This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
The P-I’s Opinion Leaders Podcast had an episode from May 22 with Peter Steinbrueck on the future of the Alaskan Way corridor that I’m just now listening to. Steinbrueck does a great job of moving the conversation from moving cars to moving people, which is a much-needed paradigm shift.
He laments the carbon emissions of cars, using the familiar greenhouse gas argument for transit. In response, David Horsey cites a Schwarzenegger speech (possibly this one) about electric cars of the future that won’t pollute. Doesn’t the greenhouse gas argument disappear, Horsey wonders?
Steinbrueck’s response isn’t great. But this is a really, really critical point. So let me help him make his case!
Steinbrueck makes two basic points in response to Horsey: (a) he thinks combustion engines are going to be around for a long time, and (b) even biofuels have environmental problems. Both of those things are true, but neither is the best rebuttal to Horsey. The best rebuttal is that the electricity for those cars has to come from someplace, and currently that place is carbon-belching coal plants (in most of the U.S.). Even hydrogen-powered cars need electricity to electrolyze the hydrogen in the first place.
In other words, there’s simply no getting around the fact that it takes a large amount of energy to move a single person and their 2,500-lb car around the city. By switching to electric cars, you haven’t gotten rid of the problem, you’ve just moved the carbon emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack. Finally, you’ve still got congestion. If electric cars push the cost of driving towards zero, they’ll end up increasing congestion because people will drive more.
All that said, I still think there’s a benefit in moving to electric cars. Electric cars can be ligher, and, more importantly, they can be recharged at night when the grid has excess capacity. But they’re not reason enough to abandon transit-oriented development.