The real potential of the electric vehicle revolution
Electric cars are the wave of the future, if you believe the marketing of the big automobile companies. Kia, Nissan, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Chevrolet, and of course Tesla have electric models on sale this year, as well as luxury brands Audi, Porsche, and BMW. It seems likely that in the next few decades, gas- or diesel-powered cars and trucks will be made completely obsolete.
But while electric cars would be a big improvement over the gasoline status quo, they wouldn't solve most of the biggest problems created by cars. In fact, they are far from the most promising electric vehicles on the market. That prize must go to electric variants of traditional human-powered transportation — the e-scooter, the e-skateboard, and above all the e-bike. These have a far larger potential to revolutionize congested American cities and provide an enormous increase in health and convenience for American citizens — but it will require drastic policy changes to tap that potential.
The biggest logistical problem with cars is that they take up too much space. For the typical American use case (commuting to work alone, as about three-quarters of Americans do), one needs a parking space at home, a parking space at work, and a wide road to move the car between the two points. That means such parking spaces are vacant about half the time on average — and even when occupied the car itself is still sitting doing nothing.
Meanwhile, a lane of car traffic is simply an inefficient way to transport people. In optimal conditions, one road lane can transport a maximum of about 1,600 people per hour in one direction, as compared to easily 10-20 times that many for a subway. And while subway capacity keeps going up to quite a high level of congestion (given a competent transit authority), highway capacity sharply decreases as it approaches peak theoretical use, because traffic jams can't be avoided with thousands of individuals all operating different machines independently. Car-dependent cities end up dedicating enormous swathes of valuable city land to lane after lane of highways and grimy oceans of parking lots (often destroying minority and working-class neighborhoods in the process), and they are still clogged with traffic every rush hour.
Normal electric cars solve none of these problems. They reduce carbon emissions from burning fuel, but that's it — and while that is a major benefit, they still have to be charged up with lots of electricity, which is still mostly generated from fossil fuels. Until the power grid is de-carbonized, even that benefit isn't too great.
Now, self-driving electric cars have the theoretical potential to cut down on parking space waste, since people could essentially take a taxi to work. But this technology is proving to be dramatically more difficult than utopian tech barons have predicted. Back in 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised that his cars would be fully self-driving within two years. Last summer he said it would be by the end of 2019. Neither came to pass, though many people have been in accidents or killed trusting Tesla's "Autopilot" system. There are deep programming challenges with pattern recognition and driving, for instance, on which there has been very little progress.
More importantly, self-driving cars would likely increase car congestion sharply if simply placed in the extant policy environment. A clever experiment to measure how people would behave with access to a self-driving car (simulated by giving them a chauffeur at their beck and call) found they increased their miles driven by an average of 83 percent, as they sent the car hither and yon to pick up children, run to the store, and so on. Having a chauffeur is indeed very convenient, but if everyone gets one, the roads are going to be even more clogged than they already are.
Furthermore, even a small car still takes a tremendous amount of energy and raw materials to manufacture. Smelting and casting steel and aluminum takes tons of energy — and with steel there is as yet no workable carbon-free method of making it (though some are under development). The huge batteries in electric cars require gobs of rare earth elements, often sourced in brutal conditions in poverty-stricken African countries. Replacing the hundreds of millions of gas-powered American cars with electric ones will eat up vast investment that could otherwise go to far more useful projects, like upgrading the power grid or high-speed rail.
And many of the electric cars being marketed to Americans today are not small. On the contrary, they are largely heavy and high-performance machines aimed at the luxury market. Tesla is developing a gigantic "Cybertruck" with a 7,500-pound towing capacity that will probably weigh at least 4 tons. Nikola Motors is competing with a giant pickup of its own. And the elephantine new e-Hummer will reportedly have an eye-popping 1,000 horsepower and 11,000 pound-feet of torque.
Finally, cars are simply dangerous. The most recent numbers collected by the federal government show 36,560 car occupants killed in 2018. Now, that's a slight decrease from the 2017 total of 37,473, but on the other hand pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars were up that year by 3.4 and 6.3 percent respectively, to 6,283 and 857 — in part because people are far more likely to be killed when struck by a SUV or truck. Deaths by car are the second-leading cause of accidental fatalities.
