A Decidedly Dim View of Electric Vehicles


Electric Vehicles (EVs) are all the rage these days and the press seems to treat them as a palliative for all that ails our fossil-fuel-driven, automobile-dependent transportation network.  The New York Times has fallen in love with Better Place, an electric-car battery maker that seeks to replace much of the U.S. fleet of vehicles with ones that run on electric batteries, which could be changed at battery stations much the way we currently fill up at gas stations.

Then Mayor Gavin Newsom yesterday announced San Franciso’s new agreement with City CarShare and Zipcar to include two electric plug-in vehicles in their fleets (one each), proclaiming that "Electric vehicles are the future of transportation and the Bay Area is the testing ground for the technology." 

Unfortunately, that’s a future I don’t find attractive, and one that should concern livable streets urbanists.  It hearkens to the "something for nothing" culture bemoaned so eloquently by James Howard Kunstler and implies that Americans don’t have to give up any of the convenience of cars to become energy independent.

As Kunstler put it:

We became a nation of overfed clowns who believed that it was possible
to get something for nothing, who ravaged the landscape in an orgy of
wanton carelessness, who believed they were entitled to lives of
everlasting comfort and convenience, no matter what, and expected the
rest of the world to pay for it. We even elected a vice-president who
declared that this American way of life was non-negotiable.

now face the most serious challenge to our collective identity,
economy, culture, and security since the Civil War. The end of the
cheap fossil fuel era will change everything about how we live in this
country. It will challenge all of our assumptions. It will compel us to
do things differently – whether we like it or not.

That is, unless we can just find a clean source of fuel, the electric-car folks might contend.

And to their credit, electric cars do not emit as much as petroleum vehicles, at least at
the tailpipe, and emissions reductions in the Bay Area and statewide will go a very long way to combating the largest source of CO2 (nearly 50 percent of the total) in the state.  But electricity generation is very dirty in most parts of the country, so
scaling up to hundreds of millions of electric vehicles will put a huge
burden on the traditional coal-based grid.

When asked about the sources of electricity, Better Place spokesperson Julie Mullins said the company will pay a premium for renewable energy wherever they add vehicles to the fleet.  She said that in Hawaii and New York, where much of the electricity grid is fueled by diesel and coal, they will buy the equivalent amount of renewable energy.

"We want to reduce the emissions from the cars because we know that people aren’t going to give up the cars," she said, though she admitted that they are not looking at the issue the same way as urbanists.  And she acknowledged that battery production contains the same dependency traps as petroleum.  "We’re trying to clean up our dependence on oil, but we don’t want to trade one
reliance for another.  Batteries will become a virtual oilfield, so we have to ask how do we make it so the US
builds an industry domestically."

How this will happen remains to be seen, particularly because the U.S. has no prominent reserves of lithium.

Electric Vehicles Don’t Cut VMT and Still Hurt When They Hit You

This electric-vehicles-cure-all mindset also ignores substantial transportation, land use, and energy policies that have little to do with innovation in batteries or biofuels.  Changing the fuel source for cars won’t cure the host of other ills generated by automobile dependence, such as increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT), traffic, and congestion, sprawl and land-use policies that further cement automobile dependence, the danger that cars pose to pedestrians and cyclists, the delay to transit, the huge public
and private costs of parking, the embodied energy costs of vehicle production (and battery production, should that scale up), escalating road maintenance expenses, and
the displacement of green and public open space by parking and

UC Davis transportation scientist Mark Delucchi, who wrote a defense of technology-fixing-transportation problems titled, "How
We Can Have Safe, Convenient, Clean, Affordable, Pleasant
Transportation Without Making People Drive Less or Give Up Suburban
Living," admitted we have to face up to the costs of large cars:

I am concerned that once we find a way to greatly reduce GHG
emissions from the passenger-transport sector, we will think we have
solved our biggest transport problems and move on. Thus, I have no
affinity for the Governator’s promotion of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles,
because I think it is just a way to put green lipstick on a piggie
Hummer. A zero-GHG Hummer is still an abomination that slaughters other
travelers, takes up way too much road space, requires way too much
support infrastructure, consumes too many resources in manufacture, and
blights our world. I am absolutely appalled by the lack of seriousness
with which we address these other impacts of transportation.


