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.
Despite the region’s infamous congestion rankings, vehicle sales have increased and concurrently public transit use has decreased. Even though there have been 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.
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.
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.
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. If you can get across town in half the time on a modern bus and also feel virtuous for traveling emission free, why wouldn’t you?
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.
So, Los Angeles is talking about all of these things for an ambiguous future, but why not act now? When emissions regulations were first introduced, the oil and gas industry huffed and puffed about it and Angelenos thought it was a distant fantasy to have cleaner air. Looking back, people wonder why the regulations didn’t happen sooner. The transition to electric vehicles is at our fingertips — as is breaking away from oil and gas and the air pollution it causes. When people begin to see the changes in the city’s air, it will be a wonder why we did not make the transition to electric sooner.
Without a shift in culture, Los Angeles is likely to be left out of the green revolution we are waiting for. It is possible to maintain car culture while also transitioning off of fossil fuels. With a variety of electric vehicle options, Los Angeles may continue moving as usual but without a burdened conscience. Transitions and change are scary but this one seems exciting in that our actions can make Los Angeles a more enjoyable, cleaner, healthier city to inhabit.