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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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Understanding “Car Culture”

For Rochester Street Films this year we asked local filmmakers and ordinary citizens to share their perspective on what it’s like to get around Rochester without a car. No rules; No restrictions; No filter.

Alex Freeman has previously made several films about local cyclists. With this project Alex attempts to understand why the automobile has had such a grip on the hearts and minds of Rochester commuters – and if there’s any room for understanding…

We’d like to ask for your help getting these films in front of as many people as we can. If you would like to host a mini screening of Rochester Street Films in your neighborhood, please contact us.

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Getting Around with a Disability

For Rochester Street Films this year we asked local filmmakers and ordinary citizens to share their perspective on what it’s like to get around Rochester without a car. No rules; No restrictions; No filter.

Ericka Jones, a Systems Advocate at Center for Disability Rights, focuses on a segment of our population often overlooked. For people with disabilities, Ericka shows us how running a simple errand requires careful planning days in advance. Ironically, even the streets themselves can become barriers to living a productive life…

We’d like to ask for your help getting these films in front of as many people as we can. If you would like to host a mini screening of Rochester Street Films in your neighborhood, please contact us.

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Transportation and Poverty (Part 6): What Should Be Done?

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.Posted by: Pete Nabozny, Associate Principal at CGR and co-owner of Tru Yoga

As we’ve seen previously in this series of posts on Transportation & Poverty, the costs associated with transportation for Rochesterians in poverty are considerable. Low-income workers are faced with a difficult choice – spend a high portion of their income on a car and associated expenses so that they can get to work in a reasonable amount of time or lose many hours each week commuting by public transportation, effectively reducing their hourly pay and crowding out other productive activities. The ongoing de-concentration of jobs and housing in our region only exacerbates this dilemma. Read more

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Transportation and Poverty (Part 5): The Problem with Sprawl

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.
Posted by: Pete Nabozny, Associate Principal at CGR and co-owner of Tru Yoga

So far, we’ve examined how long commute times limit the ability of low-income workers who live in high poverty areas in the City to reach jobs through public transportation. We have also explored how the cost of car ownership is often prohibitively expensive for these same individuals. This post will assess how the continuing sprawl of our region has a particularly negative impact on low-income residents. Read more

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Transportation and Poverty Series (Part 4): The Cost of Car Ownership

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.Posted by: Pete Nabozny, Associate Principal at CGR and co-owner of Tru Yoga

Last time, we explored the problem of the long commute in Rochester and its impact on the effective wage of low income workers. Obviously, we are not the first to point this problem out. You might logically conclude, like many well-meaning organizations have, that we must provide a program or mechanism through which low-income folks can receive or buy a reasonably priced car. After all, that is the mode of transit for an overwhelming majority of our region’s residents and studies have suggested that access to a vehicle is correlated with more hours worked and more wages earned. A chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard, right President Hoover? The cherry on top is that our region famously has some of the shortest driving commutes in the nation. Read more

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Transportation and Poverty (Part 3): The Long Bus Commute and the Value of Time

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.Posted by: Pete Nabozny, Associate Principal at CGR and co-owner of Tru Yoga

Here in Rochester, most middle class households own a car or two and think nothing of driving to their place of employment. For these individuals, public transportation needs to be a competitive alternative to driving for them to ditch their cars.  If a bus stops near a person’s home frequently and reliably, and drops that person off near their place of work within 10 minutes or so of what it would take them to drive, they may opt to commute by bus. Read more

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Transportation and Poverty (Part 2): What is Poverty?

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.Posted by: Pete Nabozny, Associate Principal at CGR and co-owner of Tru Yoga

Over the next two weeks, Reconnect Rochester is going to publish a series of pieces that explore the issue of poverty in our region. These articles will focus primarily on the intersection of poverty with public transportation, sprawl, and community planning. But before we start, it is important to have a firm understanding of what the problem is and why it is so pernicious in our region. Read more

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Introduction to Transportation and Poverty in the Rochester Region

 

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.Posted by: Pete Nabozny, Associate Principal at CGR and co-owner of Tru Yoga

The statistics are overwhelming – 111,000 Monroe County residents live in poverty, accounting for slightly more than 15% of the region’s total population. Within the City of Rochester, a full 34% of the City’s population (or over 68,000 people) live below the poverty line, including over 50% of children in the City. The percentage of City residents in poverty has risen by 30% since 1990, when less than 24% of City residents were impoverished. Read more