Transportation without Pollution: How America Can Ditch Gasoline by Henry Mukherji

Commuting by car is so ubiquitously American, it’s hard to imagine an alternative for many. Over ¾ of workers in the United States drove to work by themselves in 2013, and an additional 10% carpooled.[1] Indeed, America’s 20th-century modernization shaped the nation into an automobile-centric one, where cities catered to driving above all other means of transportation. As people began to live farther and farther from urban centers, the car became fully ingrained in the American way of life.[2] However, over the past few decades, its environmental effects have become all-too familiar. Luckily, there may be a way to mitigate this without forcing Americans to wean themselves off of their favorite transportation method–switching to electric cars. To entice the public to switch, the federal government should follow Norway’s lead and create a strong economic incentive to switch to electric vehicles. This can include waiving the sales tax for electric vehicles, renewing the Car Allowance Rebate System, and investing in infrastructure like charging stations.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now have the data on the significant environmental cost our reliance on cars has brought. Transportation accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, 57% of which are private automobiles like cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks. Like many issues regarding climate change, acting sooner rather than later is the key for making a significant reduction in damage to the environment.

But what does “acting” look like for decreasing America’s reliance on gas automobiles? The electric car is certainly an easier solution to swallow than public transportation, since it doesn’t require a significant lifestyle change for citizens, nor expensive investments in trains, buses, etc. for cities. How can the government effectively transition Americans to electric cars for the sake of our planet?

The federal government can follow Norway’s lead to make electric vehicles more attractive to Americans. Norway is the first country in the world to achieve higher electric car sales than petrol, diesel, and hybrid engines.[3] One of the main reasons is simply because it makes more economic sense for many Norwegians to purchase an electric car over a gas vehicle, and this is by design by the Norwegian government.[4] For example, fully electric vehicles in Norway are exempt from taxes imposed on vehicles that run on fossil fuels.[5] This tax is not insignificant–the nation has a 25% sales tax on non-electric vehicles.[6] There are other incentives too, like the ability to use bus lanes.

Biden has signaled that he’s interested in renewing the Car Allowance Rebate System (or CARS) for electric vehicles.[7] CARS was a program that let consumers trade in their less efficient, older vehicles for newer, more fuel-efficient ones.[8] With a CARS program that lets consumers trade in their old cars for electric vehicles, the federal government would be creating a strong incentive for people to get a new electric car rather than a new gas car.

Like Norway, the federal government can also waive the sales tax for electric vehicles, making the up-front cost of purchasing an electric car cheaper. One of the main factors preventing Americans from buying an electric car is the cost, yet many studies show that electric cars are actually cheaper in the long run even without strong incentives from the federal government. This is because they are less expensive to maintain than gas vehicles, and gasoline is pricier than charging an electric car.[9] If the federal government can make the up-front cost cheaper than gas vehicles, then electric cars will be cheaper both upon purchase and in the long run, making the electric car a much more attractive option for citizens.

A more understandable deterrent is the lack of charging stations.[10] In 2020, there were just 84,000 plugs in the United States.[11] It’s a difficult balance, since without charging stations, people won’t buy electric cars, but without enough electric cars, there’s no need for so many charging stations. The federal government can continue its strong push for charging stations to ensure that there are enough–Biden plans to build 500,000 new ones by 2030.[12] Without sufficient charging stations, it can be difficult for Americans to financially justify purchasing electric vehicles. [13]

If the federal government can incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles, it will be a step in the right direction for their adoption en masse. However, this mass adoption can only happen if the U.S. has sufficient capacity for these vehicles. By creating economic incentives and maintaining the infrastructure to support them, electric vehicles can be a reality for America.

