Electric cars are not enough. It’s time to get serious about banning SUVs.

Regensburg’s car-free plazas are a delight (foto: mike eliason)

This week, the International Energy Agency announced that growing customer preference for SUVs are leading to increased emissions.The gains in carbon emissions due to SUVs have decimated all emissions saved from electric vehicles. Today, there are 165 million more SUVs worldwide, as there were in 2010. In that same time period, less than 10 million electric vehicles have been sold. According to the IEA, in 11 years, electric vehicles will still make up less than 1 in 14 vehicles on the road. The report goes on to state:

‘If consumers’ appetite for SUVs continues to grow at a similar pace seen in the last decade, SUVs would add nearly 2 million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.’

The IEA report parallels recent reports from the EU, where auto emissions, despite falling for years, have gone up the last 2 years — specifically due to the proliferation of SUVs. With SUVs being 1 out of every 3 new cars sold in the EU, SUVs have obliterated the meager savings gained through EVs here as well.

There aren’t enough economic incentives to overcome this deficit, especially in under a decade.

But this is far from the only problem with SUVs. The surge in SUVs has led to an unprecedented safety crisis. Nearly 2/3 of all vehicles sold in the US are SUVs or trucks. US Pedestrian deaths since 2016 have all been higher than they were in 1991. We have also eradicated all of the safety gains in the automotive industry — 50% more pedestrians were killed by cars in 2018, than in 2008. More gizmos and innovation are not going to fix this problem exacerbated by physics, and terrible road design, either.

That many of these cars are largely utilized to move a single occupant is also problematic. Cities around the US are struggling with increased congestion, as housing shortages have exacerbated super-commutes. SUVs take up more room than a small- or medium- sized vehicle, require larger parking stalls (which increase construction costs) and wider on-street parking (especially problematic where sharrows and poorly-designed bike lanes are utilized). There is also the issue of the extremely anti-pedestrian design — an issue anyone who has tried to cross a city street, especially if disabled, or with kids, can attest to.

It is becoming clearer electric vehicles are not going to solve, let alone play a significant role, in addressing climate change. Replacing an ICE vehicle with an EV was never really a scalable means of reducing transportation emissions. Despite massive incentives, EVs are having virtually no effect on net emissions, and more importantly, they do nothing to reduce sprawl. They are at best a feel-good measure. Local politicians promoting electric cars as a solution to climate change, are pushing ineffective policies. We need to get serious about reducing car-trips, as well as eliminating the number of cars on the road. We can do this by incentivizing smarter alternatives.

A congestion fee is one means of incentivizing car trip reductions, shifting commuters to utilize greener and safer modes of transportation. The revenue can also be used to expedite build out of transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure. Seattle’s mayor is supposedly studying how a congestion fee could be implemented — but support from council candidates this election has been mixed.

the future is e-bike chargers, not EV car chargers (foto: mike eliason)

Most car trips are less than 3 miles. Electric bikes and cargo bikes can replace most urban car trips. European cities are going all in on e-mobility and green logistics. American cities, especially as they densify, will require this as well. In Bayern and the Netherlands, e-bikes are already outselling traditional bikes, and we see them everywhere here, especially for the elderly. Cities need to get serious about reducing car trips — and we can only do this by building out rapid transit and safe cycling infrastructure, and shifting electric vehicle incentives to e-bikes, green logistics, and cargo bikes. Instead of $7,500 tax credits or sales tax rebates for wealthy consumers of electric vehicles — that are doing nothing to eliminate car trips — we should look to what other cities are doing: Oslo’s $1200 subsidy for e-bikes has been a massive success. Paris will offer a 500€ subsidy starting next year.

If we want to improve transit in congested cities, the quickest and most effective way to do it is to ban cars. Seattle recently banned cars on 3rd Avenue through downtown, to porioritize the 100,000 commuters moved through the corridor daily. New York City’s recent car ban on 14th Street to prioritize transit, despite failed predictions of Apocalypse from NIMBYs, has been a huge success: quieter streets, faster commutes for bus riders, less congestion, less pollution, pedestrians able to reclaim the street without fear of death or injury. On the successes of that, San Francisco just voted to follow suit, and will ban cars on Market Street.

Munich’s car-free Viktualienmarkt (foto: mike eliason)

Banning cars from large swaths of the city also has immediate health benefits, reducing localized air pollution, emissions, and noise. They also immediately improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The ability to hear oneself think is truly priceless in urban environments — but due to decades of auto-prioritization, there are few urban settings in the US where that is currently feasible. The beauty of car-free streets and districts is that by decreasing all of these problems created by automobiles — they immediately increase livability and quality of life. We need a fundamental rethink on open space, to re-prioritize and re-democratize streets in cities for people who live there, not people driving through there. Getting there will require the removal of places for cars on our streets.

Bike lane on arterial. swoon. (foto: mike eliason)

It’s not enough to just ban cars. We also need the infrastructure to allow living with significantly reduced car trips. This means investing in cost-effective, high quality transit. This means transit prioritization. This means bike lanes, yes ESPECIALLY on arterials. And yes, this also means building dense, walkable neighborhoods where low-carbon living is possible.

Berlin’s senators are absolutely right that it is time to rethink allowing such nonsense in cities. These vehicles have no place in urban settings.

The single greatest thing cities can do with regards to livability, safety, and climate — is to ban cars.

The second greatest thing cities can do, is to ban SUVs.

dad | designer | writer | Noted shill for housing. interests: Baugruppen, architecture, passivhaus, mass timber, staedtebau, not for profit housing