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Are Electric Vehicles Leaving Mass Transit in the Shadows?

What the EV boom could mean for mass transit and sustainable cities in the U.S.

By Amy Westervelt

Jun 29, 2010

Electric vehicles or mass transit -- which option will lead to a more sustainable future? Follow the money in the U.S. and it looks like federal favoritism leans toward electric vehicles, even though improved mass transit would make the nation more competitive and cleaner. 

The allocation of federal spending in both the 2010 budget and the economic recovery act shows where the weight of current policy thinking is in the U.S. There's an allocation of $2.4 billion in stimulus funds for developing the plug-in infrastructure electric vehicles are going to need. There's also $8.3 billion available to electric vehicle manufacturers through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, and another  $30 billion for improving or building roads and bridges -- to keep them fit for automotive travel.

Mass transit, on the other hand, got a total of $13 billion. Which begs the question: Do the hype and money going into EVs equate to a commitment from the government to an automobile-dominated future?

Comparing where the recent emphasis has been on government spending in the US versus China is an eye-opening exercise. The long-term future starts to come into view. 

Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug-In America, says it doesn’t have to be an either or scenario. While greater support for mass transit, and better land use policies to make it accessible are both essential, he says the automobile isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so we need to look at making it less polluting.

“We have created a nation that is dependent, for the foreseeable future, upon the automobile,” he says. “And the world’s inhabitants aspire to automobile ownership. China has opened up high-speed rail lines while the U.S. ponders. Yet, simultaneously, China has overtaken the U.S. in the number of automobiles sold annually.”

What about high-speed rail?

But there may be more to it than that. Automobile sales are skyrocketing in China indeed, but it is also true that the country leads the world in high-speed rail, with 4000 kilometers already built. The Chinese government is plowing far more money into building out 16,000 kilometers of high-speed track than it is spending on roads or a plug-in infrastructure for electric vehicles.

China’s full high-speed rail system is scheduled for completion by 2020 and will cost $300 billion, and at the same time, the government is instituting tighter auto emissions restrictions and providing incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles.

In the United States, high-speed rail got the largest chunk of the stimulus funding earmarked for mass transit, but it amounts to a relatively paltry $8 billion spread across three systems in California, Florida and Illinois. To put that amount in perspective, consider that the total projected cost of the California high-speed rail system alone is $42.6 to $45 billion. More importantly, not all of the $8 billion has ended up going to high-speed rail projects after all.

“Over the course of many pieces of legislation, billions of dollars have been directed toward the intention of implementing a high-speed-rail infrastructure,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote in a recent opinion piece. “But most of the money has gone to subsidizing the sub-par system already in place.”

Young added that billions in stimulus funding that were to go to high-speed rail have gone instead toward maintenance of the country’s existing train network.

“As a country that is currently beholden to foreign countries for its oil supply, [reducing our oil needs] should serve as an incentive,” Young concluded. “Additionally, though some may worry about the high costs of implementing such a system, high-speed rail represents the kind of long-term infrastructure investment that pays dividends for decades.”

Where’s the DOE money going?

blog comment

Verwenden Sie Wasser in das Auto als Brennstoff. Bist du überrascht? Lassen Sie sich nicht. Es ist keine Science Fiction mehr. Ich reagierte wie auch Sie, als ich davon hörte zum ersten Mal. Aber wenn ich diesen Artikel zu lesen, ich glaubte es. Erfahren Sie es. Es wird Sie auf jeden Fall helfen. <a href="">hybridantrieb</a>

Roads and benefit-cost

We simply would not have modern economies at all without roads and autos. We could have had more efficient land use policy, i.e. LESS zoning; but there is NO urban transport model which would come anywhere near that of roads and autos, for enabling economic growth and income.

People like Michael Lind who blithely talk about "rethinking personal mobility altogether", need to be honest about the consequences of what they are advocating, like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are. An economy without the mobility to which we are accustomed, is an economy with the GDP per capita of a third world country. That means half of us will need to grow our own food on our own lots. Taking transit to your job in the bureaucracy will be a fantasy of the past - third world countries don't have a majority of workers in offices at all, all those jobs have to be paid for indirectly by people doing REAL work producing things.

