George Monbiot On How Electric Cars Won't Save Us

There are other problems than just the fuel they run on.

Dockless electric cars blocking sidewalk just like gas powered cars
Dockless electric cars blocking sidewalk just like gas powered cars.

 Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For some years I have been writing posts with "Electric Cars Won't Save Us" in the title, invariably drawing comments like Kenneth's:

"Keep moving the goalposts and we will never get there. Now that electric cars are practical, available, and mostly affordable that isn't good enough. No, for ultimate purity we all have to give up on cars for good. Give it a rest. You may live in a dense urban area and have no desire to visit the great outdoors that we all want to conserve and protect but that is not the lived experience of most people."

Kenneth has a point, as do other commenters who tell me that they need a car to shop and to get to work and to get their kids to school. That's because, according to Jed Kolko, only 26% of Americans live in urban areas, and 73% live in suburban or rural areas where it is really hard to do any of these things without a car. I understand this. But it doesn't change the basic argument, which is probably elucidated better by George Monbiot in the Guardian, where he is complaining about a plan by the British government to ban gas-powered cars by 2030.

Monbiot notes that electric cars will reduce but not eliminate pollution (there is still a lot of PM2.5 from tires). He also reiterates my biggest complaint, the upfront carbon emissions from making them. Or their size:

"Switching power sources does nothing to address the vast amount of space the car demands, which could otherwise be used for greens, parks, playgrounds and homes. It doesn’t stop cars from carving up community and turning streets into thoroughfares and outdoor life into a mortal hazard. Electric vehicles don’t solve congestion, or the extreme lack of physical activity that contributes to our poor health."

But the final point that George Monbiot lists is the one that I believe is the most important one. 

"Even a switch to bicycles (including electric bikes and scooters) is only part of the answer. Fundamentally, this is not a vehicle problem but an urban design problem. Or rather, it is an urban design problem created by our favoured vehicle. Cars have made everything bigger and further away."
Jarrett Walker Tweet
Tweet by Jarret Walker. Twitter screen capture 

Jarrett Walker said it in a tweet, and I have been trying to make this point, that the car doesn't exist on its own, but is part of a system; that you can't separate transportation from land use, they are one and the same thing. It all connects. I wrote: "To build a sustainable society we have to think about them all together – the materials we use, what we build, where we build, and how we get between it all."

Monbiot admires the concept of the 15-minute city, where you think about all these issues together, and which has to be expanded to include the 15-minute town and 15-minute suburb. 

The future we want: bikes and trams
The future we want: bikes and trams. Public Domain/Swedish Archives

He concludes with the point that I have been trying so hard to make clear, that it's not just about the car!

"This, I believe, is the radical shift that all towns and cities need. It would transform our sense of belonging, our community life, our health and our prospects of local employment, while greatly reducing pollution, noise and danger. Transport has always been about much more than transport. The way we travel helps to determine the way we live. And at the moment, locked in our metal boxes, we do not live well."

We need to replace gasoline-powered cars. But we don't have to replace all of them with electric cars; there are other options, including fixing our cities and towns so that we don't always have to drive everywhere. And of course, promoting bikes and e-bikes and public transit – about making different choices of how we live. I tried to explain this all in greater detail earlier in "How We Get Around Determines What We Build."