EVS VS. PUBLIC TRANSIT: the green transportation conundrum

EVs aren't "the answer” – but they do have a critical role to play in our transition to a sustainable world.

EVS VS. PUBLIC TRANSIT:  the green transportation conundrum
Photo by myenergi / Unsplash

When it comes to watching the world transition from one dominant energy paradigm to whatever comes next, one interesting topic to follow is how quickly different countries are embracing electric vehicles over traditional fossil-fuel powered cars and trucks.

Because in many parts of the world, the transition is happening much faster than you might think. Globally, 14% of all car sales were all-electric in 2022 – that’s 10 times higher than in 2017.

Here’s a snapshot of the percentage of cars sold last year that were electric in different countries and regions:

Numbers like this seem to offer solid proof that we humans are capable of embracing change – and maybe we DO have what it takes to transition to a green-energy economy in the next few decades and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

So whenever I see stories about how fast EVs are being adopted in different parts of the world and the advances in technology that are making them even more efficient and less impactful on the environment, I pay attention and want to share the news with others.

Yet all too often when posting about electric vehicle adoption or improvement, I get comments from people who express disappointment that I’m writing favourably about something they consider to be much more of a problem than a solution.

I’m not talking about people who think climate change is fake or that EVs will always be inferior to good old gas-powered vehicles. I’m talking about committed environmentalists who worry that electric or not, ALL personally owned cars and trucks perpetuate a harmful transportation paradigm that is inflicting critical damage on the planet.

“EVs won’t save us!” (Sooo say we all.)

Here’s one such comment I received a while back after posting about an advancement in battery technology that could greatly expand the range of EVs:

“This tech only supports the oligarchic dream of switching to personal EVs and not alternative public transportation. Doing so ensures increasing energy demands that are not compatible with realistic climate goals.” 

You know what? Conspiratorial* mentions of “the oligarchy” aside, this commenter is right. Simply switching from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones won’t be enough to help us meet our climate commitments.

Sure, it would great to know that all of the vehicles on the road were no longer burning fossil fuels and spewing those emissions into the environment. (Fun fact: did you know that road transportation is responsible for 16% of all global greenhouse gas emissions?)

But cars are so much more than the fuel they burn.

They’re rubber tires, a major source of microplastic pollution. They’re roads made of concrete – another significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. They’re precious metals mined for batteries, not to mention the other materials needed to build the car – the frame, exterior, interior cabin with its dashboard and seats.

And right now, as you can guess, pretty much every stage of that whole production & use process releases pollution and greenhouse gases into the environment.

Obviously having fewer cars on the road – not to mention fewer paved roads altogether – would be a good thing for the planet. If we continue to build and maintain infrastructure that prioritizes private personal car and truck use over public transit options, it will be difficult, if not outright impossible, for us to meet our climate goals. So the sooner we can transition away from a car-dominated culture to one where most of our transportation needs are met by public transit in the form of trains, light rail, and bus fleets – supplemented by bikes and other micromobility options for shorter trips– the better off we’ll be.

That said, electric vehicles still have a critical role to play in the transition to a green economy.

Positioning the future of transportation as being either electric vehicles OR public transit sets up a false “either/or” dichotomy and ignores the fact that we need electric vehicles to meet several important gaps right now and into the foreseeable future.

We need them for taxis and for car-sharing networks that allow large groups of people to share access to a common pool of vehicles they can use whenever they need to go on trips that aren’t practical with public transit. We need them for industry fleets and delivery vehicles. AND we need them for drivers who live in parts of the world that are still decades away from having a robust public transportation system that can adequately meet residents’ needs.

(Such as the British Columbia coastal seaside town where I live, for example.)

There are countless small towns across Canada and the US – and no doubt many other parts of the world as well – where the population is so low, they're at the bottom of the list when it comes to infrastructure investment. And even if the money was directed to those communities, the difference it would make to actual emissions would be negligible compared to investing in cities.

Here in Canada, where 80% of our population lives in urban areas, we’ll get a much better climate bang for our buck if we spend our infrastructure dollars on helping high-density population areas build more robust and efficient public transportation systems – AND by making it easy for those in more rural areas to switch to EVs as soon possible rather than trying to convince people in rural areas to wait for trains and bus fleets that likely won’t exist for decades (if ever).

That’s not to say I don’t WANT to see more trains and buses.

Ever since I lived in Japan and discovered what a robust and efficient transportation system actually looks like, I’ve dreamed of seeing similar train service here in Canada and the U.S. My personal “Awesome Transportation” vision includes comprehensive networks of trains that efficiently transport people from city to city, as well as within cities, supported largely by bikes and other micromobility options for shorter trips.

(And don’t get me started about the huge potential for battery-powered boats!)

I dream of a future where people everywhere live in towns and cities filled with more forested multi-purpose paths and fewer concrete roads – where priority is given to pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles and larger cars are the ones that must deal with the inconvenience of a transportation system that doesn’t cater to their needs first and foremost.

But like I said, it seems clear we’re still decades away from realizing that dream in many parts of the world. Dismantling complex systems – such as a society’s urban & economic infrastructure, not to mention entrenched ways of thinking – takes time.

And during that time, people and businesses will still need to buy cars. Better they be EV than gas-powered.

Personally, I feel like Europe, where many cities predate cars and were not built for them – as well as Asia and many places in Africa with their dense populations and already high levels of two-wheeled and three-wheeled vehicle use – will transition much faster to the kind of green transportation landscape I dream of.

We here in Canada and the US will likely lag behind because not only will we have to deal with the fact that much of our current transportation infrastructure caters specifically to cars, we also have an extremely powerful fossil fuel lobby that has spent decades spreading misinformation about climate change and the need to transition away from gas-powered cars ASAP. (Not to mention “anti-socialist” resistance to spending money on improving public transit. Because making transportation cheaper, easier, and safer for everyone is somehow… communist. 🤔)

But we’ll get there in the end, I'm pretty sure of it.

(Because if we don’t, I feel like we're kinda hooped.)

Here are the external links included above if you'd like to explore this topic further:

Happy travels! 🌎

* I say “conspiratorial” when it comes to mentioning “the oligarchy” because such vague and loaded terms aren’t helpful when talking about real problems and solutions. Exactly WHO do you mean when you say “oligarchy”? Be specific. Otherwise you’re just pointing at shadows and calling them bogeymen.

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