Will Electric Cars Really Save Detroit?

Electric vehicles are fine, some environmentalists and environmental-justice advocates say, but they’re not a silver bullet to correct climate change or for Black communities here in Detroit.

It’s easy to understand how some Black Detroiters get to that thinking, as the automotive industry brought us out of the nadir of the Jim Crow South and into the middle-class life in the North. Thanks to the “good jobs” that the automotive industry created, Black people in the city were able to move on up and provide for themselves and their families and communities. And that mono-industry spread its jobs to places like Toledo, OH, and other cities and town beyond the Motor City.

The news of GM making big investments in EVs sounds like a possible way back to those glory days, for the city to regain its fame by doing what it’s legendary for doing.

President Joe Biden is doing his part to encourage the switch to EVs, and on April 5 he proposed tougher greenhouse emission standards that he hopes will create an impetus for people to go EV in the next 10 years.

The reality of EVs and city accessibility is more complex.

 According to a 2022 article in Car and Driver, an electric 2023 Volkswagen ID.4 costs $38,790, and a gas-powered Volkswagen Tiguan costs $27,785. As with a lot of technology, the price is going down, but that will take time.

Relatedly, though inflation doesn’t always last, it is here and now. An electric car at the price Car and Driver reported seems not only expensive, but prohibitively so. In another decade or so, when the price hopefully decreases, EVs will make more financial sense.

Though Detroit’s sprawl might make it difficult to convert the whole city into a walkable urban center, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Some parts can be made so.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s public transportation system is languishing.

As is, the Detroit Department of Transportation has lost drivers to COVID and low wages. The Detroit City Council asked the administration to raise the drivers’ wages to $29 an hour when it approved the 2024 budget of $2.4 billion on April 10.

“Detroit continues to lag behind the nation in spending on public transit,” said Paul Jones III, board vice president of Transit Riders United, urban planner and lifelong Detroiter, in an email interview with the Michigan Chronicle. “Cities like Cleveland and Baltimore spend twice per capita on transit than we do and enjoy more reliable, available and frequent service because of it.

“Detroit hasn’t necessarily cut transit funding in recent years, but it hasn’t increased it to the system’s need or made improvements, either.”

He stated that DDOT’s on-time performance was 67 percent in February, “an unacceptable  level of service.”

“It’s important to contrast this abysmal level of spending on proven transit solutions with the amount we’re willing to spend on conceptual and unproven technology to support the adoption of EVs.

The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeastern Michigan, in its 2022 Regional Master Transit Plan, stated that it kicked off DDOT Reimagined, a network redesign planning process in 2022. “Through public engagement and analysis of existing routes, ridership, education and essential services, DDOT will develop strategies for service improvement.” The city transportation department expects to complete and start implementing the plan in 2023.

DDOT and SMART also added electric buses to its fleet in 2020. DDOT was awarded another $6.9 million to purchase four more buses and charging equipment.

Also, one of the RTA’s goals in enhancing existing service is promoting and expanding carpools, vanpools and park-and-rides.

The real is, Jones said, one-third of Detroiters don’t drive or have access to a car. The carless population includes youth, seniors, people with disabilities and people who can’t afford or just don’t want to drive everywhere.

Building a transportation system that works for all Detroiters will require solutions beyond electrifying “our car-dominated status-quo and investing in alternatives like public transit and safer streets for people walking and biking,” said Jones.

“Electric vehicles alone don’t address the inequities that exist in our transportation system, nor do they fully address the environmental  and social impacts of driving,” Jones continued. “Poor land use [urban sprawl], the high costs of maintaining a vehicle, high insurance rates, expensive road maintenance, freeways flooding, high crash rates and many of the other key transportation issues in this region will continue to exist with EVs.

“These have had disproportionate impacts on Black Detroiters who pay some of the highest transportation costs, have had our cultural heritage in Detroit destroyed for highways and urban renewal, and continue to lose our lives to traffic violence at some of the highest rates in the country. Adopting EVs is an important part of the climate solution, but doubling down on car dependency with EVs will help further entrench patterns of inequality.”

However, Detroit can expand its transportation system even further. Yes, the bikes and the scooters are additions to the system, but they also depend on having a debit or credit card, which not all Detroiters have.

New York City’s world-famous subway system was supplemented by its buses, but also its town cars, which were a communal precursor to rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. It also had “dollar vans,” which served transit deserts like Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. For two dollars, a person could wave down one of the vans to take them down that long avenue. The rider would share the ride with several other passengers and could tell the driver to drop them off at any stop along that street. It was cheap for passengers and helped Black immigrants, usually from the Caribbean, make a living.

Though the vans are disappearing due to the pandemic and the rising cost of running the vehicles, the idea still stands—and can be an idea for the Motor City.









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