VMT growth has far outpaced population growth in the
past few decades, in large part because we live further and further
from where we work.  And while polls and recent New York Times
columnists might consider this to be normal or even desirable, it is
not sustainable. 

Ironically, what is sustainable is New York City itself.  As a new
by the NYC Department of Transportation found, New York City has
added substantially to its population and traffic did not increase. Instead, people rode transit, rode bicycles, or found what they needed within a short walk of
their home.


As Tom Vanderbilt wrote recently on his blog How We Drive, the solution isn’t just to create cleaner cars, but to live in urban areas where so many car trips aren’t necessary.

If San Francisco wants to be on the cutting edge in the fight against carbon, suggests Livable Citiy’s Tom Radulovich, it should spend money on fixing public transit:

The Mayor’s enthusiasm for electric cars is well known. If he is truly
interested in making the city sustainable and livable, he needs to take
action to increase funding for transit, and improve the speed,
reliability, and comfort of Muni. Muni faces huge budget cuts this
year, and the Mayor’s revenue panel, after two years, hasn’t recommend
anything but fare increases. Higher transit fares and Muni service cuts
will likely negate any environmental benefit that electric cars might
bring, and will unduly burden the San Franciscans who are suffering
worst in this economy, including seniors, youth, the disabled, and the
poor. Muni’s on-time performance has been stuck at about 70% for the
Mayor’s entire tenure, well below the City Charter’s 85% goal.

Do We Even Want a City Full of Cars?

An even more significant question, though less tangible or easily quantified, is what kind of city will we have if we continue to promote insular personal mobility and comfort devices at the expense of spatially efficient, healthy, and more humane modes of transport, like bicycles and our own two feet.

We could, as Professor Delucchi notes, through " a combination of massive
conservation, rapid technological development, and willingness to
tolerate somewhat higher electricity prices (in exchange for
essentially zero external costs of all kinds) [get] close to
100 percent clean renewable electricity worldwide," and obviate the need to analyze
electricity supply-related problems. 

But will we still submit to a topography of public space dominated by the movement and storage of cars?  Leah Shahum of the SFBC noted with some angst that Mayor Newsom had painted several parking spaces green for the press conference to launch the electric vehicle car-share, but that the city still can’t stripe bike lanes, a decidedly green mode choice. 

"With the Bike Plan
injunction due to be lifted this spring, we hope to see the Mayor
commit funding and street space to good, old-fashioned bicycling, not
just the more technologically – but less green – electric
vehicles," she said.

Blaine Merker of the artist collective Rebar, which gave us Parking Day and Bushwaffle, hopes we can alter our definition of green cities even further:

Let’s expand our definition of "green" to include our culture and our
relationships with each other. Now is San Francisco’s chance to capture
the country’s imagination not just by reducing our dependence on oil,
but by reducing our dependence on expensive, bulky, socially-isolating
boxes for everyday trips. When we take our streets back for living,
playing and relaxing, then we’ll really be national leaders.

The less power we use, the more we learn to rely on social capital
to get things done. Electric cars still use an order of magnitude more
power than human-powered and collective transit, and their impact on
urban form unfortunately repeats the socially isolating effects of oil.

  • CBrinkman

    If using Car Share decreases your vehicle miles traveled, does a “green” car, either electric or hybrid, increase your VMT? Would you drive more frequently if you don’t feel at all guilty about it and got positive feedback from the world? “It’s an electric car, it doesn’t count.”

