Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Electric Slide: Car Culture Captures Climate Policy

A move to electric vehicles doubles down on suburbanization and misses an opportunity.
Charging of an electric car

American politics have been imbued of late with a spirit of reset. Political alliances are dissolving; new policy frontiers are being breached. And yet on climate and transportation policy, we are seeing a reassertion of a 20th-century paradigm: the primacy of the automobile, only now with a different energy system under the hood.

The latest thrust in the campaign for electric vehicle (EV) subsidies comes from Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) in the form of the Electric CARS Act. The bill extends and expands the current federal consumer EV tax credit, gives car buyers an immediate markdown at the dealership, eliminates the cap on credits per manufacturer, and extends the EV charging infrastructure tax credit.

Rep. Welch calls electric vehicles “next generation transportation.” The grim irony is that it exposes the inability of his generation—the Baby Boomers—to think outside of the two-ton metal containers within which they’ve lived much of their lives. The electric vehicle is the climate idol of the unimaginative. Its contributions to environmental quality are narrow and it perpetuates many of the worst aspects of car hegemony.

Advocates make the primary claim that EV adoption will reduce stress on the climate system. Yet the value of greenhouse gas emissions reductions by way of EV switching is far lower than the existing tax credit implies. Electric vehicles draw power from the grid, so that their emissions simply occur at the generation site, rather than the tailpipe. Most U.S. power comes from natural gas and coal, so an electric vehicle still emits about one-third of what a conventional vehicle would. According to a back-of-the-envelope estimate by Nader Sobhani of the Niskanen Center, the $7,500 tax credit given to EV buyers is actually about $5,500 dollars too high, based on the avoided emissions.

The secondary claim is that EVs reduce local air pollution. Rep. Welch goes so far as to say that they “eliminate these emissions”—an assertion that is false. While there may not be a tailpipe spewing gases from an EV, powering a car with a battery does nothing to reduce non-exhaust pollution, i.e., the harmful particulate matter (PM) cars heave into the air from the disintegration of their tires and brake pads. A University of Edinburgh research team found in 2016 that non-exhaust sources account for 90 percent of PM10 and 85 percent of PM2.5 from traffic. EVs weigh more than their conventional counterparts, and so, because more weight means more non-exhaust emissions, they may actually be even worse for local air quality than the cars they replace.

While important, these well-worn environmental arguments neglect the deeper problem with subsidizing electric vehicles, which is that they perpetuate our suburbanized, car-centric culture. Getting to the heart of the issue, a car is a car, even if it’s electric.

The primacy of the automobile is something Americans take for granted. Most of us have been trapped all our lives by a mass living arrangement in which the only way to satisfy daily requirements—arriving at the workplace, buying food, seeing friends—is to sit one’s rear end inside a box for 30 minutes at a time. With half a century of evidence, we can see that the Levittowns, Forest Parks, and West Covinas scattered outside of American cities have been, on the whole, destructive of our happiness and voracious in their resource appetites.

As The American Conservative’s New Urbanism fellow James Howard Kunstler has remarked, the country’s suburbanization pattern is one of the greatest resource misallocations in world history. Electric vehicle subsidies do nothing to reverse these misdeeds; instead, they compound them.

EVs, despite their eco-friendly image, demand more land use than conventional vehicles. Contrary to popular belief, there are already more public chargers per electric vehicle in the United States than there are gas pumps per conventional vehicle. And, in fact, a higher ratio of re-fueling points to vehicles is an EV necessity since even “fast” chargers require half an hour for an 80 percent fill up. If every gas station in the country became an EV charging station, we would not even come close to meeting the charging needs of the driving public.

The counterargument is that people can charge their cars at home. But that is a luxury those of us living in apartments and townhouses do not have, which highlights the regressiveness of EV subsidies. EVs are products for suburban homeowners that call for yet more suburbanization. The Americans who benefit most from EV subsidies are those who are most attached to suburbs, the Boomers. Fifty-four percent of new EV purchases are made by people born before Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president.

More critically, EVs will do nothing to return American streets to human beings. Thousands of Americans are killed each year while walking by drivers crashing vehicles into them. To the human body, whether the projectile hurtling towards it is powered by gasoline or by battery is of no consequence—but at least death by EV comes quietly.

Helpfully confirming the capture of climate policy by car culture, General Motors has now humorously announced it is “all in” on EVs. This should come as no surprise. The Detroit giant senses a shift in the political winds and smells a new sales market. GM’s EV push doesn’t signal the end of an era so much as it signals the beginning of a new stanza in the epic of the car.

All of the effort directed towards EV adoption would be better expended on improving our development patterns, bringing them to human-scale and reducing the necessity of the automobile. The obvious reform candidate is zoning. According to the New York Times, it is illegal to build anything other than a single-family home on 75 percent of land zoned for residential use in the United States. Zoning exclusively for single-family homes artificially flattens our cities, necessitates daily automobile commutes, and increases our greenhouse gas emissions. As Istvan Bart has documented for the Climate Strategy Institute, suburban sprawl bears more responsibility for increased emissions from transportation than either population or GDP.

Instead of subsidizing new cars, we ought to allow more varied land use so that cars are not so central to our lives. Despite the EV campaigners’ fixation with the old paradigm, the scales of car culture are beginning to fall from Americans’ eyes. Walkability is in vogue and fewer young people today are viewing the car as a ticket to freedom. Perhaps the pandemic can accelerate this trend.

With the car commute status quo disrupted, we have an opportunity to think holistically about our built environment, lifestyles, and communities. Subsidizing EVs is a concession to the planning failures of the past, not a way forward. The car-centered life may suit tens of millions of Americans, and they should be at liberty to move about town as they see fit, but public policy should no longer facilitate their preferences at the expense of the wider culture. Roads should be priced. Parking should be priced. And—if emissions reduction is the civically agreed-upon goal—use of the atmospheric commons should be priced.

Cars will be with us well into the future, as demonstrated by the still car-cluttered streets of countries that have executed the aforementioned policies. But subsidizing a switch to EVs entrenches car hegemony to the exclusion of human-scale development at a time when so much is possible. In this reset moment, we ought not to attempt to get people into different vehicles, but to grant them the agency to opt out of vehicles altogether.

Jordan McGillis is a policy analyst interested in energy, climate, and urbanism. His work has appeared in National Review, the Washington Examiner, and Athwart, among other publications. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.