In Marvel’s blockbuster hit, Black Panther, there’s a brief shot that gives a glimpse of what clean and accessible transportation looks like.
Here we see the bustling Wakanda market with a high-tech tram floating through the masses of people.
Not a single car in sight.
While the electric car might be greener than the gas-powered car, we need to be asking ourselves larger questions like what is the most accessible, most just form of transportation?
How can we get the most people from A to B without significant extraction and electricity demand?
Most often the answer to those questions is free, electrified, and most importantly, extensive public transportation systems.
Public transportation can fundamentally change a city, and ultimately our relationship with cars.
And if done well it has the potential to transport millions of people with a significantly smaller carbon footprint, reduce air pollution, increase the mobility of low-income folks and decrease traffic and traffic-related deaths.
In Tokyo, the subway is king.
Every day, over 8 million people ride their extensive public rail system.
For a massive city like Tokyo this is a significant achievement, especially because electrified subway systems have a small carbon footprint per passenger compared to single-passenger cars.
One 2013 life cycle assessment of the Los Angeles light rail lines found that they emit significantly less carbon dioxide per passenger over their lifetime, with the bulk of emissions stemming from the concrete needed to construct such a system, while another study found that a fully packed diesel buses might emit just over 50 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile.
And what’s important to note is that these numbers drop when more people take public transportation and when the electric grid moves towards cleaner energy.
Indeed, a recent study of electric buses in Trondheim, Norway found that electrifying buses can reduce their carbon footprint by 52%.
In addition, the material demands are much less per person for buses and trains.
So, if instead of switching to electric cars, we embrace electrified transportation, our demand for energy and materials would significantly decrease.
But it’s not as simple as just getting rid of your car and taking the bus instead, there are a number of obstacles that make public transportation unappealing for many.
Cost is a large one, many metros and bus fares are priced in the $2 to $5 range for a single trip, which if you only occasionally use the metro is not too bad, but if you commute on the train multiple times a day it certainly adds up.
There are already cities that have done away with metro fares.
When the city of Tallinn in Estonia made all public transportation rides free, they saw a 14% increase in ridership after one year, with evidence that low-income folks were more mobile.
Unfortunately, traffic congestion didn’t budge and the increase in ridership mainly came from people who would have biked or walked otherwise.
So, making public transportation free is just one part of the puzzle, in order to foster a transition away from cars, train and bus lines must also be convenient and extensive.
This means buses and trains that actually run on time and extremely often (like every five minutes).
It means paying transit jobs well, so that there are plenty of people running and maintaining the system.
It means public transportation in all neighborhoods, not just one line connecting rich white neighborhoods to a downtown business district.
It means reimagining zoning laws so that shops and homes are side by side instead of miles away from each other.
It means making sure that bus stops, train stations, and vehicles themselves are accessible to people with disabilities.
And it means encouraging walking and biking through safer bike lanes and pedestrian only zones.
These actions will all require significant changes in the way we navigate and indeed envision our communities.
But considering that the very fate of the world is at stake it's certainly worth doing.
When it comes to transportation, degrowth, rather than an electric car boom, must be top of mind.
Building a fleet of hundreds of million new electric cars will only just lock in decades more of imperialist exploitation of the periphery and fail to solve the root causes of climate change.
Electric vehicles would put immense stress on an already stressed grid, and would require significantly more renewables to make up for added electricity demand.
If we’re already struggling to meet current electricity demand with clean energy, think about what would happen if every internal combustion engine was switched with an electric one.
So we need to envision cities and towns that are built around people, not cars.
But this type of degrowth won’t just happen overnight.
It needs to be facilitated by massive infrastructural changes that de-incentivize cars and make public transportation more appealing.
This can be as simple as making buses free, but must eventually end up in a highly connected transportation web so it’s not only convenient but appealing to hop on the railcar or the bus to get to your friends’ house.
When it comes to transportation, our priority should be to envision a car-less world.
One where cities are walkable, bikeable, and disability friendly.
One where rapid, electric public transportation is the primary mode of getting around.
A world with cities that look a lot more like Wakanda than Los Angeles.