I live on Toronto’s Yonge Subway line in a 26 storey apartment building. Each day, I walk seven minutes to the subway station, before a 20 minute train ride to work. I like to think that in some way—living and working in a densely populated area is helping to reduce my ecological footprint. As someone closely familiar with the auto industry and the consequences of wide spread auto dependence for climate change, I am routinely perplexed by the sense of moral superiority displayed by drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles. I use the term ‘vehicles’ instead of ‘cars’ because auto makers have incorporated ‘green’ technologies into large SUVs such as the Cadillac Escalade. Forgetting the Escalades’ $80,000 price tag, the fact remains that hybrid and electric cars have nearly identical ecological footprints when compared to cars with conventional gas or diesel powered engines. After factoring in the environmental impacts of the entire production chain of a vehicle, it is actually the type of fuel used (and the source of that fuel)—not the engine itself that mainly determines the level of environmental impacts of a vehicle.
On the surface, it is logical to assume that electric vehicles are cleaner or better for the environment than gas power vehicles. After all, there are far more pollutants emanating from the tail pipe of a gas powered vehicle than an electric one (a vehicle that doesn’t even have a tail pipe). Yet, where does the electricity come from to charge the electric vehicle’s batteries? More importantly, is the source of that electricity sustainable or clean? In most cases, the answer is an emphatic—NO! Ontario, for example, is currently generating only 34% of its electricity from renewable sources. The remainder is derived from nuclear or fossil fuel (mainly coal) power plants. So where does that leave us? Electric cars are not entirely clean, but should auto makers abandon their pursuit of highly fuel economy and ‘greener’ cars? Certainly not! But I am left with a sense of defeat. A car is still a car and it will never compete with ecological benefits of a train, bus or street car.
Policy makers in Canada and the United States, continue to support auto dependant urban landscapes, while public transit systems literally take a back seat to drivers who have ostensibly taken the moral high ground by driving ‘green’ vehicles— all the while not comprising their lifestyle of two cars and a McMansion in the suburbs, one bit. Sometimes the public needs to be nudged to make real and lasting changes to their habits. I understand that communities can’t undo decades of urban sprawl, but policy makers need to be smarter and more strategic about future development. Built landscapes that perpetuate auto-dependence should be obsolete as planning tools. It makes sense for people to live close to where they work. In fact research has demonstrated that, over the course of a year, traffic costs Greater Toronto Area commuters $3.3 billion in travel delays, environmental costs and vehicle maintenance, and a further $2.7 billion in lost productivity.
Hybrids or electrics have their place—stuck in traffic—right alongside every other car. Integrated transit systems are the way forward.