The Electric Car: A Fireless Dragon

It’s been two years since Arleigh Jenkins announced here that she had been hit by a car. Arliegh was the previous editor of Commute by Bike. Her collision with a car led her to find a new home for this blog. A bunch of stuff happened, and I became the new editor.

Henry Bliss
You could say that electric cars lead to Bliss.

Here’s another recent anniversary involving a collision with a car: September 13 was the 113-year anniversary of the first US pedestrian killed by a car. It was an electric car that killed Henry Bliss in 1899.

In spite of Arleigh’s accident, and even a bike accident of my own (not involving a car), I am reluctant to dwell on “bike safety” — and if I mention it, it’s only to emphasize that cycling is much, much safer than would-be bike commuters tend to think it is.

And to the extent that bike commuting carries a danger, that danger comes mostly from cars — not from bikes. If you’re hit by a car, it’s no consolation if the car is a Nissan Leaf.

Compared to fossil-fueled vehicles, electric cars are a more virtuous way to kill and injure people accidentally, a more principled way to encourage sprawl and inefficient land use, a more righteous way to avoid physical exercise, a noble way to keep communities fragmented, a more wholesome way to continue to enshrine automobiles over alternatives that are better for people and society.

Fred The Fireless Dragon
Totally undermining my argument

Imagine Beowulf (or your favorite dragonslayer) choosing not to slay the dragon terrorizing his realm, but instead choosing to replace it with a dragon that breathes no fire at all (or at least with one that breathes less fire and does so discreetly in the smoking lounge). But except for that meaningful detail, this new dragon still retains all the other lethal dragony characteristics of its predecessor — the claws, the sharp venomous teeth, the pointy horns, the barbed tail. This new non-combustive dragon is still plenty deadly to have around.

And that imperfect analogy explains what dampens my enthusiasm for electric cars — even the cool electric conversion of a 1970’s VW wagon I’ve seen around town, and would secretly love to own.

It’s an imperfect analogy because cars are still good things to have around — electric cars better yet — for “high speed personal mobility.” But we have structured towns and cities in such a way that we invite — invite — their most violent effects.

Electric VW Wagon and Bike Commuter
A Retrofitted Electric VW Wagon and Bike Commuter in Flagstaff, Arizona

Author and architect Greg Ramsey, even suggests that the panacea of the electric car could even make things worse:

The negative impacts of car-centric planning are immeasurable. Americans spend more on cars than third-world citizens spend on their entire budgets. The average American household expends 30-50% of its energy on car trips, and approximately 40,000 people are killed in auto accidents every year,


Cars are ultimately extremely inefficient. They are designed to drive across the country at a blurring speed not allowing the occupants to appreciate or explore the area they travel – they are shut off from community from the point of departure until they reach their destination. It has been suggested that the solution to making cars “ecological” is running them on renewable energy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The impact of cars (high speed personal mobility) on our already fragmented communities and natural spaces would be exponentially increased.

(Ramsey could be lowballing the number of annual fatalities, or perhaps referring to deaths in a specific country or region. I’ve read worldwide estimates from 500,000 to 800,000 annual fatalities due to car accidents.)

I recently received an e-mail about yet another infographic, this one was titled “The Impact of the Electric Car.”

I thought, Impact, heh heh… I’d like to avoid an impact from any car.

It was not, as I assumed it would be, a piece of pro-electric car propaganda. It was distributed by a company called Compliance and Safety. They sell instructional videos, and make a lot of infographics. (Somebody must have told them that bloggers can’t resist an infographic.)

The infographic raises skepticism about the environmental benefits of electric cars, the consumer sticker shock, the value of government boosterism and subsidies. I don’t know how much of it is true. But it concludes without ever mentioning bikes or walking, and without questioning the way that cities are structured.

The Impact of the Electric Car (excerpt)
In conclusion… Oh just give us the stupid link. Okay?

The infographic doesn’t suggest a damn thing, except that electric vehicle adoption “is only one part of a solution.”

You don’t say.

How about we slay the dragon.

Maybe not slay. That sounds so violent. But disinvite cars from many of the places where people need to walk and bike.

Twelve Car-Free City Zones
Screen shot: National Geographic

Maybe not even disinvite in some cases, but create environments where cars are so hampered for the safety of people, that motorists are forced to think, I might as well be on a bike or walk if I can’t go any faster than this.

This kind of dragonslaying is not a one-slayer job. It takes collective will.

It takes municipalities willing to get over their dysfunctional (and intellectually lazy) relationship with car-centric infrastructure and planning.

It takes some counter-intuitive ideas such as traffic calming, 20 mph zones, road diets, cycling infrastructure, pedestrian zones, and sprawl repair. (I especially like sprawl repair.)

