While progressive U.S. policy-makers increasingly promote electric vehicles as the magic bullet to decarbonize transportation, what Americans really need is encouragement to “drive less, right now” through strategic tweaks to existing infrastructure, more pedestrian- and cycling=friendly roads, and EV car-sharing, says CityLab.
During CNN’s recent marathon town hall on climate change, several candidates for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination called for the 263 million and counting combustion-driven vehicles currently on the streets of America to be converted to EVs as quickly as possible. And with 75% of Americans still driving to work in single-occupancy vehicles, making the switch to EVs might seem the best path to rapid emissions reductions.
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“But a host of timing and technical challenges stands in the way,” observes CityLab. With EVs accounting for “just 2% of the 5.3 million cars sold last year,” and given that “Americans are holding on to their cars longer than ever,” a transition that didn’t involve “radically ambitious incentives” would take about 15 years—four years beyond the IPCC’s 2030 deadline to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 45%.
CityLab also expresses concern that “electric cars take about twice as much energy to build than a traditional internal combustion car.”
But there are two bigger obstacles to translating EV uptake into reduced U.S. emissions: the country’s population is growing, and people are driving more.
Before even factoring in the Trump administration’s determined efforts to undercut fuel economy improvements, the United States has struggled to achieve climate targets, according to Washington, DC-based Transportation for America—primarily because policy-makers continue to cater to cars, rather than to people. “Despite an admirable 35% percent increase in the overall fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet from 1990 to 2016, emissions still rose by 21%,” the organization notes in a recent blog post. “Why was that? Because the total number of miles travelled [known as vehicle miles travelled, or VMT] increased by 50% in that same period.”
In California, for example, where the population is projected to rise to 50 million by 2050 from 40 million today, current VMT numbers will be “completely unsustainable—not only from a climate and air quality perspective, but for congestion and fiscal obligations, too,” said Steve Cliffe, deputy executive director of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). His agency’s plan to reduce the state’s emissions 20% by 2035 involves five million EVs on the road by 2035, but also calls for fuel switching to hydrogen and biofuels—and a VMT reduction of about 20%.
That last part of the plan isn’t as “daunting” as it might sound, CityLab writes, citing Cliffe’s contention that it would only require a regular car commuter to take transit, bike, or carpool once a month. “With 46% of vehicle trips under three miles, reducing VMT could be sped by infrastructure and public transit improvements that encourage more people to take trips without a car.”
At least in the short term, added Transportation for America Policy Director Scott Goldstein, “small tweaks can help,” so that no one will have to think about overhauling suburban car culture overnight. “It can be something as simple as creating more cross streets in a suburban development, so people don’t have to drive the whole way around,” he explained.
CityLab cites Minneapolis-St. Paul as one U.S. community that is working to combine increased urban density with electric car-share programs. “We really think car-sharing will shed single-occupant, self-owned cars and postpone the buying of an individual vehicle,” said Will Schroeer, executive director of Twin Cities transit advocacy group East Metro Strong. “One shared vehicle takes about eight to 11 private cars off the road,” he explained. And “once you don’t have the car in your driveway, you tend to walk or you ride transit, or the more you trip-chain and use a car for less of your journey.”
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