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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Los Angeles Suburbs Try Neighborhood Electric Cars

Air Date: Week of

Climate change laws in California mean cities have to reduce carbon. Increasing mass transit and high density housing are some options. But Redondo Beach and surrounding towns say they’re already dense so they’ve decided to try an experiment. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, they’re taking to the streets with electric cars.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Many American cities and communities are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. In California, it’s the law. To help cut carbon, some places in the state are turning to mass transit in high-density neighborhoods. But several towns south of Los Angeles say so-called “smart growth” isn’t for them. They’re taking a different road - and as Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, that could make all the difference.

LOBET: The cool ocean breeze and the sun are major draws for the 120,000 people who live in the desirable beach towns south of LAX airport.


BACHARACH: Well I think this is a typical neighborhood community, or suburban community - low strip malls and there is a lot of single family housing that is very close together.

LOBET: That’s Jackie Bacharach, executive director of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments. She’s standing outside Redondo Beach’s city hall, a one-story building lined by beautiful native landscaping. She explains why residents here are not going to embrace higher density.

In the small cities of Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach many residents prefer low buildings to dense multistory housing. Pictured is Redondo Beach City Hall. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

BACHARACH: Politically, it’s…I mean, you’re not going to build a four-story building here in Redondo Beach. It’s not going to happen. People around here - not only do they love the low suburban feel, but there’s also views. There’s a lot of view impacts here along the beach. And so people aren’t…they’re just anti-density.

LOBET: Actually these cities are dense, in their own California way.

BACHARACH: There are a lot of apartments, there are really a lot of condos, and our streets are congested. So there’s no place else to go.

LOBET: About five years ago, Bacharach and her colleagues began researching the way people commute and do errands in these South Bay cities. And they found that, except for work, people usually travel less than two miles.

BACHARACH: We found out that people are actually even driving for half-mile trips. So we talk - you know, everybody talks about, ‘Let’s walk, let’s do all these things.’ They’re not doing that - they’re driving.

LOBET: Then California lawmakers passed a bill that requires communities to cut carbon emissions from miles traveled. Officials here had an idea: what if you targeted two-car households and lent people small electric cars for these short trips? Let them hold on to them for a few months. That’s how Nancy Arsenault, who normally drives a minivan, ended up with an electric car.

ARSENAULT: I’m a stay-at-home mom with two kids. And my job is just to drive errands all morning, all day.

LOBET: Arsenault would leave her gasoline minivan parked in the garage.

ARSENAULT: I drove my car, this electric vehicle, so much that one day I had to go to UCLA and I got in my minivan, and it was dead! (Laughs.) That’s how long it was! I mean, can you believe that? That is a real testimonial to that you don’t need a big car.

LOBET: The cars lent to people in this pilot study were not regular highway vehicles, but several models of small, low-speed, limited-range cars. So people had to use different roads to get to familiar places.

ARSENAULT: There is no place in the South Bay that I can’t go in this car.
You can go through neighborhoods, you can get there. And it’s great! It’s great. You feel like your footprint is so light on the earth.

Nancy Arsenault drove an electric car lent to her by the South Bay Cities Council of Governments in Southern California for several months in 2010. The small electrics have limited range, but she says she rarely needed to fire up her gas-powered minivan.

LOBET: Standing next to Arsenault and several of the small electrics is John Conrad. He’s a father of three and a Lutheran pastor who also got one of the cars.

CONRAD: My gas consumption went down by about 50%, I think. I really found that in this particular area, most everything I needed to get to - I could get to doctor’s appointments, grocery store, work, and…

LOBET: I think a lot of people listening would think, ‘Oh, three kids? No way, they couldn’t be candidates for this.’

CONRAD: I love the idea of it being for a kid. Although my oldest one, who drives, she’s like, ‘Well…it’s not as sexy as a car that I -’ (Laughs) she wanted to be seen in public with! (Laughs) But in my opinion, I’d love to have my kids restricted to that only because you know they wouldn’t go too fast.

LOBET: Conrad says his electric bill increased only $10 a month charging the car. Arsenault says hers was closer to $50 a month. The pilot project was small - just 10 households and two businesses. But it generated a load of data about where people go and how long they spend in places where they might recharge. South Bay officials could even determine how many grams of carbon were emitted per person per mile based on the electricity mix in this region. Now the South Bay Council of Government’s David Magarian is working on a larger grant-funded pilot - it’s aimed at more of the 250,000 second and third vehicles in this area.

MAGARIAN: Generally, most people in our country will be driving a large vehicle that could take them to Florida and back, even if they’re just going to their neighborhood grocery store. And what we’re saying is, ‘Sure you might want to own that just in case you do want to drive to Florida and back, but you don’t need to own two of those.’ Your second vehicle should be a neighborhood electric vehicle or some other locally serving vehicle.

SIEMBAB: What this is saying is, ‘Start thinking about what you’re really doing.’ Because right now you don’t think in terms of: where am I going and what do I need? That’s kind of the big turnover in the mind that has to happen.

LOBET: That’s Wally Siembab, research director for the Council of Governments and the idea guy behind several of the experiments here.

SIEMBAB: It’s like buying a computer. You know, you don’t buy a supercomputer to do email. This whole business of finding out the right tool - figuring out - is new in the American motive mind, American consumers’ minds.

LOBET: But Margaret King is skeptical that many people will use a slow, distance-limited car. She directs Cultural Studies and Analysis, a think tank in Philadelphia, and studies how people make choices.

John Conrad has three kids, but found it was easy to use this low speed Wheego Whip electric car as a second car for several months in Redondo Beach, CA. (Photo: David Magarian)

KING: The way we make decisions every day - the first thing that we look at is the loss proposition: not what I have to gain, but what do I have to lose? You have to look at what people are going to give up. And Americans are very tied into their cars because the car is freedom, the car is mobility…

LOBET: …and the car is status, King says. So why did officials opt to use less appealing golf-cart style electric cars in their experiments, rather than, say, fast Nissan Leafs or Chevy Volts that go much farther? In a word, cost. They hope to use more powerful, long-range cars in future efforts. Again, Wally Siembab:

SIEMBAB: Hey, we don’t know, what if we’re wrong? So what? I think the astonishing finding from our research, and from this, is that you really don’t go very far most of the time. In terms of your normal trips, the journey to work is the longest - everything else is really short.

LOBET: Remember, officials here say, they’re at the beginning of their efforts, not the end - not making prescriptions for others. David Magarian:

MAGARIAN: We do know that there are drivers that this wouldn’t be suited for. But for a vast majority of people in the beach cities of the South Bay, this is really a strong strategy that works for many people.

LOBET: Besides the electric cars, local officials’ near-term plans call for reducing the number of suburban car trips by encouraging better retail and services even closer to people’s homes. They say the public cost is almost nil, much less than mass transit - a good fit for an era when government is in the red. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet, in Redondo Beach, California.



South Bay Cities Council of Governments electric car program

Enterprise Fleet Management helped South Bay COG equip its electric cars

Miles Low Speed Electric Vehicles

Wheego Low Speed Electric Vehicles

GEM Low Speed Electric Vehicles

Vantage Electric Low Speed Vehicles

Columbia ParCar Low speed electric Vehicles


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