Gavin Newsom's weak-sauce electric cars plan

Why banning gas-powered vehicles is a lot more show than substance

Gavin Newsom.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced a climate plan for cars: He would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035. Since California is the largest state in the country, its regulations often end up dictating national policy, and in theory this could lead to solely-electric car sales in 15 years. Still, Newsom will likely need a waiver from the federal government to do this, and it seems unlikely he will get one from Trump or any other Republican.

This rule is better than nothing, but it's weak and unimaginative. Not only will it accomplish little or nothing in terms of getting rid of gas-powered cars, the goal itself is not even very good. Rather than replacing the energy source behind California's car-centered sprawl, the state should be remaking itself to be more dense and less dependent on cars. America needs e-bikes and public transit a lot more than it needs electric SUVs.

To start with, in terms of policy mechanics, 2035 is simply too late to actually accelerate the deployment of electric cars by much. All the big automakers are already planning on roughly this timetable, for two main reasons. First, electric vehicle tech is advancing very quickly, and is objectively superior to internal combustion in every way except energy storage (where its disadvantage is fading fast). Second, much of the rest of the world has already adopted rules that are at least as aggressive as California's. China is aiming to have 25 percent of new vehicles be electric within five years. Europe is in roughly the same place — Denmark would hit California's goal by 2030, while Norway is aiming for 100 percent electric sales for passenger cars and light vans by 2025.

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As climate activists continue to press their case and clockwork climate disasters get worse and worse, it is very likely that these goals will be stiffened up. Newsom is going along with the crowd, not setting a new benchmark.

More importantly, as I have argued before, electric cars are the least promising form of electric vehicle. They emit less greenhouse gas and pollution, to be sure, but they still require vast amounts of energy and raw materials to produce, and still present all the same hazards to drivers, occupants, pedestrians, and cyclists as normal cars. Despite considerable safety regulations, tens of thousands of people die and hundreds of thousands are injured every year thanks to America's addiction to the automobile.

What's more, the classic American model of car-centered development is terrible for the climate. It means lower density, less energy-efficient housing and makes public transit more difficult. California ought to be looking to move away from cars by any means necessary — with rules and subsidies favoring density, e-bikes, and public transit. New spending will be difficult during the pandemic, but Newsom has shown little interest in the biggest problem facing construction of new public transit: cost bloat. Instead of trying to root out the infestation of incompetent consulting that ballooned the price of California's high-speed rail project, he just canceled most of it. (Even the cost of the rump line is exploding.)

To be fair, Newsom did lend his support to a couple recent bills that would have allowed for greater density. SB 50, an aggressive upzoning proposal, was voted down. SB 1120, a less ambitious idea to simply allow duplexes on land that is currently zoned for single-family homes, actually would have gotten through, but failed because the state Assembly dithered and did not pass it in time for the Senate to vote on it. One would hope that a competent governor could at least get his allies in the legislature to look at the clock.

But probably the easiest and most effective thing Newsom could be doing as governor of one of America's most pleasant states is building some dang bike infrastructure. Even a pretty sprawly place can be bike-friendly now that we have cheap and reliable e-bikes, and riding 15-20 miles is no big deal when the weather is nice almost year round — but the entire city of Los Angeles has a piddling 19.4 miles of protected bike lanes. This is both cheap and easy. All you have to do is appropriate some of the street space currently dedicated to cars, and wall it off for bikes, skateboards, scooters, and so forth. Then take those routes and connect them together so that people can easily get from any part of a city to any other part mostly on a car-free track. (This second part seems to be bizarrely difficult for American mayors, who seem to like the idea of bike lanes but tend to just string them around randomly without trying to create a network.) Cycling in traffic is difficult, frightening, and dangerous, but if people can ride without worrying about cars, they're vastly more likely to do so.

This wouldn't be directly under Newsom's control, but he has numerous ways to entice cities into doing this, from financial inducements to just simple recommendations. The main obstacle would be outrage from car partisans, but ultimately this would ease traffic congestion by getting people out of their cars, where they take up a lot less space — in addition to cutting pollution, improving health, and reducing wear and tear on the streets.

Let's hope other activists keep putting pressure on California's leadership, and Newsom aims higher next time.

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