For the nearly 100,000 visitors to Monterey County during Car Week (and many locals), there’s a dazzling allure to the hundreds of cars on display at dozens of events. There are centuries-old machines still running, racing cars made famous for unfathomable speed, futuristic cars that give a glimpse of the next big thing. This is car culture in all its glory, somehow synonymous with American culture (see story, p. 22).
But it’s past time for us to relegate car culture to museums and the occasional car show. We need to get gas cars off our roads. While the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law on Tuesday, August 16, will help spur a switch from gas to electricity, it is not enough. While local agencies are designing more EV charging infrastructure and offering incentives to help transition our fleet to electric, it’s not enough. We are facing an existential threat, and our society, which over the past century has been shaped by the automobile, must envision a new way of being. We need to give up our obsession with cars, electric or hydrogen or otherwise.
This is not a nostalgic argument against technology. This is about taking meaningful steps to address the climate crisis – and also about creating livable communities. For a story about electric vehicles (p. 26), I spoke to Piet Can from the non-profit organization Ecology Action. “The big picture is to have a system where people live closer to where they work and shop, so they’re less dependent on cars, whether they’re electric or gas,” he says. “That’s the ultimate goal, to create a more sustainable and resilient community.”
Imagine most things in everyday life within walking or cycling (or e-bike) range. But then there’s reality, as Canin admits: “Monterey Bay is a rural/suburban community and things aren’t built that way.”
Here our car culture flows into policy decisions about where and how we build, at least in our relatively dense cities. Sometimes, the connection is painfully obvious. The Monterey City Council voted 3-2 on July 19 to sink a proposal for an affordable apartment building, up to six stories and 64 units, downtown on Adams Street. One reason opponents gave was the lack of parking. Council member Alan Haffa, who cast a dissenting vote (he supported the project), spoke with that lazy, uncreative reasoning: “When are we going to stop fetishizing cars? It’s all about cars and parking,” he said. “What about people and places where people live?”
There is actually a plan for the city of Monterey with a proposal to rethink how and where we build. In 2016, the city adopted a climate action plan, aiming to achieve an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. It’s ambitious, but Mayor Clyde Roberson reached out to LandWatch Monterey County asking for help crafting a more aggressive plan .
LandWatch joined the EcoDataLab group, a consortium of universities using data science to advance climate and sustainability solutions. And Ben Gould of EcoDataLab prepared a strategy for Monterey to reach net zero by 2045.
Part of his draft plan is about transitioning to EVs and improving charging infrastructure. Part of it has to do with building denser, more concentrated communities: “As a result of Monterey’s zoning decisions, tens of thousands of residents and workers are forced into cars, clogging local streets, polluting the air and polluting Monterey Bay with tires. microplastics, while thousands more simply cannot find a home they can afford,” according to the draft report. “These tragedies are completely preventable.”
I asked Gould if we can (and should) expect a broad transition to EVs in the coming years, and he gives a resounding yes. “This buys us a lot of time on climate change. Here we are not ‘perfect is the enemy of good’, he says. “Anyone who drives a gas car (and has the means) has an ethical duty to switch to an EV.”
Before you fear that environmentalists are coming for your cars, garages, and streets, Gould offers a different framework—think safe bike lanes, practical bus routes, fast trains. It’s a future of more choice, not less: “The dream we’re describing is for you to be free to choose how you get to wherever you’re going.”