Biden's EV subsidies reinforce white privilege and won't save the climate. Here's a better plan:
Prescott Watson & Olaf Sakkers
Transportation for people and goods is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Anyone thinking about a greener planet realizes we can't get there without changing cars. They also believe the way to do this is by making them electric. Cars have however proven hard to electrify since the energy they use to get around needs to be carried inside of them. And given their size and weight, it's been hard to find a better store of energy than liquid fossil fuels.
The strategy thus far has been to improve battery technology to the point that EVs can compete toe to toe with the performance of their gas counterparts: a range of 350 miles coupled with fast charging that works in a way not that dissimilar to refueling. Through these innovations, led by Elon Musk's Tesla, we're getting closer to this pacifying vision: a world where our cars work the same way except that on the inside they are electrified and green.
Tesla doesn't solve the problem
EVs are notably cleaner than the ICE vehicles they replace, and they are on track to get even cleaner. Between green electricity production and greener supply chains for the inputs to EVs, the next generations of electric vehicles are on a gradual march towards being truly net-zero transport machines.
Gradual being the key term.
We're nowhere close to deep decarbonization with this plan
Contrary to celebratory headlines, the electric car revolution is not here, and it won't be here for decades.
In the near future, EVs in the US are about 60% less carbon intensive than their ICE counterparts. In countries with dirtier grids, that number is a lot less attractive - in China, for example, EVs are only roughly 37-45% cleaner over a lifetime of use.
But the most critical challenge is just how long it will take to get these moderately better options into drivers' hands. First, EVs need to grow from the low single digit percentage of new vehicle sales they represent today - forecasts suggest it will take until after 2030 for them to reach 50% of new vehicle sales. Then, we need to wait for the overall pool of cars to turn over since people only buy a new car every few years - sometimes only once a decade! This slow replacement cycle is why projections suggest that the majority of cars will still be polluting ICE models well beyond 2040.
What's worse, trying to accelerate this glacial process is astronomically expensive. Biden's infrastructure bill plans to channel $174 billion dollars into electric vehicles. This is more than the GDP of Hungary or Qatar and another 162 countries. And what is this money really doing? The simple answer: making oversized electric vehicles cheaper so rich people will buy them. We're literally writing $7,500 checks to wealthy, largely white families buying Teslas and Hummer EVs as their second or third car. And lacking any real ideas, the latest proposal is simply to up that to $12,000 in the name of environmentalism with the hope that a larger swath of the upper-middle class will cash in.
The trip economy is the solution
Like Batman, Uber seems to most people to be a force of evil, but in fact it embodies the real solution to our transport climate problem.
The purchasing of individual trips - be they a bus or train trip, a ridehailing ride, a short term car share, a shared micromobility ride, or a food or package delivery - is what we call the trip economy. The way these services work is completely different from our current, vehicle ownership-centric transportation systems:
Put together, these characteristics drive fleets serving the trip economy to adopt green technologies at an intrinsically faster rate than consumers will electrify their cars. It is no wonder that the Prius is one of the most sought-after vehicles for Uber or DoorDash drivers, or that so many municipal bus fleets are already transitioning electric. And can you think of a shared micromobility solution that is not electric? For all these trips, the capabilities and format of battery electric mobility makes sense now - not only after generous demand side subsidies.
What's more, one of these vehicles serves a large number of trips, making the trip economy a much more effective way to transform net emissions since each vehicle electrified takes a bigger bite out of the overall carbon emissions pie. Our north star should not be electric vehicles, but rather electric miles.
For all these reasons, trips delivered by trip economy services - from Uber to the metro - are already cleaner or will become so at a much faster rate than consumers' own cars will decarbonize. So what’s holding back a bigger transition away from the personally-owned car?
The car conspiracy
For most Americans, it feels like a burden to opt for trip economy services over using their cars. Trip economy options seem expensive or inconvenient, where cars appear cheap and convenient. But cars are only convenient and cheap because we've built a world that caters to them at the expense of almost any other way of getting around.
The easiest place to see this is in how American cities and suburbs are laid out. An enormous amount of space in our cities goes into "non-places" which are neither destinations nor spaces in which travel happens. Parking garages, the quintessential non-place, take up prime real estate in downtown centers which could otherwise be used by people. In areas where land is slightly less valuable, it's easier to simply spread parking around destinations. The ratio of space taken up by places versus by the parking for those places is pretty odd when you consider it.
In America, nearly all suburbs and many urban areas suffer from being extremely spread out, in part because of the perceived need for lots of parking at every destination. Of course, most spots sit empty most of the time since there are 4 spots for each of the 250 million cars in the US. The result is that our suburbs can spread tens of miles wide, making them hard to traverse by anything other than a car.
It also means that, to get from one place to another, we have to drive really fast. And driving fast means that roads have to be built with gentle curves and lots of space to avoid us killing each other.
