Big Bets and Tailpipe Dreams
Longtime readers of Strong Towns can already spot several problems with the article’s thesis. I want to highlight three.
1. Big Bets
Let’s start with the wisdom of supposedly wagering the future of the planet on how quickly car companies can develop EVs and how quickly consumers will start buying them. I’m skeptical of any solution that begins with “Buy something,” but especially so here, considering the barriers to entry for many would-be consumers: lack of charging stations, long recharging times, short driving ranges, and high price tags. Welch mentions all these. He also talks about the raw materials involved in making EVs. Some of these materials are obtained at high cost to humans and nature, and many are refined overseas in China. In addition to future lithium shortages already predicted by many experts, I can’t help but think about how the pandemic has revealed—with everything from toilet paper and PPE, to, ahem, new cars—just how fragile the global supply chain is.
I’m not saying car companies shouldn’t be pouring their R&D dollars into electric vehicles in the hopes of expanding markets. What I’m saying is that if you believe climate change represents an existential threat, putting all our chips down on future technology—and people’s ability to buy it—is unwise. This is the ultimate huge, irreversible project we warn about in the Strong Towns approach.
2. A Greener Commute
The “dream of a cleaner commute” is alive in Portland…and probably in your city, as well. Transportation is the single-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and the second-largest in Canada. Not only is climate change a concern for many, so, too, is air quality. Air pollution increases the risks of cancer, asthma attacks, and other respiratory problems, and it can lead to premature death. But is waiting—for the price of EVs to come down, say, or for more charging stations—the best plan we can come up with for cleaning our commutes?
The good news: We can get cleaner commutes right now by building cities that are walkable and bikeable. What if commuting by car or truck wasn’t an absolute necessity for so many people? What’s greener and cleaner than being able to walk, bike, or roll to work or school? Walkable, bikeable places are more economically productive, too. As summarized by my colleague Rachel Quednau, people-oriented streets encourage business activity, are more financially productive per acre, and provide a better return on investment. And that leads me to my next point…
3. Last-Mile Logistics
In his article, Sam Welch interviews an engineer and entrepreneur named Robert Scaringe. Scaringe is the founder of Rivian, a 12-year-old company now valued at $28 billion. In addition to making its own electric trucks and SUVs—starting at $67,500 and $70,000, respectively—Rivian has a deal to make 100,000 electric delivery vehicles for Amazon. “Fifteen years ago,” Scaringe told Welch, “if we wanted bananas, we’d go to the store. If I wanted new shoes, I’d drive to the store.” Welch continues:
Now, deliveries bring books and meals and groceries and shoes to our door. Others make trips for us. In that, Scaringe sees an opportunity. What if he could switch a fleet of delivery trucks to EVs? “You may, as a customer, not yet choose to electrify on your personal vehicle. But because you’re handing over a lot of your last-mile logistics, you now are going to be electrifying whether you realize it or not.”
Here again, I want to be clear. I don’t have a problem converting delivery fleets to electric. What I’m saying is that, unless we change the development pattern of our cities, electric delivery trucks will be no more than a green Band-Aid over a much larger wound for our communities. The most environmentally friendly thing we can do is also the most economically friendly: start building neighborhoods again where people can work, play, gather, worship, and do much of their shopping close to home. What if the “last mile” was the actual mile it takes to get from your house to a grocery store or corner store, a great local bookshop, or a beloved restaurant?
Sam Welch in National Geographic says that it’s hard to argue we’re witnessing anything other than a revolution. We’ve reached a tipping point: electric vehicles are coming, they’re coming fast (but maybe not fast enough?), and they’re coming everywhere…eventually. Not only is that point hard to argue, I hope Welch is right: I want the vehicles on the road to be electric vehicles.
But there’s another revolution too, one we get to help grow here at Strong Towns. It’s the “bottom-up revolution” to build more prosperous, more economically resilient—and, yes, greener—cities. “The most immediate and radical thing we can do to rapidly cut emissions is to replace automobile trips with biking and walking,” Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn wrote last month. “That this is exactly what cities must do to address their massive insolvency crisis only increases the overlap in the Venn Diagram. That a Strong Towns approach to neighborhood-focused development is also a small-business, job-creation, family-first, quality-of-life agenda is serendipity environmental activists should lean into.”
This revolution doesn’t hinge on the outcome of one huge bet. Rather, it is built on many small steps, and a relentless cycle of observation and practical problem-solving.
This revolution isn’t on hold until we get more advanced technologies or better ideas. In fact, it seeks to draw humbly from the wisdom of our city-building ancestors.
This revolution isn’t on standby for billions of dollars in infrastructure money that may never materialize. As Chuck said just a couple days ago, the fate of the infrastructure bill “matters far less to your future than what you and your neighbors choose to do in your own community.”
This revolution is well underway, and it’s made up of thousands of people just like you.
So sure, save up for Tesla if you want…and hope that all your neighbors are doing the same. But in the meantime, keep doing what you can to build your Strong Town. Because building a Strong Town is good not only for the present but for the future, and not only for one city’s bottom line…but for the health of the planet we all share.