The automotive industry is electrifying rapidly – with fast-growing sales of electric vehicles (EVs), and bans on selling petrol and diesel cars looming in the near future.

While Tesla and its competitors grab the headlines, are we doing enough to build truly inclusive transport for our planet? Should we focus on cars, or should investment (and engineering effort) be going instead to buses, trains, and other public transport? And has COVID shown we can re-think our ideas on whether our journey is even necessary?

EVs are a more environmentally sound choice than conventional cars. Even with our current mix of renewables and fossil fuels for electricity generation, they produce far less carbon dioxide, and this gap will only widen as we decarbonise our power grid. A recent study found that in the UK, for example, EVs have 30 per cent lower emissions over their life, while in countries such as France with more renewables, the difference is up to 70 per cent.

But shifting to EVs does nothing to solve the other problems of a car-based society. We will still have congestion and delays (with nearly double the number of cars on the roads by 2040), crowded city streets, and high collision rates. While COVID may have encouraged many people to work from home permanently, or at least more flexibly, the indications are that commuter traffic volumes have not been cut significantly.

Another problem with EVs is their cost. We know that whole-life costs to the consumer are lower with an electric car than a petrol or diesel equivalent, due to lower charging costs compared to fuel prices. But the hefty purchase price of an EV is off-putting to many potential buyers. 

And this is before we consider the environmental and ethical impacts of making EVs, in particular those associated with the extraction of materials such as lithium and cobalt for batteries. Like non-electric cars, EVs also still produce small particles from brakes, tyres and dust from roads – estimated to add up to about half of the pollution from conventional vehicles, and causing thousands of deaths annually in the UK. To simply replace the current fleet of cars with 35 million EVs, as forecasted by the National Grid, will therefore create new and considerable challenges.

white bmw car on road
Charging electric vehicles (Source: Unsplash)

So what should we, as a society, be doing to address the UK’s transport crisis?

Firstly, let’s build on our COVID experience, and encourage home-working, video meetings, and other ways to simply avoid travel. Where travel is required, cycling and walking can have a significant impact on carbon reduction, with more cycle paths, safer roads, and a shift away from car-centric cities. More than half of journeys in the UK are less than two miles, and car-free routes (such as Glasgow’s Kelvin Way) can help make walking and cycling realistic options.

We must also invest more in public transport. With clean, reliable and punctual trains and buses, travellers will be more likely to use their cars less. Affordable public transport also helps those who cannot afford to buy or run a car. The downside is that new public transport infrastructure is expensive, although affordable compared to the billions we spend on roads annually, and it takes years for results to be visible. 

But while we know all these solutions exist, will they actually work in practice? And how can we motivate people to leave their cars at home?

Fundamentally, the answer is simple: do it all, and do it now. The climate crisis is upon us, and only fast, dramatic changes are acceptable.

An interesting experiment this summer in Germany illustrates the complicated nature of trying to change people’s behaviour. To encourage public transport usage, a monthly pass for all trams, bus, underground and local trains was sold for just €9. The ultra-cheap ticket has been very popular, with 38 million sold, but this has led to problems of overcrowding on trains. It has also only reduced car journeys slightly, with a shift from road to public transport of two to three per cent – arguably not a lot of return for the scheme’s €2.5 billion cost, but still a reduction of about 1.8 million tons of CO2 emissions.

Even in cities with excellent rail, underground and trams, such as Munich, a massively discounted ticket is not enough to substantially change driver behaviour. This suggests that simply reducing public transport prices needs to be complemented by additional measures to discourage car use such as reduced parking, road space reallocation and congestion charging.

Public transport in Berlin, Germany (Source: Unsplash)

With all these possible options, and evidence that changing people’s behaviour is complicated, it can be difficult for governments and industry leaders to prioritise. Fundamentally, the answer is simple: do it all, and do it now. The climate crisis is upon us, and only fast, dramatic changes are acceptable.

As engineers, we need to continue developing the best possible solutions, and working to drive down costs and barriers to adoption. 

An inclusive transport strategy means ensuring walking and cycling are the default modes of transport for short journeys, complemented by a high-quality green public transport network. EVs (ideally shared) are then the last piece of the puzzle, for those journeys which are impossible to do by other modes.

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Nick Daines, freelance writer