Car drivers don't pay any more for the excess space they take up, nor for the extra danger their enormous vehicles pose to people around them. They also don't factor in the downstream effects of urban sprawl such as increased energy demands as power lines must stretch further and supply lines must carry goods over longer distances. It's no wonder that vehicles continue to get larger and faster. The most popular new vehicle in America, the F-150, frequently won't fit into older homes' garages anymore. And men are enticed to splurge on the even heavier F-150 Lightening by its 0-60 numbers.
Between these enormous cars, hard-to-cross road buffer zones, enormous parking lots, and the noise and smell of cars and trucks driving by at increasingly higher speeds, most places in America feel inhospitable to anyone not inside a car.
As a result, anyone who can afford a car will drive for most anything they need to do. And since our political system is generally more responsive to the desires of the wealthier half than the poorer half, that system has found ways to socialize the costs of all of this waste.
Zoning regulations create spread-out suburbs that require cars to navigate by forcing single family homes and businesses to build "free" parking. Then, after requiring parking spaces, our governments have built more highways to get to and from them, frequently bulldozing highly populated, often disproportionately minority neighborhoods and downtown districts to make way for road space.
Cars embody white privilege
The history of how cars took over America is therefore intimately tied to its dark history of injustices against the poor and especially against racial minorities. Car culture embodies white and elite privilege in not only its historical establishment, but its current self-reinforcement mechanisms.
Considering how the last seventy years were spent building a world to accommodate cars, it’s clear why most of us have a strong psychological tendency to default to using them, and even to react defensively to protect the social infrastructure that privileges cars over alternatives. Bike lanes, bus stops and multi-family homes are surprisingly difficult to build in neighborhoods whose beautiful mansions have Tesla Solar Roofs and "BLM" and "believe science" flags out front. Individually, each of us elites may be acting in short term self-interest and out of no particular racial or class-based animus - it's inconvenient to remove on-street parking, "unsightly" to have apartment buildings come up, and noisy to have a transit stop added outside our homes. But collectively, it is reinforcing a system that hurts those unable to afford the minimum buy-in. Ultimately, it's a system that hurts everyone.
Black households lack cars at three times greater incidence than white households, even in rural areas like Wyoming and Idaho. It's not surprising that these biases are being translated into the electric vehicle transition, where once again the costs are born by all, but the subsidies go only to the rich.
Disrupting car culture: Uber über Tesla
Transit - the original trip economy service - has been in decline across America as cars, supported by massive subsidies both financial and legal, have pushed rich people away from using these services and towards car ownership. Eventually car ownership became a cornerstone of elite cultural identity in the US, which cemented a vicious downward spiral for shared transport services that were unable to attract the parts of society that are profitable to serve and whose political voices are heard.
Uber brought the trip economy back by being everything transit was not - personalized and available on demand - attracting wealthy consumers to a service that could survive even in a world with high car ownership. The strategy of capturing elite tastes is one that mirrors Tesla's, which convinced the wealthy to see electric cars as desirable as gas ones. Uber got elites to realize that perhaps cars weren't so desirable to begin with. Also like Tesla, Uber had a much bigger vision than to be a luxury service, but to be a broadly transformative part of the transportation system.
But in contrast to Tesla, Uber's model has a much faster pathway to expanding beyond luxury services: the most important advantage that trip economy services have over ownership models is that as ridership scales up, service quality and economics actually improve.
Uber has inflicted a cancer upon the culture of car ownership
Uber promises a world in which every trip can be purchased through an app from a shared pool of vehicle resources - from ridehailing to micromobility to inbound deliveries and public transit. At great scale, this array of services can become a reasonable replacement for personal auto ownership in a near term time horizon.
Hamilton may not have been able to carry through the revolution he had began, but the foundation had already been set and the destination mapped. So too Kalanick: By highlighting to consumers there are many potential ways to do a trip - not by mandate but through actually providing a delightful service - Uber and its trip economy peers like DoorDash, Amazon, Revel, Via, and Bird are also breaking the psychological tendency to default to and be protective of our cars. Getting a car is no longer peak cool for young people. Getting to where they want to go is what's cool.
Moreover, Uber’s successful landmark political fights against Washington and New York proved that this privileged class of elite consumers can be politically galvanized in favor of better transportation solutions. We already knew this from the history of the automobile, but this was the first time in seventy years that consumers were coming out not in favor of free parking or highway expansion, but for trip services.
A central tenet of car culture is that, once you pay for the car, you shouldn’t have to pay for anything else. Like other forms of socialism, American government protection of car ownership promises that parking is "free," your ability to use roads is "free," and you should be able to drive right up to the door steps of any destination you feel like. Of course this is a ridiculous notion. Everyone is paying for all of these things, but only a privileged few benefit.
