Seb Lowe discusses why we need to look beyond electric cars when building our cities for the future.
If you were given carte blanche to design a city today, how would you go about it?
You may envisage a cobbled town square, teeming with al fresco diners enjoying numerous food outlets serving up the flavours of the world. Perhaps, instead, you conceptualise a bustling business district of coffee-laden commuters frantically striding to their morning meetings. If shopping is your thing, you may imagine a sort of capitalist Mecca with devout shoppers undertaking their weekly pilgrimage round the most en vogue designer outlets.
There is a common denominator here – great cities put people first.
When visualising a great city, roundabouts; pavement parking; and busy intersections are not the images that first spring to mind. Why then is 50% of public space in European cities dedicated to cars, which are parked 95% of the time? (OECD).
The heart of the issue is this: traffic pumps through the veins of virtually every metropolis, bringing pollution, noise and taking up valuable space. If people are the lifeblood of our cities, and if our government is serious about its net zero strategy, we must reduce our car dependency to put people and life first, allowing cities to re-oxygenate and unlock their full potential.
Not only does our car dependency result in poorly allocated space in our city centres, it is, of course, also bad news for the climate. Car manufacturers will have you believe that electric cars provide the solution to eco-friendly transportation. Although they certainly do have a role to play, far greater importance should be given to recalibrating our transportation tendencies altogether to create more scenic, liveable, cities.
There are a number of reasons why electric cars are not the be all and end all. An electric car produces 5x more emissions than an E-Bike. Whilst their day-to-day emissions are far lower, the manufacturing and disposal of electric cars is more carbon intense than that of a petrol or diesel car. There is also the problem of parking. In the space required to park one single electric car, 10 bicycles can be parked. If we are going to continue to allocate urban space to accommodate electric vehicle parking, this will be at the expense of other more useful, more aesthetic options.
Image: TNMT – Lufthansa Innovation Hub Analysis
By removing cars from our cities and repurposing the space they once occupied, we can plant trees; allow businesses to open up onto the street; and install cycle lanes that are completely separated from the traffic. There are innumerable benefits of implementing measures such as these, many of which are obvious. Broadly speaking, the benefits conferred can be split into three categories: environmental, personal and economic.
Other than the obvious environmental point, that a decrease in demand for cars will limit the carbon emitted by their manufacture, maintenance and operation, decreased car dependency opens the door to several further environmental benefits. Temperatures are rising in the UK, and presently our cities are woefully underprepared to deal with this. Planting trees is the most cost-efficient way of regulating street temperatures as they provide much needed shade in the summer months. They also absorb city noise, capture CO2 and purify the air.
At a personal level, more active travel should be a no-brainer. The CDC says less than 50% of youths and 24% of adults currently get enough physical activity. Opting for more active travel, such as walking and cycling, which can be used alongside public transport if travelling longer distances, is perhaps the easiest way to fit more exercise into your week. You can also save on the cost of car ownership and enjoy more time outside. If you’d rather not break a sweat, e-scooters are a great alternative. Leaving the car at home is good for your brain, body and your bank.
“Every kilometre cycled generates $0.18 in economic gains to society, whereas every kilometre driven costs society $0.16.”
However, the biggest barrier to urban cycling is the fear of cars. If we expect people to take more environmentally friendly transportation, such as bikes and e-scooters, we need to create safe places to ride. Cycle lanes delineated from the main carriageway by a thin line of paint do not cut the mustard. Surprisingly, paint has been found to be rather ineffective as a barrier to protect skin and bones from a 1-tonne metal box travelling at 60mph. I wouldn’t bank on Lycra to offer much in the way of protection either.
Only with the mass installation of separated cycle lanes across our cities can we expect more people to take up cycling and e-scooters as genuine alternatives to driving. This infrastructure must be implemented in cities nationwide, to ensure it is not only confident cyclists who are able to commute this way.
The economic benefits of investing in this infrastructure would be huge. The institution for Transportation and Development Policy state that every kilometre cycled generates $0.18 in economic gains to society, whereas every kilometre driven costs society $0.16. This accounts for a huge range of societal costs, including public health factors, the cost of congestion and the job creation that would ensue from a paradigm shift in transportation tendencies.
A glaring omission that I have not discussed in any real detail here is public transport. Trains, busses and trams still have a vital role to play when travelling further distances. Digital shared mobility services, such as VOI then offer a viable option for onward travel from your station/stop. Although, in most cases, your own two feet should suffice.
Electric vehicles still have plenty to offer us. Particularly when carrying larger cargo (although e-cargo bikes are great for small, local deliveries). We need to maintain provision for commuters with reduced mobility, for whom public transport and walking/cycling would not be feasible. Road access for emergency vehicles is similarly a crucial consideration. However, for most people going about their day-to-day lives: school; work; and socialising, cars no-longer need to be the ‘norm’.
Next time you are stuck in traffic, rueing the other motorists consuming the carriageway, consider that you might be part of the problem. Shift your mindset from ‘I’m stuck in traffic’ to ‘I am traffic’ and be the change you wish to see. One journey at a time.
For yourself, your city and your planet, next time you pop out, why not leave the car at home?