The future is not only cleaner cars, but fewer cars

November 2017

There is growing interest in electric and autonomous vehicles in Ottawa. The latter are a little further down the road, so to speak, but electric vehicles (EVs) are here now. They work, owners love them, and they are set to play an increasing role in this and every other city.

Electrifying our vehicles has several benefits: fewer air pollutants produced locally; fewer pollutants produced by Ontario’s grid in generating the electricity, compared with fossil fuels; and less noise from nearly silent moving vehicles that also never idle.

What risks not changing — and this applies to autonomous vehicles too — is the number of vehicles on our roads, and all the space we allocate to moving and parking these vehicles.

That’s why we must take advantage of the potential to reduce the number of vehicles owned by private individuals and as part of corporate or government fleets. If big changes in transportation and transit over the coming decade become as much about reducing the need for vehicles as about the power source, then a very big shift in urban and transportation planning will result. I’m talking about car sharing and mode shifting.

We — and I include my family in this — place a high value on transportation convenience in our society. For nearly a century, that has meant individual vehicle ownership. Recently, we have seen a shift towards “mobility” as the goal, with more people considering how to get to their destination in the most time- and cost-effective fashion. People are asking themselves, what is the best modal choice? For some trips, it’s a walk or a bike ride, for others a bus or train (more of those soon!), and for many it will still be a drive. As long as our needs are best met by having instant access to private vehicles for many trips, we will keep buying, maintaining, storing and driving them.

However, we’re now starting to see a generation who, having grown up in the densest North American cities, have begun rejecting the “must” of car ownership, or even a driver’s licence. They rely instead on walking, cycling, transit, taxis and membership in car sharing organizations (Ottawa was an early adopter with its home-grown Vrtucar). I have known more than a handful of young people with no car of their own, and little desire to take on that cost and hassle. To them, their choice to be car-free has not reduced their mobility. They live where they want to, and they make destination choices — for eating, shopping, travel, drinking, etc. — according to ease of access.

Now into this mix comes the EV. Whether privately owned or shared, an EV enables a new set of choices and behaviours. With the range of several models now exceeding 200 km between charges, almost any destination in the Ottawa region is within reach (longer trips might require a recharge for the return). Many people can drive for an entire week on a single charge and, as the EV charging network continues to expand, the problem of “range anxiety” continues to shrink.

When our family sat down with a map and did the math, we realized just how viable an EV already is. Of our regular trips, only the occasional drive to Toronto would be outside our range; favourite destinations like Montreal or Kingston are rarely a day trip, so we could charge overnight or even en route. A return trip to Gatineau Park for a ski or hike would be a piece of cake. Plus, there are rapid chargers available in Old Chelsea and Wakefield, should someone forget to plug in, or run a lot of errands before the outing.

We’re now on the waiting list for several vehicles, and we’ll see which model is ready first before making that final decision. Because pent-up demand for EVs surpasses available supply, you can’t actually walk into a showroom and take the most popular long-range models for a test drive, let alone roll home in one. Next year, large numbers of new models should be available, along with a better supply of existing ones, but for now, all you can do is get on a waiting list and maybe ask one of Ottawa’s keen EV advocates to let you try theirs.

I think EVs are an important piece of the clean, renewable mobility future. But in the end, our choice to walk, cycle, take transit and share our vehicles — autonomous or not — will be the biggest factor in any energy and mobility (r)evolution. If we can own fewer, cleaner vehicles, we’ll clear the air, tackle climate breakdown and stimulate a new kind of renewable economy, all while creating quieter, less congested streets and cities.