Sometimes I get that feeling that the pro-transit (or pro-walking/biking) crowd is uneasy about the subject of electric vehicles, if downright negative. Why? Many transit advocates don’t like cars — viewing them as dangerous to bikers and pedestrians (which they are). They also don’t like how cars chew up the environment and create terrible traffic and isolation.
Not only that, but electric vehicles are frequently cited by transit critics as a reason to continue business-as-usual development patterns, in which we continue to build communities around cars, as opposed to walking- and biking-friendly communities oriented to transit. After all, if we’re moving toward electric and other clean vehicles, who cares any more about the pollution and negative public health effects from sprawl?
Certainly the advent of electric vehicles undercuts a key argument in favor of transit and more human-centered communities. It’s true that electric vehicles, if we can get there fast enough, will solve much of the pollution and public health challenges from sprawl. But it will take decades (most likely) to fully transform our existing fleet of cars to electric, as the technology is not fully developed and at this point not appropriate for all types of vehicle usage. So the public health and pollution problems from unabated sprawl will continue. But the writing, I believe, is on the wall for a cleaner transportation system.
So where does that leave public transit advocates in the long term? Well, we have to remember that the arguments against sprawl and in favor of more convenient, connected communities oriented around transit are not just limited to reducing pollution. Traffic is a miserable economic drag on our economy and quality of life. Biking and walking is fun and good for you, and it leads to communities with more social interaction, particularly for children, the elderly, and those who can’t or won’t drive. California’s severe housing shortage and changing patterns of demand argue in favor of building as many homes and jobs as we can around transit. And sprawl continues to eat up our valuable farm land and open space, as well as sensitive ecological areas.
I’m certainly in both camps. I love transit, use it every day, and walk and bike as much as possible. But I also see the need for electric vehicles. Not everyone can rely on non-vehicle forms of mobility for all their needs. Cars are here to stay. So we need to transition our fleets to clean vehicles. We also need to invest in battery technologies as a crucial way to decarbonize the electricity grid. Plus, electric vehicles are fun to drive (this from someone who never cared about cars or driving before).
Ultimately we’ll need both technologies going forward, and I don’t think anyone should hesitate to advocate for both.