By reframing transportation as an activity that is engaged with on a trip by trip basis, Uber's model has opened a political reality whereby car owners are beginning to be asked to pay the true market rate for the space they take up on roadways and in parking spaces, and for the environmental and physical danger they pose to people around them. In offering an alternate option to default car ownership, Uber made it irreversibly clear to consumers that they don't need to be forced to subsidize car ownership.
In the most direct ways, this is through microtolling and congestion taxes whose acceptance has been accelerated by Uber. And in indirect ways, Uber enabling car free urban living among elite consumers has helped pave the way for the elimination of guaranteed parking minimums in new developments. Consumers are now being given the option not to pay extra for a parking space, further shifting systemic costs back onto their direct beneficiaries – car owners. This process will accelerate as the cords that hold together the inefficiencies of the car bundle begin to snap.
But our climate crisis demands we do better faster
If consensus among the scientific community and global political leadership is to be believed, we have but a few years to make drastic changes to our emissions outputs.
Though the trip economy has laid a path towards a cleaner and greener future, we risk directing subsidies towards unnecessarily perpetuating car culture and away from the solutions that can transform our carbon emissions in a viable timeframe. We should not be paying rich people to buy Teslas and EV Hummers. We should be organizing our politics towards accelerating the trip economy. How?
Concrete policy proposals
Space for trips to start and stop: Trips (passenger and parcel alike) need a space to start and stop that does not interrupt the flow of traffic. Cities should no just be "thinking" about how to accommodate this need as the mix of vehicles increasingly pivots towards the trip economy - they should be actively facilitating such uses. Specifically, the vast amounts of the urban environment inefficiently set aside for on-street parking offers a large pool of curbside space to support package deliveries, micromobility parking or ridehailing pickup and dropoff points.
Space for trips to happen: The trip economy is able to use infrastructure more efficiently than single occupancy owned vehicles, whether for moving people in shared trips like Via or moving packages in delivery vehicles. This is especially true with micromobility lanes, which turns out to have significantly higher throughput than roads and to be cheaper to build. We should be aggressively building a viable network of micromobility infrastructure in cities since they have a much higher return on investment than widening existing roadways which are already heavily congested.
Tie green dollars to green miles, not green vehicles: Governments should consider outright subsidies for pooled rides and micromobility services, especially those that are delivered through EVs. Subsidizing trip purchases instead of vehicle purchases allows incentives to be precisely dosed out and outcomes carefully measured. The trip economy therefore allows governments to provide context-specific support. It also forms a natural bridge to transit networks, making them more rather than less viable - especially important as we bounce back from the covid pandemic. In less dense communities, we could subsidize pooled ride services like electric Via vans in a highly targeted way. By comparison, having a blanket subsidy for EV purchases is like sending a love letter across the Atlantic in a glass bottle in the hope of finding true love: the government doesn't really know if the EV will replace all that much ICE activity, and it can't really check later on.
Fight systemic bias and special interest agitation against the trip economy: Just as the horse lobby fought against the automobile, leveraging fear of the new to support its cause, the trip economy has had to overcome absurd double standards. Uber has to pay a congestion fee in some cities even as single occupancy vehicles escape such charges. Portland levied a roughly 10% tax on all scooter trips and capped the total number of scooters that could be deployed. Why should these pro-social, fledgling solutions have to make accommodations that the car ownership lobby can avoid? We need to fight this prejudice against the trip economy while recognizing the bias in favor of car ownership and working to correct it. When trip economy solutions have gaps or face challenges, governments should be responding with support, not punitive action or petty meddling.
How RedBlue is doing Green
Our framework for investing revolves around the trip economy and we've been focused on this space for close to a decade with a strong track record for identifying emerging trends before they become mainstream.
Investing in a broken system and creating efficiencies has the potential to lead to significant economic returns. In other words, aligning investment targets with technologies that solve problems is a good way to effect significant change while also capturing meaningful returns for our investors. Indeed, aligned interests and incentives is the best way to effectuate large scale, sustainable change.
Specifically our goal is to invest in enablers of the trip economy in four distinct categories:
Creating a movement
To meet the challenges of our climate crisis, we need a coordinated effort. We need policymakers to act in a smart and structured way to support the trip economy and allow its ability to generate energy efficiencies to flourish. But we also need to be focusing on the kinds of investments that can support and power trip marketplaces and then grow them to rapidly replace dirty car miles with clean trip miles at scale. The diversity of the trip economy, built on the foundation of the diversity of humanity's mobility needs, means there are many good solutions and many ways for us to generate new economic value along the way. This is not a zero sum game: clean innovation is synergistic, not antithetical to economic growth. But we must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past - including those embedded in the Biden Infrastructure plan and many similar policies being adopted globally and act now to support the trip economy. Let us unite behind this movement. Before it's too late.