  • There’s a whole host of ills attributable at one level or another to our society’s over dependence on personal transportation by private vehicle. Air pollution, global warming, chronic obesity, accidents (monetary and health), lost productivity from congestion, loss of community via auto-scaled development, loss of habitat from urban encroachment, enabling further segregation of our communities, dependence on foreign oil (and hence enabling overseas autocrats) etc etc etc.

    Electric vehicles address one, and only one, class of these ills. Air pollution/global warming. And unfortunately, this is the easiest ill of the automobile for us to point at a number and say, “Look! this is bad!”. This is the only ill of the automobile that has gained significant acknowledgment and traction in our society at large.

    A wolf in a sheep’s clothing… the electric vehicle is a good thing only if our only alternative is the gasoline-powered vehicle.

  • The largest reserves of lithium are in Bolivia, which is understandably leery of its exploitation by big powers like the U.S. Just study what’s happening in Congo, largely because of its supply of the coltan necessary for laptops and mobile phones, and then follow the latest moves to isolate Evo Morales. “Have riches, get trashed” should be the motto for countries that provide the minerals for our latest fads.

  • GRR

    Aside from the legitimate questions about “everything aside from green,” I wonder if the so-called green benefits of EV’s are all that legitimate, if we consider the scale involved. Specifically, I wonder what percentage of drivers would need to be actually driving electric vehicles in order for there to be a decrease in overall regional carbon emissions, assuming growth in VMT remains constant.

    From a more political frame, for every electric car we plan for, how many non-electric cars will we get in the short and medium term, even if there is some sort of potential distant future of electric-only? Can electric cars really account a significant percentage of our total VMT within 10 years? Can car producers really turn on that dime? I doubt it.

  • Thanks for this article! I think it’s vital we have this discussion – if we fail to question the motives of those who appear to be greenwashing we risk contaminating the whole livable streets and green movements.

    It would be harder to convince people to fight for clean air, water, and neighborhoods if folks can say “well we tried electric cars but it didn’t work.”

  • Frederick Gault

    This article seems to be a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The low hanging fruit of carbon emissions is conservation, electric vehicles are more efficient. We need to do what we can now and stop wishing for pie in the sky. Sure we would all love a society without cars, but this is unrealistic in the short run. Do I hate Hummers? Yes I do! But I want to be realistic. Lets stop worrying about legislating against bad taste and roll up our sleeves and do that which can be done. This article makes for good righteous indignation but is simply unrealistic.

    Set the fashion with electric vehicles. Make it cool to be efficient and watch the Hummers wind up as scrap. Get smaller electric cars on the streets and watch more cars use existing capacity. Get electric vehicles on the road and watch wasted night-time coal fired generation get used to power up vehicles. Get electric vehicles on the road and watch fewer oil tankers crash in SF Bay. Get electric vehicles and watch people in Bolivia make decent wages selling Lithium. Why are these bad things?

  • jdub

    Matthew’s article accurately points out that electric cars are not the answer. However, let’s give the mayor some credit where it is due. Remember that the first electric vehicles in will be shared ones. Car sharing is good and we should be encouraging as much of it as possible. Rather than electric car charging stations in one spot, how about having shared cars available in the PUBLIC realm, on the street instead of in private lots? Why do we allow storing of private cars on public streets but not public (shared) cars? hills.

    Suppose we had a shared car within a block or so of every residence. Increased use of shared cars is much more beneficial than limited sharing even with electric cars.

  • Peter

    This article seems to be a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.


    The only way e-cars could be good for us is if we raise the tax on e-cars at least as much as any respective gain we get in fuel efficiency — else we get the dreaded Jevons Paradox – increased energy consumption overall, increased carbon emissions, etc.

  • Meathead: “Do you realize guns are the cause of over 60 percents of of deaths in America?”

    Archie: “Would it make you feel better if they was all pushed out of windas?”

    Cars are the legacy of the horse in America, especially the west. The impetus to hit the road and get away is not a bad one.

    The problem is that too many autos snarl the dense urban core and that cars facilitate sprawl.

