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Electric cars can be great – but only if you’re being charged fairly for electricity. (Image: Getty / Additional design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONSummer 2022January 11, 2023

Electric cars won’t save us

an electric car that is blue with a red superhero cape
Electric cars can be great – but only if you’re being charged fairly for electricity. (Image: Getty / Additional design: Archi Banal)

Summer read: The EV revolution does precisely nothing to combat the motorways strangling our cities and encouraging urban sprawl, argues Hayden Donnell.

First published September 23, 2022

At the end of this year’s Burning Man, nearly 80,000 people staggered out of a carefully constructed utopia into the harsh reality of modern American life. They’d spent eight days exchanging gifts for food, experiencing psychedelic hallucinations, and contracting Covid-19, but the fun was over. They had to get home. Their problem was that the Burning Man campsite, Black Rock City, is in the middle of the desert, a famously unpopular destination for public transport. Unless they were Elon Musk or a Winkelvii, there was really no option but to drive.

Organisers had built a 14 lane highway for the resulting exodus. It wasn’t nearly enough. The traffic jam could be seen from space. 

Slow exit from Utopia: the Burning Man superhighway of 2022. (Photo: supplied)

Lately a series of commentators have taken to the pages of the Herald to put forward the Burning Man mega-jam as a vision for Aotearoa’s future. In a piece headlined “Government has declared war on our cars, National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown railed against the government’s goal of enticing people out of their vehicles. “We need to reduce emissions, but the way to do that is by replacing petrol cars with EVs, not by launching a crusade against cars,” he wrote.

His former colleague, the newly appointed Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief Simon Bridges, agreed, claiming the “greatest opportunity for progress lies with decarbonisation of the vehicle fleet”, and “this must be prioritised ahead of efforts to get Aucklanders out of their cars”. 

Longtime commentator and John Key biographer John Roughan said Auckland mayoral candidate Wayne Brown clinched his vote by saying he would tell Auckland Transport to “serve the way we live, not change the way we live”.

“Seldom have I heard a candidate for any public office these days challenge so succinctly the notion that the only possible response to climate change is to give up things we like, especially motorised personal transport,” Roughan wrote.

The common theme is that chipping away at car dependency is pointless. Electric cars, they say, will save us. None of these writers back up their assertions with any hard evidence, likely because they’re built on a foundation of pure reckon and constructed mostly out of uncut magical thinking.

Electric cars won’t save us. The most optimistic government estimates project that 30% of New Zealand’s vehicle fleet will be electric by 2035. If, in the words of Brown, the “emissions are the problem”, then electric vehicles are unlikely to make a profound dent on those numbers alone.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Just like their petrol-powered predecessors, electric cars incentivise urban sprawl. Centering our transport system entirely around them would mean paving over wetlands and riparian fields. Laying bitumen over a grove of native trees isn’t great for the climate, even if the resulting commutes are slightly more carbon efficient than before.

There are also the problems unique to EVs and their batteries: the health hazards and waste, the poisoned water in parts of South America, the potential birth defects in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Then there are the deaths to consider. Electrified SUVs and light trucks are heavier than their petrol-powered counterparts, making them much better for mowing down an unsuspecting pedestrian while checking TikTok.

If that’s not enough, we just don’t have space. This is what the Burning Man traffic jam would look like if it was all electric vehicles.

Here’s a data model of what a future version of Auckland will look like if we keep up our current level of driving, and just switch out petrol and diesel for electricity.

The Herald’s contributors say we need to plunge headlong into that future anyway because New Zealanders love their cars and that’s not going to change. Roughan spells it out plainly. “Like Wayne Brown, I don’t do ‘visions’,” he says. “I just notice what people like to do and believe the function of government is to enable them to do it as efficiently and safely as possible.” 

These commentators will be devastated to learn that transport engineers have always manipulated our choices, and our reliance on cars is their grandest and most enduring social experiment. If they’d been writing in 1950, they might have said Aucklanders love their trams. Back then, residents took 100 million trips on the city’s electric tram network every year, or 258 each on average.

That changed with the tabling of a document called the Master Transport Plan in 1955. It proposed a state-of-the-art new motorway system for Auckland, alongside pictures of figure 8 interchanges in Indiana and eight-lane highways in California. In the following years, the city’s tram tracks were ripped up, the suburb of Grafton Gully was bulldozed, and the Central Motorway Junction was built over its remains. Similar processes happened across the country.

The reason we appear to love our cars is because we usually have no other way of getting around. Our relationship with them is less like love, and more like Stockholm Syndrome*. For 70 years, we’ve been locked in the Sisyphean cycle prescribed by Roughan, where our planners have noted people tend to drive, and provided for more of the same, until nearly all our transport investment and space has been devoted to one mode. But just like releasing better iPhones gets more people using iPhones, building roads entices more people to drive. The new lanes fill up. We build more, and every time we do, people get hurt or shunted out of our public realm. 

In the late ’70s, 20% of children cycled to school. Today that figure is around 2 or 3%. Auckland’s population is set to grow to roughly 2.5 million by 2050, and its roads are already clogged. To cater for that growth with electric cars alone, we’d need to widen many of them to something akin to the Burning Man superhighway, further forcing children, the disabled, and anyone who can’t drive away from the streets, along with killing people, causing pollution, and still not solving our congestion issues.

Other cities saw this destructive pattern, and made different choices. In Amsterdam a formerly car-clogged city has been transformed. More recently, Paris has undergone the same process

Commentators like Roughan have always opposed our half-hearted efforts to echo these cities’ moves. The Northern Busway is perhaps the most successful transit project in Auckland’s history, transporting up to 50% of all commuters across the Harbour Bridge at peak times. When it was built, Roughan cast doubt on it. He had also scorned the idea that people would use park and rides. In 2018 the Herald ran a campaign to increase their capacity because they were too full. The construction of Britomart saw rail journeys jump hugely, far ahead of projections. Roughan had predicted it would be an economic disaster. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that if planners had done the opposite of what Roughan proposed for the last 50 years, many of our worst transport issues would be solved.

At least Britomart and the busway went ahead. In his piece this week, Roughan briefly mentions our biggest transport mistake, noting that 50 years ago he covered council meetings where planners proposed railway lines fed by buses, and light rail in the western isthmus. He’s likely talking about mayor Dove Meyer Robinson’s proposal for a rapid rail network, which would have seen trains running every three minutes in transport hubs across Auckland. Robinson’s plan was opposed by other mayors and eventually scuttled by Robert Muldoon’s administration. Even high-ranking figures in the National Party now see that as the city’s greatest missed opportunity.

Lamenting Robbie’s Rail, aka Mayor Dove Meyer Robinson’s proposal for a rapid rail network throughout Auckland.

The next few years represent our best chance to right that wrong, and enable a new transformation of our transport network. Electric cars should be a part of that story, but not the only one. We could have electric buses everywhere. A cycle network that gives people a chance of biking past the end of their driveway without being run over by a Ford Ranger. Maybe even that elusive light rail. In the past, we’ve caved in at the point of change, opting to listen to the naysayers and status quo warriors who dominate the opinion pages of the Herald. Doing so has made our streets hostile, and left us with fewer choices. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

*Fun fact: Stockholm Syndrome is contested and likely doesn’t exist. It was invented by a misogynistic psychiatrist to discredit a kidnapping victim who criticised police.

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