The environmental benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) are well established. With zero tailpipe emissions (and with zero talepipes!), they are a significant improvement over their internal combustion engine counterparts. However, even as we embrace this wave of cleaner, more sustainable personal transportation, we must acknowledge that EVs are merely one piece of the puzzle in our journey towards a truly sustainable future.
For a start, electric cars are still cars. They still contribute to traffic congestion and urban sprawl, and their production still requires significant amounts of energy and resources. Most importantly, they still necessitate the car-centric infrastructure that has shaped and often divided our cities for decades.
While EVs are part of the solution, an even greater shift in our transportation paradigm is needed. To truly tackle climate change and improve urban living, we need to invest in infrastructure that supports walking, cycling, and clean, reliable public transportation.
Bicycling and Walking: Human-Powered Transport
Bicycling and walking are the most environmentally friendly forms of transport. They emit no greenhouse gases, consume no energy other than human power, and require minimal infrastructure. Additionally, they offer significant health benefits, from improved cardiovascular fitness to better mental health.
Yet, despite these advantages, many cities lack safe and accessible walking and cycling infrastructure. Investing in such infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, is an essential step towards a more sustainable future.
Public Transport: Moving the Masses
Public transport is another critical piece of the sustainable transportation puzzle. Systems like trams and trolleybuses can move large numbers of people efficiently, reducing the number of individual vehicles on the road and the associated emissions.
Trams and trolleybuses were once commonplace across Britain, serving as the backbone of urban transport in many cities. However, in the mid-20th century, they fell out of fashion, replaced by diesel buses as the preferred mode of urban transit. But times are changing.
While electric buses represent a step forward from diesel, they are not without their drawbacks. For example, they carry heavy batteries which increase the vehicle’s weight and hence reduce efficiency. Additionally, these batteries need to be manufactured using materials that are energy-intensive to mine.
In contrast, trams and trolleybuses run on centrally generated power, eliminating the need for large onboard batteries. Trams, with their metal wheels on metal rails, also provide an added advantage. This design significantly reduces rolling resistance compared to rubber tires on tarmac, leading to even greater efficiencies.
Recognizing these benefits, many British cities are now reinvesting in their tram and trolleybus networks, bringing these efficient and clean modes of transport back into the mainstream.
Rail: A Reliable Backbone
A reliable national rail network is also critical. Trains can transport people and goods over long distances with much greater energy efficiency than cars or planes. Furthermore, trains reduce congestion on our roads and at our airports, leading to fewer emissions and less time wasted in traffic.
A Case Study: The Netherlands
The Netherlands provides an excellent example of how these principles can be implemented. Starting in the 1970s, Dutch cities began to restrict car access in city centres, replacing roads with bicycle lanes, pedestrian zones, and tram lines. This shift has not only dramatically reduced emissions but also improved the quality of life in Dutch cities. Streets are safer, air and noise pollution have decreased, and urban spaces are more liveable.
Of course, this transition was not instantaneous, and it required considerable investment. But as the Dutch experience shows, the returns—improved health, lower carbon emissions, and better quality of life—are well worth the investment.
YouTube channel Not Just Bikes explores how human-centred urban planning has improved life in the Netherlands. It is well worth a binge!
While the financial return on investment for sustainable transport infrastructure may be slow, the benefits to society are immediate and profound. EVs represent a great step forward, but we should not view them as the end goal. By investing in walking and cycling infrastructure, and in clean, efficient public transport systems like trains and trams, we can create cities that are not only more sustainable but also more enjoyable places to live.
So let us use the momentum from the EV revolution as a springboard to push for an even broader transformation. After all, a truly sustainable future requires not just cleaner cars, but cleaner cities as well.