When we talk about cars — and transportation in general — we have to recognize that the benefits they offer are real, and that the solutions proffered by some environmentalists aren’t universally applicable or practical.
For example, the admonition to “just use a bike instead” only works if you:
- Are fit and healthy enough to use a bike
- It’s safe and reasonable to use a bike
- You can afford the extra time it takes to get to destinations
- The weather conditions are reasonable
A single mother suffering from asthma, living in a smoggy city with long winters, is probably not going to be able to cycle to work very often, if at all. (To say nothing of bicycle theft being a very real problem!)
At the other end of the spectrum, driving electric is definition an option open to more people than ever before. It’s still fairly expensive to buy in, though, and again, it’s not universally available. And depending on how your local power supply is generated, it might not be the greenest option available… yet.
So, let’s go over what you can do to be greener on the transportation front.
Easy and Cheap
The first recourse is simply: do it less! You can use your existing vehicles less often by:
- Grouping errands and trips and not giving into the temptation to just “run out for something”
- Changing up your standard routes. Are there ways to get where you’re going that are even slightly shorter? Involve less idling? Remember the law of numbers. Even if you only cut a couple of minutes off a trip, if it’s one you’re always making, those few minutes add up to significant savings over time.
- Skipping the drive thru. Unless your vehicle is newer and shuts off to avoid idling, you spew a lot of pollution (and waste a lot of money in gas over time) grabbing that morning coffee. Park and go in, or make something to go at home.
- Take public transit when you can
- And yes, walk or bike when you can
- Carpool when you can — including with your life partner. Two-vehicle families have become the norm, and you might not actually need two.
When it’s Time to Replace the Car
- Buy only what you need. Take a hard look at how you actually use your existing vehicle. How many people do you have in it at any given time? How much cargo do you routinely transport? Where do you drive it? We get sold based on things like off-road capability and towing capacity, but what do we really do with our cars? Probably go back and forth — alone — to work and the grocery store. Worse, we pay through the nose for all that unused capacity: in gas bills, insurance bills, maintenance bills, and yes, the environmental cost. Remember: you can always rent a vehicle for special needs or trips!
- Buy used. With stricter quality control processes and inspections for emissions standards, there are fewer “beaters” or “lemons” on the road these days, and you should be able to find a reliable used vehicle. There’s no need to continue to fuel the demand for “new, new, new!” while perfectly viable cars sit around in lots. You’ll save on the overall purchase price, on interest costs if you’re financing, and insurance as well.
- Buy based on best mileage for the class.
- Buy hybrid. If electric is not yet an option for you, then do go hybrid, as there’s really no reason not to these days. Yes, they’ll feel a bit different to drive at first, but you’ll get used to it soon enough — especially when you can make a tank of gas last for much, much longer. Incidentally, you’ll be able to get better prices for gas because your window to refill is so much longer.
Do Take a Look at Electric
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I personally drive electric, and have done so since 2017.
If you haven’t considered electric before now, you should. And when I say consider, I mean: talk to actual electric vehicle (EV) owners (or lurk in their online forums), read about the vehicle specs, take a few different models for a test drive.
I say this because there is a lot of old information and/or deliberate misinformation about EVs online. I get it: new technology can make you feel uncertain, we have a culture that celebrates gas powered vehicles, and oil and gas companies aren’t going to go down without a fight. Here’s a list of common objections/myths about EVs.
We don’t have the charging infrastructure yet
Depending on where you live, you might be surprised. Take a look at the Plugshare app, and look at the Tesla supercharger network. Charging stations are popping up all over the place. You can have a charger installed in your garage, and some vehicles just use a standard plug to power up from your house supply. Charging stations are also appearing at malls, and in some locations in apartment or condo parking garages.
The range is no good
As of this writing, a Tesla Model 3 has a range of 353 miles or 560 kilometers. The American Driving Survey says that the average person drives about 29 miles a day.
They’re no good in the cold
It’s true that battery performance is affected by the cold. You can temporarily lose a fair amount of potential range when temperatures plummet. However, given what I noted above about total available range vs average range actually driven, there’s still a lot of margin. You can also do things like warm up the car before your trip, recharge at one end, and use the seat heater to stay nice and toasty (rather than more inefficient cabin heat). Consider this: Norway has the highest market penetration of electric vehicles per capita in the world, and also has the world’s largest plug-in segment market share of new car sales, 74.7% in 20201. They know from cold in Norway.
They take too long to charge
For the most part, you will be plugging your vehicle in overnight, or while you’re doing something else (like shopping at the mall). On longish road trips, you’re going to want to stop for coffee, bathroom breaks, meals and leg stretches anyways. A little bit of planning takes care of both things at once. The actual charge time will depend on the charger and the car. Older models of both will take longer; my car takes about 45 minutes to get to near total capacity on the supercharger network. Newer generation fast chargers and batteries can get to 80% capacity in about 15 minutes.
They’re not actually greener
This is a common myth. Although it’s true that a new electric vehicle and a new fossil fuel car both incur carbon footprints to manufacture them, a fossil fuel car will emit pollutants for it’s whole life. Where the electrical grid is “clean,” the electric vehicle doesn’t go on to emit more pollutants. A battery recycling infrastructure is developing as more and more EVs are on the road too.
Child labour and mining pollution
In social media comments, you quite often see claims about child labour with respect to EV battery components like lithium and cobalt, which come from mines. Strangely, these arguments are typically used to argue against EVs by people who are posting comments with devices that use lithium-ion batteries. Or who are unaware that cobalt is used in the desulfurization of oil. This is why I recommend reading original sources, not getting your information from social media.
Child labour and pollution are definitely things to be concerned about, however, and we should definitely push international governments to enforce existing laws on such things in every industry. EV manufacturers have also made efforts to source their elements from responsible regions.
The price to performance ratio has definitely been on the high side… until recently. As more and more people have gone EV, the price has come down, while performance has gone up. There may also be government rebates available in your region, so check that out.