If we are to reach Net Zero in the decades ahead, then we have to do something about road transport. But electrifying it could just exacerbate many of the problems we face today
There is one main strategy for reaching Net Zero, at least when it comes to transport: electrification. A “better, greener Britain” in 2050, according to our government, will consist of electric cars, electric bikes, electric trade fleets, electric railways, electric planes, electric scooters and electric goodness knows what else.
Pushing his new decarbonisation report, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told the press, “It’s not about stopping people doing things. It’s about doing the same things differently.” Not such a great look during another month of extreme flooding and heatwaves. Snarky headlines appeared, such as the BBC’s “Carry on flying, says government green plan”.
Schapps doesn’t want to touch the third rail of politics (ironically, this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail of an electric trainline). Telling his voters in Welwyn Hatfield to leave their cars in the garage may not help him at the voting booth. But he must address it. Transport is the largest contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and, within that particular slice of the pie, cars and taxis make up over 55 per cent of the damage, far more than lorries, buses, domestic aviation and shipping. It will take very brave and honest leadership to address the urgency of this issue.
My own love affair with electric cars was brief. It started a few years ago when I was relieved to hear the gentle hum of a hybrid vehicle on an otherwise busy, noisy road in London. It ended when my mother got stranded late at night last Christmas Eve because her electric van ran out of juice (the charging points that her app directed her to were broken).
My mum’s van represents the one electric vehicle per 14 regular cars in the UK: Oxford University researchers say it will take us at least 15 years to become fully electrified. Hardly a race to Net Zero. More like a slow crawl. And, in my view, the time, energy and resources that it will take to get us electric equates to a massive subsidy of the already better off.
Car-centric planning reinforces socioeconomic inequality. We are earmarking a massive amount of money – £27 billion – for road building, yet just a small proportion of that would be enough, research shows, to provide a bus every hour in every English town from 6am to midnight. (Remember the government promises electric and hydrogen buses too.) Separate research from the Women’s Budget Group shows that women, especially disabled women, women of colour, and women on lower incomes, are much likelier to rely on buses, and are likelier to make shorter, more frequent trips throughout the day. Buses are a crucial lifeline for people living rurally, and ferry more people using less fuel than if every passenger was in a car. And yet: a total of 134 million miles of bus coverage in the UK were cut in the decade to 2018. We should be re-allocating public funds to public transport. In Edinburgh, where I live, almost half the population doesn’t have access to a private vehicle.
The wealthier segments of society who disproportionately own a private vehicle receive yet another subsidy from the state: the space to store their car, or charge it. Yet it doesn’t seem very fair that while my neighbours can park their SUV on public land for free, 24/7, I am not allowed to apply for planning permission to install a public bike rack in a parking space. (The demand for bike storage exists across the UK. In Southwark, London, alone, almost 10,000 residents are on a waiting list for secure bike parking.)
Indeed, the issue of space, and who is entitled to that space, has become an issue of politics and of public health. Residents, businesses and councillors have been fighting and wrangling over every road closure, bollard, planter and cycle lane introduced under local authority emergency powers during covid, including controversial initiatives such as Spaces for People and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, both of which seek to take back more public space for walking and cycling and calm road traffic. Motorists may not be universally pleased, but we desperately need more room to walk – software and mapping firm Esri found that a third of the country’s pavements were less than two metres wide in 2020, not even enough to socially distance.
Electric cars and the infrastructure that surrounds them will only take up more space and add to the street clutter that pedestrians have to navigate. Although very clever companies have invented electric car charging points that are virtually undetectable on city pavements, this entrepreneurship does not address who our public resources are benefitting, and who is being disenfranchised as a result.
But electric cars are zero emission, you may argue. Surely this is better? However, this disregards the embodied carbon in the making of a vehicle, the energy required to charge it – my mother’s van takes eight hours of charging to drive 80 miles – and the issue of battery disposal. It disregards the particles flying off wearing tyres, breaks and road surfaces (the government’s Air Quality Expert Group said these contributions make up more than half of road transport particle pollution). It disregards noise pollution: electric vehicles are all but silent when stationary or moving slowly, but they are equally loud once they reach higher speeds, when most of the noise comes from the tyres. It disregards congestion, which will only increase with rising sales of electric vehicles that are cheaper to run. In fact, a government-funded report in 2019 found that “100% electrification has the highest level of traffic growth”.
Even if electrification were the silver bullet, it is still very far away. The sale of diesel and petrol cars won’t be banned until 2030 and plenty of old bangers will be driving for years to come after that. In an attempt to speed up progress, many cities are now rolling out low emission zones that cull the worst polluting vehicles from city centres. In Edinburgh, for example, diesel cars registered before 2015 and petrol cars registered before 2006 will be banned from the heart of the city. But critics say the boundary is small, the grace period too long, and it doesn’t tackle the greatest problem of all: our cultural mindset.
A website for St James Quarter shopping centre inside the Edinburgh boundary recently advertised its 1,600-space car park with the tag line, “No SUV will be left behind”. We live in a society where we are not only encouraged to drive to the shops, we are also encouraged to use former military vehicles. In fact, 73 per cent of SUVs in the UK are registered to urban addresses.
The government is making a massive mistake by continuing to focus on cars, no matter how they are fuelled. It’s the equivalent of the Beeching cuts to the railways in the 1960s – the difference now is that we have far less time to reverse the damage if we want to mitigate climate change. The Oxford University researchers, along with many other experts, agree that the focus should be on active travel – encouraging people to walk and cycle, where possible, and moving away from car-dependent lifestyles. But official forecasts say that traffic on UK roads is set to increase by as much as 51 per cent by 2050.
Electric cars represent the status quo. Building thousands of charging points is a solid legacy for a politician, and far more glamourous-sounding than improving the bus service from Hull to Beverley. But it will hardly do anything to get us to Net Zero.
We have to regulate the car manufacturers and advertisers who literally get away with murder. We have to up the driving age to at least 18. We have to address transport deserts and inequality. And, frankly, we need to drive less. Grant Shapps, it’s time to get on your bike.
Rachael Revesz is a freelance journalist focusing on women’s rights, finance and environmental issues.