Urban & Rural People In The US Need A Grand Compromise On Cars & EV Infrastructure

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As I’ve watched the growth of US EV fast charging infrastructure accelerate over the last year or so, I’ve noticed a pattern. Stations almost always get built either in places with high population density or to connect those areas. The needs of people living in small cities and rural areas are usually an afterthought along the interstates, and not a thought at all in other areas. There are often legitimate economic and cultural reasons behind this, but giving urban people more and more infrastructure presents a contradiction.

A small town Electrify America station. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

As officials in urban areas move to implement “Vision Zero” policies, with plans for lane diets, car-free zones, and possibly the elimination of vehicle access to some urban cores, they are choosing a non-car approach to emissions reductions. Given the other problems they’re experiencing with cars in the largest cities, that often makes sense. Congestion, pedestrian and cyclist deaths, space taken up by parking, and other issues aren’t solved by electric vehicles, even when powered by the cleanest of renewable energy.

At the same time, though, things are different in the US outside of the city core and the closest suburbs. Solutions that help megacity dwellers aren’t always a good fit in the boondocks. As bad of a fit as a car or truck can be in a city, we don’t face the same problems and probably won’t for decades or centuries — maybe never in some places.

If we can create mutual understanding on the issue of cars and coordinate our efforts, we can find ways to help mitigate our common problems while best using resources to solve the problems we don’t hold in common.

The Focus on Urban Needs in EV Infrastructure Investment

Before I move on, I want to show the ways that EV infrastructure has been focusing on the needs of urban people. Yes, I know that many more rural stations are springing up, but just because they’re being built outside of large cities doesn’t mean they are necessarily aimed at serving the people who live there.

My recent article about Electrify America’s New Jersey expansion is a good example. Don’t get me wrong — I love the Electrify America team, and I’m very happy that they’re doing what they’re doing. They’ve proven to me again and again that they’re serious about their mission. They’re adding dozens of charging stations at 11 sites in New Jersey, and that’s a great thing. 

The placement of the stations tells us something, though. All of the new stations are close to New York or Philadelphia, or are along the I-95 corridor. No new stations are going in along the New Jersey coast where the population is less dense, and the roads aren’t connecting bigger cities together. Even an attraction like Atlantic City still doesn’t have a fast charging station for non-Tesla cars, despite the boost that would give to tourism.

New Mexico and west Texas on Plugshare.com, displaying CCS, CHAdeMO, and Tesla Supercharger stations.

New Mexico and west Texas are another great example of how even Tesla does this. Looking at  all fast charging site types (Tesla, CHAdeMO, and CCS), it’s clear what the goal is. Some small towns and mid-sized cities did get rapid charging, but only if they were lucky enough to be along a route that connects larger cities to each other. Lubbock, Texas, with over 300,000 people and a fairly healthy economy that could more readily support EV adoption, didn’t get even one station of any kind. Meanwhile, Deming, New Mexico, a city with under 20,000 people and in one of the poorest counties in the United States, has both a Tesla station and an Electrify America station.

I could give countless other examples of places that have greater potential for EV adoption being ignored while places with lower chances get stations. That’s because the planners for these networks weren’t thinking about those of us living out here.

I get it. We don’t have as much money as those in the big cities do. Many of us out here are more interested in pickups than some “clown car” EV. Rural areas and small cities tend to lean more Republican, and Republicans tend to support the oil industry. Yes, all of this is true, but it won’t be forever. The advantages of EVs are such that few people will be able to ignore it in the long run — if we get the needed infrastructure.

Meanwhile, The Large Cities Want Car Reductions

While rapid charging providers are busy serving the needs of people living in or near urban areas, urban planners and activists are fighting to reduce automotive dependence.

Context and History

Nothing happening in the US is even close to what has been seen in some European cities. The car bans that have been initiated have started in relatively small zones in many cases, and once people adjusted to that, the zones would sometimes grow. However, as CityLab points out, this is a trend that has been going in Europe for over a decade.

While there aren’t much in the way of large car-free zones in the US, there was a trend in the 1960s and early 1970s of removing vehicular access to the small downtown areas in many small and midsize cities. Some remain, but many others were eventually reopened to traffic after businesses in the area suffered. These are often called “pedestrian malls.”

That didn’t stop the trend completely, though. Perhaps the best example is the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, closed to cars in the 1990s and remaining so to this day. At a Wikipedia page on the topic, you can find dozens of examples of permanently closed street sections that didn’t economically fail and get reopened to traffic.

