You could be forgiven for thinking that electric cars are a magic bullet for transforming the streets of the UK. London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith has claimed they will soon make buses in the capital redundant, and the city has launched a £100m project to encourage more people to use electric cars. There is, presumably, a clear case for saying London would be transformed for the better by electric vehicles.
Alas, we struggled to find this case written down anywhere. So we sat down with a blank spreadsheet and tried to work it out from first principles. We began by listing the problems that motor vehicles currently bring to cities. Then, we asked what electricity could do to address each of these.
Is electric better?
Perhaps the most obvious reason people get excited about electric vehicles is pollution. Conventional vehicles spew some very noxious stuff into our streets,killing many thousands each year (pdf), including several thousand in London alone. Electric vehicles offer a real advantage in reducing the dangerous nitrogen oxide and particulate matter in urban areas.
But as well as being cleaner, are electric vehicles also greener? That’s a different question – one to which the answer is entirely dependent on how the nation generates its electricity. In 2014, 19.1% of the UK’s electricity (pdf) was generated from renewables compared with 30% for gas and 30% for coal.
This heavy use of fossil fuels means the electric car is not as eco-friendly as it might initially appear. Electric vehicles basically move the fossil-fuel combustion from inside the car to another part of the country (safely outside the purview of any elected mayors). They don’t do much about how we’ll stop our nation emitting greenhouse gases.
The problems of today’s vehicles, however, go far beyond emissions. The hypermobility (pdf) they provide permits suburban sprawl (and thus extra greenhouse gas emissions) as it becomes possible for people to live, work and shop at places distant from one another. And there is another big space problem: a car used for 50 minutes a day is unused 96.5% of the time. Frequently cars are stored on roads and pavements, to the detriment of traffic flow, aesthetics, councils’ finances and the needs of vulnerable road users.
Simply swapping one engine for another does nothing to solve a raft of other problems. The UK has a billion-pound health crisis (pdf) arising from physical inactivity. Shifting shorter journeys – for example, those under two miles – from cars to active travel modes such as walking or cycling is one of the best things(pdf) any developed nation can do to tackle its health problems. Electric vehicles, at best, leave this problem untouched.
Perhaps what electric vehicle champions are really thinking of – especially when they suggest they will replace buses – is self-driving electric cars. Taking the driver out of the picture overcomes some issues, most obviously the problem of collisions – there is a high global and UK death toll from people crashing their vehicles.
A switch to driverless vehicles gives us an opportunity to rethink our relationship with cars. We could move away from the old idea that everybody should own their own car and have a much smaller number of automated cars, each in frequent use and summoned when people need them.
Self-driving cars might overcome some genuine problems, such as the number of cars on the road and where we store all the unused cars. But this future requires car makers to sell few cars rather than many. This makes it unlikely any real change will happen – especially given the cosy relationship car manufacturers have enjoyed with governments. There is a lack of ambition and vision from the motoring industry which, for all its innovation, avoids addressing underlying issues.
And even if we did shift to fewer shared vehicles, we are still left with the issues of urban sprawl, and questions about health and wellbeing. Even driverless cars do not address these fundamental problems. We need to stop building towns and cities on the self-fulfilling assumption people will travel by car. There is no future in which humans can sit down all day without paying an enormous health price. If driverless cars appear in streets anything like today’s, we risk falling into the most pathetic of robot uprisings, where they transport us helpfully from place to place while we remain inactive, growing fat and increasing our risk of cancer and diabetes.
Electric vehicles should not be considered a panacea for sustainable transport but rather a possible part of the puzzle. We need to rethink the journeys we make. Many of our urban journeys are short and we should plan cities with that in mind. Perhaps in the future we will continue to drive to the city, but we won’t drive through the city. Let’s turn cities back into a place for human beings to make their short journeys in a physically active way.