When we talk about the changes we need to make in our lives to combat climate change, electric vehicles (EVs) are usually portrayed as the ideal solution to slashing our transit emissions. Despite the fact that it takes far more emissions to produce an EV, driving an electric car is still far better for the environment in the long run than driving a traditional gas-powered vehicle. However, if you believe that a world in which everyone owns an electric car is a sustainable one, I am here to challenge that belief and to propose an alternative solution: the expansion of public transportation systems.
For brevity’s sake, I will not discuss the greenhouse gas emissions associated with EVs, as that would be beating a dead horse. To make a long story short, the production of EVs is an emissions-intensive process that involves materials like lithium, the extraction of which is incredibly damaging to the environment. Furthermore, while EVs do not emit greenhouse gasses themselves, the electricity used to charge them often comes from burning fossil fuels. Still, even in the worst-case scenarios, EVs provide more long-term benefits for the planet than internal combustion powered vehicles. Despite this, even if we assume that EVs produce absolutely zero emissions over their lifetimes, they are still incredibly unsustainable.
Cars are an inefficient use of space. The average car is about fifteen feet long and six feet wide and weighs in at about 4000 pounds. Furthermore, for most of their lives, cars sit idle, not moving or doing useful work, and merely taking up space. In rural areas where land is cheap and people are spread out, this is not an issue, but in cities, it is a very different story. Parking lots are such a prominent feature of the downtowns of American cities that we hardly notice the large amounts of land being wasted in the center of cities. These lots primarily serve commuters who drive from the suburbs into the city to work or run errands, but the existence of massive stretches of asphalt takes a major toll on those who actually live in the area. Land that is currently used for nothing more than parking cars could be used to build more housing or other forms of more useful infrastructure.
Car-based infrastructure is also terribly inefficient. Because cars themselves are such an inefficient use of space, you need to turn vast amounts of land into roads for them to drive on, and yet traffic remains inevitable. Even worse, building more roads won’t make traffic better. In fact, it exacerbates the issue through a phenomenon known as induced demand, where building more roads makes people more likely to use cars, which leads to worse traffic. This has been observed time and time again: whenever a major city expands its highways, traffic simply gets worse and worse. EVs are still subject to this problem because cars are fundamentally very space-inefficient.
Furthermore, roads themselves produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Constructing and maintaining one lane of a one-mile highway produces 3,500 tons of carbon dioxide. What is worse, no piece of infrastructure is better at destroying itself than cars and roads. Road wear also increases exponentially with a vehicle’s weight, meaning that even small increases in weight can cause a more than two-fold increase in road wear. Electric cars are typically much heavier than internal combustion engine cars. In a future where every car is electric, roads will wear themselves out faster.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be building electric cars. Rather, I am arguing that in our efforts to build a better society, we must move beyond cars entirely — at least for those of us who live in and around dense cities. We need not invent new technologies to solve the many problems cars create for the planet. The real solution is to expand and reinvest in our public transportation systems. Electric trains and trolleybuses do not use expensive and environmentally-damaging batteries because they receive their power from overhead wires. Additionally, trains and buses can transport the same amount of people that cars do in a far smaller space.
It should be noted here that I am not calling for an end to cars altogether, as there are many places and times where a car may be more convenient or perhaps even necessary. Ultimately, however, we as a society are far better served through trying to make our cities more walkable and our public transit infrastructure more reliable and functional than we are by just having everyone exchange their terrible cars for the lesser evil that is EVs.