GMC’s electric Hummer barely hums as it aggressively elbows its way down the highway. Its 18-foot-long frame is modelled after a military vehicle that can go from zero to 60 mph (a little over 95 km/h) in about three seconds. And it’s the embodiment of everything transport researcher Emily Grise fears when it comes to electric vehicle adoption.
The GMC website calls on potential customers to “change the game forever,” but Grise worries they’ll do the exact opposite. While it’s an extreme example that’s not representative of all electric cars, the Hummer could represent the maintenance of the status quo where vehicles remain supreme over everything else that deserves our focus: public transit, equity, green spaces and walkability.
“What is happening is we’re moving in a direction where we can keep going as if nothing needs to change. Now our cars are just electric,” says Grise, who’s an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science.
By 2040, Canada has committed to having only zero-emission cars on the road. Greenhouse gas emissions will undoubtedly go down. Electric vehicles (EV) driven in Alberta are often 40 to 50 per cent less greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive per kilometre than their internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle counterparts. Mean-while, Canada’s electricity grid is 82 per cent powered by non-emitting resources — and, as Alberta’s coal plants continue to retire and more renewable forms of energy are added to the mix, that percentage will increase, further improving air quality.
Transportation in Edmonton accounts for 30 per cent of our GHG emissions, says Andrea Soler, project manager of Change Mobility for Climate, which works with the Electric Vehicle Strategy and encourages active transportation choices. For a city that sees 78 per cent of all personal trips made by vehicles, converting to electric just makes good, environmental sense. The City’s strategy details plans for building EV infrastructure, educating people on their use — yes, they can in fact operate very well in the winter — and plans for public vehicles. Edmonton Transit has even added 40 electric buses to its fleet.
Converting to electric cars will reduce our city’s footprint dramatically. But Grise says they could also reduce some people’s motivations to take public transit at all. Parking is cheap, congestion is currently minimal, and now people don’t have to worry so much about the environment, says Grise.
“And if you own that vehicle, people think: Why should I pay as well for a public transit pass?” says Grise. “It might look different in Vancouver, but people are just not motivated to take it here.”
As with any new technology, there are bound to be unintended consequences. And the way we think impacts our behaviours. William York, a board member of the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta (EVAA) and full-time electrical engineer, says driving an electric car does change the way people think about driving. And generally, it’s an incredibly positive experience.
He asked several members whether they experienced less guilt about their impact on the environment when driving an EV and nearly all — aside from one libertarian who simply wanted to avoid giving the government money in the form of tax — said yes.
One mentioned how he no longer feels the need to shop at businesses that are close to one another, while another spoke of going to drive-thru windows rather than parking to pick up fast food as he once did with an ICE vehicle. York himself started offering to deliver products he sold through Kijiji, which he had never considered when driving a gas vehicle.
No one can really blame these early EV adopters for feeling good about their choices. They should, as they are impacting the environment less than before. It’s not that electric cars will prove detrimental; but their adoption could further cement the way we think about mobility in the city. That’s problematic, says Grise, because it could become a cycle: Fewer public transit users eventually translates to less funding for public transportation, which is a necessity for many who depend on it. Then the poor service is once again the result, leading to fewer people wanting to use it.
Recently, the federal government announced billions of dollars in funding that will go towards public transportation in the coming years. Those funds are encouraging, says Grise. The last thing she wants to see is for us to throw in the towel and simply focus on roads.
To say Edmonton has always been car-centric would be a misnomer. It wasn’t really until after the Second World War increased prosperity, leading to an explosion of car ownership and, as a result, a change in how the City started designing neighbourhoods, says Simon O’Byrne, senior vice-president at Stantec and a Top 40 Under 40 alumnus.
“Basically 90 per cent of our population growth came in the era of when the middle class and cars took off,” says O’Byrne. “The other big difference is that we’re not a predominately white-collar city. So, only one in 10 jobs in the Edmonton region are in the downtown.” Our dispersed employment does not lend itself to having a large concentration of people in one area, like what you would find in Copenhagen or Montreal where their public transit systems are naturally more efficient.
All the experts agree that how a city is designed largely dictates how people move within it. And how a city is designed is also affected by density, the types of employment and even the culture of the city and how mobility is viewed. In other parts of the world, electric cars coexist side-by-side with very effective and well-used public transit systems.
Norway is often referred to as the world’s leader in EVs with over 100,000 in 2016. It also has an extremely popular and efficient public transportation system. But Grise says the city has a completely different cultural climate than Edmonton — prior to wide-spread EV adoption, there was already the social norm of taking public transit along with fewer vehicles on the road.
“The number of cars per household is significantly higher here, even for a major Canadian city,” says Grise. “So, it’s very difficult to get people out of their cars when that’s all you know. It’s cultural.”
She worries that electric and autonomous cars could make the lure of the driver seat even more intoxicating. Many may not feel as bad spending time in their vehicles — or they may even just enjoy it more — and it could even impact where they live. More people may eschew the core for the suburbs.
But those choices mean more than just adding a couple of new highways and bright new subdivisions around a man-made lake. The problems impact a person’s mental and physical health. There’s an unfair advantage many don’t consider, says Grise, which puts those who can choose their housing above others who can’t.
