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Parsing the ‘electric cars won’t save us’ debate


An e-car and an e-bike parked at Adidas corporate headquarters in north Portland.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Electric cars are having a moment. Ford just announced a $20 billion investment to make the shift to electric, and more big auto names like General Motors, Volvo and Jaguar are all lining up behind star player Tesla to announce they’ll go fully electric in the next 20 years.

But as e-cars (also known as EVs) have been heralded as the key – or at least a key – to a future habitable planet, there’s also been rising skepticism and concern in some corners that we’re overly focused on e-cars at the expense of non-car EVs like bicycles and other vehicles.

All transportation reform and climate activists can agree that in order to combat the climate emergency, we need to stop burning fossil fuel in gas-guzzling cars – stat.

There is a fissure, however, in how that should be done. Should we electrify the American car fleet, or work towards ending car culture by encouraging bicycling, walking and mass transit? Are these two plans of action mutually exclusive? Are we spending too much political capital on the former at the expense of the latter?

Many people involved in transportation activism think our society’s reliance on cars, regardless of what makes cars go, is entirely antithetical to a thriving and successful city.

Meanwhile, some electric vehicle proponents see themselves as critics of what that reliance has led to so far, but doubtful that an entire status quo can change in time.

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“It’s important to fight the dominance of the car. But we can’t wait 50 years to hopefully win that battle.”
— Jeff Allen, Forth

“I’m not anti-electrification, but we have to do so much more than that.”
— Sarah Iannarone, The Street Trust

Here in Portland, Sarah Iannarone, executive director of The Street Trust, an organization that advocates for non-car transportation, has has spoken up about her skepticism of the warm EV embrace.

In an article Iannarone wrote for ‘The Oregon Way’ blog in November, she discussed the harm of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s controversial Interstate Bridge Replacement Project (IBRP), and proposed alternatives like building out the Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan and increasing local and regional transit and active transportation infrastructure.

In the article, Iannarone also makes the remark that “EVs won’t save us,” contextually meaning that the existence of electric cars isn’t a justification for large-scale freeway expansions like the IBRP.

In an interview with BikePortland, Iannarone expanded on that idea.

“Policymakers around the world are all seeking quick fixes [to the climate crisis],” she said. “I’m not anti-electrification, but we have to do so much more than that.”

[E-bikes not represented in statewide ‘transportation electrification’ project]

“EVs won’t save us” has become a common refrain from people asking for more attention on transportation reform that’s not related to cars. To people involved in electric vehicle advocacy, however, the remark is reductive.

Jeff Allen is the executive director of Forth, a Portland-based nonprofit that’s stated goal is to “electrify transportation by bringing people together to create solutions that reduce pollution and barriers to access.”

Forth has mostly done work related to electric cars (its name used to be Drive Oregon), advocating for more EV charging stations and rebates as well as EV carshare programs. But Allen says he is a proponent for other modes of sustainable transportation too, and Forth has participated in campaigns to popularize shared micromobility devices like the Biketown e-bikes.

In a public response to Iannarone’s claim that “EVs won’t save us,” Allen pushed back on that mantra by providing statistics on the environmental benefits of electric vehicles and he expressed concern with what he sees as animosity toward EVs from other clean transportation activists, saying everyone involved in the transportation reform movement needs to “learn to work together” and “stop forming circular firing squads.”

Allen cites the statistic that EVs reduce carbon pollution by 60% to 80%, completely eliminating toxic diesel exhaust and polluting tailpipe emissions. This number is hard to pin down because electricity is sourced differently in different parts of the country, but yes, EVs certainly pollute less than gas cars, and have the potential to be even more efficient.

In the Oregon Way article, Allen cites a Bike Portland article that he claims says we’re “paying ‘too much attention’ to electric cars.” Taken in context, our statement in the article only indicates the state and federal governments are paying too much attention to electric cars when comparing that attention to the focus on electric bikes – an important distinction to make when having this dialogue.

Given the dominance of the car in American society, it’s hard to imagine that bike and public transit advocates saying “EVs won’t save us” will do much damage to a national embrace of electric cars. If we aren’t electrifying cars fast enough – and we’re not – it’s because of the chokehold greenhouse gas companies still have on the private and public sector, not radical bike activists.

We’ve written about why the difference in perception between electric cars and electric bikes matters. While EV-car rebates offers continue to rise in many states, EV-bikes are getting a lot less attention.

Data suggests that the majority of car trips are less than six miles long. Many people who are driving those short distances could very feasibly switch their mode of transportation to an e-bike. But it’s not seen as a viable alternative.

“We’ve been advocates for electric bikes from day one. And we talked to legislators about including an incentive for electric bikes. They literally laughed us out of the room,” Allen said in an interview with BikePortland. “Most elected officials don’t see bikes as transportation in this country. And it’s not a trade-off. We couldn’t have said ‘Oh, instead of this electric car rebate, we’d really like you to give us an electric bike rebate.’ We would not have gotten that.”

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Though he’s aware of the problems cars create beyond pollution – they take up a ton of space, encourage social isolation, require expensive infrastructure, have no physical or mental health benefits and kill tens of thousands of people every year – Allen thinks it’s a more realistic use of our (limited) time to move the car-dependent American public over to electric cars than attempt a complete paradigm shift.

“Many folks are making heroic assumptions about electric vehicles, and are using that as an excuse to do little or nothing to try to reduce driving vehicle miles traveled.”
— Joe Cortright, City Observatory

“The fact that it’s relatively easier to switch from a gas car to an electric car than it is to switch people from a gas car to a bike is part of why we need to be doing it,” Allen explained. “It’s also important to fight the dominance of the car. But we can’t wait 50 years to hopefully win that battle.”

But is it really easier to switch from gas cars to electric cars? Here in the United States, our cities and our brains have adapted to cars, yes. But in Oregon, e-car-dependent climate plans have floundered. Perhaps it’s time for a change?

Urban economist and No More Freeways co-founder Joe Cortright has spoken up about how our local governments in the Portland Metro area have failed to deliver on e-car promises.

“Many folks are making heroic assumptions about electric vehicles, and are using that as an excuse to do little or nothing to try to reduce driving vehicle miles traveled [VMT],” Cortright wrote to BikePortland in an email.

In an article he wrote last year for City Observatory, Cortright states that Metro’s “Climate Smart Strategy” has been overly reliant on and optimistic about EV-car usage and is nowhere near a solution for lowering regional VMT.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has been lagging as well. An article in The Oregonian outlines how the state is falling way behind in its electric car-based climate goals.

Bike activists say that not only are e-bike sales outpacing e-car sales, people would be much more likely to try them out if officials would take them seriously and provide serious incentives to encourage the car-to-bike switch. That appears to be what Oregon House Representative Karin Power is doing. Far from laughing at the idea, Power announced yesterday she plans to sponsor an e-bike purchase subsidy bill in the 2023 session.

For his part, Allen admits EV advocates could do more to openly embrace other forms of transportation.

“There are surely people who see electrification and think, ‘Oh, great, we don’t have to do anything else. We’ll just switch to electric. And then we don’t have to have transit, we don’t have to worry about bike lanes, we don’t have to do [congestion] pricing,” he says. “There’s a role for advocates to make sure that we are being clear that’s not enough and that there are still other problems with the car.”

Keeping a local focus can help, too.

“In a capitalist society, dismantling a lot of these structures is going to be very difficult,” Iannarone says. “This is one reason why I tend to operate very municipally… working in local communities who know their needs best and then fighting to secure the resources for those communities.”

Both Iannarone and Allen say they want to continue having the conversation. If people are operating in good faith, it may be possible to work together, even if there’s some badgering involved.