COVID-19, Electric Cars, and the Life-Sized City

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12 Min Read

November 13, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled debate about how the world is changing and whether things will—or should—go back to “normal.” A popular talking point has been the pandemic’s impact on sustainability. The argument goes something like this: the extraordinary measures undertaken by governments around the world in response to the virus prove that the deep changes required to fight climate change are possible, and they can be achieved on shorter timelines than many had imagined. Given the stark challenge of reigning in greenhouse gas emissions and the apparent appetite for change among citizens whose everyday lives have been upended, now is the time to push for sustainability. Whether termed a “Green New Deal” or a “green recovery”, there seems to exist broad agreement that COVID-19 presents a green opportunity that must not be squandered.

But the pandemic has also fueled trends that run counter to a green future, especially when it comes to cities. Reports about people fleeing metropolises for smaller cities, suburbs, and the countryside have been a prominent feature of pandemic news coverage. Fear of the virus and the technological viability of remote work (for some) are said to be driving a potential movement out of crowded and expensive urban centres to more spacious and affordable pastures.

Such a large-scale dispersal of population will only be a barrier to a green recovery. More people living further apart means more automobiles and a host of other energy and resource-intensive practices.

How is it that we can be talking about a green recovery all the while intensifying sprawl? An important part of the puzzle is the electric car and the technocentric tendency it embodies.  

Most investments in energy transition, both financial and cultural, approach the problem through technology. We seem to imagine that technological innovation in the form of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars—ideally orchestrated by AI-empowered systems—will usher in a sustainable future of convenient mass consumption. After all, relying on tech innovation has been our basic approach for more than a century, and that has worked just fine, right?

This technocentric vision has serious drawbacks, as the example of electric cars makes clear. Electric car batteries rely on mined metals like lithium and nickel, and once they wear out become hazardous waste. The electricity used to power them often comes from polluting sources, as in the case of China, which leads the world in electric car adoption but generates 67% of the electricity powering those cars using coal. The mass adoption of electric cars means the manufacture of hundreds of millions of new electric vehicles in the United States alone (right now there are 1.4 million), driving up demand for electricity and non-renewable resources.  

Rather than pursuing a future of mass consumption in a different and slightly greener form, we need to make it easier for people to consume less. At the centre of that effort must be the renewal of cities, not their Tesla-powered desertion in the panic of the pandemic.

This shift entails resisting the anti-urban drift of the current crisis in order to imagine and create more sustainable and liveable cities. We might turn, for instance, to TVO’s (Ontario’s public broadcaster) documentary series The Life-Sized City, which premiered before the pandemic and explores cities as human habitats with “the potential to be healthy, attractive, interesting, and efficient.” Hosted by urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen, the series shows that the challenge of building better cities is primarily social, rather than technological, and that it means moving away from the 20th-century paradigm of cities built around private automobiles.

Rather than pursuing a future of mass consumption in a different and slightly greener form, we need to make it easier for people to consume less. At the centre of that effort must be the renewal of cities, not their Tesla-powered desertion in the panic of the pandemic.

The Life-Sized City’s 18 episodes follow citizens as they reclaim space from cars, freeways, and parking lots to scale city life to humans. The series celebrates their achievements and highlights the challenge of overcoming the reality that many cities are too expensive, too auto-centric, too ecologically parasitic, and riven by socioeconomic inequality. It dwells on urban agriculture in Paris and Hamilton, bike infrastructure in Toronto, and the social vibrancy of “deep Tokyo.” It helps us imagine what a sustainable and liveable future for cities could look like—one of lively gatherings in repurposed car parks, accessible transit, and intercultural interaction.  

The series also makes clear that continued overreliance on cars—electric or otherwise—constricts the possibilities for city life. Excessive car traffic interferes with the sociability of city streets. The many kilometres of roadways and acres of parking lots needed to store and move cars could be better used for green spaces, agriculture, housing, and other innovative forms of urban density. Freeways split communities and cut residents off from nature. Clearly, if life-sized cities are key to a sustainable future, they cannot be built around electric cars and sprawl.  

Important as it is, technology is never a panacea. What matters most is how we organize ourselves and our environments. If COVID-19 has opened a green window, it will be vital not to let the glittering allure of electric cars prevent us from remaking city life for the better.

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