After years of talk, electric cars are finally making their way into the U.S. market. The Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Coda will offer a very select group of consumers the opportunity to travel down the streets in vehicles powered by a totally new propulsion system. Finally, the private automobile can be freed of its role as a point-source pollution generator. The ultimate compromise between private mobility and environmental responsibility, it is said, is being set in stone.
Yet the great opportunities offered up by electric cars — their ability to aid in the transformation of the urban environment into a more humane place — are being systematically ignored. Rather, it is quite clear that the mainstream assumption is that we will simply replace our gas-guzzling vehicle with clean electrics, and then go back to living in the manner we’re accustomed.
Take General Electric’s recent categorization of the “10 Best Cities for Electric Cars.” GE, a company that makes big money from batteries, has an incentive to encourage more and more people to make the switch. Yet its assumptions about what cities would make the best places for the vehicles is predicated entirely on sprawl — cities are ranked based on the percentage of people who drive to work. In the process, no thought is given to the broader transformative power of the cars.
That’s not good enough. The very real threat of climate change — the concern that has motivated the introduction of electric cars in the first place — is becoming rapidly apparent, and every action made at the individual and societal levels has an influence. Scientists now argue that increases in carbon emissions are likely to result in sea level rises of three feet by 2100, destroying the homes of millions of people who live on coastlines the world over. The United Nations suggests that similar effects could wipe out the progress the world community has made on poverty eradication.
Yet, as Diana Lind has suggested on this website, the connection between electric cars and more sustainable living is far from clear. To implement a full-scale network of the vehicles would require the creation of a massive new infrastructure to support powering the things. Electric cars would have to rely on the existing power supply, much of which is generated at dirty, polluting coal and oil plants. And, perhaps worst of all, the cars would encourage the continued spread of people across the landscape. Sprawl is highly unsustainable from an environmental perspective. Electric cars would do nothing to stem it.
But electric vehicles do have the potential to radically improve the function of our cities and life within them by offering the chance to re-appropriate previously car-only space for pedestrians. Their lack of emissions and quiet nature makes them far more friendly in the urban space than gas-powered cars. And new information technologies allow people to share rented cars, rather than have to purchase their own. All of these advances would make living in dense cities more acceptable for more people — and dense cities are where climate change is best fought.
Of course, we’ve known these facts for years. Architect Ulrich Franzen, for instance, developed an ahead-of-his-time video in 1969 that showed how electric cars could alter the way a typical street in New York City felt and acted. His vision for the American city is that it would be a place for walking, sitting in plazas, and taking in the architecture. This is no fantasy; it can be achieved through the right sort of planning activism and policy.
But the current rhetoric revolving around electric cars cheers them on as the environmentally friendly solution to our existing problems, without offering them up as a potential tool in the reinterpretation of how our urban spaces work. Technology can play an essential role in altering the way we live — but only if we let it.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.