EVs Are Good, But Maybe Not the Best for Cities

Walking or biking are much better urban options

  • Noise pollution is constant in cities and damages your health. 
  • Electric vehicles are much quieter at city speeds. 
  • Bikes and walking are even quieter, and safer than driving.
Aerial view of a clover leave onramp/exist system on a busy interstate system.

Denys Nevozhai / Unsplash

Noise pollution is a massive problem in cities, and vehicles are a big part of that. Electric vehicles (EVs) can help, but should we even have cars in cities?

When we think about pollution, we think of air pollution, and in the case of cars, it's about tailpipe emissions that ruin air quality in cities. But other forms of pollution can be just as harmful and way more annoying. Road noise is a constant, and if you live near a supermarket or similar, delivery trucks can be more intrusive than planes flying overhead. EVs can help with this and make cities more livable. 

"As early as 1981, The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified that the noise pollution produced by traffic can be harmful to people's health," classic car transporter Joe Giranda told Lifewire via email. "A way to lower this is by getting more people to switch to EVs. MSN confirms that EVs produce very little sound at low speeds because of the absence of internal combustion engines. This can be a great benefit if you live in a city or suburb where noise pollution is a problem."

It's More Than Engine Noise

Car noise isn't just about engine noise. It also depends on the car's shape and road surface. EVs are particularly quiet at low speeds, where tire and wind noise are negligible, and therefore the biggest noise benefit from EVs can be enjoyed in towns and cities. 

So quiet are EVs that, in the US at least, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires EVs moving at up to 19mph to generate a sound to warn pedestrians somebody more important wants to get through. 

Two people using a bike in an urban park area.


This law also covers hybrid vehicles, which enjoy the same low noise and zero emissions benefits when traveling at slow city speeds. 

But the existence of laws that let drivers continue to sonically plow inconvenient pedestrians out of their way highlights an even more obvious solution. Remove cars from cities entirely. 

Making Cities Car-Free

In the US, especially out west, cities are built around cars. Changing that might not be an overnight task, but it's possible. There are two parts to any plan. One is to offer good alternatives to cars. Public transit, bike lanes, bike sharing schemes, and infrastructure favor people, not cars. 

The other part is to make it harder to drive in cities, cutting access, blocking shortcuts that turn residential streets into rush-hour 'rat-runs,' and making it more expensive to enter the city. 

"Cities across Europe have done a really great job at scaling back car use in recent decades and should be looked to as a blueprint for other cities around the world that are interested in reducing vehicular traffic. One technique that's proven to be immensely successful is the application of a congestion charge, which charges drivers a set fee for driving in highly trafficked zones during usual business hours. When London introduced the measure in 2003, it reduced city traffic by 33% and significantly freed up the roads," Trevor Smith, director of EV infrastructure at Ameresco, told Lifewire via email.

Often, these two ideas go hand in hand.

People using bicycles for transportation in Italy.

Gabriella Clare Marino / Unsplash

"Cities have also seen success in reducing car usage by replacing parking spaces with car-free streets and bike lanes, as well as setting restrictions on the number of cars that are allowed to enter city centers."

And it's already happening. Paris has been closing city streets to cars over the past decade and, despite protests, is succeeding. Mayor Anne Hidalgo plans to turn it into a 15-minute city where everything you need is within easy reach. 

Barcelona has its "superblocks," which turn 9x9 sections of its gridded Eixample neighborhoods into traffic-calmed islands. And there's everybody's favorite example, Copenhagen. 

It might seem difficult to achieve Copenhagen-level bike use and pedestrianization somewhere like New York, but that's only if you think big change can be achieved with no work. Thirty years ago, Copenhagen was just as traffic-choked and car-blighted as any other city. All it takes is a will and constant improvements. 

Car-free cities are a bit like legal weed. It seems impossible for decades, and then it seems to happen everywhere, all at once. Let's get a move on.

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