In terms of mobility, 2021 could be called the year of the electric vehicle (EV). It is not only because of the soaring valuations of electric car companies, including some that haven’t even gone into mass production. Something “electric” is flowing through the optimistic veins of car and other mobility enthusiasts globally, and the optimism is growing as we progress deeper into 2021.
With the unveiling of the Biden administration’s “transformational” infrastructure plan, it appears the EV industry will continue to grow. The plan, as currently written, offers more rebates and tax incentives (currently $174 billion to EVs), including sales rebates and tax credits for consumers and industry incentives. Through grants and incentive programs for state and local governments, as well as the private sector, Biden’s plan also calls for expanding into a national network of at least 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030 (compared to the more than 100,000 gas stations currently in the United States). Once completed, the charging stations should reduce some of the “range anxiety” EV owners and potential owners have.
Notwithstanding the hype surrounding the EV industry, it needs this boost to expand ownership. Despite rapid growth in recent years, just two percent of the new car market and one percent of all vehicles on the roads are EVs. Higher cost, lack of inventory in the used market, and range anxiety are all reasons for their slow adoption. However, 2021 could be the beginning of the tipping point for EVs to eventually overtake gas-powered vehicles, thanks to Biden’s EV monetary incentives, the proper infrastructure build (a key ingredient in the adoption of new technology), and more conscientious purchasers.
Gas-powered vehicles were once also too expensive to own by the masses. But, thanks primarily to Henry Ford’s Model T, which began production in 1908, automobiles soon became affordable for the general populace. Mass adoption of the automobile facilitated other societal impacts, including the very early roots of suburbanization and significant influence on U.S. infrastructure policy and development. Since the 1950s, U.S. infrastructure has been primarily developed for personal vehicles rather than any other mode of transportation. Once EVs become more affordable, what was once a tepid adoption because of costs and range anxiety, may eventually be a doubling-down of the primary method of transportation in the United States: the personal vehicle (albeit a cleaner one). Indeed, in 2020, more Americans purchased lower-priced used cars, and automakers reported a higher number of first-time new car buyers, which some believe are being purchased by people that may have otherwise taken the bus or other form of transit.
Much like the initial wave of suburban development that began in the baby boomers’ formative years and continued to surge as they raised their own children, the current expansion—and potential explosion—of suburban development will likely be led by two current pivotal generations: millennials and Generation Z. Many among these generations are unable to afford to live in larger cities with mass transit. They are moving to suburbs and more rural areas, reversing the trend of the return to big cities in the earlier half of the 2010s. With millennials and Gen Z being more conscious of the negative impacts of climate change, a surge in EV purchases seems inevitable, especially if Biden’s infrastructure plan is adopted by Congress. The trend bodes well for suburbs that are only a relatively short commute away from cities with successful corporate businesses. That being said, more EVs would lead to more cars on the road, worsening traffic jams and evening commutes (if the work-from-home movement reverses course and the majority of workers return to the typical 9-5 workday).
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If there are any downsides to EVs, it is that they do not help with the sorely lacking transportation diversification (i.e., walking, biking, public transit, ridesharing) needed for the places where multiple generations live to thrive in the future. The dangers of climate change are urgent (as anyone living in California, Texas, and other states recently impacted by severe weather events can attest to), but so are other effects of personal vehicle dependency. The ills of more cars on the road, albeit “cleaner” cars, can include longer commute times, explosive growth without the proper infrastructure, and potential increases in car accidents.
Wholesale changes to infrastructure policy and development are needed, coupled with mindset shifts, for meaningful and safe transportation diversification to become ubiquitous. For example, drive-through restaurants (which have fared incredibly well during the Covid-19 pandemic and are not likely to disappear anytime soon) should allow for bikes/e-vehicles and walk-up counter windows. Likewise, implementation of technologically advanced crosswalks that can sense when people are walking or biking in the streets and prolong red lights would make streets safer. Subsidies and other tax credits should be allowed for e-bikes/scooters, which should be treated on equal footing with other cycles rather than banned in certain cities as is currently the case in parts of the South Bay of Los Angeles. And ridesharing incentives should be focused on expanding their use and availability rather than wholesale attacks on driver flexibility by reclassification of employment status. Without help, there will be a lack of transportation diversification and simply more of the same: unsustainable traffic and streets that are unfriendly to pedestrians.
But there is hope for real dollars being put toward transportation diversification: Biden’s infrastructure plan also calls on Congress to invest approximately $85 billion to modernize existing transit. The hope is that after the Covid-19 pandemic, a return to work at offices in cities will bring transportation demand back to pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps, if a modern transit system is built, the riders will come, and the inevitable traffic woes will dissipate. Of course, the future of cities and mass transit remains murky, as the long-term impacts of the pandemic and the work-from-home movement will be unknown for several years. But at least there is hope.