The end of the pollution argument
Urban cycling advocacy is about to lose one of its biggest arguments for increased riding. For years, advocacy has relied on the idea that cycling mitigates three problems: pollution, public health, and traffic. But the handwriting is on the wall for the pollution argument, in my estimation the most compelling of the three, the one that often makes politicians sit up and notice. Consider these trends:
- 2017 may be the tipping point for the battery electric car, with at least two models breaking the 200-mile range mark and selling for prices the mid-to-upper-middle class can afford. Also, almost all car makers are adding plug-in models, even status marques like the Mercedes S-Class, Porsche, and Ferrari.
- The electrical power sector — the source of power for all these electric cars — is now cleaner than the transportation sector for the first time since 1979, cracking open the long-tailpipe argument.
- Improved technology and cheaper prices for renewables are accelerating the trend towards cleaner and cheaper power. Solar has reached grid-parity wholesale rates in sunny climes. Oregon’s mandate for fifty-percent renewables by 2030 will barely raise electricity prices to consumers. Germany occasionally has to pay people to use wind and solar power.
- With electric cars getting cleaner, cycling may actually pollute more than driving under certain conditions.
Now, it’s true that the full impact of these trends won’t be felt for years, even decades. Electric cars now account for less than one-percent of overall sales, and renewable electric generation still comes in less than fifteen-percent of total production. But if history is any guide, politicians looking for excuses not to support cycling will find them where they can. For instance, the City of Beverly Hills is betting on a fleet of self-driving cars to solve the subway’s last-mile problem, even though such technology is still in development, and may not happen for as long as thirty years, and against arguments that the bicycle solves the last-mile problem cheaply. Similarly, I expect we’ll soon hear of politicians dismissing cycling’s ability to clean up our air, given how fast the car is approaching parity.
Cycling advocacy still has many arrows in its quiver. In any case, the loss of the pollution argument will also mean winning on the issue of cleaner cities, an improvement all around. But when our best arguments now often give us gains measured in signs and paint, we need to find other compelling reasons for city action. Will traffic congestion be enough? Is public health enough? Will other arguments for cycling infrastructure — like complete streets, vision zero, and quality of life improvements — be enough?