COVID-19 upended our daily lives and shifted our relationship to transportation, although we don’t yet know how trends that started during the pandemic will play out. Will people forsake public transit for cars? Will street closures continue, creating more permanent space for walking, biking, and outdoor restaurants? Will work-from-home continue to be the norm, cutting down on commuting hours—and emissions—in the process?
Greenhouse gas emissions dropped 17% at the height of the coronavirus crisis, but in order to harness that, major changes will need to be enacted. One of the most significant ways to accomplish that is by electrifying the two primary types of vehicles on city streets: cars and buses.
In most cities, transportation is the first or second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the major cause of air pollution. Rapidly electrifying transportation could dramatically decrease both. In my new book, Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change, I present a broad array of strategies that cities in Europe and the United States are employing to make this transition.
The two most obvious are building out a charging infrastructure that replaces carbon-based electricity with renewable sources and subsidizing purchases of electric vehicles. Many cities in the U.S. and Europe are currently working to address the first. As for the second, I recently argued that the next economic-recovery package is an opportunity to resume subsidies for electric vehicles, and I advocated for policies that are geared more toward low- and moderate-income buyers. In the meantime, here are some tangible ways that cities can start transitioning to electric now.
Transition bus fleets
For most U.S. cities, buses are the only means of public transit. And about 90% of them are diesel. Transitioning these buses (along with school buses) to electric would dramatically decrease the amount of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter that creates a health threat to urban dwellers.
Los Angeles began phasing out diesel buses in 2011, and in July 2017, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency committed to moving its entire bus fleet to zero-tailpipe emissions by 2030. There’s been a lot of trial and error, but Mayor Eric Garcetti, the city council, and MTA leaders agree that it’s important for L.A. to serve as a test bed to perfect the technology. Starting in 2019, the MTA is purchasing about 19 electric buses a year and is investing in the charging stations to support them.
In September 2019, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Agency approved a budget for purchasing 500 new zero-emission, all-electric buses. King County’s Metro, which serves the Seattle metropolitan areas, also has been testing electric buses, and in January it committed to purchasing 120 battery-electric buses by 2021.
At $1.3 million each, these buses cost about $200,000 more than the diesel hybrids currently in use, but the hope is that lower fuel and operating costs will cancel out the higher price over time. Some cities report savings in fuel costs as high as 80%. Studies suggest that electric buses save $125,000 in avoided maintenance over their lifetime and that the combined fuel and maintenance costs are about $50,000 less per year than for diesel buses.
Transition taxi fleets
Taxis are also a significant source of pollution in cities. Transitioning taxis to compressed natural gas or hybrids helps, but it isn’t enough. New York City’s 2005-2006 Clean Air Taxi Ordinance required that 9% of new licenses be for hybrid cars or those that run on natural gas. It has reduced emissions of nitric oxide and total particulate matter by 82% and 49%, respectively, and has more than doubled the fuel efficiency of the fleet to 33.1 miles per gallon. But if cities are to reduce carbon emissions, taxis have to be part of the electrification strategy.
London is rapidly transitioning its iconic black taxis to electric. The goal was to have 9,000 of its 24,000-car fleet be zero-emission-capable by 2020 (although it is reportedly unlikely that the city will hit that target). Already there are 2,450 hybrid-electric taxis operating, and in October 2019, the first all-electric taxis started service. With these diesel-fueled taxis accounting for 18% of city traffic, electrifying them will have noticeable effects on air pollution. The city’s transit agency provides grants to decommission older taxis and subsidize purchases of EV taxis. The city is also installing 50-kilowatt fast-charging stations capable of filling an average battery to 80% power in 30 minutes, so taxi drivers don’t have to spend a lot of idle time charging.
The Dutch government, meanwhile, is offering a €10,000 subsidy per car to three taxi companies serving Schiphol, the country’s main airport. At the end of 2018, the government announced 70% of the million taxi rides from the airport that year were in Teslas. It’s all part of Schiphol’s plan, with support and funding from the Amsterdam municipality, to become one of the world’s most sustainable airports.
Amsterdam is making sure electric taxis take hold by giving them priority in the taxi lines at the city’s Central Station and negotiating an agreement with the licensed taxi organizations that increases the percentage of emission-free taxis entering the station each year, with the goal of reaching 100% in 2020. The commitment extends to buses as well. All buses serving the airport are electric, and all buses serving the City Region of Amsterdam will be zero-emission by 2025, using electricity from solar or wind power produced in the region.
U.S. cities are starting to make the transition as well. In Columbus, Ohio, the Yellow Cab fleet has 20 electric cars (out of 170 total). Meanwhile, New York City is trying to reduce the carbon that taxis emit each year. The city released a road map in 2014 to make one-third of all cabs electric by 2020. The goal hasn’t been reached, but they’re making progress. After failed attempts in 2015, New York City approved the Tesla Model 3 as the first fully electric vehicle for the city’s taxi fleet last year. This is hardly momentum, but it’s a start.
Create ultra-low-emission zones
In 2003, London instituted the world’s first congestion pricing zone, which charges vehicles a fee—which is higher during peak traffic hours—to enter much of the central city. Since 2009, EV owners have been exempted from the congestion charge. In 2014, then-mayor Boris Johnson laid the groundwork for an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) coinciding with the congestion pricing zone, in which higher-polluting vehicles are banned or required to pay a substantial fee to enter. The ULEZ was started by Mayor Sadiq Khan in April 2019. It requires all vehicles entering the zone to comply with stringent EU standards or pay a daily charge of £12.50 for smaller vehicles and £100 for heavy vehicles.
Such zones are being used by at least 200 cities throughout Europe. New York City has also discussed congestion pricing, and there are ways to implement these zones that lessen the burden for low-income people.
Incentivize electric car sharing
Los Angeles is using car sharing to make EVs available to those who can’t afford to purchase cars. In June 2017, Mayor Garcetti announced that a new carsharing program called BlueLA would begin by serving four low-income communities in Central Los Angeles. Blue LA, which is funded with $1.7 million from cap-and-trade proceeds and the California Air Resources Board, started with a demonstration station that offers community education, outreach, and test-drive events. The goal is to provide 100 EVs and 200 public charging stations to serve about 7,000 people in the area. Several community organizations are helping provide the education and outreach services. Cars can be rented from Blue LA for as little as $10 a month or 15 cents a minute. Low-income users get discounts ranging from 25% to 80%.
All these strategies are available, but they require a combination of city leadership and national funding to realize their full promise. California, as usual, leads. State laws and executive orders call for ambitious growth of charging infrastructure and sales. The goal is to have 5 million passenger electric vehicles registered in the state by 2030 and all new vehicles sold in the state to have zero tailpipe emissions by 2050. Alas, the current federal government is at odds with nearly all of the Golden State’s green policies. So, for now, momentum has to be driven by the states. Perhaps when more states see the jobs and economic development that California’s leadership on this issue has brought the state, they too will go electric.
Adapted from Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change, by Joan Fitzgerald. Copyright © 2020 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of Urban and Public Policy at Northeastern University. She focuses on urban climate action and the connections between urban climate action, equity, and economic development and innovation. In addition, she examines how climate action can create opportunity for revitalization of low-income communities.