Why electric cars aren’t a panacea

If you follow me online, you know I’m very passionate about fixing how we get around cities. There are a few reasons:

1 — I want to survive to see my daughters get married, and I resent that I have to risk my life to get around Los Angeles choosing to use a bicycle.

2 — I believe climate change is real, and 60% of our greenhouse gas emmissions come from cities. In the US, the largest source of our greenhouse gas emissions (28%) is the Transportation sector, and cars make up 59% of Transportation.

If you solve how people get around cities, you solve climate change.

3 — If the only safe and reliable way to get around town is by a private car, it’s inherently discriminatory against people that can’t afford cars. People shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get around by bike or have to waste their time on a bus ride that takes twice as long as a private car, just because we refuse to re-allocate space away from cars.

From one of my favorite books on urbanism — Happy City by Charles Montgomery.

4 — I think we often forget or are oblivious to the impacts on our physical and mental health that come from living in a city that’s dominated by cars. It shouldn’t be dangerous to cross the street, but 200 people a year die in LA due to traffic violence. Sirens shouldn’t be so loud they wake you up at night, but they need to be to penetrate through closed car windows. Children should be able to walk or bike themselves to school, as is very common in European countries. We shouldn’t have one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. We shouldn’t smoke the equivalent of up to 4 cigarettes per day, just by breathing. Our commercial corridors should feel more like main streets than highways — which would encourage foot traffic to businesses and reduce crime. We shouldn’t waste an average of one week per year sitting in traffic.

I want to live in a city that’s more livable, peaceful, safe, and equitable.

When discussing Streets For All — an organization I founded in 2019 to try and give people in LA safe and reliable non-car options — my friends, especially those in tech, often tell me that electric cars will solve all of this, and especially autonomous electric cars. While it’s probably human nature to always be looking for a silver bullet, unlike our vaccine for COVID:

there is no quick fix for climate change, and electric cars aren’t it.

Here are a few reasons why electric cars aren’t a panacea when it comes to fixing climate change:

The electric Hummer coming out from GM.

1 — The biggest reason is space. Cars take up the same amount of space, whether they’re electric or not. This means we won’t solve congestion in cities. Traffic will continue to get worse as our population grows. Bikes and buses will continue to fight for their own lanes with ever increasing space demands from electric cars. And people will continue to get hurt and killed trying to bike or walk, especially if our SUV craze goes electric.

In short, electric cars — taking up just as much space as non-electric cars — do very little to make our cities safer or more livable, and the space they require makes it more difficult for cities to adopt modes that truly are very climate friendly, like bike and bus lanes.

2 — Electric cars are often used as an excuse to not make hard decisions that would actually free up space for buses and bikes. “Why bother fighting to reallocate parking spaces or vehicle traffic lanes for bike lanes, when electric cars are coming?” This false logic implies that with electric cars, there is no longer a need for bike or bus lanes, and this argument is used by NIMBY forces to hinder progress on much needed changes to our streets.

3 — Electric cars still pollute! Yes, they don’t emit greenhouse gases from their tailpipe, but manufacturing and battery production do emit greenhouse gasses. On average, an electric car will still have about 1/3 the emissions of the average conventional car — so it’s much cleaner, but still polluting, especially if the source of charging the car is from non-clean sources like coal.

I don’t think we’ll ever have a world without cars — they provide a useful function for longer trips. And of course, we need delivery vans, buses, and other vehicles that make our economy hum. If we need to have vehicles — they should be electric, and we should be charging them from renewable energy sources like wind or solar. But let’s stop acting like electric cars will save the planet — they won’t.

Tali, Mika & Sofi’s dad, Katerina's husband, LA native. Founder, Service. Founder, Streets For All. Board Member, Mid City West Community Council.