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Electric vehicles are not the future
Last month, Saudi Arabia debuted their plans for a new city called Neom—I am completely obsessed. There are so many ways this city design could facilitate a more utopian life, but for the sake of this essay, I want to focus on one: that inhabitants won’t need cars. Or any form of personal transportation.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch this video.
Aptly nicknamed “The Line,” the city carves a 105-mile line through the desert, skirting the coast of the Red Sea. Though it aims to house 9 million people, the city is less than a quarter of a mile wide. Every inhabitant has unobstructed views of nature from their apartment and can walk to everything they need within a 15-minute section of the city. A train takes passengers from end to end in 20 minutes and an international airport takes them anywhere in the world.
Best of all, because the city has avoided “the sprawl” so typical of today’s cities, inhabitants can get out of the city quickly. Simply walk out the nearest door and, on one side you are looking at miles of beach, on the other endless desert—with no buildings or infrastructure to interfere. I can’t help but wonder how amazing it would be to take a 15-minute walk to my favorite trail on my lunch break, instead of a traffic-clogged drive through the sprawl after work—trying to make it outside before the sun goes down.
Where I live in Salt Lake City, we have a similar expanse that rims the base of the Wasatch Mountains from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south—it’s about 80 miles. We do have a train that can take us end to end but it takes two hours, not 20, and unless you happen to live right on a train stop you’ll have to drive there, which takes even longer. Driving that same stretch is like a daring game of Mario Kart with six lanes in either direction and cars swerving for
banana peels construction obstacles.
In the middle, we have an enormous sprawl—single-family houses as far as the eye can see, strip malls filled with chain restaurants. And if you want to get up one of the canyons for a hike, it’s a 45-minute drive to get up the closest one. If you want to ski in the winter, you’ll be waiting in a three-hour queue to get up that same stretch of road. Enterprising individuals have capitalized on the clog, selling breakfast burritos on the side of the road while skiers wait.
I live in the city, so I can walk most places. But the sprawl has made us entirely dependent on our vehicles if we want to get out of it. I watch the fervor over electric vehicles, even autonomous vehicles, and can’t help but see a future plagued with the very problems we face now, the same people trying to get to the same places, all of us still sitting down to get there. But if I lived in The Line, I would never have to sit down. I could walk to the heart of the city, to the great outdoors, to the airport, without once wasting my precious time in a car.
And we would live healthier lives as a result of it.
I’m writing a utopian novel and a collection of essays (like this one) imagining a more beautiful future. Join us? ✨
More vehicles = worse public health
During the pandemic, we stopped using our cars as much, and for a brief moment the clouds parted. We saw a world in which the air we breathe became cleaner and we clung to the hope of a smog-free future. Maybe that could be our future, we thought, if we just changed all our gas-powered cars for electric ones.
Indeed, as carbon emissions plummeted by up to 30 percent worldwide, stock in electric vehicle manufacturers soared by up to 616 percent, the inverse correlation implying a sort of aspirational environmentalism—that electrification could save us from our gas-powered woes. But that reasoning assumes, incorrectly, that the fuel powering our vehicles is the delineating factor separating a dystopian future from a utopian one—that polluted, congested, and unhealthy cities are caused by the way we are powering our vehicles, when in fact the vehicles themselves might be the real source of our distress.
Carbon―the thing everyone wants to talk about when we talk about vehicle emissions―is only part of the problem. More pertinent to the concerns for our lungs is something known as particulate matter (or PM2.5). This debris is the sort kicked up by cars, suspended in the air by smokestacks, and, in the case of inversion, held at face level for months on end. Electric vehicles (EVs), though they produce 15 times less carbon than gasoline cars, only produce two times less particulate matter―and that is still a problem for our health and wellbeing.
When inhaled, particulate matter contributes to premature death from heart disease, heart attacks, and lung disease, to say nothing of asthma and other respiratory ailments. “Electric vehicles still present a lot of the same impacts that cars do,” Nick Norris, the city planning director for Salt Lake City once told me. “They still create tire and brake dust, they still require maintenance of our streets, they still take up space, and they’re a relatively inefficient way of moving people around given the space they take up.”
Indeed, electric-powered cars pose many of the ill-effects gas-powered ones do―and not just to our air. According to a study published in BMC Public Health, car owners in the United States get less than half the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity non-car-owners get each day. And the more access residents have to privately owned cars, the less physical activity they get. In other words: the more reliance we have on our cars, the less reliance we have on our own two feet―and that’s true whether we drive a Chevy or a Tesla.
Decreased levels of physical activity result in a deficit to our public health, with 31.7 percent of US citizens getting less than 150 minutes of exercise each week, increasing their risk of death (by all causes) by 20-30 percent.
Privately-owned EVs are no better than their gas-powered forebears when it comes to our physical activity, and their tech-enabled cousins, autonomous vehicles (AVs), fare no better. “In a ridesharing format, and integrated with public and active transportation modes,” the Annual Review of Public Health reports, “all these characteristics could promote physical activity, improve the urban environment (air quality and noise), and provide more public space to support a healthy urban design.
“On the other hand, major risks can be present when AVs are implemented for individual use, depend on fossil fuels, lead to more miles traveled, exacerbate traffic congestion, and increase occupancy of public spaces. All of these factors result in more sedentarism, degradation of the urban environment (air quality and noise), and reductions in the amount of public space available for social interaction and physical activity.”
Fewer vehicles = better public health
Norris wants to remove at least 20 percent of cars from Salt Lake City streets to make more room for pedestrians and cyclists. “Most streets are 132 feet wide,” he tells me, “and we’re dedicating less than 5 percent of them to people, whether that’s walking or streets with bike lanes. Twenty percent of our population can’t drive a car, but we’re only giving them five percent of the space.
