What would our cities be like if all our cars were electric?

ride and drive
CC BY 2.0 Wikipedia/ charging cars in Ontario

For many years I have complained about electric cars, quoting Alex Steffen: “the answer to the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we're not going to find a bright green future by looking there.” I thought it simply didn’t go far enough, quoting Alex again: “ The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.”

But since I wrote that in 2010, so much has happened, and reading Zachary Shahan’s recent post in CleanTechnica, I wonder if it isn’t time to take a more nuanced view of the issue. Because while switching cars from gas to electric doesn’t solve every problem in our cities, it does solve a lot of them. Think of it as a thought experiment: what would happen if all our cars and trucks and buses were suddenly electric? Here are some of Zach’s points:

We can breathe again and see again!

Paris smog outskirtsDamián Bakarcic/CC BY 2.0

This is perhaps the most important point: the improvement in air quality.

Breathing is overrated, right? Many of us take air pollution for granted — “hey, that’s just city life.” We don’t appreciate how dangerous it is, how often it leads to cancer, or how it affects our thinking abilities. As we shift to electric cars, buses, and trucks, though, many of us will come to appreciate the pleasant fresh air and higher quality of life.

leading causes of death© World Bank/ Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

We have written so many posts about how air quality in cities is shortening our lives, killing our children. If every car was electric, crashes would still happen, causing the majority of the deaths and injuries attributable to cars. But almost all of that pollution disappears, and then Cancer, heart disease, asthma, COPD, all the diseases related to pollution will drop.

And we can see clearly again too without all that smog.

fedex laneLloyd Alter in the Fedex Lane, April 2015/CC BY 2.0

It also makes life much better in the bike lanes, where cyclists are often sucking diesel fumes and car exhaust, because as one study noted, “Cyclists, she said, “tend to have higher breathing rates than other pedestrians, so whatever they’re inhaling is going deeper into their lungs.” It is often an issue when trying to promote cycling. So just switching to electric cars might reduce congestion simply by making cycling more attractive.

We can hear again!

As cars get quieter and quieter (by dropping the ICE engine and going electric), people will stop accepting the noise of inefficient fossil beasts. We will come to appreciate the quieter lifestyle and other sounds of the city.

sidewalk cafeLloyd Alter/ Sidewalk cafe in Paris/CC BY 2.0

Of course. I love a sidewalk cafe, but hate sitting there with the noise and pollution. Our main streets aren’t very nice to live on when the noisy cars and trucks are passing by at all hours. Imagine if all those vehicles had silent electric drives; it would totally change the sounds of the city, making it far more livable at grade and above.

Gas stations are disappearing

gas stationsGoogle maps/Screen capture

This doesn't sound like that big a deal, but is happening already because of the cost of real estate. You can barely find one in Manhattan or downtown Toronto. Zach writes: “ As they become harder and harder to find, more people will despise the inconvenience of going to a gas station and will switch to EVs. It’ll be a beautiful feedback loop.”

This is just one of many feedback loops that happen. Mechanics will get harder to find, parts will get more expensive. It might also get far more expensive to park gasoline cars; garages designed for them require expensive mechanical ventilation systems and sprinklers. Future garages might have special areas just for gas cars and cheaper areas for electrics, which don’t emit carbon monoxide.

Gas stations are expensive to install and maintain because of the tanks, and there are all kinds of regulations and fire separation requirements that make it difficult to put them into mixed-use buildings. But electric outlets have no such restrictions, and can be anywhere and everywhere you park your car.

It is not a panacea

Sure, if you just changed every car from gas to electric it wouldn’t change sprawl, or congestion, or commute times or parking issues, or clashes and crashes with pedestrians and cyclists, all those other issues that we rant about. But it would change our cities and extend our lives.

And then when they are self-driving, well, that is another story altogether. Really, have suggested that we should at least ban SUVs and support the modest proposal to ban cars altogether. But let's start with going all electric.

Tags: Electric Cars | Transportation | Urban Life

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