    If one cuts down on options for mobility in order to solve those problems, then one creates other problems in their stead.

    I’d prefer to see tighter regulatory policies that get at those ills rather than casting a wider net. But as we’ve seen locally with affordability and parking, these are complicated policy calls with interrelated implications that have all sorts of unintended consequences and which produce counterproductive policies if all factors are not considered in formulating policy.

    Of course, we’d never see any sort of groupthink that would create the consensus required to ignore valid constraints amongst our advocates.

    I do not see how an electric car can be used in a shared context easily given the downtime required for refueling but electric does make sense for mid-range trips.


  • Jason Henderson

    Excellent title. It is indeed “dim witted” to rely on this strategy of electric cars while blatantly underfunding Muni, resisting parking fee increases, and stonewalling the bicycle plan, as this so-called green mayor has done.

    Also, despite the recent rains, we still have a serious problem in the Sierra snowpack, translating to a reduction in hydro power – which these PG & E lathered “green energy” people are really relying on. I guess Newsom will suck more electricity generated from dirty coal in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah for this. How dim can you get – really?

  • Jason, Newsom was on board with the General Rule Exclusion for the Bike Plan as was the MTA, Planning and advocates.

    Other than following the lead of the advocates and staff which backloaded the EIR instead of front loading it, causing 2 years of delay, how did Newsom stonewall the bike plan? Are you suggesting that Newsom was the intellectual author of the move to clear the Bike Plan with a GRE? Really?

    Newsom is a pathetic mayor, however responsibility for the delayed bike plan lies with those who packaged it into one omnibus document and did not, according to a judge, obey CEQA.

    That responsibility is a shared responsibility, not solely the province of the Mayor.


  • “does a “green” car, either electric or hybrid, increase your VMT?”

    Electricity for a plug-in hybrid costs one-half to one-fourth as much per mile as gas for a standard hybrid – largely because electricity prices are controlled and kept below the market price.

    Of course, plug-in hybrids also do not pay the gas tax used to build and maintain roads.

    So plug-in hybrids will increase VMT significantly, all else being equal. They will also require us to shift from a gas tax to a per-mile tax to pay for roads. We need to make the per-mile tax high enough to stop VMT from increasing.

  • I’m all for any policies to lessen the use of private cars. From congestion pricing to free public transit to dedicated bike lanes everywhere. But supporting the electrification of transportation including private cars, should be part of a smart policy mix. From scooters, to motorcycles to cars to trucks and buses, an urban electrified transportation network (interurban if you include hi-speed electric rail) would be zero-emission, greener as the grid gets more renewable, quieter. Granted electric cars don’t reduce congestion, but when walking or riding my bike, every breath reminds me we’d be better off if all vehicles were electric.

  • There is not much point arguing about whether or not to support electric cars. Their use is inevitable because of rising gas prices.

    Toyota and GM will both be bringing out plug-in hybrids in a year or so. A year ago, gas prices were high enough to make it cost-effective to buy a plug-in hybrid despite its higher price. Though gas prices have gone down, we all know that the world faces a shortage of gasoline and that they will go back up again after the economy recovers. At that point, plug-in hybrids will be available and people will buy them.

    The question is how to deal with plug-in hybrids to get their benefits without their costs. The main environmental cost is that there will be greater VMT because of lower energy prices. The cost is only about one-quarter as much per mile for fuel, compared with the high gas prices of a year ago, largely because electricity prices are regulated and are below market price.

    Plug-in hybrid also will not pay the gas tax used for maintaining roads. This means a new tax will be needed – presumably a VMT tax – giving us the opportunity to design this tax to make it more effective than the current gas tax.

  • The electric car is extremely dangerous. It gives the impression of progress, while it essentially burns coal and promotes sprawl. Political capital spent on its adoption is a precious resource wasted and precious time lost. If tomorrow all cars were electric nothing would improve. There are worldwide 55 million net new cars on the road. Think about it.



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