Why throw subsidies at electric cars when 48 percent of trips are less than 3 miles?

E-scooters in paris
CC BY 2.0 E-scooters in Paris/ Lloyd Alter

A new study shows that there is some seriously low-hanging fruit here.

Election promises are in the air; in the UK, the Labour Party is promising interest-free loans for electric cars and billions to build charging points. In the USA, Bernie Sanders calls for “heavily subsidizing the industry.” In Canada, Justin Trudeau will maintain the C$5,000 subsidy on electric cars and the NDP would increase it to C$15,000.

They all want to spend billions, replacing cars with – cars. Meanwhile, a new study from INRIX Research shows that fully 48 percent of trips taken by cars in the USA are less than three miles, a distance that could easily be covered by bike, e-bike or scooter (modes that INRIX calls "micromobility"). Fully 20 percent are less than a mile, which could easily be done on foot.

Micromobility – defined as shared bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters – has the potential to deliver substantial benefits to consumers and businesses around the world, including efficient and cost-effective travel, reduced traffic congestion, decreased emissions and a boost to the local economy. INRIX Research analyzed trillions of anonymous data points from hundreds of millions of connected devices to rank the top American, British and German cities where micromobility services would have the most potential to reduce vehicle trips.

INRIX top cities for micromoblity© INRIX

The study determined that some cities could benefit more than others by promoting micromobility; Honolulu, New Orleans and Nashville have "warm climates with minimal topographic variation" and not much competition from good transit systems. But good micromobility could make a big difference anywhere.

In the UK, an insane 67 percent of car trips are less than three miles, and in Germany, 59 percent. Their cities are more compact, so a higher percentage of shorter trips makes sense.

Munich Map© INRIX

Munich has the highest proportion of short distance trips in Germany with 60% of vehicle trips being less than 3 miles. When looking at the distribution of trips across the city, a disproportionate number fall in the city center and region directly north of it. With concentrated investments in micromobility services, Munich could achieve outsized impacts due to the high number of short distance trips in a relatively small geographic area.

Tram in MunichTram in Munich/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Munich also happens to have a great subway and streetcars, and it is flat and easy to cycle in. Yet one local complained in my post raving about the city that it is "Germanys traffic jam capital, we need to get the Diesel's out of the city to clean up the air, need more and better cycling infrastructure, more park & ride at S- & U-Bahn stations and cheaper public transport tickets." They could use more Micromobility.


Meanwhile, while all of transportation Twitter argues about whether to throw billions at electric cars or transit, I repeat the INRIX finding that 48 percent of car trips in the USA are less than three miles. If you got half the people who are now doing these trips in cars, you would be reducing the number of trips taken in the USA by a quarter.

This would not be that hard in much of North America; micromobility lanes (formerly known as bike lanes?) cost a lot less than nuclear power plants or subways. Decent sidewalks that aren't full of cars, electric or otherwise, cost less than a Tesla Gigafactory. They are a lot faster to build, too, and we don't have time or the resources to convert the world's fleet of cars to electric. We have to get people out of cars, and the best place to start is with the shortest trips.

Policy analyst Tony Dutzik was quoted in the New York Times on this, too: "A low-hanging fruit is shorter rides, Mr. Dutzik said. Over one-third of all car trips are less than two miles, so walking, biking or taking public transport for some of those trips could add up."

More dockless electric cars blocking sidewalk© More dockless electric cars blocking sidewalk/ Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But as I concluded in an earlier post about our preoccupation with cars, Electric cars are sucking up all the air in the room, and taking up a lot of room on the sidewalks.

Spending billions to promote electric cars while continuing to spend many times more billions pouring concrete to expand highways will not get us to where we have to go in ten years, let alone by 2050. Spending millions right now on paint and bollards to make bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes so that people do not have to drive could make a difference right now.

A streetcar in BerlinA streetcar in Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The INRIX study points us in a different direction – a world of people walking on decent sidewalks, biking and cargo-biking, scootering on decent micromobility lanes, leaving room for decent transit and a reduced number of cars. Trevor Reed of INRIX explains:

Shared micromobility platforms are not just a novelty; they can provide a measurably better user experience than alternative modes in terms of time and cost. Furthermore, their adoption meshes with city and societal goals of reducing vehicle usage and the corresponding reduction in greenhouse emissions. However, their potential is only realizable via effective regulation, safety improvements, and development of infrastructure.

Cities would be a lot more pleasant, too. If politicians want to throw some money around, this is the place to do it.

Read the full INRIX report here.

Why throw subsidies at electric cars when 48 percent of trips are less than 3 miles?
A new study shows that there is some seriously low-hanging fruit here that would deliver more bang for the buck.

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