“I live in Bonnie Doon and can get to campus by transit or bike or car. But it’s because I have the financial means to make that selection. But, if you don’t, you would be pushed farther away. Now that means more time spent driving and poorer access to certain opportunities,” says Grise. The irony is that, for many of us to be able to walk to work, we need to be able to afford to live close to the core, where housing costs are higher. It’s cheaper to buy an electric car than afford the hundreds of thousands in price difference between a house in the burbs and a home that’s centrally located.
Or, you may have to live by a big roadway in order to have more access to public transit. But now the air is more polluted and you have concrete and pavement where you’d prefer green space so your kids can play outside. Electric vehicles would be beneficial in this case because air pollution would be less of a concern, but then there would still be the issues of a lack of green space or pedestrian-friendly areas.
In 2020, the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Medicine published an article in Environmental Health that states living near a major road or highway is associated with higher incidences of dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and MS. The researchers believe it’s due to increased air pollution — meanwhile, living near green spaces has protective effects, according to the same study.
O’Byrne points out that there are some major shifts happening. He sees people and municipalities — including ours — thinking about mobility in a more sustainable way. “There is a big trend towards micromobility,” says O’Byrne. He explains that walking, cycling, scootering and e-bikes are being combined with public transit to make for efficient ways of getting around. E-bikes, he said, are also becoming popular and are game changers because now people can bike long distances and not arrive in sweaty messes at their work meetings.
“I see some arterial roads will become a little more pedestrian-friendly because there has been an evolution of thought. Pedestrians are not an after-thought but part of the initial design,” says O’Byrne. “It might take generations, but they’ll start taking over arterial roads and making sure that there will still be vehicles, but with more balance and better pedestrian design than in the past. More trees, more bike lanes.”
But, he says, places worthy of people’s affection do not happen quickly. He points to the 63 years it took to build the sea wall along Vancouver’s Stanley Park as an example.
Our city is working on increasing pathways for bikes, walkers and scooters as well as improving things like snow clearing. In fact, it is very ambitious with its future plans — hoping individuals will conduct half of all trips via public transit or active transit such as walking and biking.
And these modes of transport are part of an all-encompassing City Plan that explores how growth will occur as we reach two million people, which the City’s modelling predicts will happen around 2065, right around the time that electric cars will be prevalent. A linchpin of that plan is the concept of the 15-minute neighbourhood.
“Imagine if everyone were driving, it would be crazy with traffic,” says Soler. “In the City Plan, they are looking at various ways to improve service so you don’t need to think about the cost and time. Perhaps then transit will be easier than having to worry about parking your car.”
The idea is that the City will be split into larger neighbourhoods or districts where people will have access to services and amenities within a quick 15-minute public transit ride or walk.
“In principle, it sounds excellent,” says O’Byrne of the City Plan. “So, the city eventually becomes a collage of these urban villages with their own unique style, and flavour and culinary scene and festivals. I like the concept of that.”
Meanwhile, the City released a new bus network re- design in April, increasing the frequency on some routes while cutting others that saw fewer transit users. On Demand Transit service will supplement the network, allowing individuals from 37 neighbourhoods and 16 seniors residences (who won’t have a regular bus route) to book a trip up to 60 minutes in advance to the most direct transit hub. That redesign will be a core building block for increased public transportation options as the city grows. Grise’s research has focused on enhancing public transit satisfaction. And she says that high service frequency is one of the most significant factors that generally retain transit riders, so the changes to Edmonton’s public transit look potentially promising. But it’s challenging because, of course, some transit users will be negatively affected as their routes will no longer exist and their travel times may be significantly impacted even with the On Demand option. In late April, Edify surveyed readers about the new route map; only five per cent said the new routes would lead to an increase in their transit use.
But ensuring people are safe is also one of the key ways to keep people taking transit. ETS has faced challenges in that regard — now with the pandemic and even before with incidences of aggression and racism. It’s not something that can be easily addressed, but the City is trying.
In 2020, it launched a Transit Watch text service where riders can report cases of harassment, disorder or suspicious activity — emergencies are still the foray of 911. It’s installed germ-fighting technology in some areas to combat the spread of COVID-19, though ultimately ridership will likely return as the pandemic wanes. And having smart urban design where people can more easily access the services they need is absolutely key to getting people to engage in different transportation modes.
If executed well, the City Plan could revolutionize mobility in Edmonton. But Grise says creating these types of walkable neighbourhoods is challenging. She points to new developments outside the Henday that have close access to amenities and grocery stores, but they also have major arterials dividing residential and commercial spaces. “So they look good on paper, but they aren’t particularly walkable,” she explains.
It’s also hard to predict how quickly electric car adoption will happen — already the vehicles are starting to go down in price and people are showing more interest. Will the City’s changes happen before the urban landscape starts shifting along with the types of vehicles we use?
There is hope that the city’s new changes will help improve issues of walkability, transit use and equity even as electric cars with their seductively smooth rides come into the picture. Grise, O’Byrne and Soler expressed their excitement at witnessing a market trans-formation unfolding.
And York is also excited that people are more seriously looking at EVs as an option. He’s constantly asked about driving range and battery power to the point where he said it’s like repeatedly going on a first date and never getting past the part where you talk about work. “I dream of a day when the nuance of this conversation becomes the norm and people are not just constantly asking: Where’s the charging station?”
This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Edify