Cars on street with cyclist alongside

Sustainable transportation hinges on EV adoption, but it also requires that there is fewer cars, more transit, safer streets and sound planning. Ultimately, the wide array of benefits means there are many potential allies for EV advocates to work with in turning heads and motivating elected officials

The road to more sustainable transportation appears less convoluted these days. Established automakers and politicians of all stripes now imagine a world where most vehicles are electric. Within only a few years, long-standing barriers for EV adoption have eroded to the point where replacing personal combustion vehicles with their electric counterparts no longer appears a pipe dream. For many reasons, this tectonic shift warrants celebration.  

However, as European and American researchers have shown, a future where there is simply a straight substitution of combustion vehicles with electric ones is far from utopian. Some studies have found that EVs, while reducing tailpipe emissions, can worsen congestion. Electric trucks and SUVs, on their own, do not necessarily make our streets any safer for cyclists and pedestrians than fossil-fuelled vehicles. Beyond this, EVs still need parking lots, which often passively occupy valuable land that could otherwise be used for housing, businesses, or public amenities.

And then there’s the problem, at least for now, of EVs being unaffordable for lower-income households, even when looking at the secondary market. Without viable alternatives, low-income residents risk being further marginalized, especially if fossil fuel cars are banned from city centres—an action that Montreal has proposed for 2030.

Solutions aren’t rocket science

Fortunately, the solution to an EV dystopia is not rocket science. Whenever possible, we should get people out of cars; improve the frequency, quality, and affordability of public transit; encourage walking and biking by making these ways of moving about safer and easier than driving; design smart, complete communities that minimize the distance people travel. Far from speculative fiction, these alternatives to private vehicle use are long known and have proven successful in many cities around the world (Barcelona, Copenhagen, New York, Oslo).

How did these cities embrace and prosper from more sustainable transportation? Not by simply layering new policies on top of old ones, but by actually changing the politics.

The same shift is needed here. EV advocates need to link their desire for innovative and green personal transportation with the existing influential coalitions engaged in other adjacent issues. These include grassroots, citizen-led organizations and elite, private sector networks that have well-established connections with policymakers. Finding areas of shared interests, especially between unlikely allies, can help turn heads and motivate elected officials to move.

Rally diverse stakeholders

The wide array of benefits associated with sustainable transportation is precisely why it is possible to rally a diverse group of stakeholders: insurance companies, real estate developers, affordable housing advocates, organizations promoting gender and racial equality, tourism companies and restaurateurs.

In turn, the broader range of interests represented in this larger coalition makes the case for transformative change more compelling for those decision makers that may have resisted earlier efforts.

Luckily, these coalitions are starting to form in Canada. The notables include:

  • The Canadian ZEV Industry Coalition was launched in November 2020, spearheaded by the Transitions Accelerator, Electric Mobility Canada (itself an industry association), and Dunsky Energy Consulting. It aims to bring together companies spanning the EV supply chain in Canada to develop a shared vision for an EV industrial strategy.
  • The Urban Delivery Solutions Initiative unites businesses and environmental groups to advance a more efficient and low-carbon urban freight system in Canadian cities.
  • The ZEV Alliance encourages cooperation among national and subnational governments in Europe and North America to increase ZEV deployment—the Government of Canada along with governments of B.C. and Quebec are already members.
  • The ranks of EV owners and enthusiasts, some of the first to band together, are growing through dozens of local and regional EV groups that form the membership base for the Canada-wide Electric Vehicle Society.

Broader coalitions the next step

Undoubtedly, these coalitions carry out crucial work. But to enact swifter and more transformative change, a complex ecosystem of even broader coalitions must be developed.

Existing and emergent EV coalitions could make the case for electromobility even stronger by collaborating with adjacent groups. The candidates here include:

  • The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which represents 2,000 municipalities across Canada and is an influential voice among federal and provincial policymakers, is already actively promoting and delivering urban sustainability programs.
  • The Canadian Medical Association, increasingly vocal on the health impacts of climate change, already has a policy promoting active transportation.
  • The Business Council of Canada, another powerful and potential ally, released in April a report that highlighted the business opportunities associated with decarbonizing transportation.

Diverse coalitions represent critical political infrastructure needed to realize more sustainable (and electrified) transportation. These coalitions, once empowered, can help build capacity among members, bring sustainable transportation into the mainstream, and convince key decision makers to prioritize renewing our physical infrastructure.

We exist in a rare political moment when previously reluctant private companies, political parties, and financial institutions are coming to terms with the magnitude of change needed to arrest the climate crisis, reduce inequality, and improve human health. Before private combustion vehicles are simply swapped out for private EVs, now is the time to join forces and also push for electrified transit, vastly improved intercity passenger rail and bus service, and walkable communities.

Nathan Lemphers

Nathan Lemphers is a post-doctoral fellow at the Smart Prosperity Institute. In his latest working paper, he studied how different regions and industries in Canada are preparing for the transition to electrified transportation, and how three regionally prominent industry associations depicted electromobility over time.