Electrical Cars Won’t Save Our Environment – Density Can

Electric cars alone will not save us. 

Yes, they are much better than regular, fossil fuel-burning cars, but even if we replaced every single car in the world with an electric car, it wouldn’t save us. We must drastically reduce car usage in our daily lives.

It is hard to get rid of your car when you live in a single-family house in the suburbs, especially when there isn’t much to walk or bike to. It is hard to get rid of your car when you have to commute an hour each way to work in downtown because you can’t afford a single-family home near downtown. It is hard to get rid of your car when you have a family and you have to drop your kids off at daycare or school, go to work, run errands during lunch, pick up the kids, and go home. Especially if your daycare or school are nowhere near your home or your office. 

This is where upzoning and increased density come into play as a solution to help people either reduce their car usage or get rid of their cars entirely. I’m not saying that single-family homes should be banned or that people shouldn’t be allowed to build them. I’m simply saying that we should allow for a variety of uses all across the city – so that you can live, work, and have your kids go to school or daycare, all within a 15 minute walk or bicycle ride in your neighborhood.

Research strongly correlates increased density with decreased carbon emissions. As one example of this research, Paul Hawken created Drawdown, a comprehensive list of specific actions that we can focus on to reduce carbon emissions by 1,034.75 gigatons by 2050.

On that list:

  • Electric vehicles are #26:  “If EV ownership rises to 16 percent of total passenger miles by 2050, 10.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide from fuel combustion could be avoided.” 
  • Walkable cities is #54: “As cities become denser and city planners, commercial enterprises, and residents invest in the “6Ds,” 5 percent of trips currently made by car can be made by foot instead by 2050. That shift could result in 2.9 gigatons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions and reduce costs associated with car ownership by $3.3 trillion.” 
  • If we invest in bike infrastructure (#59) at the same time: “We assume a rise from 5.5 percent to 7.5 percent of urban trips globally by 2050, displacing 2.2 trillion passenger-miles traveled by conventional modes of transportation and avoiding 2.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. By building bike infrastructure rather than roads, municipal governments, and taxpayers can realize $400 billion in savings over thirty years and $2.1 trillion in lifetime savings.”  
  • Finally, if we also invest in mass transportation at the same time (#37):  “Use of mass transit is projected to decline from 37 percent of urban travel to 21 percent as the low-income world gains wealth. If use grows instead to 40 percent of urban travel by 2050, this solution can save 6.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions from cars.” 

By investing in these three solutions while also investing in electric vehicles, we could save roughly 11.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions – more than the 10.8 gigatons from electric vehicles alone. By investing in all four solutions at the same time, we could save roughly 22.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. 

How do we go about increasing density within our city? One of the easiest ways to create a more walkable and environmentally friendly city is to legalize fourplex buildings on every single lot- that is, buildings with at least four units. Again, this is not banning single-family homes – just making it possible to build a fourplex anywhere in the city where single-family homes are also allowed. 

In one hypothetical, Michael Anderson had three imaginary homes torn down on one block and rebuilt as three new single-family homes; on another block, those same single-family homes were torn down and replaced with a fourplex, a duplex, and a triplex. He found that “the housing-related carbon emissions per household of the Plex Block will be about 20 percent lower” than the block with the three new single-family homes. This is because the units inside the duplex, triplex, and fourplex are smaller than the single-family home units – so the spaces in the unit are being used more efficiently; there aren’t as many empty rooms being heated and cooled even when no one is using them. Another researcher from the Sightline Institute found that “boosting the number of homes on residential blocks by one third (as on the Plex Block) correlates with a drop of about 1,000 miles driven per year per household.” This is because denser blocks will typically attract local shops within walking distance, frequent bus lines, reliable ride-sharing – but would probably attract protected bicycle infrastructure and micro mobility options as well, simply because there would be more people who could take advantage of these benefits. 

Increasing density has the added benefit of supporting robust and high-quality mass transportation as well. According to Capital Metro, residential densities of 16 persons per acre within a quarter mile of bus lines are a good minimum baseline for transit-supportive dense neighborhoods. For employment, their guidelines call for densities of eight employees per acre. Remember, we have to invest in mass transportation in addition to walkable neighborhoods if we want to save roughly 22.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions (though more is better!) by 2050. 

I imagine a world in which I can choose to live near my office – because the neighborhoods have an abundance of fourplexes or apartment buildings nearby – within a 15 minute walk. I can walk to and from work in 15 minutes every day, which saves me two car trips every day. Because my home and my office are located near a grocery store, I can also choose to shop more often, buying less groceries, and walk to and from the grocery store, saving two car trips. My home and office are also located near a bus line, which I can use to get downtown or to other places to see friends, run errands, or go out on the town, saving me car trips. Even better, because I live on such a dense block, I know several people in my neighborhood who have become my friends and I can walk to their homes to visit them or baby-sit their kids if needed. My neighborhood also has doctors’ offices, shopping, gyms, parks, activities, and other important facets of life – or easy access to those things, whether through robust public transportation or protected bicycle infrastructure. 

Electric vehicles are a solution, but cannot be the ONLY solution. We must allow more people to live on smaller areas of land. We need to allow people to reduce their carbon footprint by living in smaller homes and living in walkable and transit-rich neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a single-family home and have a yard they have to maintain; have empty rooms that are being wastefully heated and cooled; or have a car that needs to be maintained in order to commute because there is a lack of high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure. We should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the effects of climate change. We need to change for a future that will impact us all. Continuing our current culture of sprawling land use, which enables car dominance and carbon emissions, will only accelerate our headlong rush into our terrifying future. 

For additional research on why density is so important for fighting climate change, check out this comprehensive report by Environment Texas.