March 02 2011

Electric Cars: Saviors or the Final Undoing of American Cities?

If the oil spike a couple years ago – and the one we are in the middle of now – has taught us anything, it is that something drastic needs to be done about our dependence on oil.  Eventually, the price reaches a point that demand falls as people look for other ways to travel; but when almost 60% of Americans live in suburban or rural areas, it is important to understand that most of us have few options for choosing something different.

Public transportation is great for those who it is available and convenient for, but there will be little support for increased transit funding among people who have little access to quality bus and rail service.  For suburban America, the answer to volatile prices of oil produced in volatile regions of the world is to resurrect the project that the oil companies once teamed with the car companies to destroy: the electric car.

Now that mainstream America claims to be concerned about Climate Change, and younger Americans are buying fewer cars, car companies are beginning to market themselves as the saviors of both the environment and the American way of life by racing to be the first to produce a viable and popular electric car.  The environmental benefits of electric cars are compelling but highly debatable, depending on the source of electricity production.  What should be the most salient issue up for debate, however, is what effect such a “no-guilt” technology will have on cities.

We have already been witnesses to the impacts of mass automobile use on the design and functioning of urban centers.  Some cities, such as New Haven, Connecticut, were transformed radically from dense, mixed-use neighborhoods and districts to Radiant City parking lots.  This was done, among other reasons, to provide more convenient environments for automobile users.  It is almost laughable now to think that the fiscal and social impacts of these projects were not considered.

But what if a massive transition to electric cars brings about another wave of environmental modifications? What if cities then began to realize that the environmental benefits of public transit are no longer better than those of cars?  Will New York and Boston, among other great cities, simply become two more grand parking lots?  Could our cities afford (economically and socially) another massive transformation such as this?  Are there other factors that would mitigate against a worst-case scenario?

We would love to hear your thoughts.

Ryan Champlin

I am a freelance urban and social critic with a background in urban planning and New Urbanism, community and economic development, and social policy.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 at 8:32 pm and is filed under Environmental Design, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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