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A Climate Solutions Blind Spot: Seeing Beyond Electric Cars

Guest blog by Evan Lowenstein, Director of Communications and Membership at the Climate Solutions Accelerator

Remember when you learned how to drive? You learned about the blind spots to the left and right of your vehicle, those spots where another car might be, hidden even from all your mirrors. That there might be things there you aren’t seeing. 

There’s another blind spot putting us at risk here in car-centric America: the one that prevents us from thinking beyond the automobile as we strive for climate solutions and a truly sustainable society.

Image Credit: State Farm on Flickr

The rise in concern about climate change in society and industry is encouraging, and happening not a second too soon. But the well-intentioned efforts run the risk of falling way short because of our perilously persistent belief that we can achieve a climate-safe, sustainable future simply by running our cars on something besides fossil fuels.

Transportation accounts for 40% of our climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, and converting vehicles from fossil-fuels to more cleanly-generated electricity surely can reduce those vehicles’ emissions. But the way they are fueled is just one of many environmental, economic, and equity problems caused by our cars — and just one of the problems inherent in our prevailing transportation model and mindset. 

Thus, there is an inconvenient truth hidden in our blind spot: as we seek transportation modes and systems that are better for the environment, for the economy, and for equity, electric vehicles are the next-worst option to the fossil-fueled ones. 

Why Electric Vehicles Aren’t Enough

The switch to electric cars as a solution to climate change depends simultaneously on a massive transition to renewable energy, such as wind and solar, happening at an unprecedented speed. If we don’t transition to renewables as fast as we transition to electric cars, electric vehicles won’t produce any real progress on climate change. The switch also means a massive increase in demand on our already-strained electric grid; in addition to the cost of putting up that much renewable energy, we then have to upgrade the grid to carry it all.

And electric cars are still cars — machines that produce environmental impacts such as water pollution from tire and brake residues, and leaks of toxic materials from millions upon millions of compromised vehicles; pollution from extraction of materials needed and energy needed to make them; gargantuan fossil-fuel expenditures needed to transport them from manufacturer to individual buyer. In addition, the massive road and storage infrastructure (parking lots) needed to accommodate individual cars as a primary transport choice has titanic environmental impact: polluted runoff, biodiversity loss and roadkill from fractured habitat, etc. Having to maintain all this outsized, inefficient infrastructure forever also creates enormous financial challenges for governments, and prevents resources from being used more wisely.  

The Cost of Personal Vehicles 

Speaking of roadkill — cars also kill a lot of people too, upwards of 60,000 annually in our country from crashes and illness from fossil-fueled air pollution. And many people killed by cars are low-income and people of color, forced into walking or cycling in car-centric communities without adequate provisions for pedestrians or cyclists; and/or forced into living in places with the worst auto-borne air pollution.

Car-culture also creates and perpetuates more inequity like this. Cars are already expensive to own, maintain, insure, and fuel. Low-income people without the means to own cars are shut out from many needs and opportunities (jobs, education, recreation, culture) that are accessible only by car. In addition, most low-income people rent instead of own their housing, and even if they were able to access electric vehicles, they likely wouldn’t have easy access to charging. If the shift to electric vehicles makes car ownership even more out of reach for low-income people, the equity gap exacerbated by car-culture will grow even wider. 

Building a Multi-Modal Future

We must start seeing what’s in the blind spot–the fact that a switch from gas-powered to electric vehicles cannot be the primary push as we strive for sustainability. Instead, we must understand that the best car trip for climate and sustainability is not an electricity-powered car trip, but the absence of a car trip.  

Then, we must focus our planning and funding to make it easier for more people to transport themselves by bus, rail, bicycle, and foot. Note that an electric bus or train uses ten to twenty times less electricity per passenger mile than an electric car does — no matter how clean or dirty the electricity supply is, they are always that much better. And even if buses and trains aren’t electrified, they produce less overall impact than electric private vehicles as a whole, simply by transporting more people over less distance. Walking and bicycling for transportation — if done safely using adequate infrastructure provided for it — produces positive health benefits along with the environmental benefits.

Seeing what’s in the blind spot also means developing land and our communities more efficiently so that transit, bike, and pedestrian transportation modes are viable for a lot more people. Community design with this location efficiency in mind will also save energy, land, and natural resources, meaning that planning for car-free lives enables climate solutions well  beyond the transportation modes themselves. This location efficiency also makes it more feasible for car sharing and carpooling — putting more people in each car is a super-sensible and affordable climate solution as well. 