All this is a whole lot of high blood pressure over nothing; like people in the late 1800's thinking their world was going to be buried in horse dung if they didn't forcibly constrain economic growth. People 100 years hence will look back and think the alarmists of the 2000's were that stupid too.

Compare EV To Local Transit, Not HSR

Ms. Westervelt:

You make a false comparison when you compare battery-electric cars to high speed rail. Almost no one is going to take a battery-electric car from San Francisco to Los Angeles. No one is going to take high speed rail to the grocery store.

The question is what is the impact of massive investment on battery-electric cars on local transit -- buses for most Americans. We continue to disinvest in buses (and light rail and trolleys) and, as Ms. Lind points out, thus continue to encourage our sprawling land uses.

Most buses are diesel, with either conventional or hybrid transmissions. Some older cities have trolley buses on grid power and there are some promising experiments on using hydrogen and fuel cells for energy transmission. (See: (Current batteries don't work for heavy duty vehicles.)

High speed rail provides a better way to travel than airplane most of the time. For a family of 4 with the dog, canoe and bicycles, the car may still be the best.

-- Chris Peeples –

EV's or Mass Transit Rail Solutions

A couple quick comments:

EV cars generate local taxes, while mass transit consumes taxes. Local politicians will always want taxes for other programs. That's why the the car companies are re-opening many of their shuttered auto dealerships - they generate taxes from car sales.

GM, Ford and Chrysler took a heck of a beating in December 2008 - BUT NOT ONE of those CEO's or even the UAW asked for billions of dollars to retool their closed factories to make the components needed for Mass Transit. It's interesting that the skills needed to build a car are pretty similar to making a Mass Transit System. Rick Waggoner would still be CEO of GM had he asked for money to retool the factories for Mass Transit, but that would also mean that the UAW would have grown stronger.

The Federal Government is not interested in getting the US off foreign oil even though we spend $400 billion dollars annually securiong the stuff. We'll be sending US troops to Peru and Bolivia to secure the Lithium sources pretty soon. The only way we'll change is to have the US Department of Transportation "order" an National Rail System (like we do for Aircraft Carriers and the Navy) to generate the work needed. It would employ millions of US workers in all 50 states - which we need desparately..

(BTW - if you figure in the cost of military security forces to the cost of a gallon of gas, we're spending about $17/gallon)

We're trading Oil Dependency for Lithium Dependency - we can reduce our risk by going with non-lithium solutions, using lithium for mass transit or switching to Flow Cells (liquid batteries) to power the rails and even stabilize the nations power grid.

I've been to Europe and like the light rails solutions - they work for everyone, and are reasonable priced. They run on electrcity from any source. Best of all - you don't need to buy Mass Transit Insurance to ride them. The US should send in a team to study them in more detail.

Unions need competition - make all states Right to Work, and Union and make Americans compete against one another for those jobs. Once we can prove to ourselves we can compete at home, then we can redirect our efforts to compete abroad and make us number #1 again.

200 million cars running on

200 million cars running on ANYTHING are terrible they cause sprawl and even more roads and parking lots will need to be built..making it cheap to drive is the wrong way to help improve life.

Electric cars sucks HSR makes sence

The Electric cars, you save money on electric cars why? because most people doesn't have an electric cars, we got a gas powered Toyota yarris which get 45 MPG and only cost $12,000 and we have hybrids cars which get 50 MPG which cost $22,000. you can't own a electric cars, you can only lease it for $500 per month, for that same cost, you can lease a Mercedes E-class CDI for that same amount per month. and electric cars doesn't servive in high temperature in Arizona, so High speed train makes sense because they use overhead powerline instead of pluging in with a battery for electric cars, and you can travel way faster than driving, or flying, and electric cars average 50 MPH and only go 200 miles untill you loose juice. High speed train doesn't break down, they average 75 MPH to 200 MPG depend on the weather and track condition. and you can travel on them for $50 each way. I wouldn't pay $500 per month lease on a electric car. beside after 5 years, you turn in the electric car, and they scrap them into pieces. Gas cars when you pay it off, you keep them forever untill it breaks down, or your crash it.

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