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Buy Every American an Electric Moped

We need to change our behavior rapidly to avert climate catastrophe. But we can also make life easier for everyone.


President-elect Joe Biden says he has an ambitious climate change strategy, with his advisers promising “a whole government approach” to addressing the rapidly worsening crisis. Some observers have worried that his elite consensus-based governing philosophy and attachment to hiring familiar faces will undermine his professed climate agenda, but there is a lot of work to be done, and Joe Biden is now the person in charge of deciding what that work will entail.

There are many complementary—and competing—approaches to reducing emissions, but I would like to suggest one idea Biden and his team may not have thought of: Buy every adult American an electric moped.

This is a serious suggestion, I promise.

I think regularly about this infographic I saw about a year ago, from the Lufthansa Innovation Hub’s TNMT, a transit and mobility trade publication. It ranks “all major urban transport modes based on their carbon-emission output,” taking into account not just direct emissions but also carbon emissions involved in the entire lifecycle of each transit mode: manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal, along with energy spent on operating vehicles and the carbon emitted to support infrastructure for each transit mode (i.e., tracks, bridges, tunnels, and roads). Unsurprisingly, “foot” emits the least carbon and gasoline-powered car the most. But what struck me was how many supposedly green options, like hybrid cars, use almost as much carbon as gasoline-powered cars.

According to TNMT’s calculations, even all-electric cars emit more carbon for every kilometer an individual travels than a regular old bus, thanks in large part to the huge carbon cost of manufacturing and disposing of these cars.

The TNMT chart isn’t a scientific study and doesn’t claim to be. But their chart tracks with academic research on the total carbon impact of dockless electric scooters, those tiny little pick-up-and-go transportation options that have lately been littering (literally) many American cities. Those, it turns out, are not actually a very good approach to reducing emissions in cities; because they replace more walking and transit trips than they do automobile trips, they need constant repair and replacement, and large, gasoline-powered vehicles have to go around collecting and moving them all the time.

Researchers from North Carolina State University wrote in a 2019 study of e-scooter lifetime emissions: “Claims of environmental benefits from their use should be met with skepticism, unless longer product lifetimes, reduced materials burdens, and reduced e-scooter collection and distribution impacts are achieved.”

Speaking of longer product lifetimes and reduced collection and distribution impacts, one transit mode on TMNT’s chart was surprisingly carbon-light compared to nearly all others: Durable “Vespa-like” electric scooters are greener than trains, buses, and any hybrid or electric car.

This is why the government should buy every American an electric moped.

That may still sound silly, but an electric scooter subsidy could easily be modeled on California’s electric vehicle subsidy. Such a subsidy would actually be much more effective in tackling climate change, too, by actually changing the transportation habits—and maybe even other lifestyle decisions, down the line—of Americans. And for the working poor, many of whom live in places where car ownership is mandatory to find and keep work, it would amount to a revolution in mobility.

For years, the California Clean Electric Vehicle Rebate Program has helped subsidize the cost of purchasing mostly expensive electric (and hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell) cars. It turned out to be so popular that they were forced to reduce the size of the rebates and restrict who could receive them. Prior to that restriction, it amounted to a large subsidy for upper-middle-class and rich Californians to buy luxury cars–luxury cars that spew fewer greenhouse gasses than normal cars, to be sure, but not remotely carbon-neutral ones. Researchers have spent the last few years debating the total carbon impact of battery-electric automobiles. Are they much “greener” than internal combustion engines? The answer, it seems, is yes, but not as much as we need, and it depends on where you drive these cars.

One major study from earlier this year determined electric cars to be “better for the climate than conventional petrol cars in 95% of the world.” But the differences in how much less they emit than gas-powered cars over their entire lifespans can vary greatly by region, from as much as 70 percent less in Sweden and France, to only 30 percent less in the UK. As Professor Greg Marsden, from Leeds University’s Institute for Transport Studies told the BBC, “Electrification is necessary but not enough.” Instead, “We need a major shift away from the car if we are to meet our climate goals.

Carbon emissions are not even the only thing to worry about with electric automobiles.

A recent analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, highlighted and summarized by Streetsblog, illuminates how much non-carbon pollution and environmental destruction cars are responsible for. Cars emit dangerous particles when they brake that end up in human lungs. Microplastics and chemicals in car tires pollute the environment and have been linked to mass salmon deaths. The OECD found that “up to 5 percent of air pollution” in urban areas is made up of asphalt from roads themselves.

All of those things contribute to illness or poor health—especially in lower-income urban neighborhoods where automobile pollution is worst—and nearly all of them get worse the heavier a vehicle is. Electric cars happen to have very dense batteries, which make them even heavier than their gas-powered equivalents.

So yes, the federal government should of course encourage Americans to buy electric vehicles rather than gas-powered ones, but the eventual goal cannot be to replace every internal combustion engine car and SUV currently on the road with an otherwise identical battery-powered version. A national approach mirroring the California electric vehicle subsidy would be a mistake.

