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It Will Take More Than EVs to Save the Planet, Study Finds

Newly released research points to the need to both electrify the transportation sector and make cities less car dependent if there’s any hope of curtailing the worst effects of climate change.

Coal being delivered to a power plant.
Shutterstock/Mark Agnor
It will take both the electrification of the transportation sector and the densification of cities to realistically combat global climate change, new research suggests.

This duality of approaches is the conclusion of a recently released report by the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (ITDP) and the University of California, Davis. The study serves as a call to action for policymakers, industry leaders and others on the need to address both of these areas if the world is to keep global warming below the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold, which scientists have stressed is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“We’re heading in the right direction. I believe that sooner or later American cities will get there. But we need to step it up, tenfold,” said Taylor Reich, one of the lead authors behind the research, echoing the clear sense of urgency the moment is calling for.

“With anything less than a worldwide effort that reduces carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, or 2070 at the very latest, the Earth will warm by more than 2 degrees C by 2100,” the report states, going on to speculate that at the current level of carbon emissions, the planet is set to exceed 5 degrees of warming, a level considered catastrophic in terms of crop loss, flooding, fires and human suffering.

Passenger transport is responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gases. In the United States, transportation generally accounts for the largest single contributor to carbon emissions. In California alone, transportation is responsible for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Zero-emission vehicles have the potential to greatly reduce these emissions, particularly when they are powered by electricity derived from renewable sources, say researchers.

However, that is not enough. Land use patterns need to change so that there is less driving in the first place, said Reich.

“Both electrification and land use change — as well as investment in buses, bicycles, and transit, including reallocating street space away from cars to these other modes — need to be done as the biggest lift they can be,” Reich explained. “They need to be done as quickly and extensively as possible. It’s not a question of prioritizing one or the other. It’s a question of embracing both, together, as much as we can.”

These shifts — in urbanization and electrification — will not likely evolve quickly, or at the same pace, say other urbanists, making the argument for more sizable steps by cities as they develop land use plans with a clear climate strategy in mind.

“The vast majority of cars that people are buying today are powered by gas and producing carbon emissions. So that’s a major issue,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute. “So, we need to invest in other alternatives as well, and give people living environments that allow them to not have to rely on car commuting for everything they do. And we’re not doing that quickly.”

Sure, some cities like Minneapolis have taken steps to phase out single-family zoning — 20th-century housing policy largely credited with expanding car-dominated suburbia — which can lead toward denser urban settings. Other cities have doubled down on expanding biking infrastructure, sidewalks, transit networks and other approaches to reduce car use.

Are these approaches truly moving the needle? The results are mixed.

An analysis of cycling data in the U.S. by mobility analytics firm StreetLight Data showed biking activity in summer 2020 was up 10 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. Only about 1 percent of trips in the United States are taken by biking, according to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey.

“The progress we’re seeing in places like Minneapolis is worth commending, and is certainly something that we should absolutely not ignore,” said Freemark.

“But I think it’s worth emphasizing that we need to change whole metropolitan areas, not just individual cities,” he added, calling attention to suburbs, home to most residents in the U.S., which still tend to be largely car-dependent.

This is a time, said Reich, to begin thinking about what the U.S. city in the 21st century should look like.

“We don’t have to look like Amsterdam, or Copenhagen, or Berlin. We can become sustainable, and build transit, and sustainable bicycling and walking cities in our own way,” said Reich.

Researchers in areas like transportation and urban planning stress that what’s being called for is not new technology or yet-to-be-invented solutions. Transient-oriented development, more thoughtful planning and electric transportation are well within the realm of possibility for cities, both small and large. What is needed, however, is the political will.

“You can see cities with much less resources than the United States,” Reich said, pointing to a place like Jakarta, Indonesia, where in 10 years the city has built a vast public transit network serving a million people a day. Similarly, Bogota, Colombia, has a bike lane network so effective that 7 percent of all trips are taken by bike, the highest rate in the Americas.

And even in the United States, transit agencies are moving forward with projects to serve bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes or traffic signals which give priority to transit vehicles, all helping to make transit the better option, rather than driving.

“We have the technology. We just need the political will. Because so often some of these plans for bus rapid transit just get watered down, and not built in a way that actually organizes transit, relative to cars,” said Reich.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.