Electric Vehicles Are No Silver Bullet—Transportation Fixes Must Go Further
"Expanding mass transit, walking, and cycling in addition to electrifying a reduced, right-sized U.S. EV fleet can improve people’s health and mobility, avoid bottlenecks and broaden political support for the global green transition."
The U.S. faces a critical juncture for the decarbonization of its transportation system.Will zero emissions transportation be an electrified status quo, with ever more massive electric SUVs stuck in traffic on highways connecting sprawling metropolitan regions? Or will it diverge from car dependency to take the form of e-bikes and e-buses zipping around denser, more walkable cities and suburbs?
The urgency of eliminating emissions from the transportation sector, the number one source of U.S. carbon emissions, intensifies with every day of inaction. But too often, electric vehicles (EVs) are presented as a silver bullet solution—stymieing more creative frameworks for getting people where they need to go and protecting communities and ecosystems from potentially avoidable mining, all while rapidly achieving zero emissions goals.
Expanding mass transit, walking, and cycling in addition to electrifying a reduced, right-sized U.S. EV fleet can improve people's health and mobility, avoid bottlenecks, and broaden political support for the global green transition.
We face the possibility of slowing progress to meet emissions targets under the greenwashed guise of electrifying increasingly super-sized vehicles.
An insistence on embedding current levels of reliance on personal vehicles in our future transportation system has driven eye-raising projections for global lithium demand and a rush to permit, mine, and process as quickly as possible. The International Energy Agency recently predicted lithium demand to rise over 40 times by 2040, outpacing demand for other so-called "critical minerals," ratcheting up tensions around the geopolitics of supply and the threatened harms of mining — including loss of habitats for species like the sage grouse in Nevada and threats to the health of the world's oldest and driest desert in Chile.
Meanwhile, policymakers are sending mixed messages about pathways to zero-emission transportation. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) doubled down heavily on EVs, neglecting to subsidize e-bikes or mass transit, while the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included relatively more funding for non-car mobility options like trains and buses.
In January, the Biden administration released its U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, which includes a vision for more robust public transportation, cycling and walking infrastructure, reconnecting neighborhoods cut off by highways and major investments in inter-city rail—but without the funding needed to make it a reality. Days after its release, President Biden proclaimed himself a "car guy," touting the electrification of the American road trip from inside an electric Hummer—which is not even eligible for the IRA's EV tax credit, as it currently exceeds the law's $80,000 limit.
Under any scenario, passenger EVs are a crucial part of eliminating emissions from transportation. But we face the possibility of slowing progress to meet emissions targets under the greenwashed guise of electrifying increasingly super-sized vehicles. EV batteries in the U.S. are twice as large as they were a decade ago, and already almost double the global norm.
This trend is concerning for multiple reasons. The weight of the Ford F-150 Lightning EV is "2,000 and 3,000 pounds heavier than the non-electric version," posing safety risks to pedestrians and other drivers. Electric SUVs also divert raw materials to extremely inefficient use within the conditions of a currently constrained market, thus potentially undermining the electrification of the vehicle fleet as a whole.
Meanwhile, the electrification of U.S. transportation will massively increase the demand for electricity while the urgent transition to a fossil-free electricity grid is still underway, increasing the scale of that challenge. And this is not even accounting for the economic cost or carbon footprint of building and maintaining the expanded roads, highways, and parking lots required of a car-centric society.
Instead of this, a future that ensures more access to e-transit, cycling, and walking alongside EV adoption would not only grant people more affordable options for getting around, it would also be safer for pedestrians and faster at slashing emissions from this polluting sector.Public and active transit tends to be a dramatically more energy-efficient method of getting people around; increasing shares of travel happening by these modes will alleviate pressure on the grid and hasten decarbonization. Reductions in car dependence would also make EV adoption more affordable for consumers. While demand for minerals like lithium shoots up, mines can take more than a decade to become operational, leading to rising prices for lithium-ion batteries—already the most expensive component of EVs.
Smaller batteries would make zero-emissions transportation—including EV adoption—more affordable. Sustained investment in mass transit systems throughout the country instead of further subsidizing individual car ownership would improve access to transit, pedestrian safety, and better air quality.
A less car-dependent future would reduce pressure on global supply chains and on the landscapes being explored for battery minerals.
At the other end of the supply chain, "critical minerals" are fast becoming geopolitical flashpoints and chokepoints of supply chain vulnerability.A less car-dependent future would reduce pressure on global supply chains and on the landscapes being explored for battery minerals. Lithium mining, like large-scale mining in general, harms water systems, threatens biodiversity, and violates Indigenous rights to prior consultation.
In addition to ecological concerns, mining raises resistance on cultural and other land-use grounds. In the U.S., for example, 79 percent of known lithium deposits lie within 35 miles of Native American reservations; internationally. Lithium projects in the U.S. and outside its borders have failed to consult Indigenous peoples let alone garner their consent. Mining in the U.S. is largely governed by laws that have not been updated since the Gold Rush. For all these reasons, protests, lawsuits, and regulatory actions have proliferated across the lithium frontier.
First-of-its-kind research from the Climate and Community Project, which I am a member of, finds that reducing EV dependency and size in the United States can significantly lower demand for lithium, help manage the current rush for minerals in the energy transition, reduce impacts on frontline communities and ecosystems and prevent violent resource conflicts. Compared to the most car-dependent scenarios, the most ambitious policies including best-case recycling could reduce U.S. lithium demand in 2050 by 92 percent. These findings represent an early step towards bridging conversations between transit justice advocates and environmental and Indigenous advocates on the global frontlines of mining. Some of the changes we propose are already afoot: e-bikes, which use 40 times less lithium than EVs, are incredibly popular, with their sales outpacing EVs, a trend that could accelerate as morecities and statessubsidize them. Generational change helps, too: younger Americans are increasingly hesitant to purchase cars, for economic and environmental reasons, preferring to live in walkable cities with mass transit access.
The climate crisis is well underway for communities across the world. Our collective response to it cannot be limited by existing infrastructure; we have to think more critically and creatively about the systems that we want to build to serve generations to come. The current moment demands action that aligns climate, transit, and Indigenous justice through a transformative rethinking of the energy transition that emphasizes benefits for communities and ecosystems most impacted by the climate crisis.