Many Conservatives disparage electric cars and bike lanes, while many Liberals fetishize electric cars and bike lanes. The correct approach lies between: some bike lanes and some electric cars are good. Others are not.
For bike lanes, geography can be decisive. Cities like Amsterdam—which is almost entirely flat, and which has no months in which average daily highs exceed 22 degrees celsius or fall below 6 degrees celsius—are ideal for cycling. But most cities are much hillier, hotter, and colder than that. These cities need bike lanes too, but not the same type of bike lane system that Amsterdam has.
For electric cars, size and speed can be decisive. The electric cars currently being marketed to us—the Tesla S, the Nissan Leaf, etc. — are actually far too big and fast to be environmentally or economically efficient. Their batteries expend a lot of pollution during their production, do not provide enough range before needing to be either charged or swapped-out (plus, slow-charging stations, fast-charging stations, and/or battery-swapping stations are all problematic, for various environmental or economic reasons) and are too heavy and bulky to come even close to being ideal.
This is a shame, since electric vehicles in general can be more efficient and eco-friendly than gasoline-fueled vehicles. This is (among other reasons) because they do not contribute to local air pollution, and because they receive their power from power plants, which can be several times more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines and can use energy sources other than fossil fuels.
Electric cars that are much lighter and/or slower than, for example, the Nissan Leaf do not face the same significant battery limitations that electric cars like the Leaf face. If, hypothetically, we all were to decide to buy cars that are closer in their size and speed to golf carts rather than to today’s style of North American automobile, urban areas would very likely experience a substantial economic and environmental gain as a result. The reduced speed limit of the cars would not even cause average driving speeds to drop by much during rush hour, because traffic congestion in urban areas is usually severe enough that vehicles’ average driving speeds already tend to be far below speed limits.
Of course, the goal is not to make people drive tiny cars. Apart from being illiberal, such cars would not be practical or safe on expressways and in suburban areas in which low speed limits would be limiting. The goal, rather, should be to make it safe and comfortable for drivers in urban areas to use small lightweight cars (whether privately owned or, more likely at first, car2go-style rentals), even while sharing the road with much larger, heavier conventional cars.
Designating certain road lanes (or, better yet, entire streets or downtown cores) as slow-speed limit lanes might accomplish this. Lighter and slow electric cars could safely drive in these lanes alongside conventional vehicles.
Moreover, this could also allow for bike lane systems ideal for cities like Toronto; cities that have a lot of days that are too hot and a lot of days that are too cold/snowy/icy/ to bike comfortably or safely, especially up hills (in summer) or down hills (in winter):
Like electric vehicles, cyclists too would be able to use the slow-speed car lanes relatively safely and comfortably. This could mean three things, all of them good:
- the city would generally be much more bike-friendly than would otherwise be the case
- if you put a two-lane bike lane on one side of the street (see image below), then cyclists would have the option of either using the bike lane or using the slow-speed car lanes — in other words, cyclists would have the option of biking on the sunny side or the shaded side of the street, no matter what time of day it was. This should be very useful on hot days, when cyclists are trying to get to work without breaking a sweat
- instead of having three or four winter months a year in which bike lanes are extremely underutilized, you could instead use the bike lanes during the winter as a parking lane and extra slow speed lane for some of the smaller very small cars (one-seaters or especially narrow 2-4 seaters) that would become common as a result of the slow-speed car lanes. Having a parking lane in the winter would be useful for older people who are at risk of slipping on ice and falling if they have to walk longer distances from their car to their destination.
So, there it is: a plan to promote efficient electric cars, rather than inefficient ones or none at all; and a plan for having bike lanes that could be useful during hot summers as well as during cold winters.