Electric cars and urban transport: a sustainability fix?

There is little doubt that an electric car emits less CO2 than a conventional car when it runs (assuming its electricity source is fairly clean). There is also little doubt that over its life cycle an electric car will emit less CO2 than a conventional car (but this is not completely clear-cut). For these reasons, electric cars are often seen as magic bullets, a way to sustain our habit of individualised transportation whilst saving the planet.

There are two problems with this idealised view of electric vehicles.

First, less CO2 does not mean no CO2. Depending on the estimates and parameters, an electric car may emit 30 to 70% the CO2 of a conventional car over its lifetime. This is hardly negligible, and is of concern because climate change is driven by total accumulated greenhouse gases: so electric cars continue to contribute to global warming, only somewhat less than conventional cars.

Second, the move towards electric cars – if it isn’t moderated – may lead to the scrapping of perfectly serviceable conventional cars. All cars embody a large amount of CO2, plastics and other materials even before they hit the road. It is estimated that about 30% of a car’s total emissions happen whilst it is being built; and CO2 is not the only environmental issue posed by cars. Lithium extraction, for instance uses huge amounts of water and can be very damaging to the environment and to miners themselves.

Junkyard. Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/peoplesdaily/article-3020049/China-s-car-graveyard-Stunning-aerial-pictures-hundreds-thousands-vehicles-thrown-scrap-heap-government-aggressively-aims-cut-emissions.html

Thus – assuming that, as a society, we wish to continue planning urban transport around personal vehicles – it may be more environmentally friendly to keep older cars on the road than to convert to electric vehicles: simply keeping conventional cars on the road for 16 years instead of 11 (and, of course, keeping them well-maintained) would have sizeable – and beneficial – environmental consequences, assuming that personal vehicles are deemed essential. Rushing to replace serviceable vehicles with new electric ones is probably a bad environmental move.

The real problem with electric cars is that they are a (very partial) environmental fix only if we assume that all else remains equal (especially our habits with respect to personal vehicles). In a wider sense, electric vehicles are not a particularly convincing solution for urban transport sustainability: they basically make our current habits a bit less unsustainable. To meaningfully reduce the environmental impacts of urban transportation, it is public transport, active transport, and a variety of collective (or shared) ‘last mile’ solutions that are called for.

This brings us to urban planning writ large. For all its faults and theoretical limitations, the 15-minute city (which should be renamed the 15 minute neighbourhood) puts forward spatial planning principles that can reduce the need for mobility. When combined with city-wide public and active transport, shared vehicles (like Communauto), and with solutions for people facing physical challenges, these more fundamental changes in habits and systems will have a more durable impact on transport sustainability.

Still, a key question remains. Without personal vehicles how do we get out of the city and how do rural communities subsist? Shared vehicles, fine in high-density places for occasional use, do not work well for weekends away. Urban living should not be a trap: many people enjoy hiking, skiing, cycling, sailing, lake-swimming, camping…. Solutions for urban transport also need to incorporate urban-to-rural and rural-to-rural mobilities, which, in Canada at least, are scarcely considered.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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