Transportation Policy

Los Angeles, Seattle Want to Cut Down on Traffic by Cracking Down on Internal Combustion Engines

That is the definition of throwing the baby out with the bath water.



There is no eco-fix so costly and unworkable that it can't catch on with politicians somewhere. Take the movement to ban gas-powered cars, which has been gaining carbon-free steam around the globe.

France, Britain, Indian, and China have all at least theoretically committed in one way or another to phasing out internal combustion engines in the coming decades. Closer to home, California Gov. Jerry Brown has reportedly been pestering his staff to replace the Golden State's 35 million gas-powered vehicles with zero-emission vehicles.

This movement is now working its way down to the local level. On Monday, the mayors of Los Angeles and Seattle committed to buying only zero-emission buses by 2025, and to making "a major area" of their cities emission-free by 2030.

The pledge, titled "Our Commitment to Green and Healthy Streets," was signed by a total of 12 mayors from all around the world. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti jetted to the Paris to attend the signing ceremony personally.

"Our streets must be safe and accessible for everyone, and our air must be clean and free from harmful emissions," says the statement, which promises that an urban emissions ban will ease the time and money wasted in increasingly congested city traffic.

Banning gas-powered cars from cities could cut back on traffic, in same way a famine could reduce obesity-related illnesses, but the claim that such a move would make streets more accessible is farcical.

Let's start with some numbers.

The vast majority of Americans go to and from work in gas-powered automobiles. Los Angeles and Seattle are no exception. Among big American cities, they rank ninth and tenth, respectively, in population density per square mile. Despite that fact, mass transit makes up just 2 percent of the trips in Los Angeles's urban area, 3.3 percent in Seattle.

Even in Seattle's ultra-dense urban core, which is serviced by buses, light rail, and two streetcar lines, less than a fifth of commuters take public transit—and that includes diesel buses. Everyone else is getting around in gas-guzzling autos.

You generally don't improve the accessibility in your city by banning the thing that most people use to access it.

The commitment to exclusively purchase zero-emission buses is more doable, but it will come at a high price.

Electric buses, like electric cars, are far more expensive than their gas counterparts, costing on average $300,000 more per bus. That does not include all the extra charging stations and other infrastructure required.

King County, which contains Seattle, purchased 20 all-electric buses for $15.12 million in January of this year. When the costs of the necessary charging stations are factored in, the cost of these buses comes out to a little more than $1 million per bus. Compare that to Rochester, Minnesota, which just bought new diesel buses for $452,000 a vehicle.

Cities that commit to battery-powered bus purchases are committing to the huge upfront costs that come with those purchases. To the extent those costs are borne by riders through higher fares or fewer buses in service, the result will be less assessible, less mobile cities.

There is no doubt that Seattle and Los Angeles have mobility problems. According to TomTom's 2016 traffic index, Los Angeles is the most congested city in the United States; Seattle finishes fourth. But by embracing zero-emission fantasies, those cities are signing up for unworkable solutions instead of seriously addressing the issue.