Famous historian Lewis Mumford had this to say about our car-centric culture after WWII: “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.” This statement still rings true today, not just with how we have allowed cars to dominate so many spaces of our lives but with the added layers of environmental challenges our generation faces with an increasingly connected world that is looking for a new way to power this ever-growing interconnectedness.
Electric vehicles are often discussed as the solution to the world’s climate crisis. While investing in alternative means of transportation and energy is crucial, many climate activists overlook the critical details of implementing these new technologies. There are many pressing challenges to ensuring our methods of transportation are cleaner and more efficient. The electric car also demonstrates fundamental flaws in American thinking that prevent taking next steps towards combating the climate crisis compared to their counterparts in places such as Europe or Asia.
These next steps include trying to change our relationship with transportation and the way we think about it. The car is so closely linked to America’s culture of individualism that it can be harder to get everyone on the same page to support public projects that benefit everyone and reduce emissions while also inevitably sacrificing some of this individuality that comes with public modes of transportation as opposed to private.
Earth is finite. The electric car promises to one day eliminate the need for gasoline-fueled vehicles, from your miniature smart car to the semitruck. However, the materials required for the battery, the heavy metals, the mining involved, the transportation of such materials and significant costs in upkeep once the vehicle is built offset the climate footprint it was meant to erase.
Many forget the enormous carbon footprint our infrastructure for such vehicles (such as asphalt and concrete roads) produces. In fact, America has nearly 4 million miles of road, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
“U.S. roads combined could circle the Earth at the equator 160 times; the interstate highways, almost two times,” per the USGS findings.
This does not even account for the sheer amount of parking required for the 290 million vehicles in America that require parking spots when not in use.
Eran Ben-Joseph, professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talked about the enormous impact of parking lots alone in a New York Times article, saying there are “500 million parking spaces in the country, occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. If the correct number is 2 billion, we’re talking about four times that: Connecticut and Vermont.”
Many activists tend to pigeonhole their view of the carbon footprint and climate change issue, ignoring how intricately connected the issue is to other areas of the climate issue. The solution is to be practical and to try to engage the community in taking an active role in reducing the carbon footprint. One example is public transportation, particularly buses for short distances and trains for longer distances. Trains would significantly reduce the cost of maintaining such a vast, resource-intensive and expensive road network. Buses would reduce the number of vehicles on the road, with many already running on clean hydrocarbon energy rather than crude oils. It is a matter of efficiency.
Rather than leaping to a new idea with its own environmental concerns, we need to be efficient with the materials we have, efficient with how we power our methods of transportation and efficient with how we spend our money to help us move toward a greener Earth.