In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, titled, “There’s One Big Problem With Electric Cars,” the author argued that the switch to electric cars is an improvement, but doesn’t solve many of the problems that all cars cause, regardless of what they run on. They take up a lot of space, both on roads and elsewhere in cities. They sit unused most of the time, and their parking spaces alone eat up a lot of room in cities, and that room may be put to better use. There’s also a lot of death and destruction associated with cars, with over a million dying globally every year in crashes.
The main point was that instead of switching cars to electric, we should be pushing society away from cars toward alternatives, like transit, to solve the problems he laid out.
My first reaction was to raise the problem of realpolitik, which the author did partially get into. People are at least willing to change from a gasoline car to an electric car because it doesn’t totally upend a big chunk of their life that was built around cars. Neighborhoods, cities, jobs, and many other things are all built around cars, and people don’t like that feeling that their life, which they worked their butts off to get together, is changing out from under them.
Even changing fuels is controversial and hard to get people to do, and might be barely achievable over a decade or two. Pushing for something even more fundamental like getting cars out of cities is likely to be a non-starter, so wasting energy on that instead of what people would be more willing to do might keep any kind of change from happening.
As Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Letting the perfect become the enemy of the good isn’t a good way to get anything done.
But Is Getting Rid Of Cars “The Perfect”?
As I thought about it more, I don’t think the premise of the piece is very sound. Getting rid of cars might not actually be a better outcome.
Disasters and Emergencies
Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us that a world powered mostly by mass transit wouldn’t be the utopia some people think it is. With enclosed spaces, dozens or hundreds of people sharing the same air, and tight quarters that preclude social distancing, trains, subways, and buses are efficient but aren’t that compatible with life during a pandemic.
Eventually things will go back to normal, but there’s no way this is the last pandemic we will ever face. Even if we avoid something this bad happening for another 100 years, we don’t want to compound the problem with 100 years of collectivist transportation monoculture. If there aren’t any Ubers or car lanes the next time we get into this kind of crisis, the only remaining alternative will be bikes and scooters (assuming the “government should run everything” scolds don’t ban “dangerous” e-bikes in favor of transit, too).
The pandemic can’t be the only kind of black swan that would cripple us if we became overly reliant on transit for everything. Texas got shellacked this past week because they assumed that the kind of winter weather they got wouldn’t happen often enough to matter, so we’d better take a look at all of our assumptions before we get rid of cars and other privately-controlled forms of transportation. “What could possibly go wrong?” is a question we should be answering, not taking rhetorically.
Cities Don’t Exist In A Vacuum
But let’s take that scary disaster stuff off the table for a minute and assume that nothing goes wrong. Urban people could be better off without cars taking up so much room. There’d be more room for pedestrians, micromobility, and even housing without traffic lanes and parking lots/garages taking up all that space, right?
The problem is that cities are usually ringed by suburbs, which then give way to an archipelago of exurbs before you’re back in the wilderness. What about all the people near the city but not in its core? I guess you could beef up transit in those places, too, and even beef up transit between suburbs and exurbs, but that would only happen at great cost. We are already decades if not a century into sprawl development in most places, and idealism can’t provide us with a “Ctrl+Z” solution unless someone invents the flux capacitor.
The Urban-Rural Divide
Even worse, it’s not good to have rural people and people in small towns speaking completely different transportation languages. That only deepens the urban-rural divide. In theory, people visiting the city from a small town could park in a garage or lot at the edge of the urban core, but you’re imposing an extra fee for outsiders, and discouraging them from interacting with the city. People living in the city, not having cars, would have a greater expense when they want to go visit the countryside, and they’d naturally do less of that.
The political problems and impasses that separate urban populations from rural populations are already bad enough now without imposing what would basically be a toll or tax on anyone trying to cross the urban-rural divide. I know Reagan isn’t popular with environmentalists, but he was right when he said you get less of the things you put a tax on.
If we put roadblocks on the bridges crossing the urban-rural divide, we risk more political drama at best and war at worst in the long run.
Should We Optimize For Cities, Or Question Them Like The Op-Ed Questions Cars?
I’ve seen some people (not the author I’m responding to) suggest that nearly everyone just be moved into cities to protect nature and for other reasons. The Chinese government has actually been doing this, against rural people’s wishes, for years. They force people to move, bulldoze the small settlements and towns (some of which have existed across multiple ancient dynasties), and move everyone into multi-story dwellings. The goal is to make everything more efficient, provide more opportunities for the people they’re moving, and help spur domestic economic demand to make China economically stronger.
The reality isn’t as rosy as they had hoped. Moving that many people that fast has led to struggles with building infrastructure, housing, and even providing jobs for the new residents that pay enough for them to afford to live in the city.
There’s also the mental health issue nobody wants to talk about.
The fact is, humans didn’t evolve in cities, and we don’t cope very well with our disconnection from nature. Need some proof? Just look at what happened to many people after watching Avatar (the 2009 film). After seeing a realistic, three dimensional view of a beautiful jungle paradise, some fans couldn’t cope very well with returning to a normal life on earth in a synthetic and engineered city.
“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning,” one viewer wrote in an online forum. “It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”
It’s not just a VR version of the post-vacation blues. Human populations passed 50% living in cities a decade ago, and the frightening truth is that we don’t know how well that’s going to work. A well-established body of research shows that humans have a need to be connected to nature. There are a number of psychological and even physical ailments that people suffer because we’ve been removed from the environment in which humanity evolved. It has even been shown that patients recovering from surgeries recover faster when they have a window with a view of trees instead of a brick wall, and prisoners are less prone to violence and conflict when there’s some nature introduced into the prisons.
Instead of vilifying sprawl and those who decide to move to the suburbs, maybe we should treat cities the same way the NYT op-ed treats cars. Maybe instead of concluding that cars should go away because they’re bad for cities, we should question whether cities are the right way forward for humanity itself.
I know we will never abolish cities, or move all people into them, but we should be looking for ways to mix mankind with nature more for our well being. We may even consider reducing density, and having people work remotely from smaller towns and even rural areas. Just like we need a healthy balance of cars and other forms of transportation in cities, we need a healthy balance of the urban and the rural in our lives.
Cars can be a good part of that solution, especially when they’re electric and don’t contribute to the destruction of nature as much as other kinds of cars.
Featured image: My Nissan LEAF out in nature at the Painted Desert in the Petrified Forest National Park.