The Environment Question

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There is a lot for environmentalists to like about the Strong Towns approach, but sometimes the starting point of our conversations keep us talking past each other.

I recently received an environment-related question at an event. I’ll note that some public speakers hate doing Q&A, but I love it. Answering questions forces me to think on my feet, to process ideas in real time in an increasingly high-pressure environment, especially now with cameras everywhere.

I’ve gained a lot of insight over the years from the questions I’ve been asked and I’ve surprised myself many times by what comes out of my mouth (good and bad surprises). Because I’m generally an introverted thinker, I tend to rehash answers that didn’t go as well as I hoped they would. This was one such case. I’ll paraphrase the question from memory as:

“Given the climate emergency and the urgent need to build windmills, solar panels, and other alternative energy sources, what effect is the electrification of automobiles going to have on cities and their ability to follow the Strong Towns approach?”

There were some issues with the phrasing of this question. First, it had way too many unnecessary prior assumptions, which framed the answer in a way that impacted how I processed it. Then it tied together two things—the electrification of automobiles and the Strong Towns approach—that are not at all interdependent. How do you answer such a question?

What I did was answer it poorly, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’m going to try again here because I think it is important. All of it.

The core reality is that, in the absence of any other change, the electrification of automobiles is not going to have any appreciable impact on the fiscal solvency, capacity, and prosperity of a city, town, or neighborhood. I’m sure there are places where a reduction in smog will have a noticeably positive impact on quality of life, and I don’t want to completely ignore that, but replacing gas-burning vehicles on our stroads with electric vehicles is still just vehicles driving on stroads. 

For cities that have too much road to maintain and not enough tax base, this shift does nothing to solve that problem. Likewise for people trying to cross the street on foot, bike along the edge of the roadway, or catch a bus to work. Frogger might feel better about five lanes of electric vehicles than a stroad of gas guzzlers, but he’s still Frogger.

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