Villaraigosa: Subsidies for People Who Can Afford a $100,000 Car Key to Our Green Future

12_2_09_light_bulb.jpgThe mayor has always been a fan of electricity.

It seems that every year when the car show rolls into town that there’s at least one moment that makes me want to bang my head into a cement wall.  Remember when the Sierra Club and other environmental groups named an SUV the "green car of the year" in 2007?

This year’s frustration comes in the form of a press conference held by Mayor Villaraigosa, also attended by Council President and electric car driver Eric Garcetti and other dignitaries, announcing that the city is going to spend tens of millions of dollars to subsidize the upper class’ ability to buy cars that cost at least $110,000.  That’s right, in a time when our city’s bus service is so tapped out fiscally that they’re planning cuts that make OCTA’s recent round look enlightened; the city is rushing to meet a demand that doesn’t exist for electric cars.

Included in the Mayor’s Christmas gift to the upper class is a two thousand dollar "subsidy" to people installing automobile charging stations in their house, a promise to allow electric vehicles to park for free at city meters, tax rebates or reduced sales taxes on electric vehicles, preferential parking similar to that afforded the handicapped at public venues, and a reduced cost to charge your vehicle at non-peak hours.  The city will also lead other Southern California cities in creating a network of public charging stations.  Building up our public infrastructure is one thing.  Giving $10 million to some of our most well-to-do citizens after they buy a high-tech car is something else entirely.

Most frustratingly, Villaraigosa made the following comment at the press conference.  From LA Now:


“Every year we read with consternation that we’re either No. 1 in
traffic congestion or No. 1 in air pollution,” he said at the Los
Angeles Convention Center, as workers inside set up exhibits and booths
for the L.A. Auto Show, which starts Dec. 4. “We realized that we
needed to find new, cleaner ways to travel.”

And that is what passes for "Green Leadership" in Southern California.  A politician that can both complain about traffic congestion and announce a subsidy for car buyers in the same breath.

Given the choice between roads clogged with gas guzzling cars or electric cars; it is clear that everyone is better off with the electric cars.  But when you factor in the dire straight of our transit system, the unfunded mandate from the "Bike Plan with No Teeth," and a national report that came out weeks ago slamming Greater Los Angeles’ investment in safe streets for pedestrians; spending tens of millions of city dollars in a budget crisis for the sliver of well-off Angelenos that can afford to drop six digits on a high-tech car seems a bit out of touch.  Maybe to help our elected leaders get a better understanding of what life is like for the vast majority of the people living in this city, they should start taking a couple of furlough days themselves.

  • Brent

    I think the opinion here is on the wrong side of the issue. Yes, we desperately need better bicycle lanes and paths, more subways, etc., but electric cars will also be necessary and vital part of our multi-modal transportation future. I cannot image, for instance, that the city will ever provide transit to large swaths of Los Angeles. Short of displacing the people who live in such regions, the electric car will be the only clean and effective option.

    We need to encourage people to buy electric cars. We need to have the charging infrastructure in place as soon as the cars are available.

    This program is not too expensive, and certainly not by comparison to the hundreds of millions that the mayor wants to spend on the Subway to the Sea. Nor is this policy about subsidizing the rich, although it’s true that the only widely available electric car now is the $109,000 Tesla Roadster. In the next two years, when at least five new, (more) affordable electric cars come to market, I expect the numbers of electric cars on LA roads to rise considerably. (I will likely be among those buyers who trade in my gasoline car for an electric.) Whether you buy a Chevrolet Volt, Fisker Karma, Tesla Model S (built in Downey!), a Nissan Leaf, a plugin Prius, an electric Mini, or electric Smart, you’re going to want a place to recharge when you’re away from home.

    I welcome this future, and I commend the mayor on his vision.

  • Erik

    I can’t get too upset about this. The program will be too small to do any real harm. And it will actually help those who have the money choose electric.

    But I do agree w/ the lack of understanding of the problem and the solution.

  • Nancy

    Yes! Thanks for seeing through the smoke & mirrors. I saw the LA Times Tweet this story, and was so angry at the headline. It’s just another bailout for major car companies and Edison. Plus with the remark about traffic congestion – who is he kidding? Just what we need, bumper to bumper traffic with electric cars. I bet that $10 million would go far if applied to add Metro Rapid buses or extending the LA River path.


  • I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago that 20% of a car’s total lifetime carbon emissions come from its manufacturing – thus causing me to really think if creating new products to address and reduce greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions will really be. I do recognize that carbon emissions are one part of a larger problem – but something important to think about.

  • David Galvan

    Electric cars will become more plentiful and cheaper to buy over the coming decade. At this time, it DOES make sense to encourage those who can afford it to buy electric cars. The more electric cars selling, the higher the demand, and the greater incentive for car-makers to innovate and ramp up production of the cars, which will in turn reduce costs.

    Also, I think the anti-car tone in this post is misplaced. This subsidy is NOT likely to put more cars on the road. It is more likely to REPLACE a (wealthy) person’s gas-powered vehicle with an electric-powered vehicle, which you’ve already admitted in your post is an improvement. A person can only drive one car at a time. So, switching people from gas to electric cars is not going to make traffic any worse than it would be if people kept driving their gas-powered cars.

    I am not convinced this will have any affect on traffic at all, and (without getting into an argument about the environmental impact of batteries) the immediate enviornmental impact will be good.

  • I added a line to the story above because the infrastructure isn’t a concern and might actually be a good thing. However, I really, really don’t like the parking subsidies and the $2000 give aways for private improvements.

  • DJB

    Subsidizing parking is definitely not a good idea. If you think about it, in downtown, that subsidy can be worth $4/hour indefinitely. When you subsidize parking, you’re subsidizing traffic, and as Jessica pointed out, there are life-cycle impacts to consider for all vehicles (there’s no such thing as a zero impact vehicle, but some are better than others). There’s got to be a way to invest in a range of thoughtful alternative transportation subsidies, from complete streets to bus/rail lines, to electric cars. It’s just tough now because the city’s budget pie is shrinking.

  • Nancy

    @David Galvan

    I think the point in this article is misunderstood.

    Diverting money from mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects leaves people who are in their cars now still in their cars in the future – gas-powered or not – and still clogging up freeways.

  • zota

    It’s not clear from the article how much of the $10 million is coming from LA’s transit budget, or even from the city of LA. The “partners” listed are four cities, three car companies, and two power companies. I really don’t want our transit budget wasted on amenities for fancy cars, but I would *love* to see car companies investing in the infrastructure for cleaner cars rather than glossy ads.

    Also, not sure where the $110,000 figure is from. The Tesla sedan and the Volt are priced at less than half that.

    Could we get more information before going full bore outrage?

  • David Galvan

    I agree that the parking subsidies are not a good idea. But from an environmental perspective I do like the subsidies to encourage people to buy electric cars.

    Maybe I’m missing something: Is Villaraigosa proposing to fund this from money that was originally marked for mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects? If so, then I’ll agree with you. But my understanding is that is not the case. In which case you should be complaining about every expenditure that is not specifically slated for mass transit funding.

    Improving mobility and live-ability in this city does not have a single absolute solution. Even in a version of L.A. with double the projected mass-transit improvements on the plan for the coming few decades, there will still be plenty of situations in which the car is the most convenient method of getting from point a to point b. As long as that is the case, there will be a significant number of people who choose to drive instead of using alternate modes of transportation. This plan will encourage such people to take a look at electric vehicles, which are better for our local air quality and the global environment.

    Is there no room in your agenda of improved mobility for improved auto transportation? Do you never ride in an automobile?

  • Nancy

    @David Galvan

    “In which case you should be complaining about every expenditure that is not specifically slated for mass transit funding.”

    Ha ha. I pretty much do.

    In regards to agenda, I’m not car-free, if that’s what you mean. I live in an area woefully under-served by bus, rail and bike paths, and am in the process of making major life changes like moving and potentially switching jobs to rectify that.

    If you look at plans like Measure R and the NBC/Universal boondoggle, they are both full of improved mobility projects for auto transportation. The reason why it’s so much easier to get around LA with a car rather than a bus, train, bicycle or via ambulation is no accident. The car industry (makers, insurance, oil, DMV tax revenue, fine revenue, I could go on and on) is very powerful, and auto transportation is the priority in this city – this is exactly why we are known as the “city of sprawl” – and everything else has taken a back seat to that agenda.

    Anyway, I’m sorry to get so fired up about this. I just got back from Tokyo, and used the subway there for days. And it was amazing. I must be going through withdrawal.

  • Electric cars are a F**KING JOKE.

    Dear environmentalist/green smoke blowers,

    You are not preventing global warming buy buying a “green” car.

    This is an insane policy in a time of budget austerity and a plethora of cheap, fast, and easy solutions that take us beyond private automobiles.

    Please, get a clue (or do we need to offer a subsidy for that too?).

  • These comments are so LA “What do you mean the electric car isn’t going to solve all our problems! Didn’t you see the Prius ad! It turns the Earth into a happy smiley party and I’ve even seen it walk on water!” God damn, I have to get that lawsuit together…

    Electric cars are a total boondoggle; buying green is an oxymoron. The manufacture and disposal of electric cars will be just as horrendous as traditional cars, if not worse considering the toxic battery chemicals involved. And where does all that electricity come from…did you say solar panels? Coal.

    Electric cars still need freeways, and parking structures, and still destroy the urban fabric of life, and still get stuck in traffic, and will still kill thousands of people every year.

    If we were talking serious car share here, with electric vehicles, as Stephen Box has been brilliantly writing on the shit show over at Hollywood Rent A Car, that might actually reduce our dependency, then maybe we’d be talking progress. But this is just more yuppie Soma and “Public-Private” giveaways.

  • Dude, you want a fricking subsidy – subsidize a bicycle purchase!

    Let’s look at the country’s who have actually reduced their green house emissions while maintaining a high quality of life. Was the electric car the answer? Hell no it wasn’t.

    Re-purposing the rights of way, and taxing the hell out of automobiles, was part of their solution.

    “Oh no, without cars, suburbia will die! ‘Merica is withering! We’ll have to live next to the illegals in downtown LA! I don’t want live next to my housekeeper – she’s filthy!”

  • DJB

    The simple truth is America is too dependent to cars, and that dependence is too ingrained in the urban form to solve problems like climate change in time without cleaning cars.

    Ramonchu points out that most of our electricity comes from fossil fuels. That’s true, and it underscores the need to switch to things like solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal, etc. That’s something that HAS TO HAPPEN if we’re going to get climate change under control. It’s a two-step maneuver (i.e. electrify the vehicles and green the electricity).

    Electric cars and plug-in hybrids aren’t perfect, but they are an indispensable PART of the solution in our sprawled out country and will be for decades to come. The mistake most people make is to conclude that cleaner cars are enough. They aren’t. We also need to change transportation modes.

  • Brent

    A. “The manufacture and disposal of electric cars [may be] worse considering the toxic battery chemicals involved.”

    Most (all?) of the major electrics manufacturers use lithium ion batteries. Lithium is not currently classified as toxic, and is highly recyclable. In fact, Tesla Motors plans to recycle all used batteries, and factors the recycling value into the cost of the car.

    B. “And where does all that electricity come from…did you say solar panels? Coal.”

    This “long tailpipe” argument has been beaten to death by so many people. It falls short on several measures. 1) Even assuming one-hundred percent coal, electric cars generally come out better than gasoline in CO2 emissions (look up white papers at 2) Electricity can be generated and used cleanly. Oil cannot be generated or burned cleanly no matter what you do. 3) Oil refineries use massive amounts of electricity to make gasoline. By some estimates, refining a gallon of gasoline uses enough to electricity to propel an electric car some 30 miles. Driving a gasoline car means you get to pollute with both the short AND long tailpipe. 4) I’ve got more, but I’ll stop here…

    C. “Electric cars still need freeways, and parking structures, and still destroy the urban fabric of life, and still get stuck in traffic, and will still kill thousands of people every year.”

    No major argument here. But cars are with us forever. Even in Amsterdam/Copenhagen, cities that have spent massively on bicycle infrastructure, cars still make up at least 1/3 of trips.

    I don’t think I want cars to go away altogether. I want a better city, with less car usage, but when my octogenarian, ailing aunt needs to visit the doctor, I want to be able to pick her up and drive her there. When I need a piano delivered, I want roads and a truck that can get it to me. When I go to the grocery store, I want the shelves to be stocked. Cut out roads and cars and trucks, and the fabric of daily life becomes awful, with problems far worse than those that traffic jams and ugly parking ever caused.

  • Electric cars are use an energetically inefficient storage medium to propel a human being. you will NEVER approach the calories you get from fossil fuels. The world of easy motoring is done. Give it up. Sure, there will be a limited market for electric automobiles and biofuel. Hooray.

    The reality is that we need to transition away from land use, road way planning, and policies that encourage private auto use in our cities. Does a $2,000 subsidy for cars (on top of all the other subsidies cars get) make sense?

    And lithium, as clean as it is, comes from a few places on this planet – and that supply is not inexhaustible: Bolivia, China, the US, and a few other pockets. So, assuming all goes according to plan, “Peak Lithium” is a distinct possibility.

  • I agree with Brent. To make the necessary significant reduction in transportation GHG emissions and oil dependency we need to do ALL of these, as rapidly as possible:

    1. Reduce VMT – via transit, biking, walking, shorter & fewer trips
    2. Increase vehicle efficiency
    3. Move to renewable energy sources, which are mostly electric – solar, wind, geothermal

    Even San Francisco – with high density, extensive transit, expensive parking, and admirably low VMT per capita – has many motor vehicles.

    If Los Angeles increases density along transit and becomes more pedestrian-oriented, it will still have large areas of auto dependency. It would be a huge economic, energy, and resource cost to rebuild the city.

    The average car lasts 15 years, so it’s important to incent rapid expansion of electric vehicles. But I wouldn’t include SOV access to HOV lanes or free parking.

  • Great Darrell, so what of that list are we actually spen 10 million on?

  • David Galvan

    Come on now, Ubrayj. This is not an all-or-nothing (bike/walk and you’re good, drive a car and you’re bad) situation. Cars will be here in L.A. indefinitely, no matter how much anyone whines about it. Do you want those cars to get cleaner and rely more on renewable energy? If so, than I don’t see how you can be anti-electric car. The electric cars will immediately create less pollution (local and global) than their gasoline predecessors, and have the potential to have even less of an environmental impact as the electric powerplants transitions to more renewable means of energy production. Gas powered cars don’t have those prospects.

    Would you support the electrification of railways? Or would you think that is a waste of money, and we should keep on using diesel fuel in trains forever?

    The economic truth is that electric cars require a big financial risk by any private company interested in producing them, because the infrastructure for supporting electric cars (charging stations instead of gas stations, etc.) hasn’t been sufficiently distributed yet. Hence the inconvenience of not being able to immediately re-fuel or only park at a few places will mean there is not a high demand for these cars from the public, and the car company will lose lots of money (one of the several causes for GM dropping the EV-1). Now, we could simply wait until peak oil causes oil prices to skyrocket, and then rush to convert to electric in an economically critical situation, or we could start investing taxpayer money in encouraging this transition now. I’d rather be in control of this transition than at the behest of the free market economy, since it is going to happen either way. Taking action to prepare is always worthwhile, and when the free market economy doesn’t naturally provide for that preparation, that’s when it’s time for government to step in. It can afford to take the risk that car companies alone cannot.

    And 10 million dollars is chump change in comparison to the money spent on widening freeways in this city. If you want to complain about something that encourages sprawl, that’s a better target. Complaining that cars are getting more environmentally friendly seems like a waste of your time.

  • It is an either/or because spending to maintain the status quo of car-only living prevents cycling and other modes from being prioritized by our government.

    I see in the posts above this whole line about ow “cars are here to stay” – to which i reply, “So? Why is that a reason to double down on the car subsidies all the time?”

    I also see you transit types talk about how LA will never be able to support the entire city using public transit unless we also use cars. Have you considered that vast swaths of LA County are going to be in for it in the near future? All this “green shoots” stuff about global trade and finance isn’t trickling down to the local level. Our government at every level is going broke. The reality is that we cannot afford to pay for people to live in dumb places. They are not dumb for being peaceful, quiet places to raise a family – no, they are dumb because they require everyone to pay massive amounts of money to maintain civilized life.

    Parts of Detroit have contracted, and gone wild. I predict certain sections of LA will do the same thing in the next decade. You can see it happening in parts of LA already. Quite frankly, why is it so important to maintain the 20th Century’s poor planning decisions? That is what this (yet another) car subsidy is all about.

    Finally, $10 million is NOT chump change. The entire city of LA’s Bike Plan can be built out for approx. $60 million. $10 million can pave a lot of sidewalks, and traffic calm a lot of streets. There are so many basic city services that can be provided for, I am stunned and insulted that our mayor would do this.

  • Come on Brent, didn’t you see the latest Bond flick? Lithium under the Bolivian desert? Your “green” car is run by rare minerals mined from exploited parts of the world thousands of miles away…man, that doesn’t sound much different than what we’ve got going now, huh?

    I like how you cite the guys who’re selling the shit, good stuff, no conflict of interest there. And then the whole better than gas powered cars paragraph is mute not only by the fact that less than 3% of LA’s electricity is “clean” but then by your whole next paragraph.

    And then the kicker: I love when people cite the fact the 1% of the time when you need a car is reason to have a car 100% of the time. Look, I said CARSHARE didn’t I, and I’m not down to get rid of the roads, cause then what would I ride my bike and talk to pretty girls on when we get this shit right and realize STREETS ARE FOR PEOPLE. Copenhagen’s “massive” expenditures on bicycles are guaranteed to be a minuscule fraction of what they spend on roads; but they’ll fix all that soon enough.

    When I go to a supermarket I think, how the hell do people eat all this packaged crap from half way around the world. Stop accepting everything as FUbeyondrepair and ride your bike already will yah?

  • Marcotico

    David, I generally agree with your point but you did contradict yourself in one respect :

    “And 10 million dollars is chump change in comparison to the money spent on widening freeways in this city. If you want to complain about something that encourages sprawl, that’s a better target.”

    If we subsidize the continued use of Single occupant vehicles, even if they are green then there will be continued pressure to widen the freeways. In fact there will be even more pressure, because pro-auto anti-transit types like the Reason Foundation will argue that there is no downside in the future to auto dependence.

  • Brent

    “Your ‘green’ car is run by rare minerals mined from exploited parts of the world thousands of miles away”

    I’m not sure lithium is rare, as seawater contains huge stores of it. It’s difficult to extract, but efforts are underway to make this easier. Too, lithium doesn’t go away upon use, unlike oil. Once mined, it can be reused indefinitely, which makes possible batteries made from “post-consumer” content.

    In any case, I would argue that lithium from any source exploits fewer people than oil from the Middle East.

  • Erik G.

    Must Have MORE Cars so LADOT can be justified in continuing to advocate “Must Move MORE Cars”!

  • David Galvan


    Well, I’m of the opinion that pressure to widen freeways (I assume you mean interest aggregation and outcries about traffic from the public) will continue to build whether or not we encourage (through subsidy) adoption of electric cars. If we do, then yes more people will replace their gas-powered cars with electric cars, then get on the freeway and complain about the traffic. If we don’t subsidize electric cars (or any cars), then people will keep driving their gas-powered cars, and get on the freeway and complain about the traffic. As long as the city’s populations keeps increasing, and driving remains the overwhelmingly dominant means of transportation, this pressure will exist. The only way I can think of to alleviate that is to provide realistic and convenient alternate means of transportation. More “green lines” along the major freeways, for example.

    And, regardless, I would prefer the government to not even bow to that “pressure” in some cases. I have plenty of conservative-minded friends who still recognize that widening the 405 is not going to provide much of a benefit in the long run. Plus, they can see the negative impact that construction of the additional 405 lanes has had on traffic in the lead-up to putting the lanes in service. People (ie: voters) are smart about that. And, thankfully, I don’t think the influence of the Reason Foundation is strong enough to outweigh what people notice every day on their drive to work.

    The subsidization of infrastructure that would encourage people to purchase electric cars instead of gas-powered ones is simply a strategy to give those companies planning to sell electric cars enough of a boost so that those efforts don’t immediately collapse, as has happened with previous attempts. I, for one, think that’s worth 10 million bucks.

  • David Galvan


    “I see in the posts above this whole line about ow “cars are here to stay” – to which i reply, “So? Why is that a reason to double down on the car subsidies all the time?””

    . . . uh, because the vast majority of the population is dependent on cars, and the government wants to take realistic actions that would improve the situation by reducing the environmental / geopolitical impact of our way of life? The government realizes that it is unrealistic to expect the majority of the population to radically change their lifestyles. But gradual changes introduced by encouraging cleaner modes of transit (like electric cars) ARE realistic.

    “Have you considered that vast swaths of LA County are going to be in for it in the near future?”

    Certain sections, yes. All sections, no. The destitution of Detroit has more to do with GM’s inability to compete with foreign car companies than anything related to sprawl. It’s not that people have suddenly given up buying cars, it’s just they had stopped buying American cars. The world is not ending in some sort of cataclysm here due to sprawl here. We take gradual actions to adapt before that happens. I live in Sherman Oaks and commute by car to Pasadena. Do I expect either of those neighborhoods to be decimated due to over-speculations by land developers. Nope. Might I one day pursue buying a more fuel efficient car in order to take a step to reduce my impact on the environment? Yep.

    “Quite frankly, why is it so important to maintain the 20th Century’s poor planning decisions? That is what this (yet another) car subsidy is all about.”

    I think it’s a bit misleading for you to group this effort in with all other “car subsidies”. Providing tax incentive for buying electric cars is not going to encourage more people to drive. It’s going to encourage more people to change the TYPE of car they drive. A cyclist who is commuting by bicyle because he’s found that it makes his commute more convenient or healthy or enjoyable is not going to suddenly decide to stop that because he can get a tax subsidy on an electric car charging station in his home. But a car commuter for whom cycling is an unrealistic means of accomodating his daily commute might change from 20-30 mpg sedan to an electric car.

    “Finally, $10 million is NOT chump change. The entire city of LA’s Bike Plan can be built out for approx. $60 million.”

    I’d love to see the full Bike Plan built out as well! (Where do I sign or pledge or vote?) But that doesn’t mean I think we should pull all other transportation-related funding just to focus on one aspect: bicycles. Even when we have a fully-built bike plan with bike paths going everywhere, the majority of the population is still going to get around either by driving or public transit. It’s great when people can live their lives relying only on a bicycle, but if you look at the numbers for a city the size of L.A., there’s no way cycling is ever going to rise above a minority constituent of travelers. In certain neighborhoods it will, but when you take the city as a whole it won’t, and the city government has to make policy decision based on the city as a whole.

  • I wonder what the world would have looked like to you prior to car becoming the dominant form of transportation. “Everyone uses horses. Politicians are blah blah blah.”

    What is coming next is a world without an ever-expanding energy source we can pump from the ground. Electric cars are not a break with the old way of doing things. We’ll be burning coal to power those things in an energetically inefficient process to improve “air quality”.

    The problem is not that we drive cars that pollute, the problem is that too many of us drive! Electric or otherwise, automobile use is forced on the population through heavy-handed state interference. This is yet another disincentive for someone to do something other than hop in a car.

  • Spokker

    Even if you run electric cars off of renewable energy, they are still cars with the capacity to kill and injure. They will still make for uncomfortable streets and congestion will not go away.

  • Quote from “The Future of Electric Vehicles: Setting the Record Straight on Lithium Availability“:

    “Based on data from U.S. National Research Council reports produced over the last 30 years and augmented in the interim by many subsequent discoveries of lithium the fact is that lithium deposits are large. In a report on a major conference on lithium supply and demand held in Chile in January 2009, the conference Chairman stated, ‘What speakers in the Santiago event demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt is that lithium resources are large enough to cover any rationally conceivable demand.'”

  • John

    Pollution and carbon emissions are serious issues, but I would argue that even if cars ran on MAGIC we should rely on them far less. The social costs of everyone relying on a private automobile is simply too much.

    The magic car still wastes time because it gets stuck in traffic. Providing the infrastructure for it is still very expensive and takes a up a lot of space. It still contributes to sprawl and sedentary lifestyles and there will still be accidents and drunk drivers. The magic car will still drain every user thousands of dollars in insurance and maintenance.


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