It seems misguided to give people large incentives to purchase heavier electric vehicles without equivalent or greater subsidies for much lighter ones. Even after the changes to the rebate system, qualified Californians can still receive $7,000 rebates to purchase hydrogen fuel cell cars, a still-experimental—and probably dead-end—technology that skews even more expensive (especially in terms of support infrastructure) than battery-electric cars. There is no realistic future in which these are widely adopted, and subsidizing their purchase is a pure waste of state money.

$7,000, coincidentally, is nearly enough to buy Vespa’s newest electric model.

Now, I’d certainly favor sending every American who wants one a $7,000 electric Vespa, because I’d love an electric Vespa. But that is probably too much for moderates to sign on to. Thankfully, similarly appointed scooters that can carry most Americans to work on a single charge are—or will soon be—available for many thousands of dollars less than Vespa’s $7,000 model. If California can subsidize thousands of dollars worth of the cost of a luxury car, a “nice scooter” that is more environmentally friendly ought to be doable for the federal government.

If the government gave every working-age American $3,500 to buy a mid-range Vespa-style electric scooter and every single working-age American took advantage of the deal all at once (which seems very unlikely), it might “cost” the federal government about $700 billion, which is a little more than the federal government “spent” subsidizing sprawling McMansion development for rich people through the mortgage-interest deduction over the course of the 10 years prior to that deduction’s overhaul (to make it even more regressive) in 2017.

Perhaps you still think the idea of giving every American a moped is silly. But we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that actual climate change solutions will involve more than simply taking our current lifestyles and adding batteries. The future is not one that looks exactly like the present, save that we are all riding around in self-driving Teslas—or, at least, that is not a viable, realistic, or desirable future.

On the other hand, it is possible—and essential—to curb emissions while also providing real and meaningful positive goods to people. Instead of warning people they will have to sacrifice vehicle travel, we can … give everyone a super fun scooter that happens to be among the greenest methods of individual transport currently available. Conservative attacks on Democrats are often at their most potent when they suggest that liberals wish to deprive Americans of some convenience or lifestyle signifier—to take away some “freedom.” The best response is probably to give everyone an alternative.

In fact, it’s an approach any cold-blooded technocrat should love. The best way to “nudge” people away from excessive automobile use—before we get around to banning cars, anyway—is to provide viable and convenient alternatives. This means more and better transit, of course. It should also mean free electric mopeds.

A nation of electric moped-owners would not just change their own behavior; they’d become a constituency for changing all of our transportation options and our built environment itself. Most people don’t need massive vehicles for the majority of their travel. Throughout the rest of the world, most people manage to get by with lighter and smaller vehicles than the ones Americans use. Many Americans are purchasing larger and larger SUVs and trucks because they feel safer, but the main thing they feel safer from is other people in larger and larger SUVs and trucks. Low-speed, light-weight scooters will pose much less of a threat to children and pedestrians, and if their use is widespread, their users should come to realize the benefits of further restricting the use of heavy automobiles in urban and even suburban settings.

Ideally, once millions of adult Americans are tooling around on their Biden Scooters, it may even help bring about much needed changes in development patterns and land use as people seek out new places to live and work, where using scooters feels safer and more convenient, or make the places where they currently live and work more conducive to small vehicles.

Now, it turns out that the federal government, recognizing the wisdom of my plan, already subsidizes the purchase of “electric motorcycles,” offering a federal tax credit up to $2,500 in value for their purchase. That’s nearly enough to cover that nice European scooter I linked earlier, right? Wrong: The tax credit is only for 10 percent of the cost of the bike up to that amount, meaning, much like California’s electric vehicle subsidies, it is just a coupon for rich people to buy nice things. (The subsidy is also set to expire at the end of this year.)

If we are willing to offer that much money in pure dollar terms, why limit it to such a tiny discount instead of just offering the full cash amount to anyone purchasing a qualifying vehicle? Rich people happen to be the people who least need subsidies to buy nice things. Providing every single working-age American adult with a high-quality, durable, affordable-to-operate, and sustainable means of personal transportation would, on the other hand, constitute a dramatic improvement in the lives of many poor and working-class Americans, who, throughout most of the country, are forced to spend huge portions of their incomes on expensive and inefficient cars or deal with unreliable and underinvested-in mass transit.

Economists and journalists have worried over the problem that access to cars has enormous economic benefits for impoverished people but negative ones for the environment. But it’s not the internal combustion engine that improves the earning prospects of a car-owner: It’s the ability to travel to places reliably. The government should have been providing that all along through reliable mass transit. For most of the country, it did not. It is time to rectify that.

We subsidized automobile-based development for a century. We’re still doing it. It has been a disaster. We can do something radically different—and it might be fun.