This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Yonah Freemark wonders if affordable electric cars like the Nissan Leaf will decrease the American public’s well-known appetite for more public transit.

Freemark argues that even electric cars have environmental problems: electricity comes from dirty sources, electric cars have short lifespans, and they still encourage sprawl.

I think this is right, as far as it goes, but I’d make a couple of broader points. First, smart growth is good in and of itself, and we need to make that argument independent of vehicular powertrains. As I argued a couple of years back:

The link between miles driven and GHGs (Greenhouse Gases) is only going to get more tenuous over the next few decades. As that happens, environmentalists will lose another weapon in our arsenal. We need new arguments for smart growth that are directly about smart growth (like preserving wetlands, for example) instead of related issues like carbon emissions or national security.

In other words, there are other reasons to advocate smart growth that have nothing to do with the environment. For example, as David Brooks wrote this week, commuting sucks:

The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” [Emphasis added].

[I think of this every day as I walk home over I-5 and gawk at the sea of red lights.]

The other point I’d make is that energy-efficient electric cars will simply hasten the arrival of congestion pricing. The highway trust fund is running a deficit. Raising the gas tax is politically treacherous. One way or another, we’re going to need to finance the roads on which these electric cars will drive. If we can’t finance it through an energy tax, we’ll have to revert to a VMT or congestion tax. There are no free lunches.

Bonus Fun Fact: I just clicked on the Sightline blog post that I referenced a couple years back, and noticed a smart commenter named “Michael McGinn” in the comments section. Heh.

One Reply to “Electric Cars and the Future of Transit”

  1. Gotta think that ‘preserving wetlands’ will always be a stretch to implement something as complicated as smart growth. What is not a stretch is pulling your population in to reduce the cost of providing services to the number of people who can be taxed. Mason County has fought the Growth Management law man and boy, but at the same time has adopted growth management laws to make new developments pay in advance for sewers, power etc. The institutions of governance, education, health, and the family will be the drivers for smart growth.

    The automobile in America has reached such a peak of insanity that it can’t contract fast enough to survive the rate of change that is coming. Of course, if we had planned to change, we’d be driving 60mpg cars and electric cars, which in turn would have so reduced our needs for other resources that we could string this out a good long while.

    Having delayed the change means that at crunch-time we’ll need to look for the big savings you get when you move to a car-free lifestyle in a residence with no energy requirements for heating/cooling. Happily, the largest cohort in our population- the Baby Boomers- will be of an age to welcome such a change.

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