That brings me to e-bikes. These (and their skateboard, scooter, etc., brethren) remove the worst inherent part of cycling — the difficulty and discomfort of riding up hills. The average office worker doesn't have the time or inclination to ride with a change of clothes so they aren't a sweaty mess when they get to work, and most offices don't have a shower anyway. But with an e-bike you can easily sail up the steepest hills in a three-piece suit without smelling like a musk ox at the end. And with a proper bike culture, not even rain or cold is an insurmountable obstacle — just watch cyclists in Copenhagen cheerfully riding around with slickers or umbrellas.
Even in sprawling American cities, a big fraction of commuters could probably ride e-bikes to work or school. And without so much need for land-gobbling car infrastructure, cities could be made much more dense (one place to start would be by bulldozing the crumbling freeways that obliterated many American downtowns), making bike commuting that much easier. A two-way protected bikeway can transport a maximum of perhaps 7,500 people per hour — and in the same space as a single lane of cars. (Congestion can be an issue if cycling becomes popular enough, but it is a lot easier to deal with than car traffic.)
E-bike variants could even be used to replace most short-distance transportation of heavy objects or passengers. A decent bike trailer can carry hundreds of pounds of stuff (or children), and cargo-oriented e-bikes (or e-tricycles with a flat bed or bin) can do the same — while taking up only a bit more space than a regular bike on the street. Delivery companies like UPS have even started to roll out delivery e-trikes with a covered cockpit and cargo bay. And e-pedicabs could replace most taxi trips in the inner city.
An e-bike of course takes more raw materials to manufacture than a regular bike, but it is orders of magnitude smaller than a car. Instead of tons, we're talking 20 to perhaps a few hundred pounds of metal for the biggest delivery trikes. The Tesla Model S has a battery with 100 kilowatt-hours of energy — something like 200 times larger than a typical e-bike model. E-bikes are correspondingly cheaper to buy and operate; even the fanciest are seldom more than $10,000, while one can pick up a decent cheap model for a few hundred dollars. Neither do you need a 480-volt "Supercharger" (expensive both to install and to use) to fill up a bike battery, normal wall power will do just fine. And while people do crash on bikes, given the lower speeds involved and the far lower weight of the bicycle, severe injuries to either the rider or an unlucky pedestrian are much rarer. (By far the greatest risk to cyclists is getting hit by a car.)
The promising e-bike future is going to take a revolution in city politics and planning, however. As I have previously written, for decades the needs of drivers and their polluting, dangerous machines has gotten first, second, and third priority in city policy. Car supremacy is why the United States has lousy public transit in its cities and is a century behind the curve in intercity rail — where we used to lead the world in both categories.
The tiniest upgrades in bike or pedestrian infrastructure often run into screaming outrage if they get rid of a single parking space or inconvenience drivers in the slightest, and U.S. politicians are so accustomed to catering to drivers that they fold at the first sign of resistance — and that's when they aren't themselves car fanatics who sabotage public transit on purpose. That means, as noted above, that riding a bike or even walking around most U.S. cities is quite dangerous. Too many people are driving around American cities way too fast, with insufficient protections for pedestrians and cyclists, and thousands are killed or injured annually as a result. Indeed, the substantial risk that a cyclist will be flattened by somebody running a red light is the main reason there isn't more of a biking culture in cities where it already makes perfect sense, like New York.
But that situation isn't set in stone. It would be quite easy to make cycling dramatically safer and more convenient by simply rededicating a moderate portion of existing city land to bikes and by separating the bikes from cars. Protected bike lanes, dedicated bike parking zones, bike boxes at intersections, and just dedicating entire streets to bikes only would do wonders — especially if biking itself becomes physically much easier.
Cars make American cities a noisy and dangerous place, even for drivers. People buy gigantic energy-hogging SUVs and ever-more elaborate car seats for their children because they are frightened about a crash. It would be a lot simpler, and enormously more efficient, to simply stop jamming so many cars into cities in the first place, and enjoy the freedom and convenience of the good old bicycle — with a bit of handy electrical assistance.
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