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Electric Vehicles

Suburbia Is the Real Battleground for Electric Cars

It’s okay if rural America doesn’t want EVs.

An Ioniq and a pickup truck.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Hyundai

Where I am from, people worry about making good time. Nebraska small talk regresses not to what route you took — the California concern — but how fast you got there. Rather than get on a plane, people from the Great Plains will undertake a 10-hour drive to Cousin Rob’s in Dallas and rue that they could’ve done it in nine and a half if not for all the construction. Dads refuse to stop on long drives for this very reason.

Electric cars aren’t great for making great time. Even though charging speeds are getting faster, the leisurely pace of the EV break can’t compare to the Cannonball Run pit stop: pump gas, use the restroom, and get back on the road within five minutes. EVs are not (yet) ideal for other, more practical rural concerns. The punishing winter temperatures of North Dakota can sap a battery’s driving range. So does towing the boat to the lake. Flyover country is full of state highways where there is nary a fast-charger in sight.

Those are among the reasons the residents of rural America hesitate to embrace the EV. There is a tribal impetus, too: Rural areas are heavily Republican and more likely to reject electric cars on the basis of political identity. This fact may spell trouble for the Detroit auto giants trying to sell EV pickup trucks to die-hard combustion loyalists and for goals of making America an all-EV nation anytime soon. But when it comes to climate, maybe it’s not a crisis.

Like any environmental issue, the EV question is about scale. To reduce the carbon pollution of the transportation sector, it’s not enough for a few people to trade in their gas-guzzling Ford Expeditions for Mustang Mach-Es. Most people need to do it to take a chunk out of emissions.

Fortunately, electric vehicles work best where people are concentrated. City dwellers generally drive shorter distances than rural residents during errands and commutes, meaning an EV with decent range can cover their everyday needs. Even those at the exurban extents of major metropolitan areas are generally close enough to city centers to make a round trip without charging in the middle.

Charging infrastructure follows the population maps, too. As the country scales up its supply of level 3 fast chargers, it still makes the most sense to put the vast majority of those plugs in cities and along the Interstate System where those urbanites do most of their driving. This drives a feedback loop that will continue to make electric driving more enticing to city people than country people.

For those rooting for mass adoption of EVs, this is good news. According to sustainability researchers at the University of Michigan, 83% of Americans now live in urban areas, up from 64% in 1950. That number could approach 90% by mid-century. The United States, despite its small town self-mythologizing, is an urban country that grows more urban by the day, and that means most people live in a location where an EV could meet their daily driving needs.

(Also, urban areas should embrace EVs to reduce the health-damaging air pollution from ICE tailpipes, which concentrates in places with lots of people, and therefore cars. In rural places where people are spread out and dozens of cars don’t sit idling as a herd during freeway traffic, this is a less pressing concern.)

The fact that electric driving would prove more challenging for rural America sounds like grim news for climate change, since according to one study, they have a 20% larger carbon footprint compared to their urban counterparts, a difference largely attributed to home heating and to driving longer distances. But, again, the question is about scale. Even though living in the boonies necessitates emitting more carbon, there are just so many more metropolitan Americans. The best way to make a big dent in transportation emissions is to get metro residents — the 83% — to embrace the life electric.

Eventually, the EV revolution will reach the countryside, but those who prefer combustion driving will be able to keep doing so for a long time to come. Even if the nation followed the California goal of making the light-duty vehicle market 100% electric by 2035, that’s only new cars. (California banned the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment, but I still hear plenty of small-engine leaf blowers at work around Los Angeles every afternoon.) Vehicles are better-built than they’ve even been and last on the road for more than a decade, meaning there’ll be plenty of gas-burners on the highway deep into the 2040s. It will just become more expensive to fuel and to service them as the country’s infrastructure and mechanic shops finally move away from combustion.

Just like America’s presidential elections, the country’s EV battle may be won or lost in the suburbs.

Consider one recent research project, which found that while rural residents emit more carbon than city-dwellers, it’s suburbanites who are the very worst. They drive more than those who live in the center city and might have access to decent public transportation. And, on average, they earn more than truly rural residents, which is correlated with a higher carbon footprint. That project studied Austria, but the Brookings Institute found the same thing in the United States: “In metropolitan regions, suburbs emit up to four times the household emissions of their urban cores. While households located in more densely populated neighborhoods have a carbon footprint 50% below the national average, those in the suburbs emit up to twice the average.”

To put it another way: It’s suburbanites who could potentially do the most climate good by switching to EVs. Plus, they are potentially affluent enough to afford electric vehicles. They’re also likely to have garages and driveways to make charging at home a simpler affair compared to the apartment-dweller who has little control over whether their landlord puts plugs in the parking lot. (Mine didn’t.)

Certainly suburbia has its share of MAGA rank-and-file who dismiss EVs as the choice of the woke, as well as Towing Dads who’ll hold out until electric pickup range can match that of gas. Yet the politically purple ‘burbs may be ruled by the pragmatists, or people who’ll happily buy an EV — just as soon as they’re convinced it’s the right economic choice for their families, or, perhaps, as soon as everybody else at their kids’ school starts getting one.

Sources like David Rapson of the University of California, Davis have told me these buyers are the tipping point for the mass adoption of the electric vehicle. It makes sense: EVs may never convince their entrenched opponents to ditch internal combustion, but they don’t have to. If the bulk of Americans make the jump and begin driving the kids to practice on battery power, that’s an enormous chunk of carbon that’s simply not emitted.

Transportation is about the right technology for the right situation. EVs are a just-okay choice for dense urban centers — they’re better than gas cars, but thoughtful city planning could help people choose greener and better solutions such as cycling and mass transit. For car-reliant suburbs and exurbs, EVs hold the key to drastically reducing carbon emissions. In truly rural America, the best choice for years to come might be burning gasoline. And maybe that’s fine — as long as the country’s population centers get with the program.


Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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