“If we were to increase all of those distances to a minimum of 10 feet wide sidewalks, a minimum of 10 feet wide separated bike lanes, and feet for green space, 55 percent of our rides would still be dedicated to cars… and it could take 20 percent of the cars off the road. That’s a huge number, but it’s happened in other places. Look at Copenhagen, Amsterdam, etc., and what they were able to do with biking. They were car-centric 30 years ago and they’ve completely changed that.”
It’s true. Amsterdam was redesigned in an effort to reduce congestion and now we have a glowing case study of what it’s like when cities orient themselves away from cars. The city invested in bike paths, bike parking, and better-organized streets, and now, 27 percent of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bike with adults ages 20-90 spending 74 minutes per week on the bike. Researchers estimate that Dutch people live half a year longer than they did prior, with the total economic health benefits estimated at €19 billion (roughly the same in US) per year.
Cities throughout Europe have followed suit. Paris, for example, has made it imperative to improve air quality by removing cars from the city. The city instituted “Paris Respire” in 2016 which bans cars from certain districts on Sundays and holidays. The city has since increased parking meter rates, banned free parking in many areas, started converting areas along the Seine river into a park, and plans to add more than 600 miles of bike lanes to the city.
Paris follows Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and Cambridge, among others highlighted by the European Commission, who have successfully removed cars from their cities, and have seen decreased congestion, increased public health, and increased economic benefits as a result.
It’s worth noting that for all of these places, socialized medicine is a driving force. If a country is paying for universal healthcare, it’s in their best interest to keep their citizens healthier longer. And that means redesigning the city for their health.
More walking = healthier city
“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself… The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings,” says Christopher Alexander in his book The Timeless Way of Building.
He’s right. Our health shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not we go to the gym, it should be a natural result of our built environment. And if removing cars from a city can improve our health, then designing cities so they are walkable is a bonafide cure—and here we must talk about “the blue zones.”
Blue zones are the places in the world where people live the longest and I have been following Dan Buettner’s research in this area for more than a decade. To this day, I am haunted by his 2012 New York Times article, “The island where people forget to die.” (← Seriously go read this whole thing, it’s incredible.)
The story concerns Stamatis Moraitis who, after being diagnosed with lung cancer and given nine months to live, decided to avoid treatment and move to Greece where he could die peacefully among his ancestors. He didn’t. By the time the article was written, he’d lived to be 97, outliving his diagnoses by 35 years. As Buettner put it: “He never went through chemotherapy, took drugs, or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move home to Ikaria.”
Ikaria is a blue zone. According to the article, people on the Greek island reach the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do. “Ikarian men, in particular, are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health.” As of the article, they were also “living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia.”
The cause for Ikaria’s longevity, and those of its blue zone peers, is a well-researched lifestyle that includes a lack of stress, an increase of community, and copious amounts of exercise that occupants get as an accident of their natural environment. One aspect of that environment common among blue zones? There are a lot of stairs. “It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills,” the article states.
It’s not personal motivation then, that we need to change, but the built environment of our cities. One NPR article goes so far as to blame the elevator for New York City’s decrease in public health. In 2014, it called on architects to make stairs a focal point of buildings, rather than an afterthought secreted away behind elevator shafts.
"As architects and planners, we've been part of the problem, in terms of making our lives so sedentary, making things so easy. And there are ways that we can and should correct that," the architect David Burney says in the story. “‘It's a vigorous activity. It burns more calories per minute than jogging,’ says Dr. Karen Lee, who advises governments around the world on public health issues related to the built environment, and is a special adviser to the World Health Organization.”
We’ve designed our cities for cars, elevators. We’ve made “ease of transport” our priority and we’ve created suburban sprawls that make that crucial to our ability to navigate them. Now we’re outfitting our cities with EV charging stations as if that will somehow make all the difference. It won’t. As Buettner says, “In 1970, about 40 percent of all children in the US walked to school; now fewer than 12 percent do. Our grandparents, without exercising, burned up about five times as many calories a day in physical activity as we do.”
That’s not because we’ve gotten worse at going to the gym, but because we’ve designed our cities for cars. It doesn’t have to be that way—if we design our cities for stairs, walking, movement, the opposite phenomenon will occur: The air we breathe will become cleaner, the lives we live will be healthier. Electric vehicles could never promise all of that but our own two feet can.
Neom, as a concept city, may not ever be built, but I hope it is. I hope future citizens no longer have to waste their time and their health commuting in cars. That future residents of Salt Lake City might be able to walk from Ogden to Provo, to have our valley filled with nature instead of housing developments, to have an unobstructed view of the mountains the whole way, to be a quick 15-minute walk away from Big Cottonwood Canyon for a hike.
To give us a taste, Neom imagined what it would be like if Manhattan did the same thing, removing all cars and consolidating the city into a line—and you can’t tell me this wouldn’t be a better place to live (well you could, but I’d disagree.)
I may not live to see my city designed for people, not cars, but I am deeply nostalgic for that future.
Thank you so much for reading,
Winston Malone, author of The Storyletter, answered my prompt, “dream up a utopian city.” This piece of short fiction imagines a future city through the guise of someone experiencing an “off day,” and how ai might be willing to help with a decidedly human problem. I loved this juxtaposition!
I also want to introduce you to Fawzi Ammache who writes Year 2049. Though my newsletter imagines a more beautiful future, his focuses on the tech shaping our near future. As we’ve been writing about a lot of the same topics from different vantage points, we’ve been sharing notes via email—I loved his take on the food industry: