Electric vehicles charging

Are Electric Vehicles ‘Multimodal’ or Just Less Bad for the Environment?

I first heard the term “multimodal” transportation six or seven years ago. Bicycle commuters and cycling enthusiasts were lobbying to supplant parking with bike lanes along a stretch of Cleveland Avenue that runs through two affluent neighborhoods in St. Paul.

Where would people park? How would businesses survive? Couldn’t bike lanes go on a quieter street?

When I repeated those questions — posed by a vociferous group of business owners that rallied against the lanes — to my neighborhood District Council, the executive director was straightforward. Almost clipped. “Roads are not created just for cars,” I recall her telling me. “Streets should be safe for everyone, including pedestrians and bicyclists.”

I have practiced that definition of “multimodal” in the years since, particularly as a convert to the mental and physical health benefits of commuting on foot to the University of St. Thomas, where I work. So, I was surprised when a leader of our campus Transportation Committee proposed that we promote multimodalism to our students and other stakeholders — faculty, staff members, alumni, visitors — as including electric cars.

Electric vehicles are one of four featured modes on multimodal promotional materials at my workplace. Design by Michelle Wright

“‘Multimodal,’ as I understand it, refers to active transportation that is an alternative to a car,” I wrote my colleagues, a group of socially conscious folks who helped the committee evolve from a focus solely on parking to one that promotes walking, biking, busing, carpooling and even use of scooters and skateboards.

I told them of my efforts to discourage driving among the suburban and outstate students who live in the neighborhoods around campus. “When I describe the term ‘multimodal,’” I said, “I tell students it means walking, running or using a bus, board or bicycle to get where they want to go. It is a practice — sometimes daily, more often occasional — that helps you break the habit of reflexively using a car.”

I sought advice from transportation experts to add punch and bring a degree of professionalism to my argument that we should seek to avoid car use whenever possible. To a person, they agreed with me on the definition of multimodal:

  • “Interesting question,” said Reuben Collins, a transportation planner in the City of Saint Paul’s Department of Public Works. “Sometimes ‘multimodal’ is used to describe anything that isn’t a car, and sometimes it includes cars as well. I do not view electric cars as a different mode than internal combustion cars.”
  • “Single-occupancy vehicles are single-occupancy vehicles,” said Dorrian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and a lobbyist on behalf of active transportation funding. “Electric vehicles are a mode,” he said, “but I worry that they will negate some of the transformation to a culture and land-use patterns that will make biking, walking and transit convenient and safe.”
  • Tim Brackett, co-chair of the streets.mn board, pointed out some downsides of electric vehicles, commonly known as EVs. “Multimodal transportation intends to reduce vehicle miles traveled,” he explained. “EV tires may wear out faster, and that means more pollution. And their weight could be dangerous for pedestrians who get hit.”

Sustainable Commuting Options

In the end, I won the battle — engaging our group in a dynamic conversation and inspiring deeper research — but lost the war. Supervisors of the Minnesota GreenCorps member who staffs the Transportation Committee decided to promote electric vehicles as part of campus multimodalism.

“Although EVs are not the most sustainable solution,” she wrote, “for those in our community who can’t realistically use another mode of transportation, we would like to encourage the use of EVs over gas-powered vehicles.”

The head of our sustainability office agreed, pointing out that EVs are part of the university’s Sustainability Strategic Plan and are referenced in the STARS program’s definition of sustainable transportation. (STARS is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System that colleges and universities use to measure their sustainability initiatives.)

Among the STARS-approved sustainable commuting options, the director said, are “walking, cycling, vanpooling or carpooling, taking public transportation, riding motorcycles or scooters, riding a campus shuttle, using zero-emissions vehicles, telecommuting, distance education, or any combination of these options.”

Indeed, by a pure dictionary definition, multimodal means “having or involving several modes.” One transportation consultant, who has been in the field for decades, referenced a detailed Canadian “Multi-Modal Transportation Planning” document that defines the planning process as considering “various modes — walking, cycling, automobile, public transit, etc. — and connections among modes.”

“First- and last-mile solutions” are key to converting from the convenience of driving to multimodal practices, the consultant explained, quoting the Smart Cities Council: “Riders can take a bus or subway from an inner-city hub to a stop near their destination, then ride a bicycle, walk or use a ride-sourcing service to take them to their homes.”

And that could start to reverse what the Canadian transportation planners describe as a decades-long practice of prioritizing gas-fueled cars in the development of infrastructure, roads and metro areas. “Before about 1940, walking, bicycling and public transit were recognized as important travel modes,” the study says, “but . . . most communities now have well developed road systems that allow motorists to drive to most destinations with relative convenience and safety.”

Simple, But Not Easy

Our discussion of multimodalism at my workplace centered on both ethics and pragmatism, on heated emotions and cool logic.

If our purpose is strictly to discourage use of single-occupancy vehicles — and mine is — then electric cars, if driven solo, are not multimodal. “Although I am a huge fan of electric cars for how they obviously help our planet, and I drive one myself, electric cars, sadly, don’t seem to fit the working definition of multimodal transportation,” one committee member said.

By that definition, he added, carpooling and ride-sharing services would be multimodal, even if they’re conducted in polluting vehicles. “Most Uber and Lyft drivers probably still drive gasoline cars because more than 95 percent of cars on the road are gasoline cars, including hybrids” (like my 2016-model Prius, which feels less virtuous in an era of EVs).

But if, instead, the committee wants “to drive down the use of gasoline cars” on a campus where the majority of people drive alone to work or school, “then electric cars should be part of the definition,” this committee member reasoned.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

As our society breezes toward the steep cliff that is climate change, the solution, it seems, is simple but rarely easy. For most Americans, convenience is key. Many of the students, staff and faculty at my campus drive somewhere every day. Students tell me they don’t have time to walk or bike. Or they can’t imagine lugging home groceries without a vehicle. Or they feel self-conscious standing at a bus stop.

I get it. I’m not immune from compromise. Habit change is hard.

  • I drive less than a mile to my office when I want to hit a yoga class after work because the twice-an-hour bus route allots me only 14 minutes to get there. What if the bus is running late?
  • My walkable grocery store, Whole Foods, cuts into business for the locally sourced food co-ops that I like to support, so I tell myself it’s OK to drive a farther distance to the store I like. Why would I spend money at a chain owned by the founder of anti-labor Amazon?

Like all of us, I’ve learned to justify my anti-climate actions. But I am proud of my climate-positive habits, too, from use of mass transit and walking 16,000 steps a day to refusing to install air-conditioning in my 116-year-old home.

“The things that we can do as individuals are meaningful and important but are not nearly enough,” St. Paul’s chief resilience officer, Russ Stark, told a Union Park District Council audience in early May. “In St. Paul the bulk of greenhouse gases comes from energy used in buildings and from transportation.”

The city has parked two Evie car shares and installed two EV-charging stations on Selby Avenue at the north edge of our campus. More students are joining the Metro Transit training tours we offer to places like Dairy Queen in Rosedale or Cossetta’s in downtown St. Paul.

Our campus GreenCorps member takes the long view. “From a sustainability perspective, walking, biking, boarding and Metro Transit are the preferred modes of transportation, so I would like us to promote these modes the most,” she said, once I lost my bid to replace the EV car with a skateboard in our multimodal logo. And that’s OK. If some in our campus community choose to try an Evie for a grocery run or other errands, that’s one step back from the climate cliff.

Even if it isn’t multimodal.

Photo at top of story courtesy of Michael Fousert on Unsplash

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.