PHOTO CAPTION: University of Vermont assistant professor Richard Watts

Future Transport Solutions Will Require More Than Electric Cars

University of Vermont assistant professor Richard Watts believes policies need to be implemented that dis-incentivize car use and encourage other forms of mobility: walking, biking, public transit, car-pooling.

Published: 07-Oct-2013

It certainly is fun to slip behind the wheel of an electric car. But if we aim to build a truly more sustainable transportation system, one that reduces greenhouse gas emissions AND addresses other social, physical and environmental impacts, we have to get out of our cars and use other forms of transportation.

Electric cars should be part of the solution — but the focus should be first on reducing use, providing real alternatives to the car, building communities that enable walking and biking, and living in ways that reduce our auto-dependence.

Borrowing the electricity heuristic of “negawatts” from Amory Lovins: The cleanest, greenest, cheapest mile is the “nega-mile,” the mile not driven in a car.

Yes, electric cars are cool. I’ve spent hundreds of hours behind the wheel of these peppy, quiet vehicles as the former director of an electric car research and demonstration project in Vermont.

And the promise of solving our transportation challenges — one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, for example — by simply switching fuels is alluring. President Obama has called for 1 million electric cars by 2015.

State policymakers also have embraced the idea. Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, in all sectors, identifying electric cars as a core strategy: “The state considers that the conversion of Vermont’s vehicle fleet to plug-in electric vehicles, including hybrids, is the best long-term path to reduce transportation fuel consumption by light-duty vehicles” (CEP, Volume 2, page 259).

Switching fuels in our cars allows life to go on as-is, and potentially “plug in” to cleaner energy. Anything else would be a major disruption.

For example more than three-quarters of us drive alone to work every day. Of the billions of trips made every day, more than eight out of 10 of them are in a motor vehicle, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

(See the administration’s 2009 National Household Travel Survey at http://bit.ly/NHTS2009 for a data-driven look at our automobile addiction.)

Technology solutions are easier for policymakers, because they don’t require behavior change. But switching fuels does not address other issues associated with driving, such as the impacts on human health, land use and the social fabric of our communities.

For example, sociologist Robert Putnam found that every additional 10 minutes spent driving cuts community involvement by 10 percent: “The car and the commute ... are bad for community life” (“Bowling Alone,” page 213).

And what about the almost 10 percent of households that don’t own vehicles? Or the elderly who outlive their ability to drive a car? And young people, without access to activities without a car? Do we really want to endorse a car-centered world?

This is the problem with switching vehicle fuels as a central transportation strategy. You can’t endorse and fund an auto-centered system and also expect other modes — walking, biking, public transit, car-pooling — to thrive.

In Vermont, for example, we spent less than 8 percent of the total transportation budget (about $450 million in 2010) on providing alternatives to personal vehicle travel (UVM Transportation Research Center Energy Report, page 16: Table 5-2).

Imagine for a minute if we spent $400 million on providing real alternatives to automobiles? If we gave people real choices? Safe sidewalks, more frequent bus service, roads that were safe for bikers?

Instead of automobiles (whatever they run on), we should put “nega-miles” at the center of our sustainable transportation planning.

And here is the hopeful news. Even in a place like Vermont, according to an analysis by the TRC, 39 percent of all trips were less than two miles, and one-quarter were less than a mile (TRC Energy Report, page 11).

Some higher percent of those trips could be/should be captured by other modes. But it will take policies that dis-incentivize car use and focus on behavior — charging the real cost for parking, for example — that will challenge the existing system.

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