A reporter reached out to ask my thoughts, using a transportation planning lens, on the news about the California Air Resources Board (CARB) plans to phase-out all new gas-powered vehicle sales by 2035. I emailed a response. None of it ended up in the story (which is fine, things change), but since I took the time to write it, I figured I’d post it here. Others are saying similar things to what I responded, but I think the more voices on this, the better.
The question was basically, do I think the plan is too aggressive, or alternatively, coming late considering “the state of things”. As they noted, multiple other countries have already pledged to do this, some on the same time horizon, some slightly faster. Here is my response:
I don’t think that, considering the urgency of climate change and the many detrimental aspects of our current economic and infrastructure systems, any move to end fossil-fuel dependency is too aggressive. Aggressive tends to connotate an antagonistic element, but we are all on the same side on the need to keep our cities and towns habitable. I was born and raised in rural northern California, and even as a child in the 80s, drought was something that was pervasive and talked about, particularly in an area with dying timber and ranching industries. The timeline is not particularly fast, either, considering how rapidly we need action, and how quickly the automotive industry already changes to respond to (or drive) demand for certain vehicles. Of course, many people have already raised the environmental problems that are not solved, merely changed, by electric vehicles, like the materials needed for batteries, disposal issues, and the large amount of pollution that comes from car brakes and tires, gas or electric.
But even if you could wave a technological magic wand and solve those problems with EV today, a bigger concern is whether this focus on personal electric vehicles takes public resources that would be much better spent on investments in frequent, reliable public transportation between and within cities and towns, better walking and bicycling infrastructure, and land uses that remove the need to depend on vehicles – however they are powered – for every trip. The problem with private automobiles is that, even if they each don’t emit the same greenhouse gases, they will continue to contribute to the sprawling land use and longer distance and time travel behavior that is bad for us as individuals and communities. We know that, if people feel they are being more environmentally-friendly with an electric vehicle, they may actually travel MORE (a so-called “rebound effect”). Perceived or real reductions in personal fuel costs will also result in more travel. And having our communities spread out means more paved surfaces (bad for urban heat and run-off), longer response times for emergency services, more time in vehicles and away from family, friends, and healthy activities, more concrete and asphalt for roads (very polluting industries themselves), and so on.
so, tl;dr – getting away from gas-powered vehicles is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better environmental future. The best outcome would be using the transition to invest heavily in the various types of public transportation that can serve communities from the small and rural to the large urban, while changing codes, standards, and laws to incentivize land uses that support not needing vehicles at all.