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Electric Vehicles are not the Future We Need

The transportation sector accounts for 50% of greenhouse emissions in California, and almost a quarter of emissions nationwide. For climate groups, activists, and governments, this often puts transportation at the top of their agenda. And with the advance of electric and hybrid vehicles (EVs), this seems easier than ever. In 2022, the Californian government mandated all new vehicles be electric or hybrid by 2035. In March, the Biden administration followed suit, issuing a rule that ensured a majority of cars sold in the US would be electric or hybrid by 2035. 

In the past few years, EVs have skyrocketed in popularity, especially in California, which is home to almost 40% of all EVs in America. The state has invested heavily in the sector, issuing rebates and grants to purchase EVs and installing numerous charging stations. Car manufacturers like Tesla have hopped on to the trend, capitalizing off of environmental concerns that have largely driven the popularity of EVs. Today, Tesla is the biggest auto industry employer in California, opening multiple manufacturing facilities across the Bay Area. 

Tesla, other EV manufacturers, and proponents of EVs have long been acclaimed for their efforts to build a more sustainable future. However, EVs are not the silver bullet to fixing climate change that they are often made out to be. Although they are undoubtedly more sustainable than gasoline vehicles, they still take a tremendous toll on the environment. The production of batteries for the cars requires rare earth metals like lithium and cobalt that are often extracted from the Global South in working conditions prone to human rights violations. They are also devastating to local communities, exposing them to toxins and leading to frequent water shortages

EV production also requires high amounts of steel, lead, plastics, and other chemicals, the production of which further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates suggest that making an electric car releases the same amount of CO2 as making a petrol or diesel car, and the production of the battery contributes even more emissions. Even past the production, much of the energy used to charge EVs come directly from fossil fuel plants, as that is the predominant fuel source of most homes and chargers.

For most Americans, EVs are quite simply inaccessible. According to a study from Tayler & Francis Online, households that purchase EVs typically earn upwards of $100,000. More than half Americans are unlikely to even consider buying an EV, largely concerns of cost, mobility and effectiveness. The truth is, the electric future legislatures are dreaming of far away—EVs only compromise 1% of the total cars in America—and its also a future that’s costly, detrimental to the environment, and ultimately unsustainable for Americans and for the Earth.

The focus on EV legislation pulls away from an alternate mode of transportation that is cost-effective, emission-free, and could drastically improve people’s access to mobility: public transportation. Trains and buses have a fraction of the emissions of private cars, and studies have shown investments in public transportation to significantly reduce emissions. Global cities that invested in bus rapid transport (BRT) for instance, saw their emissions cut in half. BRT systems have been proven to be very successful in cities like Indianapolis, which recently instituted an all-electric bus system, reducing emissions and improving traffic congestions. 

More than half of Americans are unlikely to even consider buying an EV, largely due to the cost. Public transport infrastructure, on the other hand, can provide a much more accessible alternative to gas cars, improving infrastructure for marginalized communities while simultaneously reducing emissions.

Unlike electric cars which are often gatekept to richer Americans, a public transportation system would greatly improve transportation infrastructure for marginalized communities that lack transportation access.  An effective public transportation system would be monumental in creating a sustainable future; public transport introduces a circular economy that embraces recycling, resuing, and repurposing resources as opposed to today’s linear model of consumption which is resource-heavy and unsustainable in the long run. 

Today, as America is gearing up to embrace EVs, our public transport systems face becoming left behind. BART has recently warned that they are hanging over a “fiscal cliff,” and other transport systems are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. The IRA also provides little funding for public transportation, based on the idea that EVs are the solution to lowering transportation emission. 

EVs are not going to save the planet. Public transportation won’t either, at least not alone. As with all climate solutions, the solution to transportation emissions is messy, imperfect, and anything but straightforward. The reality remains that just as EVs are unattainable for many Americans, so is public transportation. For those that live in suburbs or rural areas which are designed to be car-centric, having a car is a symbol of mobility and freedom and often necessary for one’s livelihood. The experiences and needs of the American people are not a monolith, and neither are the solutions we need. Transportation requires a multi-faceted approach, an embrace of both EVs and public transportation, in order to ensure a more equitable and sustainable future for all.

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