  1. Mckenzie, Brian. “Who Drives to Work? Commuting by Automobile in the United States: 2013.” Aug. 2015.
  2. The New York Times. “What the Car Did — and What It Might Do.” The New York Times, 7 Nov. 2017, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/07/magazine/tech-design-future-autonomous-cars-american-interstate-highway-roads-suburbs.html. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.
  3. Klesty, Victoria. “Electric Cars Rise to Record 54% Market Share in Norway.” Reuters, 5 Jan. 2021, www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-electric-norway/electric-cars-rise-to-record-54-market-share-in-norway-in-2020-idUSKBN29A0ZT. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
  4. Jolly, David. “Norway Is a Model for Encouraging Electric Car Sales (Published 2015).” The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/17/business/international/norway-is-global-model-for-encouraging-sales-of-electric-cars.html. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  5. Klesty, Victoria. “Electric Cras Rise to Record 54% Market Share in Norway.” Reuters.
  6. Nikel, David. “Electric Cars: Why Little Norway Leads the World in EV Usage.” Forbes, 18 June 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/davidnikel/2019/06/18/electric-cars-why-little-norway-leads-the-world-in-ev-usage/?sh=2641cfc313e3. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  7. Domonoske, Camila. “Biden Administration Wants Electric Vehicles to Replace Gas Guzzlers.” NPR, 2 Feb. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/02/02/963115508/biden-administration-wants-electric-vehicles-to-replace-gas-guzzlers. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  8. “Alternative Fuels Data Center: Car Allowance Rebate System.” Afdc.energy.gov, afdc.energy.gov/laws/423.
  9. Penney, Veronica. “Electric Cars Are Better for the Planet – and Often Your Budget, Too.” The New York Times, 15 Jan. 2021, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/15/climate/electric-car-cost.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.
  10. Ulrich, Lawrence. “‘Charger Desert’ in Big Cities Keeps Electric Cars from Mainstream.” The New York Times, 16 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/business/electric-cars-cities-chargers.html. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  11. Krisher, Tom. “Plug It In: Electric Car Charging Station Numbers Are Rising.” AP, 31 July 2020, apnews.com/article/business-u-s-news-technology-detroit-electric-vehicles-0dbe44f4626fcfd6b3ccee274980188e. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  12. Levin, Tim. “President Biden Hopes to Build 500,000 New Electric Car Chargers by 2030. We Talked to 5 Experts about How to Make That Happen.” Business Insider, 7 Mar. 2021, www.businessinsider.com/joe-biden-electric-vehicle-charging-stations-plan-industry-experts-2030-2021-3. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  13. Ulrich, Lawrence. “‘Charger Desert’ in Big Cities Keeps Electric Cars from Mainstream.” The New York Times.

9 thoughts on “Transportation without Pollution: How America Can Ditch Gasoline by Henry Mukherji

  1. You mention that electric vehicles are cheaper in the long-run than vehicles that run on gas, even though they are more expensive at the start. Since we have been discussing information disclosure as a policy method, do you think that could apply here to encourage people to buy electric vehicles? The information is already available if consumers seek it out, however many people do not look for it because they see no immediate need the to switch to electric vehicles. I wonder if it would make any major changes if people were more informed of the negative impacts that gas-burning vehicles have when buying a car (like how on cigarette packs and alcohol bottles now they warn of the risks of consuming these products).

  2. Henry, I agree with you that switching to electric cars offers a powerful mechanism for addressing pollution in the United States. In fact, I wrote my first memo about it! One element that I found interesting was what the most effective political strategy would be to pass the changes you suggest. While Congressional legislation is preferred given it cannot be easily overturned by future presidents, executive orders offer alternative benefits of passing policies quickly and avoiding the gridlock that often occurs in Congress . Given these respective benefits, one CNN author suggested that Biden should use executive orders to pass “sticks,” like regulations for limiting greenhouse gases, while relying on Congress to pass “carrots,” such as the building of more electric vehicle stations (https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/02/politics/biden-climate-change-electric-cars/index.html). It will be interesting to see if this suggested strategy is pursued!

  3. This was so interesting! I’ve been learning more about how much American cities favor vehicles over pedestrians, but I hadn’t fully thought about the implications of that preference for the environment. I also really appreciate how much concrete evidence you put behind your proposal, as it makes it feel much more feasible, and frankly, almost silly that we haven’t done it already. I think an economic incentive would be a hugely impactful step towards widespread use of electric cars, as the complaint I most commonly associate with electric cars is the cost. do wonder, however, how much incentivizing electric cars would be able to hack away at the “American pride” that is maybe the secondary influencer behind Americans’ desire to stick with gasoline-fueled cars. I wonder if some sort of public opinion campaign, making electric cars not just affordable, but cool or tough, would be helpful in making the switch. Thanks so much for putting this all together in such a clear, interesting way!

  4. You cited the lack of charging stations and financial incentives as the primary reasons Americans are resistant to switching to electric vehicles. Do you think the fact that we’re very stubborn can also be a factor? I ask because we have a history of being incredibly resistant to any type of change (cultural, product, or anything in between). There are always certain types of people who are so attached to their beliefs and lifestyles that they require a lot of persuasion to try something new. Any idea how to get through to the stubborn ones?