The hard truth is that climate solutions, sustainability, and equity cannot be achieved solely through intention, but rather through execution. And executing requires plugging all the key facts into our designs of policy and place. We cannot let this big blind spot — an overemphasis on electric cars — run us off the road to our destination: a cool, carbon neutral planet.

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Top ten things we’re most proud of in 2020.

2020 has been a year like no other.

Like every non-profit, the pandemic forced Reconnect Rochester to pivot fast to re-tool our planned programs and goals for the year. Luckily, we are small (but mighty), and nothing if not nimble. Despite all the challenges, we managed to move our mission forward with intensity. Check out (below) the “Top 10” list of accomplishments we’re most proud of in 2020.

We also faced financial uncertainty this year as prospects for grants and sponsorships dissipated. You know what got us through? The generosity of supporting members during our last membership drive, especially our sustaining members whose monthly donations proved to be extra crucial this year.

If you haven’t already, we hope you’ll take a look at the membership levels and gift options and make a donation toward our 2021 Membership Drive so we can hit the ground rolling in 2021!


TOP 10 THINGS WE’RE MOST PROUD OF IN 2020
(In no particular order of importance.)

#10

Releasing a new original short film titled Think Transit First to highlight transportation as a systemic equity issue in our community, and the innovative ways some local organizations are meeting transportation needs. The film premiered at our Nov 12 Rochester Street Films event, which also included a presentation of local statistics and a panel discussion. Please watch and share this important film!

#9

Installing 15 fiberglass bus stop cubes on Parsells, Lyell & Monroe Avenues to give RTS riders a respectable place to sit while they wait, and celebrated at a ribbon cutting event with City officials and project partners. Check out the Channel 8 news story and more photos of the ribbon cutting event.

#8

Hosting a 3-hour virtual Complete Streets Training attended by 60 local public officials, planners, engineers and advocates. Justin Booth of GObike Buffalo led a discussion about the benefits of active mobility and complete streets, and how we can make our roads safe for people of all ages and abilities.

#7

Rolling out a set of bike education offerings to encourage more people in our community to experience the health and financial benefits of biking to get around, and deliver the information they need to do so safely and comfortably.
p.s. Find out more about classes & presentations you can bring to your workplace, campus, community library or schools.

#6

Joining forces with Rochester Cycling Alliance to weigh in on an untold number of transportation plans and projects, like the Priority Bicycle Boulevards plan, GTC’s Long Range Transportation Plan, and infrastructure projects all over the City and County. Our favorite win this year was a final design for E. Main Street that includes dedicated bike lanes, a result of working alongside neighborhood partners to advocate for a street design that accommodates ALL users.

#5

Publicly expressing our solidarity with the movement toward racial justice in our community by signing on to the community statement that Racism is a Public Health Crisis. We also committed to reflect and actively work on holding ourselves accountable for living up to our professed values of equity and inclusion, and centering anti-racism in our work.

#4

Exponentially expanding cycling focused programs and outreach led by the Rochester Cycling Alliance during the first full year of our organizations coming together. A film screening and panel discussion of the Dutch film Why We Cycle, a virtual update on the City’s bike infrastructure, on-bike classes at the Rochester Public market, a bike law refresher video for Rochester Police Department officers, and many more accomplishments too numerous to name.

#3

Getting our Monroe County Crash Map (which had crashed) updated on our website with a fresh new design! The map is a resource for looking up crashes that involve pedestrians and cyclists, and serves as a tool for local advocacy efforts around safe streets in our community.

#2

Adding new multi-modal themed products and designs to our online shop. All sales and proceeds are reinvested to support our work in the community.
p.s. Several new products are available as membership gifts!

#1

Traveling to Albany to meet with local legislators and advocate for a legislative platform to improve transportation in our region, developed in partnership with Our Streets Transit Coalition member organizations.


…and that doesn’t even count the ways we spark community engagement and conversation every day through social media shares and blog posts about things like the survival of public transit, the benefits of reduced motor traffic, or the automobile and racial exclusivity.

We think that’s a pretty darn good Top 10 list for a disrupted kind of year.

Just imagine what we can do in 2021!

