For California to achieve a clean energy future, we need to rethink our transportation solutions. Electric vehicles alone are not the answer.
On Aug. 25, the Golden State proposed a sales ban on new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks, to be implemented by 2035. California’s transportation sector is responsible for about half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, so very ambitious policies in this regard make sense. However, with few car-free alternatives available, such a ban would pose significant challenges for Californians.
I recently moved to Orange County and spent my first year here car-free. That meant walking or biking through freeway on-ramps with no lights, waiting 15 minutes for Ubers, and catching an Amtrak to Los Angeles, sometimes 20 minutes late without warning. On that July 4th, fireworks caused wildfire on the tracks and grounded my train for an hour. So I gave up and bought my first car. I couldn’t afford an electric vehicle or hybrid, so I opted for a petrol-powered Honda CR-V.
I’m a climate activist who hates driving. If I couldn’t handle California without a car, our clean transportation destinations are in trouble.
Out of the five most populous cities in the United States, Los Angeles ranks fourth for walking, cycling, and public transportation—not great. While some cities like San Francisco do well in these categories, many do poorly across the board, leaving driving the only viable option.
It’s even worse in the suburbs. In September, Amtrak and MetroLink had to suspend operations along a portion of the Orange County rail line for emergency repairs. That was two months ago, and there’s still no word on when the train will reopen. That looks bad for a state aiming to lead the country in clean transportation.
But assuming everyone switches to an electric vehicle, our problems won’t go away. In fact, they multiply.
EVs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they require mining of cobalt and lithium, which are intertwined with environmental and human rights concerns. Not to mention they’re expensive and don’t do anything about California’s ridiculous traffic. In 2021, INRIX ranked I-5 South as the most congested road in the nation, costing the average driver 89 hours annually. A trip to LA takes 35 minutes with no traffic and nearly two hours during rush hour. Every time I call my family now, they ask, “Are you going to or from LA?” knowing I’m probably bored, stuck in traffic.
The results of the midterm election suggest that California voters aren’t all-in on electric vehicles, either. 59% of voters rejected Prop. 30, a voting measure to tax wealthy Californians to raise funds for electric vehicles. The initiative was fraught with problems—even Gov. Gavin Newsom opposed it—but nonetheless, this Prop. 30 rebuke shows voters’ reluctance to put all our eggs in the EV basket.
A switch to electric vehicles would also put a significant strain on California’s power grid, which is already facing supply problems. California was by far the largest electricity importer of all US states in 2019. In addition, the state has restricted natural gas and almost completely eliminated coal. This is fantastic news for the climate, but with almost 30 million vehicles currently in California, today’s grid would not be able to handle the extra load of everyone going electric.
Heat waves exacerbate the problem. Days after the ban was announced, the American Southwest was plunged into one of the longest, hottest heatwaves on record. In these extreme conditions, people used significantly more electricity for air conditioning, which almost led to rolling blackouts. That’s with just 563,070 electric vehicles on the road – imagine if every Californian driver went electric?
Climate scientists predict that California will experience more frequent, more intense, and longer heat waves in the coming years. When the grid cannot keep up with the resulting spikes in demand, blackouts occur, leaving drivers with dead batteries and no alternatives.
California deserves credit for investing heavily in the power grid. Currently, we have 150 times the battery capacity of two years ago, the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, $80.8 billion in solar investment, a new offshore wind development area of 399 square miles, and a plan to expand Diablo Nuclear Power Plant operations Canyon. These exciting developments could help the climate and strengthen our electricity supply.
But putting all that power and more into tens of millions of electric vehicles and not at least trying to lighten the load by making people more comfortable walking, cycling and using public transit would be ridiculously inefficient.
Clean transit isn’t just a climate initiative—it’s an opportunity to improve transportation for Californians. Electric vehicles alone will not solve all of our problems. If the Golden State intends to enforce this ban on gas-powered cars, we need to significantly improve our car-free alternatives. Otherwise we are headed for an expensive, darkened traffic jam.
Ethan Brown is a Young Voices Associate with a BA in Environmental Analysis and Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, a comedy climate podcast presented by PBS/WNET’s national climate initiative, Peril and Promise. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151.