanks to the building of freeways in the 60s and 70s, many towns in Europe, including Bordeaux, are surrounded by ever growing suburbs..

    But then, as in Japan (I have friends there), many Europeans living in suburbs or small country towns, but working in the major town of their area or some medium size town in the region, use public transit during the week to go to work and back.
    The greater Bordeaux has 1 million people only…yet has 15 commuter train lines, plus 60 commuter bus lines. Way more than 20-30 years ago.

    Red frog

    February 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm

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