Unforeseen Impacts and the Value of Gradual Transformations

Adam Minter wrote a great piece earlier this month about electric taxis in Beijing. Beijing has set an ambitious goal for itself to replace the city’s entire fleet of gasoline-powered taxis with electric vehicles. The conversion, initiated in 2011, has been happening fairly rapidly ever since. In many ways, the policy seems very logical: Beijing has major problems with air pollution, why not remove one of the major polluting culprits?


Yet a conversion of that scale isn’t as easy as simply mandating that all taxi companies purchase electric vehicles. For one thing, electric vehicles are more expensive than gasoline-powered vehicles, putting a greater financial burden on the taxi companies and ultimately on the passenger. For another, electric vehicles require charging stations, and a large influx in electric vehicles on the road requires a large influx in charging stations—something that hasn’t yet happened in Beijing. As a result, there have been long wait times for those seeking to charge their vehicles. And now the economics of being a taxi driver in Beijing look a lot less appealing.


This is a great example to serve as a much-needed warning for cities across the globe. While many metropolitan areas are laudably focused on making their cities more sustainable, sustainability doesn’t happen with a handful of policies—or a simple electric vehicle mandate. Rather sustainability takes many years to achieve and is generally the product of many smaller policies that are focused in the right direction.


Take Vancouver, for example. Last year, over 50 percent of trips in Vancouver were taken by walking, biking, public transportation or some mode other than driving. Yet they didn’t get there by mandating that their citizens avoid car use. Rather, it was the culmination of years of sustainable policies (as explained in Vox).