Gas is Tired: Rethinking our Fossil Fuel-Dependent Car Culture

Traffic on a highway extends into the distance
A snapshot of Southern California’s 405 freeway during rush hour. This story is a part of the Elemental series Coming Clean: Oil’s Legacy in the Age of the Green Dream. (Photo by Luke Jones / Creative Commons)

LOS ANGELES – Car culture is a way of life in Los Angeles. More specifically, gas-powered vehicle culture.

The vast freeway system is teaming with with big, gas-guzzling SUVs and luxury vehicles at all hours of the day and night. There is even a charm to the vintage classics automobile collection that the city collectively owns. There is pride, power and a sense of safety in these giant machines. Cars and the infrastructures they rely upon are a system we depend upon for our livelihood and existence in Los Angeles.

Yet, they are more than just transportation for humans to get from point A to point B: “Cars have evolved into objects of culture, power, status, desire, image, and habit,” writes Edward Humes, author of “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.”

However, how does driving a gas-powered SUV fit in a world overwhelmed by global warming, climate change and the hope for a green revolution?

Car ownership in Los Angeles County is among the highest of metropolitan areas worldwide and it is growing at an exponential rate. In 2018, the DMV reported 7,744,896 million registered cars, trucks and motorcycles in Los Angeles County, an area that is home to nearly 10.2 million people. Each year, 1 million new cars enter Southern California — the equivalent to one-seventh of all U.S. auto sales. A report from the California Air Resources Board shows that vehicle transportation contributes 40% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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Despite the region’s infamous congestion rankings, vehicle sales have increased and concurrently public transit use has decreased. Despite valiant efforts from the city to encourage and improve public transit, such as the Measure M tax, a recent report by LA TransitCenter and UCLA found that people do not use public transit because it is slow, not safely accessible by walking, is inhospitable, and many of the likely transit users cannot afford to live near the transit station. Overall, people prefer the privacy of their personal cars as a more comfortable and much more practical mode of transportation.

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So, if car culture is not going anywhere, is it possible for Los Angeles to be part of a green transition and curb our dependence on fossil fuels?

Buying an electric vehicle may seem like old news — and California is leading the way with electric vehicle ownership — yet electric is not projected to surpass the number of gas-powered vehicles on the road until 2050.

“Electric vehicles make sense from a financial standpoint, particularly in places like Los Angeles where car culture is so prevalent,” says Ben Holland, Senior Associate in Mobility Transformation at Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank focused on transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable energy. “The more you drive, the more it makes sense to go electric, because the cost of electricity is so much lower than gasoline,” Holland says. “Long distance commuters can quickly pay off the premium they paid for an electric car.”

The two main hindrances keeping consumers from buying an electric vehicle are the lack of charging stations and the initial cost. According to Chargehub, there are less than 2000 charging stations in the city of Los Angeles, and only 7% of those are fast chargers. This challenge is currently being tackled by the city’s promise of adding 250,000 more charging units by 2025. The other challenges are more difficult.

Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids charging at San Francisco City Hall public recharging station. (Photo by Felix Kramer / Creative Commons)

Electric vehicle prices range anywhere between $22,000 and $72,000 before rebates and there are few subsidies or initiatives to make them attainable for middle and low-income individuals. “The problem is this is a luxury good, and in a lot of ways even a car itself is the ultimate luxury good,” says Ryan Popples, CEO of Proterra, America’s largest electric bus manufacturing company. “How are we going to get electric vehicle technology into everyone’s hands faster than just providing them with new cars? Transit.”

In a city with a declining public transit ridership, Popples says a transition to electric public transit should address the public’s concerns about the existing bus fleet. “[Buses are] loud, they’re dirty, they’re really heavy, incredibly inefficient and highly unreliable,” Popples says. With a goal of making electric buses 10 times more efficient than natural gas buses, Proterra’s buses are designed to be the exact opposite: quiet, clean, light, reliable and very efficient, he describes.

An older version of LA Metro buses. (Photo courtesy Port of Authority / Public Domain)

What Los Angeles needs more than cleaner buses to become a cleaner, more sustainable city, however, is to break out of a culture that depends strictly on single-user vehicles. “We need to start thinking about prioritizing the movement of people, not the movement of cars. That’s where transit comes in. If we can reverse auto-centric, single-occupant road design and maximize the movement of people, then transit will be a clear winner,” Holland says. “Buses, just like long distance commuters, travel many miles a day, so it’s a win-win from a climate perspective.”

Shifting a collective mentality by making transport more efficient as well as zero-emission could help change behavior and also substantially reduce the city’s fossil fuel consumption. Updating infrastructure with a fast-track lane for zippy electric buses and running them on a more frequent schedule would cut the transportation time for buses and put them back on the map as a viable transportation option.

A Proterra electric bus at its charging station. (Photo by Sounder Bruce / Creative Commons)

Last year the California Air Resources Board voted on a proposal for Innovative Clean Transit Regulation to replace all public transit agencies with zero-emission buses by 2040. The proposal’s most recent Notice of Decision from December 2018 states: “The ICT regulation requires California transit agencies to gradually transition their buses to zero-emission technologies… and to implement plans that are best suited for their own situations.” There is no deadline for this transition.

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