While closing down a small stretch of a road to create a tourist area, shopping attraction, or entertainment district can improve quality of life and economic opportunities in cities of all sizes, it doesn’t really help with the problems larger cities are facing when it comes to cars. They only really serve as an example of how car-free zones start to find fertile ground and sometimes grow.

Urban traffic. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

Today: Vision Zero

In response to all types of traffic deaths, a growing number of US cities are adopting “Vision Zero,” a goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero over a certain period of time. While it may prove impossible to reach a goal of zero deaths, activists see it as a goal worth striving toward, and see it as valuable to look at traffic deaths as preventable instead of inevitable. You can see a map of cities that have taken this approach on the Vision Zero Network’s website.

Having a goal of zero deaths sounds like a good idea for people who don’t like the idea of dying, but it doesn’t tell us how cities and other jurisdictions hope to accomplish those goals. Once a jurisdiction has a critical mass of supporters for Vision Zero, what do they actually do to implement it? 

In theory, Vision Zero cities don’t try to eliminate all collisions involving cars, cyclists, pedestrians, and others on the road. People make mistakes, get distracted, and do other things that lead to collisions. The idea is to reduce the number of collisions and the severity of those collisions when these inevitable mistakes do occur. It’s a complicated issue, but the focus often ends up centered around vehicle speeds. That’s where it gets sticky.

The Challenge of Reducing Urban Vehicle Speeds

New York, at the center of the largest metro area in the US, and a city which has adopted Vision Zero, shows us some of the real problems cities are still facing. We aren’t much past halfway through the year and there have already been 17 cyclist deaths in the city. This prompted the release of a new “green wave” plan that is supposed to help with the problem, but is derided by activists as too little, too late. For years, New York was seeing a decline in all other types of traffic deaths, but 2019 has seen a sudden reversal of all this. Activists are demanding answers on this. 

To get people to slow down, lowering speed limits alone often doesn’t change driver behavior. In many cases, just dropping the limit can even increase accidents by creating a situation where some drivers obey the speed limit and others do not, ruining the safe flow of traffic. Throwing cops and cameras at this only makes it worse or trades one type of accident for another while riling up political opposition.

Narrowing roads, or at least doing things to make them feel more narrow to drivers, is what makes them all slow down, and this doesn’t have the downside of creating more accidents. In some ways, that’s a gift to cities, because you get more space for pedestrians and other road users when you narrow the road. It even leaves opportunities for dedicated bike lanes, physical barriers between cars and bikes, and many other desirable things (this is often called a “complete streets” strategy). But, at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The Costs of All This

One cost cities run into when doing this is the monetary cost of making changes to the roads. Nobody works for free, so it can cost millions just to make minor changes. All the digging, dirtwork, concrete, paving, landscaping, and everything else adds up. Many cities struggle just to keep the potholes at bay, and it’s tough to come up with the funding for making actual changes. That’s part of why New York has been slow-going on changing things up.

The other cost is political. Not only do you have to come up with the money, but once people find out that you’re narrowing the road, they come out in large groups to oppose it, often successfully. From the drivers’ perspective, the city is reducing the quality of the road they use, adding to congestion, and making life harder for people just trying to get to work. 

Add on top of that feelings that the road is being stolen from motorists who paid for it with gas taxes, and being given away to other users, and you get accusations of redistributionist socialism. People feel like the city is taking their freedom away and trying to force them to ride the bus.

In some ways, the end of that last sentence is true. Officials know that the carrying capacity of the roads will reduce when they’re narrowed and restructured to lower car speeds and better protecting other road users. They know for it to work, many people will need to stop driving cars and take public transit, ride bikes, or walk. 

It’s not that the city officials don’t care about motorists, and it’s not part of a conspiracy against traditional American conservative values as PragerU would have you believe. Urban planners are just looking at things from a different angle than the average motorist and are pressing ahead with these redesigns when they can with a goal of saving lives and improving public health.

But Will This Lead to Car Bans in Cities?

While you’ll find no shortage of activists calling for outright car bans in large cities (and activists who want to ban cars everywhere), the reality is far slower. As I pointed out, the comparatively mild changes coming with Vision Zero are facing opposition, so it should be no surprise that pushes to ban cars from even parts of cities face stiffer opposition.

For the sake of argument, let’s just shelf the “they’re doing it in Europe, so they’ll do it here next” argument for the US. That may or may not be true, and often is not true for the US. Since this article is about the US, it’s best to stick to what is actually happening here.

