Are Electric Vehicles Leaving Mass Transit in the Shadows?

What the EV boom could mean for mass transit and sustainable cities in the U.S.

Share this article

Electric vehicles or mass transit — which option will lead to a more sustainable future? Follow the money in the U.S. and it looks like federal favoritism leans toward electric vehicles, even though improved mass transit would make the nation more competitive and cleaner. 

The allocation of federal spending in both the 2010 budget and the economic recovery act shows where the weight of current policy thinking is in the U.S. There’s an allocation of $2.4 billion in stimulus funds for developing the plug-in infrastructure electric vehicles are going to need. There’s also $8.3 billion available to electric vehicle manufacturers through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, and another  $30 billion for improving or building roads and bridges — to keep them fit for automotive travel.

Mass transit, on the other hand, got a total of $13 billion. Which begs the question: Do the hype and money going into EVs equate to a commitment from the government to an automobile-dominated future?

Comparing where the recent emphasis has been on government spending in the US versus China is an eye-opening exercise. The long-term future starts to come into view. 

Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug-In America, says it doesn’t have to be an either or scenario. While greater support for mass transit, and better land use policies to make it accessible are both essential, he says the automobile isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so we need to look at making it less polluting.

“We have created a nation that is dependent, for the foreseeable future, upon the automobile,” he says. “And the world’s inhabitants aspire to automobile ownership. China has opened up high-speed rail lines while the U.S. ponders. Yet, simultaneously, China has overtaken the U.S. in the number of automobiles sold annually.”

What about high-speed rail?

But there may be more to it than that. Automobile sales are skyrocketing in China indeed, but it is also true that the country leads the world in high-speed rail, with 4000 kilometers already built. The Chinese government is plowing far more money into building out 16,000 kilometers of high-speed track than it is spending on roads or a plug-in infrastructure for electric vehicles.

China’s full high-speed rail system is scheduled for completion by 2020 and will cost $300 billion, and at the same time, the government is instituting tighter auto emissions restrictions and providing incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles.

In the United States, high-speed rail got the largest chunk of the stimulus funding earmarked for mass transit, but it amounts to a relatively paltry $8 billion spread across three systems in California, Florida and Illinois. To put that amount in perspective, consider that the total projected cost of the California high-speed rail system alone is $42.6 to $45 billion. More importantly, not all of the $8 billion has ended up going to high-speed rail projects after all.

“Over the course of many pieces of legislation, billions of dollars have been directed toward the intention of implementing a high-speed-rail infrastructure,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote in a recent opinion piece. “But most of the money has gone to subsidizing the sub-par system already in place.”

Young added that billions in stimulus funding that were to go to high-speed rail have gone instead toward maintenance of the country’s existing train network.

“As a country that is currently beholden to foreign countries for its oil supply, [reducing our oil needs] should serve as an incentive,” Young concluded. “Additionally, though some may worry about the high costs of implementing such a system, high-speed rail represents the kind of long-term infrastructure investment that pays dividends for decades.”

Where’s the DOE money going?

Meanwhile, the infrastructure the US government is investing in revolves around continued reliance on automobiles, but that, too, is still proceeding at a cautious pace.  DOE’s investments in electric vehicles and its charging infrastructure are largely focused on figuring out how charging will work. Will people want to charge vehicles at home, or at public charging stations or some combination of both?

That’s why last week, the DOE announced a program that would give thousands of buyers of electric vehicles to qualify for free in-home charging stations, funded by grants $2,000 per household. Consumers get the charging station for free in exchange for sharing their usage data with DOE and its associated labs.

For the time being, the DOE is focusing its research efforts on urban centers. Early adopters of electric vehicles will likely be city dwellers, but at the same time, urban centers are also best suited to public transportation.

Beyond emissions

Truly zero-emissions vehicles would be an improvement within today’s transportation mix, but some transportation experts say it’s still not enough.

“Changing the source of a car’s fuel does not change the fact that the car still contributes to a number of other major environmental and socio-economic problems,” says Diana Lind, of Next American City.

“To name just a few car-related consequences beyond carbon emissions, cars enable sprawl, hour-long commutes, obesity, and social isolation. Car-oriented communities are much less sustainable than walkable communities. These areas take advantage of their sprawling zoning with larger houses and bigger commercial spaces, all of which consume much more energy than compact, dense cities.”

Lind also points out that while EV advocates talk about a future filled with solar-, wind- and geothermal-powered cars, the reality is that right now, and for many years to come, only a very small percentage of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources.

“It is naive to assume that the country’s 400 million cars will be fueled by much other than coal in the short-term, when high carbon emissions are guaranteed to push us past the ecological tipping point,” she says.

Rather than creating new electric car plug-in infrastructure, Lind says federal, state and local governments should concentrate on re-thinking personal mobility altogether.

“What if cities outlawed private cars for leisure purposes? What if money otherwise spent on plug-in infrastructure went toward feasibility studies for car-free downtown centers? Anyone who thinks that level of change is beyond us should remember that we once ripped up public transportation infrastructure and built highways through our downtowns. It is no more outlandish to think that we could reverse those changes today.”