Simply electrifying personal vehicles won’t be enough to complete the transition to livable, low-carbon cities without efforts to help users drive less, walk more, and use parking lots as the “gas stations of the future”, four different consultants argue in posts published over the last three weeks.
“‘Clean congestion’ is what we’ll get if we rely only on vehicle technology to meet climate change goals,” argues Steve Winkelman of Montreal-based Green Resilience Strategies, in a post published last week. “Even with a massive shift to clean vehicle technologies, we will still need to reduce driving to meet greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals. Climate protection requires a paradigm shift to Travel-Efficient Development.”
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He adds that “technology is essential—but not sufficient—to achieving needed greenhouse gas reductions. We need good land use planning and urban design to create walkable, transit-oriented communities. And those communities will be more accessible, equitable, prosperous, and resilient.”
Winkelman argues the changeover needn’t be onerous: he says a reduction in households’ driving distance of just four miles (6.4 kilometres) per day would be sufficient to meet carbon targets and avoid “clean congestion”. By improving air quality, he adds, EVs make walking and biking healthier and more pleasant.
Victoria-based transportation planner Eric Doherty makes a related case on National Observer, noting that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plan to cut car traffic by 50% is already producing results. “Paris’ successes have largely been achieved by reallocating space to transit lanes, protected bicycle lanes, pedestrianized streets and plazas, and most famously by creating linear parks along the River Seine. These actions are popular, and not just because they create nicer urban spaces and reduce local air pollution,” he writes.
“Until recently reducing climate pollution was seen by many as just a bonus benefit, but that seems to have changed as awareness of the climate emergency surges.”
Doherty points out that Paris’ experience is far from unique—as far back as 1961, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, iconic urbanist Jane Jacobs recalled how cars “just disappeared into thin air” when New York City closed the road into Washington Square Park, with no corresponding increase in traffic on surrounding streets.
“Over the last half-century, numerous similar experiences of disappearing traffic have been documented,” Doherty writes. “The latest installment was Seattle, where the Seattle Times reported ‘the cars just disappeared’ after the Alaska Way elevated freeway, which carried 90,000 cars per day, was closed in January and the predicted traffic chaos didn’t happen.”
Like Winkelman, Doherty sees more profound change ahead. “A recent California Air Resources Board climate report says California needs to reduce per capita car travel by 25% in just 11 years to meet their climate targets, even with a 10-fold increase in electric car sales. Cities in Canada and other wealthy countries also need to reduce private automobile traffic at least as much. We have to make a lot of traffic disappear quickly.” He cites dedicated transit lanes as an important part of the solution.
“A well designed bus lane can carry ten times as many people as a lane of cars, so bus lanes can handle decades of increasing transit ridership on many routes,” he writes. “But in many of the cities I visited in Europe, like in Canada, buses often crawl along at walking speed in a sea of cars.”
In Durham, North Carolina, meanwhile, writer and brand manager Sami Grover echoes the call for a systems approach to decarbonization that goes beyond electrification. Citing a recent report by the Aldersgate Group, he lists integrated road and rail strategies, long-term funding with local decision-making authority, and moving the most polluting journeys out of urban areas to improve air quality as part of a suite of decarbonization solutions for UK communities.
“With emissions [reductions] flatlining for several years now, government needs to fundamentally rethink its transport policy and work across departments to deliver the modern and ultra-low emission transport system the UK needs,” said Aldersgate Executive Director Nick Molho. “This means taking an integrated view of the whole transport system to ensure that new transport infrastructure projects deliver the best environmental and economic outcomes, empowering local authorities to develop low-carbon transport systems, incentivizing greater resource efficiency across the automotive industry, and targeting innovation support to technologies that can help cut emissions in difficult areas such as heavy commercial vehicles, long-distance journeys, and rail.”And in Ottawa, Delphi Group Senior Director Joe Rogers makes the case for parking lots as the “gas stations of the future”. He cites key considerations for parking lot owners: Determining whether electric vehicle charging capacity will be a government requirement, considering the retail advantages and employee benefits of installing EV chargers, identifying and addressing any technical limitations, and deciding how consistently to introduce charging infrastructure across multiple lots.
This post was updated to include Steve Winkelman’s more specific calculation that a daily driving reduction of four miles/6.4 kilometres per driver per day would be enough to prevent “clean congestion”.
Thanks for this coverage. My analysis is consistent with the California analysis: I calculate that a 23% reduction in driving is needed below 2040 forecast levels (about 6% below current driving levels). And, given how optimistic the assumptions are on clean energy, EV penetration and fuel economy, we probably need to reduce driving a lot more. If we don’t start now in changing land development patterns and transportation investments, we’ll continue to lock-in high-carbon, car dependency.