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American Convenience Culture and the Effect of Exclusive Personal Mobility

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

In a 2017 piece, I wrote about the impact of “independent automobile transportation” on our community environments. To take it one step beyond the idea that we have built a nation around exclusive personal mobility, it’s important to acknowledge the devastating effects of our “convenience culture” here in the United States.

Let’s begin with the assumption that the most important lessons we learn, the most transformative journeys we take, and the most powerful experiences we have are rarely “convenient.” The things that make us better are usually the things that require us to dig a little deeper and find something in ourselves that makes us truly feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. While convenience is a welcomed privilege, what makes us who we are usually requires a modicum of effort, or self reliance, or shared effort. If this is not your experience, then this post may not be for you.

Comfortable Bus

For the rest of you that are still with me, let’s talk about the assumption mentioned above with regard to our communities. Do we make the hard choice to bike to work instead of drive in an effort to reduce pollution, make our community safer, and advocate for a more sustainable mode of transportation, or do we simply drive? Do we conveniently order from Amazon, or do we seek a similar purchase that might strengthen our local economy? Do we use Grubhub, or do we contact our favorite local establishment directly to ensure they get the most from every order? Do we use Uber or do we see if there is a public transit option that might get us to where we need to go?

European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are notorious for prioritizing less “convenient” forms of transportation in favor of bikes and public transit, which empower us and expose us to sociocultural diversity. The lessons learned via anti-exclusive mobility are the true soul-resurrecting elements that we can all benefit from. In other words, if we truly support the definition of strength through adversity, we must embrace the less convenient avenues of mobility, commerce and lifestyle.

And yet, in a country of perpetual chest-thumping, relentlessly championing the illusion of toughness and grit, we look for the closest parking space at the gym. We curse the driver that takes an extra second to make a left turn, delaying us during our commute. We berate the local business that doesn’t have the “in-and-out” convenience parking we ravenously crave. This America of “strength” is suddenly brought to its knees when we can’t find a parking space within a few hundred feet from our destination.

This is the sociological construct that is created when we over-prioritize the most “convenient” (and most exclusive) form of transportation. For example, of the 37 OECD nations, the United States has the second lowest gas tax behind Mexico, which has no gas tax. In fact, the US gas tax is almost exactly one-quarter of the OECD average per gallon. The lack of significant fuel tax in the US is an under-realized financial lubricant for the proliferation of the automobile as an affordable choice instead of the exclusive one. In essence, we have made it financially easier for people to get around using the most inefficient, unsafe and environmentally unfriendly mode of transportation this planet has ever seen.

Couple this with more than a half century of urban demolition, residential displacement and racially-diving highway creation, and you get a mode of transportation that is so convenient AND exclusive that few other modalities have a chance.

And it’s not just cars. It’s mega stores like Walmart that, ironically, we welcome into our rural and suburban worlds on the promise of jobs and inexpensive merchandise, when the reality is a monopolistic machine that pays unlivable wages and makes it impossible for small businesses to compete. The end result is actually a loss of American jobs and a culture that is built around a one-stop-shop solution that is highly subsidized and simultaneously damaging to local economies.

Services like Grubhub make it easy for consumers to order from local restaurants. But these third-party food delivery services can take up to 30% of each sale, creating a no-win scenario for restaurants. Choose to use Grubhub and have your profit margins stripped, or go it alone and receive extremely limited exposure based on the public’s lack of desire to look beyond their favorite apps to fulfill their cravings. Grubhub has quietly become one of the most powerful “pay-to-play” constructs in our local economy.

These are just a few examples of convenience culture and how this unsustainable model of commerce is slowly eliminating the chance for small businesses to thrive. The more we subscribe to the convenience economy, perpetuated first and foremost by the drastic over-prioritization of the automobile, the more we feed into our own undoing. Whether you’re a rural American who loves the convenience of Walmart, or an urban American who just wants to find the closest parking space in front of your favorite farm-to-table restaurant, remember that true patronization often takes effort. With this in mind, let’s be fine with parking a quarter mile away and getting some exercise on the way to our destination. Let’s pay a little extra to shop at our local market instead of lining the pockets of billionaires who are fleecing our small business cultures. Let’s look at the notion of what our American spirit really stands upon… the idea that if we all work a little harder and a little smarter, we can overcome the temptation of convenience culture and reclaim our community strength by doing what is more difficult.