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Sustainable Transportation: Are Electric Vehicles The Answer (For You)?

Electric vehicles (EVs) get a lot of attention, from Super Bowl ads to a vice presidential visit to Falls Church to celebrate our electric school buses. But the hype doesn’t help with practical questions many of us have about EVs. Are EVs really better for the environment? When does it make sense to buy one? Surveys indicate EVs are a win for the environment and are likely the better choice for most area residents buying a new car. AAA found that 96 percent of EV owners said they’d buy one again. But just switching out our internal combustion engine (ICE) cars for EVs won’t solve our congestion, parking, affordability, safety or climate challenges.

No vehicle, electric or internal combustion engine, can beat walking, biking, or transit in terms of environmental impact, health, risk of harming others and cost. Driving less helps the planet, your neighbors and your wallet. Not owning a vehicle helps even more: no car tax, maintenance and less carbon and waste footprint. Moving around the City with fewer cars will let us devote less land area to parking, will reduce traffic and will be essential to meeting our carbon emissions goals. But if you need a car, the answer is clear when it comes to carbon emissions.

For 95 percent of people in the world, buying an EV would result in lower lifetime emissions than buying a comparable ICE vehicle, according to a Cambridge/Exeter/Nijmegen study. In Virginia, 34 percent of our electricity comes from zero-carbon sources so a new EV starts to emit less lifetime carbon than an ICE after just 10,000 — 15,000 miles (based on U.S. Department of Energy data and an Argonne National Laboratory study). Building and disposing of an EV creates more CO2 than for an ICE, but making electricity is much cleaner than burning gasoline.

Even before this year’s jump in gas prices, Consumer Reports found that EVs tended to save their owners $6,000 — $10,000 over the life of the vehicle versus a comparable ICE car. Used EVs are even cheaper to own. EV sticker prices are still higher than a comparable ICE car. The savings for EV owners start to accumulate after you buy the car. EV fuel costs and maintenance are half of what they are for an ICE. The more miles you put on your car, especially tough miles like city driving or rush-hour traffic, the more savings you’ll see. EVs have held their value well as demand for EVs grows.

EVs have a lot of other benefits: they are much quieter; no oil changes; brakes last several times longer; there are far fewer mechanical bits to break.; they emit almost no pollution. You leave your home each day with a “full tank,” which could be “filled” by home solar. Some EVs provide backup power to your house.

The real challenge with EVs is that you’ll need to do homework. Many dealers aren’t familiar with EVs. You may be steered to an ICE model or get incomplete information. Range anxiety gets a lot of attention, but most households take only 4-6 trips each year that exceed the range of their EV (per U.S. Department of Transportation). On those multi-hour trips, you’ll need a smartphone app to find a charging station along your route. This is getting easier as more stations are installed. For home charging, homeowners may want to make a $500 — $2,000 investment in a fast-charging outlet. Apartment and condo dwellers could be out of luck unless they live in a newer building with chargers, have reliable charging at work, or have access to public charging (e.g., at City Hall.)

These days it can be tough to buy any car you want. New cars are back ordered for months. Used car prices jumped up in 2020-21. If you need a car now, availability may be the deciding factor. Consider buying used, waiting a year or two, or holding off on a purchase altogether. EVs can be a win for the environment and usually a win for your wallet and your time. Automakers expect 50 percent of new cars to be EVs by 2030. Consumer Reports found that over a third of Americans were interested in buying an EV.

If you’re buying a new or late model used car, look hard at EVs. Find a knowledgeable dealer and use well-researched resources. Encourage your government and neighbors to install more public charging stations and ensure new buildings come with chargers. And take a moment to think beyond the car. To keep Falls Church a great place to live, we’ll need to ensure our roads, public spaces and culture support walking, biking and transit, too.