I’d hardly heard of some of these ideas two years ago, even though I had long history with bike commuting, and living car free.

If we care about human life and health, we need to focus on reducing collisions as well as reducing emissions.

The electric car is a solution that hopes people are only looking up at the pollution, and not down at all the carnage on the ground.

Happy Accident Anniversary, Arleigh. I’m glad to know you are back in the saddle, and as active as before. Thank you for entrusting us with your audience.

[Update — 6/26/2013: A company called Vroom Vroom Vroom also claims credit for the infographic in this post.]

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6 thoughts on “The Electric Car: A Fireless Dragon”

  1. Jeff Gardner says:

    The King decrees that we all (you all) will pay to subsidize dragons s/he favors. The King REALLY decrees that we all (you all) will pay to subsidize so-called “fireless dragons”.

    The King will never favor parceling privilege to bicycles over his/her beloved dragons. Electric ones. Gas ones. Cherry juice-powered ones. Whatever. Did I say never? I meant NEVER. Never. Not ever. No one ever said the King was smart.

    But the King is smart enough not to care about human life and health, or of reducing collisions and emissions as much as s/he cares about power. All of the King’s programs will never improve those measures as much as getting the King out of the chariot perpetuation business.

    Wanna get fireless dragons off the road? End the King’s presumed authority to feed goodies to dragons. Thereafter, when people account for the true cost of obtaining, feeding, and keeping healthy their dragon against the cost of cycling, we will succeed beyond your wildest dreams, Ted. Short of that, protecting the King’s privilege in hopes that s/he will see the blinding light and begin dishing out privilege rationally is another kind of dream – a pipe dream.

    Ted, your argument is reasoned and right, but too carefully parsed. Henry Bliss may have been right too, but that didn’t make him any less dead. If slaying dragons is a good thing, then supporting the artificial system that created, feeds and perpetuates the beast and its lair in the hopes that a few leftover crumbs may fall our way makes no sense. Being an ardent voice for bicycling and an equally ardent defender of managing the system that nurtures dragons is a draw favoring the dragon at the expense of the bicycle.

  2. Kayti Sullivan says:

    The blind spot about electric cars blows my mind. People around here speak of them as though they don’t support the coal industry, the nuclear industry, fracking and all the other systems which anyone who is paying attention can see are unsustainable. Plug in? Where? to what? how much is it on the electric bill?
    I live nearish to Boston, have used my bike as in-city transport and find it a joy as well as a new way to view the city. It takes me less time in many cases to get around than if I were driving, no parking issues and with a folding bike, less chance of bike theft.

  3. Karl McCracken says:

    Nice piece! Fundamentally electric cars are a clutching-at-straws hope for business as usual for the automotive sector. They solve none of the society problems that their petrol equivalents create, and aren’t even that green – the electricity used to charge their batteries has to come from somewhere, and in the most part that means burning carbon.

    The worse thing about electric cars though is that in focusing on them, the government distracts people from the real issues with that promise of a pain-free, change-free world. And for the changes we have to make, time is running out.

  4. BluesCat says:

    The ONLY electric car I’m interested in is the Tesla Model S.

    Yeah! A four-door sedan you can take out to the track and (silently) blow the doors off all the brand new Camaros and Mustangs!

  5. Daniel says:

    The people of this country need to rally around ending the subsidies, our tax-money, to oil companies, to the automobile industry, etc.

    Possible game changer: a Property tax (or rent) break/rebate funded through an increase in the gasoline tax.

    A REVENUE-NEUTRAL proposal could be politically feasible, since the money is GIVEN BACK TO PEOPLE. You drive about the same, you pay the same. You drive even a little bit less, you SAVE money. Do people have the option of paying LESS for their residence in property tax/rent? Nope! This would be a way to fund it and discourage automobile use.

    You make more efficient driving habits, more fuel efficient car, live closer to your destinations, maintain the car, walk/bike/public transit more, than people can OPT-OUT of paying so much at the pump and save $$$.
    We need to make bold demands from our legislators.

  6. Daniel says:

    thank you for the article. People are being sold on the idea that we can all keep our habits exactly the same, driving around in our steel and glass bubbles as if fossil-fuel energy was limitless and the pollution both in the air and on the ground has no effect.

    There are many city policies that can be supportive of limiting the space for automobile use, such as eliminating parking requirements in cities. If developers are forced to build extra parking, it encourages people to have automobiles in the first place, which is not in any way supportive of the public transit system, walking biking, etc.
    Does your city require off-street residential parking, even in urban dense areas? ASK THEM WHY!

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