by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
We must transition to zero-emission vehicles. But let’s not pretend that EVs are a panacea. While EVs eliminate tailpipe emissions, they generate significant environmental impacts during manufacturing as well as the same equity, safety, congestion, economic, and livable-city impacts as their gas-powered counterparts. Norway illustrates how over-reliance on EVs can distract us from the more important task of building ecocities that people can navigate on foot, by bicycle, or on public transportation.
Norway leads the world in adoption of electric vehicles due largely to hefty incentives from the national government. EVs represent 87 percent of all new car sales here, compared with 13 percent in the European Union and 7 percent in the United States. In the 1990s, Norway exempted EVs from taxes on car purchases, a significant inducement considering these taxes today average $27,000 per car there. Until recently, EVs could also avoid parking fees and tolls on roads and ferries.
Those policies were originally designed to support two Norwegian EV manufacturers that have since disappeared. But Norway maintained these incentives and made them a focus of climate action goals. That makes perfect sense since Norway’s electricity is largely supplied by hydropower. Today, one quarter of the cars in Norway are electric, which resulted in a 8.3 percent reduction in surface transportation emissions between 2014 and 2023.
However, Norway made EVs so attractive that it produced climate-unfriendly outcomes in terms of car ownership, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and mode split. Wealthy households were able to buy EVs to take advantage of subsidies and low electricity rates, resulting in a ten percent increase in car ownership between 2010 and 2020. But while higher-income households were able to buy one or more EVs, many low-income households have no cars. For example, in the lowest income quartile of Bergen, 67 percent of households are car-less. This has generated claims that the $4 billion in subsidies that Norway gave EV buyers in 2022 represents a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich.
Like many cities, Oslo envisions a future in which residents have no need for a car since they can reach everyday destinations on foot, by bike, or on public transportation. And to a large extent, Oslo has been making that dream a reality. As I wrote in Ecocity Snapshots, Oslo has been transforming former shipbuilding and industrial areas into diverse, multi-use districts where car ownership is unnecessary. But while cities are working to reduce car dependency, Norway’s EV subsidies are having the opposite effect of encouraging car ownership.
Generous subsidies have also hampered ecomobility in Norway by giving EVs a competitive advantage over public transportation. Road tolls partly fund public transportation there. Exempting or reducing tolls for EVs have reduced transit revenue and threaten the future of major transit projects including a new metro line planned for Oslo.
Norway’s current National Transportation Plan emphasizes EVs but does not aim to reduce or even maintain VMT. This imbalance hobbles cities in their efforts to promote transit and active transportation. Bergen warned that driving would increase if the Norwegian Public Roads Administration built a major highway into the city. When the highway opened, the percent of travelers choosing to drive increased from 30 to 40 percent within this corridor.
Norway has recently pumped the brakes on EV incentives in response to these concerns. EV drivers now pay for ferries, roads, and parking albeit at discounted rates. Tax exemptions on EV purchases are now capped at $45,000 and extra costs rise according to the weight of the EV, a factor that closely correlates with vehicle price. In addition to addressing equity issues, the next national transportation plan includes goals for reducing VMT which should lead to greater emphasis on transit and active transportation.
After pioneering EV adoption, Norway may hopefully become a role model for putting EVs within the context of a more holistic vision for cities. That vision, as expressed in the Ecocity Standards, begins with compact, energy-efficient cities linking multi-use neighborhoods that are not car dependent because residents can easily access jobs, schools, parks, and other everyday destinations by walking, bicycling, public transportation, and other forms of ecomobility.
Pruetz. R. 2016. Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places. Accessible at https://www.amazon.com/Ecocity-Snapshots-Learning-Europes-Greenest/dp/0692794654.
Zipper, D. 2023. Why Norway – the poster child for electric cars – is having second thoughts. Vox. Accessed at https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/23939076/norway-electric-vehicle-cars-evs-tesla-oslo.