The emergence of e-vehicles (EVs) and changing work patterns gives a real opportunity to embrace healthier and safer transport networks, writes Simon Brammer, head of cities at Ashden.
When you ask people to re-imagine their towns and cities’ future, no-one says they want congested and polluted streets. No one asks for busy roads that cut off communities from each other and put their kids at risk. In fact, quite the opposite. When we talk to communities they dream of green spaces, where you can hear birdsong, tree-lined streets, cycle lanes that are safe, and public transit systems that are easy and cheap to use.
Of course, COVID-19 has deepened that understanding in so many places, showing us that public spaces need to support our physical and mental health, not diminish it.
How do we take those visions of the future and the lessons that the pandemic has provided and apply them in new ways? While the emergence of EVs is no doubt good for our lungs and for the climate, we cannot go back to a business as usual approach. If you simply replace all the internal combustion engines with electric ones, it might reduce the pollution – although a fair amount comes from tyres and breaking systems – but it does nothing to reduce congestion or opening up our spaces for everyone to enjoy.
Thinking about electric vehicles differently
The recent emergence of e-bikes and e-scooters is really changing the way we think about personal transport. The electrical assistance means that so many more people can ride one, compared to a pedal-powered bike, opening up a world that didn’t exist for everyone before. You get to be outside, enjoy some exercise and relate to your surroundings rather than sitting behind a windscreen going nowhere fast.
E-scooters have been controversial despite successful trials, and we still need to think bigger. We can reduce the number of vehicles on our roads by designing out individual car ownership and provide public transport incentives. We can re-allocate road space to pedestrians, bikers and scooters making it safe for everyone. Of course, e-bikes and scooters are still expensive, so we’ll need to think about the kind of schemes, like the existing hire schemes in many cities, that makes them available and affordable to all.
Simply replacing every car would be disastrous for the environment. It is not just about the fuel you use to power a car; it is also about the embodied carbon and materials in the production process. An EV needs lots of copper, aluminium, lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and/or neodymium. And just like a normal car it still uses plastic and rubber, made from oil, as well as steel and glass. This involves a lot of mining and huge CO2 emissions in the manufacturing process.
The dream of car ownership
We have been sold the romance of the open road, the status cars present, and the freedom that they provide for the past 50 years. But those dreams no longer exist. People spend more time sitting in traffic, inhaling noxious fumes than they ever do on the open road. And for our poorest communities that cannot afford to buy a car, they are often the ones most affected by the pollution vehicles create, shortening their lives and impacting their health.
The impact of Covid-19
The pandemic has also led to the most rapid and significant transition of our working lives in living memory. It is unlikely that we will all be returning to city-centre offices full-time. Some companies have already given them up and moved entirely to working from home or local hubs. This huge shift might be the end to the dreaded commute and naturally lead to fewer cars on the road. We will still need some EVs to move goods around, but they don’t have to be big trucks. With regional distribution centres we can use electric vehicles and e-cargo bikes to get goods to the last mile and smaller, local shops.