Dear Mr. President,
Well, here we are again.
On Wednesday night, sustainable transportation advocates got their first nugget of the holiday: another video of you, gleefully speeding down a closed track in a massive electric truck. “I’m a car guy,” you wrote in the caption (which sounds pretty weird coming from a man whose most famous nickname is “Amtrak Joe,” but we digress). “I’ve had a chance to drive some pretty incredible vehicles over the years, but I could never have imagined the likes of the electric vehicle I took for a spin today.”
Of course, the “incredible” electric vehicle was not an electric bicycle.
Nor was it an electric bus, or a wheelchair-accessible e-bus, or even just a modest electric car in small format.
No, that “incredible” vehicle was none other than the electric Hummer: a 9,046-pound behemoth that costs $108,700, can go from 0 to 60 in three seconds and, like all cars of this gigantic size, will be two to three times more fatal to a pedestrian in the event of a crash.
Despite @POTUSs voltage, electric vehicles will not slow the rise in US traffic deaths. If anything they will make things even worse because their batteries are so heavy.
The new Hummer EV weighs >9k lbs, more than an Asian elephant. pic.twitter.com/gergfW198P
— David Zipper (@DavidZipper) 19 November 2021
The Hummer EV has become something of a symbol of the neoliberal approach to reducing emissions from transport – at least among the handful of sustainability advocates who dare to question the wisdom of putting multi-ton one-person cars at the forefront of the country’s climate strategy. .
Grist journalist Shannon Osaka called it “an oxymoron on wheels that could make environmentalists want to tear their hair out.” CityLab’s Andrew Salzberg wondered if the model could “convince skeptical SUV fans to give up combustion and thus accelerate the decarbonization of transportation” or if it was simply “the worst kind of greenwashing.” Streetsblog wrote a whole three-part series about it back when the first commercials for it started airing in February 2020, a full four years before the car will apparently be available for sale.
None of these proponents dispute that a car powered by clean energy is superior to a car powered by fossil fuels. Very few would seriously doubt that every car on the road in America should emit as little carbon dioxide as possible, and that the US government should play a role in making greener vehicles available to more Americans.
What sustainable transport advocates must however, the question is how very of that government strategy – and how many presidential photos – should focus on replacing gas tanks with batteries, while leaving all the other harms of autocentrism largely unaddressed, along with introducing several new ones.
But those batteries… https://t.co/reua3TL273
— E Muziek (@Emuziek) November 18, 2021
By now, endless amounts of ink have been spilled on all the unfortunate side effects of the EV revolution:
- Ultra-heavy batteries that increase vehicle weight by roughly 20 to 30 percent and threaten to increase crash fatalities even when the EVs involved aren’t as big as Hummers.
- An increase of 3 to 8 percent in health-damaging particulate emissions, at least among the heaviest electric car models that politicians you have praised with such rapturous praise.
- An environmentally intensive manufacturing process that emits more than building conventional cars and ravages fragile ecosystems along the way.
- A potential increase in vehicle miles traveled, and all the congestion, noise and traffic violence that comes with it – at least if the advocates are right that a reliable national charging network will one day tempt drivers to succumb to Jevon’s paradox and get behind the wheel even more than they do now, because they mistakenly believe that if the internal combustion engine throws away the internal combustion engine, it means that they throw away everything that is harmful about driving.
These negative externalities may seem like an inevitable price we must pay to reduce the ultimate negative externality of global ecosystem collapse—the best a car-mad country America can realistically do. Although we have seen the mountains of scientific evidence that make it clear that there is no way to stop the worst effects of climate change without driving less and choosing active and shared transport more, the public imagination is focused on vehicle electrification at least feel more achievable: a green-ish solution that car manufacturers, energy companies, construction companies and many other car capitalists can get behind, because of course it will make them all rich.
Heck: even the kind of person who would drive one Lobster may even come on board. What’s not to like?
A perfect illustration of why electric vehicles don’t get us where we need to be. They make us believe that it is ok to have even bigger vehicles and drive even more because they are “green”, erasing the benefits of the better technology. It is called #JevonsParadox.
Fewer cars, less driving. https://t.co/439CRKivNZ
— Brent Toderian (@BrentToderian) November 18, 2021
But that reasoning raises an important question: why on earth are we wasting a single presidential tweet trying to deceive Hummer driver to emit less, when the same rapidly warming earth is full of people who want to drive much less, if only a safe, convenient, affordable and dignified option was available to them for at least some of their journeys?
Yes: there are gas-guzzling Americans out there who could be convinced to trade in their beloved megacars for a greener megacar through the right combination of super-sized tax breaks, access to sub-prime mortgages, vast networks of government-funded charging stations, and toxic masculine advertising campaigns with a Lebron James voiceover and an SUV crashing out of the sky.
But for every one of them, there are countless other Americans who could easily be convinced to walk a few blocks to the grocery store if only they had a sidewalk to get there, and a small change in the local zoning code to allow where and one of them. a grocery store to be built there at all. The maximum amount your Build Back Better Act would offer would-be Hummer EV buyers—a staggering $12,500—would be enough to buy that same shopper an unlimited transit pass in notoriously expensive New York City every month for more than eight yearsor about the same amount of time the average American owns a car before she trades it in. And at the end of the eight years, she won’t have a pile of 9,064 pounds of scrap metal to fight for recycling.
Changing fashion in America is often portrayed as a Herculean task that will require nothing less than the rewiring of the American psyche, not to mention the remaking of every street and road in the country. But the truth is that a staggering 21 percent of annual vehicle trips in the United States are less than a mile long; six percent of them are below half one mile, and another 23 percent are within the easy cycling distance of one to three miles.
These are trips to the local park, trips to the library, short trips to daycare that would absolutely be taken on foot if parents weren’t afraid they’d be met with a Hummer-sized threat to their child’s life at every intersection. They represent small, strategic, low-cost, and above all, urgent infrastructure and policy investments—investments that the new bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will make, but on a scale that will be dwarfed by the highway dollars that make driving a tank a couple of blocks to the movie theater all the more more tempting.
the future is not electric cars. the future is sustainable public transport. https://t.co/0ovq6t0Jaf
— Aditya Mukerjee, the Otterific? ???? (@chimeracoder) November 18, 2021
The bill you just signed into law isn’t all bad news for vulnerable road users — and it’s not all good news for the Hummer EV. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will finally have to disclose to car buyers how dangerous their new rides are to people outside their vehicle, which might give some megacar enthusiasts at least a little pause. New safer hoods and bumpers, which Congress has tasked the NHTSA with investigating, could make the soaring nose of the car you drove yesterday illegal in just a few years, which could at least increase a pedestrian’s chances of being hit at waist height or below rather than the all-too-fatal crash at head or neck level.
It’s not enough at all, of course. And until Congress starts putting its teeth into laws like these and getting dangerous vehicles like the Hummer down for good, your leadership is all the more important.
The truth is, Joe, you’re not just a car guy. You are also the world’s most powerful survivor of traffic violence. And that means you must be a voice for the millions of grieving families who, like you, have lost loved ones whose lives could have been saved, if the vehicles on their roads and the very design of those roads had only been safer.
You can be a car guy. But please, at least: don’t be that car guy It does not look good.
This is what 21st century American leadership looks like… and also Joe Biden driving around a parking lot in a bloated clown car. pic.twitter.com/d6EChaD7nx
— Aaron Naparstek (@Naparstek) November 18, 2021