For the largest cities, the answer is probably “yes,” but not a solid “yes.” It’s unlikely that you’ll see a city in the US that bans cars starting at the city limits unless the dense core grows to those limits. We are also unlikely to see a metro area that bans cars from the central city plus all incorporated adjacent suburbs. What we probably will see is a gradual move toward banning cars from the dense city centers where the problems are overwhelming.

There comes a point where there are simply too many people and cars trying to share a popular place and choices have to be made. In New York (the core of the largest metro area in the US), it has already started with parks and popular squares. Times Square, Herald Square, and Madison Square Park/Worth Square are all home to closed or partially closed streets. All of Central Park’s roads are closed to most vehicles as well.

As growth of the city continues, it will get more dense. As global population grows, more and more visitors and commuters will come into the urban cores. Under that pressure, we will likely see expansion of car-free zones even in places that don’t really want to, if nothing but out of sheer necessity. In places friendly to it, it will happen more and faster.

Even in car-oriented Phoenix in conservative Arizona, we’re seeing changes to the downtown area. Some street sections are closed off permanently, while others are closed during events. Lanes have been taken from motorists and reassigned to light rail, and that process continues out into the suburbs as light rail expands. Some analysts are predicting that the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas will grow together, and by 2040 this megacity will even swallow Sierra Vista and Prescott with a combined population of over 10 million people.

Change is inevitable in many ways, whether we want it or not.

Small Towns & Rural Areas Face Different Challenges

Many manufacturers are making automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems that pass testing. We can use these and other advanced driver assistance systems to reduce vehicle deaths without reducing our car use. Image courtesy of Euro NCAP.

This is the section where the anti-car activists are probably going to start disagreeing with me.

I get it. I’ve done my reading, and many of the anti-transit sentiments we hold out here are wrong. We think in terms of “chicken and egg” problems. We think that the low population densities in small cities and rural areas prevent public transit from being viable, but often sow the seeds of failure by not putting in routes with sufficient frequency to provide the needed quality of service it takes to attract ridership.

The fact is, we don’t have good transit in the further-flung suburbs, small and medium cities, and rural areas because we vote it down. We just aren’t willing to put up the money it takes to “build it” so “they will come” and ride. It’s our own damned fault. If we’d just stop dating our cousins for two minutes and think, we’d probably see the light, right?

My question is this: We don’t have public transit because we don’t want it. Is that a bad thing?

Yes, there is the pollution argument. Mass transit pollutes less than the gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing SUVs, pickups, and other combustion cars we tend to favor out here. We are ruining our health, especially in the denser suburbs and even more so when we crowd into the city during the day when a lot of us commute in for work. We haven’t the right to ruin everybody’s air quality and ruin the whole planet’s climate for mere convenience.

That’s where EVs come in, though. If we can switch out most combustion vehicles for zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles, charge their batteries with renewable energy, and stop all that mess, the environmental argument no longer really applies. This is especially true in our low-density living environment because even electric buses (which are quite heavy) have to run at low capacity to come often enough to attract ridership.

Unless the density of the suburbs, exurbs, and small cities increases, we don’t face the other problems that urban people face with cars. Those that we do face, we generally don’t face with the same severity. We can still reduce traffic deaths with better vehicle engineering, advanced driver assistance systems like AEB, and other measures.

My point here is that we don’t want to get rid of our cars. Instead of trying to get us to do that, let’s focus on helping us change how we power them. That’s a big enough challenge by itself.

We Need To Work Together

Rural wind and solar farm. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

If you’ve made it this far, you can see that I appreciate the ways in which urban people’s needs differ from my small-town needs. I hope that the urban people reading this can see how my needs differ from theirs.

What we need more of is mutual respect for different ways of living. People like me, who grew up in a town without a single traffic light, need to realize that the largest urban areas have different needs than I do. People who grew up in those urban cores need to do the same. The way we approach solving problems may differ, and that’s OK.

Then, we need to coordinate. 

In places where we directly affect each other, like where suburbs meet the urban cores, we need to find ways to interoperate. In places like Phoenix, I’ve seen them meet that challenge in a variety of ways. It can be done.

Where we indirectly affect each other, we need to coordinate. We need to encourage state officials to let us do things differently in different places. For example, state law shouldn’t prevent cities from taking reasonable measures to solve their traffic issues as they see fit. We also need to encourage better EV infrastructure in the suburbs, in small towns, and in rural areas where cars are still a necessity, even if it’s a necessity of our own making.

We also need to keep in mind that there are many areas where we are all in the same boat. We all should step up our support for renewable energy, for example.

If we can find ways to foster more mutual respect, we can find ways to solve the problems we all face without resentment and in-fighting. I think that’s a worthy goal.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1884 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba