Many questions in our profession don’t have clear answers. In light of Kittelson’s value to “examine from every angle” and inspire new ways of thinking, we host a friendly debate series to explore the nuances of some of these complex topics.

Will we make the biggest dent in greenhouse gas emissions by investing in EVs, or by encouraging non-auto modes entirely? The most recent debate in our series was a lively discussion on the degree to which agencies should invest and plan for electric vehicles (EVs) as a way to combat climate change. While the event was internal to Kittelson staff, the conversation was too good not to share!

The two Kittelson team members who took on this topic (who are remaining anonymous, since the stances they took on don’t necessarily reflect their full opinions) are good friends who aren’t afraid to challenge one another’s opinions in the spirit of learning. Senior Engineer Amelia Martin moderated the debate, guiding our debaters through a series of questions about how the transportation profession should be addressing climate change. Here’s how the conversation played out:

Question 1: Are EVs the right sustainability investment?


Person 1: In summary, my argument is no. There’s this idea that EVs are the silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for, and I don’t think that that’s actually the case. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. The chief scientist at Toyota has described this as a “hype cycle,” in reference to the idea that battery electric vehicles are the saving grace that we’ve all been waiting for, and all we have to do is start buying them.

Seeing EVs as “the solution” starts to close our minds off to different approaches. As good planners and as good consultants I suggest we zoom out and think about the problem we are trying to solve. Transportation has a huge impact on the climate-about 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation. But other solutions, like reducing VMT, offer opportunities to address the root problem, rather than just dealing with the symptoms. We can address the root problem through solutions including improving transit options, building safe bike infrastructure, and increasing the density of the urban core.


Person 2: At the risk of agreeing with you at the start of the debate, I agree that EVs are not a silver bullet-but that’s also a strawman argument. I don’t think anyone, at least not me, is making that argument. Climate change is an extremely complicated challenge, and we have to address it in a multi-pronged way. We can’t leave a tool on the table. Our approach to climate change should be an “all of the above” approach. Not focusing on EV adoption, whether it’s by getting prices down or making sure the infrastructure is out there for people to easily transition, is something that would be detrimental in our fight against climate change.

In preparation for this debate, I looked at few data points. One was commute mode share, from the American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates. In 2010, before the big wave of complete streets policies and the focus on active transportation and transit, 86.4% of commuters drove to work. Coming out of the recession, we had some pretty big changes in the transportation industry. We had a whole complete streets movement that was focused on safety, especially in urban areas. But if we look at 2019 data, the last full year before the pandemic, we still had 85.3% people driving-barely a dent.

I also looked at vehicle miles traveled (VMT) data as a whole. According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2008, before the recession, VMT was 3 trillion miles annually. Around that time we saw a dip-I clearly remember all the excitement around VMTs peaking and trending downward. And it did go down a little, down to 2.9 trillion in 2010. But then in 2019, we were back to 3.3 trillion miles annually. There was a similar pattern during the pandemic, when it went down to 2.8 trillion but then was back up to 3.3 trillion in 2022.

My point in sharing this is there’s a very high floor for VMT, at least in the US. It’s hard to get VMT to budge. If we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to think at scale. We should all continue to work on lowering VMT, but we should also invest in transitioning the remaining VMT to EVs.


Person 1: Currently, generating electricity is largely accomplished using fossil fuels. In 2019, about 60% of the electricity in the US was generated by natural gas or coal. While it would be nice if we were running on clean electricity and using the waves to power our cars, currently that’s not happening, and so while we’re trying to meet this VMT floor that you’re talking about, I don’t think that transitioning to EVs is actually going to make a dent in emissions.

I’m concerned that the application of electric vehicles could actually increase VMT. When we want to encourage VMT reduction, we do things like charge money for parking downtown or use variable tolls on highways. Those tactics are effective at discouraging driving by making people think twice about if they want to spend the money to drive. Conversely, reducing the cost of fuel through electric vehicles may put less pressure on the decision to drive somewhere, therefore increasing VMT.

I agree that changing land use and people’s patterns and behaviors is hard, and we’ve spent a lot of time in the last few decades working on that. But I don’t think we should give up just because EVs are on the table. A solution that doesn’t ask people to change anything about their lives will just continue to encourage driving and the status quo. We should be encouraging people to change their behavior. If we are trying to make meaningful change to achieve benefits like reducing the impacts of climate change, we should expect there are going to be some costs or changes to our lifestyles.


Person 2: I don’t think it’s either/or. We shouldn’t stop focusing on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit and just focus on EVs. In fact, we should do all of the above-this is an “all hands on deck” situation when it comes to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge is achieving scale in a short amount of time, and that’s where EVs can make the difference. When you talk about land use changes or building a culture of active transportation where people switch modes at scale, I would like to be wrong, but I fear that we may not have enough time to make changes at scale to achieve the results we need. Let’s continue to do all we can to reduce VMT, but for the VMT that we’re not able to reduce, let’s ensure that those vehicles are fueled by electricity.

image of cars stopped in traffic

Transportation is contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change-about 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation.

Question 2: Do EVs have a positive or negative impact on communities overall?


Person 2: It is well established that EVs reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least the tailpipe emissions that we talk about. EVs reduce pollution, both air and noise, especially along highways. And given our environmental justice challenges and the way the highway infrastructure is built and the mapping of disadvantaged communities over that kind of infrastructure, I think those benefits are critical for reducing pollution and health impacts and improving the overall quality of life for people who live near these highways that are essentially pollution corridors.

More broadly speaking, a transition to EVs will help us invest money in different kinds of green energy production sources as well-for example, solar and wind. We are seeing the federal government and governments around the world investing in cleaner energy sources, which may help us unchain some of the dependencies on fossil fuels and the geopolitics that has followed that across the world.

Finally, as we see more adoption of EVs and more competition, we are going see lower costs for EVs that will help disadvantaged communities and people with lower incomes be able to afford and participate in the benefits of EV infrastructure.


Person 1: I like that you bring up a future where disadvantaged communities and people with less money will be able to afford EVs. Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now. A lot of EVs are owned by wealthy communities who have historically been less burdened by transportation costs. My question is, how long do we have to wait until the whole community benefits instead of just a segment of the community that has been able to adopt EVs? And will the government still be subsidizing EV purchases at that point?

Something else to consider is the idea that people with EVs aren’t going to buy as much gas. So now all the gas infrastructure that’s been built out has to be paid for by a fewer number of people who are buying the gasoline, which I see as a potential to increase the actual cost of the gasoline. So we could have wealthy people using electricity, poor people stuck using gas powered cars, and the price of gas going up because the gas infrastructure costs are being born by fewer people. I think that there’s a potential to increase the existing disparity in burden from transportation costs.

Another key issue is land use. While it’s great to talk about investing in EVs while also actively working to reduce VMT, I’m not sure that is realistic. Every time that you invest in one thing, you have less money to spend on other solutions. And one benefit of focusing on transit or developing dense urban cores is that they address other transportation problems as well, like mitigating severe crashes, while EVs are tackling just one piece of the problem.

Finally, battery manufacturing uses more minerals than ICE vehicles, that also have an environmental cost of extraction. So while there are environmental benefits to driving an EV, there are still lifecycle costs that are often overlooked. I think it’s just another piece of the puzzle that we need to be making sure we’re considering when investing heavily in EVs: where do we get the battery materials, and what do we do with batteries after their useful life?

image of empty electric vehicle charging station

We want to use an "all of the above" approach to transportation emissions. EVs are part of the solution, but we shouldn't lose sight of other initiatives.

Question 3: What should be the public sector’s role in the shift to EVs and implementation of EV infrastructure?


Person 1: A lot of people are buying EVs. There are also private companies like FedEx and Amazon buying EVs for their delivery fleets because it’s a good business choice. Therefore, I suggest that the role of the government should be focused on the solutions that we’ve been talking about that have been harder to get a private company to invest in. The government should not focus investments on solutions that private enterprise has already decided that they’re going to do. For example, if you can get a private company to build an EV charger, we should have that private company build the EV charger, and the government should instead spend their money doing something a private company doesn’t want to do, like increasing transit options.

I think the other benefit of having less governmental involvement on the EV investment front is that the market is more flexible and responsive to what customers want. If you let private companies run with EV technology, you’ll be making the right amount of EVs to satisfy that desire in the population rather than the government trying to make a desire happen or investing based on predictions of what it’s going to be in 20 years.


Person 2: We need to go back to the principles of: when should government intervene? In this case, it’s not a public good because people could be excluded from using EVs if they are not able to afford, and EVs are rivalrous, meaning one person using an EV will mean other person can’t use it. Given the competition in the EV market today, I do not think it is facing some sort of market failure, but there are a lot of externalities (both positive and negative), and I think that’s a compelling enough reason for government to get involved.

The government can fast-track the transition to EVs. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and the prospect of energy independence at a national level, are compelling reasons to do this. I think there is enough research out there now that suggests EVs are better than internal combustion vehicles in terms of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

There are negative externalities to consider as well. For example, when homes don’t have off-street parking, people park on the street and run extension cords across the sidewalk to charge in their on-street spaces. Here, there is a role for government to think about what needs to happen at that local level. What does that mean for curbside users? What does it mean for sidewalks and accessibility? The transition is also going to be challenging for some industries that are dependent on internal combustion vehicles, whether it’s oil change, garages, or gas stations. What will happen to those businesses and that land? Should the local government think about transition plans?

Finally, how do we use EV funding to do just good planning? The money coming in for EV infrastructure can be tied to good land use planning. How can we think about our policies, whether it’s land use regulations or site development, and tie it into EVs so that we can access that funding at the local level but achieve some of the broader goals?

All of these things highlight the role of the government at different levels. The focus for us as consultants is to help our public clients think through goals and funding sources while keeping the big picture in mind. There is funding available today, let’s make the most of it!

In reality, our two debaters agree more than they disagree-but it’s through conversations like these that we can encourage one another to consider all sides of a challenging question and ultimately arrive at balanced solutions for clients and communities. At Kittelson, we plan to continue hosting internal debates to help us look at complex topics from all perspectives. Have a topic you’d like us to debate? Reach out to Communications Manager Amy Donald and we’ll add it to our lineup!