  5. Great blog, Henry! I also wrote about vehicle electrification for my first memo – I think the EV space both within the private sector and for federal/state policy is really interesting and evolving. The opening fact you presented really struck me: “over ¾ of workers in the United States drove to work by themselves in 2013, and an additional 10% carpooled”. Do you think that increasing incentives to purchase new cars is the best way to limit our transportation sector’s contribution to pollution and carbon emissions? I agree that we need to direct people towards EVs when purchasing new cars… but maybe there are ways for people can buy fewer cars in general?

    For example, city-dwellers often survive without a car at all, instead depending on public transportation (subways, bus, car-sharing programs) for their commute. I would love to look at the impact comparisons for 1) improving urban design, especially for geographically sprawled cities like LA, Atlanta, and Dallas, 2) electrifying personal vehicles, 3) car-pooling , and 4) electrifying and expanding public transportation. Would love to hear others’ thoughts.

  6. Nice blog post Henry! I think that the issue of transportation in the US is very important since such a large portion of carbon emissions in the US are generated by the transportation sector. I think that your case study of Norway and their electric vehicle policies was helpful for understanding a potential route for encouraging more electric vehicle usage in the United States. Your blog post made me think about the laws and efforts to increase electric vehicle utilization in the US. Recently, the state of California passed an executive order that states that by 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California will be zero-emission vehicles (https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/09/23/governor-newsom-announces-california-will-phase-out-gasoline-powered-cars-drastically-reduce-demand-for-fossil-fuel-in-californias-fight-against-climate-change/). I wonder if other states are thinking about passing similar legislation, and whether or not similar legislation could be passed on the federal scale.

  7. Thank you for the blog post, Henry! While I agree that transportation in America has many problems, I don’t think that electric cars are necessarily the best solution. While they would potentially drastically reduce our carbon emissions, I don’t think they would get at the heart of the many problems with transportation infrastructure, and I don’t think that it is a solution that, even with government incentive programs, would be readily accessible to people of lower socioeconomic status. I think the root of the issue, truly, is how we design cities to cater to the use of cars and long commutes that result from urban sprawl. In my opinion, government resources would be better spent encouraging alternative forms of transportation such as public transportation (which can also be made electric) or cycling (which, as it stands, is incredibly unsafe in most cities and it doesn’t need to be) and investing in infrastructure that would both allow for those changes in transportation practices and make cities places for people to exist rather than places for people to exist around cars.

  8. Great post Henry! The numbers you provided about how many Americans travel by automobile too work really put the transportation issue into perspective. As you said, transportation accounts for such a high amount of GHG’s; electric vehicles are a great solution to the problem. Especially given that EV’s are less expensive than traditional automobiles over time, it seems like they are a no-brainer. Ideally, people would use public transportation to get around, but I don’t think people are willing enough to change their lifestyles that drastically. Adopting electric vehicles would not result in nearly as big of a lifestyle change. I agree that the government should subsidize the purchasing of EV’s to incentivize use. I wonder if this would incentivize enough people to make a change that provides a meaningful impact on reducing GHG emissions. Either way, governments should look towards incentivizing consumers to switch from gas automobiles to electric vehicles.

  9. I found your blog to be very interesting because mitigating greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation is extremely important in addressing the effects of climate change especially given the fact that “transportation accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” However, I am curious if the federal government will ever be able to adopt comprehensive legislation or enact policies that incentivize Americans to switch towards using electrical vehicles. I believe that between political polarization, special interests, and Americans’ commitment to their “freedom,” it will be nearly impossible to make the transition towards electrical vehicles. Despite executive orders being a mechanism to jump through the hoop of political polarization, I think the power of interest groups in favor of oil and gas companies will ensure gas vehicles remain prevalent in American society for many years to come, especially when considering the large percentage of Republicans that deny climate change. Additionally, I considered the reaction of Americans to mask mandates, to which many responded that they believed they couldn’t be told to wear masks because it violated individual freedom and posed major health risks (i.e. inability to breathe). I feel that this example can be put into context in that I believe Americans would have the freedom to purchase their vehicle of choice instead of being told to trade in their gas car for an electrical vehicle, whether it be for environmental or economic reasons.

Leave a Reply to Jessica Zhao Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.