Globe and Mail: electric cars will not save the world

The Globe and Mail had an excellent article yesterday about a panelist at the Detroit Auto Show daring to go against the conventional wisdom and point out that electric cars will not save the world. Nor will cars running on hydrogen, hybrids or even recycled bovine flatulence. Why not? Cars causes many ills for society, including urban sprawl, air pollution, high costs of road construction and maintenance, and health problems due to sedentary life styles.

Notice that exactly one of those problems is solved by alternative fuel cars: air pollution. The rest are all caused by the inherent nature of the car and they will only be solved by returning our cities to a more balanced mix of travel choices. This doesn’t mean that cars are going to go away anytime soon, rather that again they will merely be one of many choices. And despite what the car-shilling Frontier Policy Institute tells you (Globe and Mail article, original paper), this will be a good thing for poor people.

How do we get from here to there? We need to start investing in improvements for biking, walking and transit and some of that will require giving exclusive road space to transit and bikes, which is not very politically popular. Cities need to be bold and try and get ahead of the curve, as Vancouver and Portland did with their streetcars, both of which were funded by the city rather than the local transit agency. For bikes we need to move beyond bike lanes, to protected paths and bike boulevards. Pedestrians need wider sidewalks and shorter crosswalks. None of this will be cheap, but then again nor is the status quo.

Vancouver demos an electric car

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson in MiEV

I managed to miss this last month, but the province, BC Hydro and the City of Vancouver signed a deal with Mitshubishi to test a production-ready electric car, the MiEV. Unlikely the low-speed electric cars Oak Bay recently let on their 50 km/h streets, this is a highway capable vehicle, like the ill-fated GM EV1 and the sort-of-already-here Tesla Roadster.

One of the great myths running around is that if we only switch all our vehicles to electric, hydrogen or another hypothetical cleaner fuel, all will be good. Aside from the major issues with the creation of the fuel for these vehicles, they ignore the reality that building auto-centric infrastructure is damaging our health, our communities and is ultimately financially unsustainable. Thankfully, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson gets it (emphasis mine):

“We want to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world, and supporting this early adoption of plug-in electric cars is one way that Vancouver is becoming a leader in green technology. Electric vehicles are an important way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions when combined with improvements to transit, biking and walking.”

By this time next year, we should have quite a few production electric vehicles on the road, including this MiEV, the Telsa Roadster (although small quantities are available now) and the Chevy Volt. We do live in interesting times.