Willem Klumpenhouwer is a sustainable transportation consultant and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Transit Analytics Lab
Electric vehicles have gotten a lot of attention in recent years as a potential solution to our ever-growing emissions problem and the resulting climate change it contributes to. The federal Liberal government has been under pressure to match the United States in pledging billions in subsidies for the industry and consumers.
Eliminating tailpipe emissions will drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by our transportation sector. It’s also true that some challenges with electric vehicles are slowly being overcome with technological advancements and cleaner energy production.
But there’s just one nagging issue that no amount of technical innovation can solve: Electric cars are still cars. Outside of tailpipe emissions, they come with all the problems of cars, whether those problems relate to the environment, social equity or public health. The focus on electric cars stands in the way of truly transformative change: better public transit and better laid-out cities that encourage active modes of getting around, such as cycling.
Consider this: The highway equivalent of Toronto’s Line 1 subway – which runs for about 38 kilometres – would require 26 lanes of traffic. Electric or gasoline, that’s a lot of cars. They consume way more energy than a subway line. Walking and cycling, meanwhile, require no external power source at all.
Right now, public transit doesn’t work for everyone because not every part of the city is well served by it. And even for those who don’t face mobility challenges, walking and cycling everywhere is simply not feasible. But that’s usually the fault of cars.
Personal vehicles are like compact living rooms – two armchairs and a sofa in a big metal box. They require a large amount of room to travel around and to store both at home and at the destinations we visit. This means that we end up setting aside a large amount of space in our cities for cars.
More space for cars (think highways and parking lots) means putting the destinations we actually want to reach farther apart. If things are farther apart, they are harder to walk, cycle or take transit to and driving quickly becomes the more feasible and attractive option.
In short, electric cars, just like gasoline ones, would continue to warp the layout of our cities. It’s a vicious cycle: Cars make the job of public transit harder and therefore make driving even more attractive.
But there is another way.
We know that investment in frequent, safe and reliable public transit services will attract more people to use them. If more people use these alternatives, less space is needed for cars, and the closer together we can place our destinations. When cities are designed for shorter trips, people can spend more time enjoying themselves at their destination instead of spending time travelling. As a result transit becomes more competitive with the personal vehicle, and the upward spiral continues.
The problem is not that our cars depend on gasoline. It’s that we depend on our cars. Electrifying our vehicles is a small step toward a livable future, but transforming how we get around cities by truly investing in transit would be a giant leap.
In our world of limited budgets and attention spans, we need to dedicate appropriate focus and funds to the solutions with the biggest potential. This means spending significantly more on transit infrastructure and service, and boldly prioritizing the movement and well-being of pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders over cars.
Electric vehicles are often touted as an emissions cure-all, but in the hit medical history podcast Sawbones, co-hosts Justin and Sydnee McElroy have a saying: “Cure-alls cure nothing.”