Electric Cars Are Great, but How About a Good Old-Fashioned Bus? | Opinion

Spend five minutes listening to many policymakers in Washington and you would think that electric vehicles are the be-all and end-all solution to the existential threat of the climate crisis. But the truth of the matter is that when it comes to fighting the climate crisis, electric vehicles are good but not enough.

As important as electric vehicles are, they're no panacea. Yet policymakers spend a lot more time celebrating EVs than they do public transit or other climate-friendly modes of transportation. That's understandable. Electric cars are new, they're more exciting than buses and trains, and our country has long had a love affair with cars, which we associate with freedom and choice. But the climate crisis demands that we do more than quickly replace our combustion vehicles if we want to avoid its worst effects.

As a practical matter, EVs on their own can't get us to our climate goals fast enough. The move to go electric depends in large part on people buying new electric cars, but all the purchasing takes time, and people are holding onto their cars longer now than they did a couple of decades ago. Given the pace of turnover, it would take at least 15 years to get gas-powered cars off the road, even if we bought nothing but EVs starting today.

It's Not Just About Cars
A man wearing a mask rides a bicycle near Chelsea Piers on July 30, 2020 in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

What's needed instead is a balanced, multimodal approach that invests in public transit (and biking and walking) alongside electric cars.

That balanced approach is also a more equitable approach. While EVs are largely marketed toward those with means, public transit offers mobility and opportunity to people of all races and walks of life, in communities both rural and urban, and to seniors and people with disabilities who may have no other means of transportation.

In other words, when it comes to EVs vs. public transportation, this is not an either/or, it is both/and. And when federal policymakers pit EVs against public transit systems, everyone loses.

From successes in Europe and Asia, we know governments can reduce emissions by operating good, frequent, reliable, and equitable public transit. Paris is a top example, nearly halving driving in the city. So, why doesn't the United States reduce emissions by providing good transit like these countries do? Not because of any difference in technical or financial resources or acumen. Rather, governments in those European and Asian countries recognize that public transit is a social, economic, and environmental good that the government should provide in abundant quantity and high quality.

By stark contrast, governments in the U.S.—whether local, state, or federal—continue to be guided by numerous built-in biases toward automobiles in their planning and finance structures, unaccountable highway trust funds, and environmental regulations that continue to facilitate the expansion of highways but make it difficult to build a bike trail.

Adding more vehicles to the road—even electric ones—will only make this problem worse.

Moreover, public transit infrastructure—no matter how underfunded—already exists in many working-class communities of color where many people have no access to a public charging station. Building that infrastructure for EVs is crucial, but it requires starting nearly from scratch, which isn't the case for public transit.

That is why we must enact a balanced, multimodal framework for transportation. One that includes a rapid shift toward EVs but also a significant shift toward public transit investments.

Because the plain truth is electric vehicles alone are not enough. And the sooner Washington understands that the better. Because the climate crisis is not coming. It is here now, and we don't have any time to spare.

LeeAnn Hall is the director of the National Campaign for Transit Justice.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.