The Inflation Reduction Act will provide a $7,500 purchase rebate for qualifying electric cars and trucks for the next 10 years. That’s great news, isn’t it? Perhaps. Many Americans depend on the auto industry. Delivery workers and assembly line workers, truck and railroad drivers, sales staff, banks and credit unions, advertisers and a host of other people make a living at it in one way or another.
We in CleanTechinica have closely covered the EV revolution for over 10 years. We’re naturally glad that in some small way our advocacy may have helped remove the barriers to electric vehicle adoption, but still, somewhere deep in our brains, there’s a small voice that keeps asking a nagging question. Do we really need all these new cars?
Aren’t our cities and highways crowded enough? Are there alternatives to riding around in two and a half ton steel and glass cocoons that offer us instant connection to our favorite games, movies, TV shows and social media? Could the obsession with personal cars be unhealthy for us as individuals and for our planet? Wouldn’t our cities be better places to live if all those parking lots and on-street parking spaces were converted into bike lanes, flower gardens, outdoor dining areas or playgrounds?
Robert Moses is credited with making New York completely dependent on automobiles. Supposedly, General Motors bought out the Los Angeles street car lines and shut them down so they could sell more cars. Joni Mitchell sings about our insatiable desire to “pave heaven and put in a parking lot.”
There are alternatives to cars
StreetsBlogwhich focuses on forms of transport other than private cars and trucks, points out that while the IRA provides billions in incentives for electric vehicles, it does nothing for alternative forms of transport such as bicycles, scooters and good old fashioned walking.
It goes on to say that it is mathematically impossible for the U.S. transportation sector to meet its climate goals through vehicle electrification alone, even if the United States were to achieve its goal of selling 40 percent of new battery-powered vehicles by 2050 .
That’s because Americans already drive so many and such large vehicles that monster gas cars left on the road would cancel out much of the EV fleet’s emissions reductions. Even if Americans drove 20% fewer miles than they do now, the sector would still fail. By contrast, radically reducing US dependence on cars not only has a much better chance of averting climate catastrophe, but would also help reduce US dependence on all foreign energy sources, green or not. .
This is because many active modes, such as cycling and walking, do not necessarily require a battery at all, and even those that do, such as electric bicycles and electric wheelchairs, require a fraction of the components and materials needed to power an electric car. A green car battery typically weighs about 1,000 pounds, with monster trucks like the Hummer EV towing batteries that weigh nearly 3,000 pounds—more than a Honda Civic. In contrast, an electric bicycle battery weighs about 8 pounds. Both vehicles are generally used to carry a single passenger.
StreetsBlog adds: “Cars need roads to drive on. That’s obvious. But what is less obvious is the extent to which roads (and cars) dictate how our built environment is constructed. In short, we’ve created a world that’s built around cars first, with people, environment, natural wildlife, atmosphere, and practically everything else second.
“By deciding to build for cars first, we’ve ceded a lot of our urban areas to them. Through streets, junctions, parking lots and other infrastructure. It’s not unusual for American cities to devote 50 percent or more of their downtowns to cars. This is land that could otherwise be housing, parks, cultural sites, or virtually anything but space for cars.
Cars and suburban effect
In the suburban areas that developed after the Federal Aid in Highway Act of 1956, communities were built entirely around the automobile. Part of the reason was to attract as much federal funding as possible, as entire neighborhoods were subsidized through the construction of single-family homes by the FHA. But an important reason developers built so many car-dependent communities was that they conveyed a powerful status symbol for those who lived there. They represented the fulfillment of the American dream. This subsidized land right facilitated by private vehicles has become ingrained in our national ethos.
It is a self-reinforcing system, StreetsBlog claims. If you live 45 minutes from a city and there is no public transportation nearby, you have no choice but to drive everywhere. Housing markets are responding by building more car-dependent models, supported by regulations and the perceived demand for driving, which is really only a last resort. Nearly one-third of all trips in America are a mile or less—walking or biking distance. But because of our development patterns, these trips must be made by car. It is not possible to move in any other practical or safe way.
Senator Joe Manchin, who spearheaded the Buy America provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, argued that America should not “build a mode of transportation on the backs of foreign supply chains.” The best way to do that – and save the planet – he says Streetsblogis to build a transportation system that doesn’t depend on people driving around in private cars.
Here’s a thought. We cannot “manufacture” our way out of the climate crisis. There are too many people, too many roads, too many cars and trucks, too many airplanes, and too many leaky old buildings that need heating and cooling. As Paul Simon once sang, “The planet groans every time it registers a new birth.”
We will have to adjust our thinking in various areas, one of which is that everything will go wrong if we all start driving electric cars that run on electricity from renewable sources such as wind, sun or moonlight. It is a beautiful fiction that could be the death of us.
Everyone worries about the shortage of battery materials, and yet we want bigger, bulkier electric vehicles that need more of these scarce materials. Perhaps we need to adjust our focus to concentrate less on private cars and more on pedestrian and cycle lanes. Norway has invested a billion dollars in high-tech bicycle superhighways that people can use to get from their homes to cities and back. If a Nordic country can do this, surely America and other nations can do it too?
The secret is to shift our thinking from a paradigm that assumes we should all use personal vehicles all the time to one that prioritizes other forms of transportation. If we stubbornly cling to our vision of relying on private cars and trucks, we are likely to miss most of our carbon reduction targets with disastrous consequences.
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