Monday, June 3, 2013

Electric Vehicles: Hidden Costs for Regional Sustainability

Transportation sustainability is an increasingly important issue and there are numerous proposals available for achieving it, but there are two major themes:  reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and/or improve travel technology (electric vehicles, fuel efficiency, etc). Both strive towards more sustainable travel, improved air quality, reduced environmental impact and greater economic stability, but they are not always complementary. Electric vehicles in particular highlight the potential disconnect between the two avenues for more sustainable regions. There may be hidden costs that balance out some of the benefits gained by electric vehicles and as such should be seen as a complementary measure rather than a primary policy.

Electric vehicles have been seen as an achievable and highly beneficial way to reduce our environmental impacts. However, they do not address many aspects of sustainable regional transportation, namely VMT, congestion and types of infrastructure. A study published this June (on Norway, but eminently relevant for the Portland region) discusses some of the possible pitfalls of adopting electric vehicles as the way forward for sustainable regions.

The study conducted surveys of both electric and conventional vehicle buyers on use, behavior and perceptions of travel impacts. The surveys produced two interesting findings. First, they found that electric vehicles were primarily being purchased as additional vehicles rather than as replacements for traditional vehicles. Second, electric vehicles did not lead to a decrease in VMT, but rather car usage increased for everyday travel. According to the study, this can be attributed to two things:  the incentive structure in Norway for electric vehicles and the changes in behavior of electric vehicle buyers. The incentives in Norway make electric vehicles cheaper to drive with exemptions from congestion charges, free parking in certain areas and reduced taxes. The behavior change is the more critical finding, however. The study found that owning and driving an electric vehicle "reduces attitudes, intentions and perceived moral obligation to reduce car use (38)." Electric vehicle owners would do less to reduce VMT and in many cases increase VMT because they felt less of a perceived environmental impact with their new vehicle. This is an incredibly problematic finding for the electric vehicle solution. Fossil fuel use is only one aspect of sustainable transportation for a region. Reducing VMT, congestion, and impermeable pavement while increasing transportation options and changing behavior patterns are all necessary pieces to overall sustainability. This finding presents the case that electric vehicles not only fail to address many of these aspects, but may also hinder the achievement of some of them. Even if the vehicles use less conventional fuel, they are still contributing to unsustainable congestion, infrastructure and VMT.

For Portland, this is a regional or even state level issue as ODOT has been a big proponent of electric vehicles in recent years, especially with the Oregon Electric Vehicle and Infrastructure Program. The goal of this program is to reduce dependency on foreign oil while reducing the environmental impact of transportation. The focus of implementation is on increasing the number of fuel stations, particularly along highway routes and smaller cities throughout the state. While this can be an admirable endeavor, there are core problems to this kind of transportation planning. Each new charging station put in through this program is about extending the range of electric vehicles making us able to drive further. This means supporting longer trips by single occupancy automobiles and maintaining or increasing usage of the highway system as the primary avenue of regional travel. People may make these longer drives more often when experiencing lower fuel prices and a lowered sense of "moral obligation" to reduce VMT.

For long-term sustainability, I'm concerned with states and regions directing capital towards electric vehicle-based solutions without also investing in alternative modes. Promoting electric vehicles should be a complementary policy to a larger solution focused on reducing individual VMT and increasing transportation options for a more sustainable and resilient regional transportation system. Maintaining current single occupancy vehicle usage is in no way sustainable, even if fossil fuels are removed from the equation. While electric vehicles are the easier solution, there is a fundamental need for a behavior shift in how we travel day to day that cannot be addressed through a simple change of fuel source.



  1. From our class discussion, I understand that high VMT and congestion are bad for public health, and over-reliance on cars is an equity issue, but can you expand on what makes those things "unsustainable," especially if the EVs in question are run on renewable energy? It seems to me that neither high VMT or congestion are intrinsically bad for the environment - it's the vehicles we use that make them that way.

  2. Aside from the energy source, and whether alternative sources are all that renewable, there is also the infrastructure dedicated based on VMT and congestion. With high levels of VMT and congestion there will continue to be pushes for expanding capacity and it will be very difficult to remove any infrastructure already in place. This means more impermeable surfaces, more natural areas converted to roads and highways, and less density. As the population continues to grow and urbanize, we will need to find a way to reduce VMT and congestion based on these factors even if we can solve the air pollution issues.

    1. Michael (A)-

      I appreciate your blog and subsequent response - I don't understand the shortsightedness of embracing PEV or EV for the reduced emissions benefits while choosing to not acknowledge the drawbacks: increased numbers of vehicles and congestion and all its impacts.
      As an aside - I wonder if the initial locations for PEV: Portland, Austin, Seattle, etc. were selected to give the programs a certain youth street-cred. Meaning if these programs were initiated in a less hip city: Detroit, Buffalo, St. louis, etc. would we see them for what they really are - car rental companies that have essentially re-branded their product to a younger demographic, while managing to purchase and advertise in the public ROW in the heart of the city(s) - oh, but they're electric.


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