Most talk has been about replacing petrol and diesel cars with electrics. Even our Tory government — whose ministers have never encountered a deposit of fossil fuel they didn’t want to dig up and set on fire — has set a date from which the sale of new oil-burning cars will be banned. Never mind that it’s the hopelessly and meaninglessly far away year of 2040.
We have to stop burning oil because it’s killing the planet. And that will kill us and our entire species. But the certainty of swapping our oil cars for electric cars as the next logical step for transport neatly somersaults over a flaming Cheddar Gorge full of problems.
But it isn’t the only path open to us; a different one can help us tackle not only the climate crisis but also many health and social problems. Environmental expert Alan Simpson wrote in these pages in July that “sustainability has to turn economics [and its obsession with GDP growth] on its head, putting work, wellbeing, security and inclusion at the centre.”
In the same way that we can’t just install a few gigawatts of renewable power and call it a day, we must think differently and, crucially, have the political courage to pursue an alternative strategy that upends most of a century of transport orthodoxy.
It is also going to take a lot of electricity if we switch en masse to electric cars. It’s difficult to comprehend the huge amount of energy used by cars because they use a separate, somewhat obscured form of distribution — petrol stations.
But the real problem is not the kind of motors we run on our roads — it’s the fact that the private car is the dominant mode of transport. We live in a car-dependent society, with people in many communities often legitimately having no other option. Since the 1950s Britain has very deliberately planned and provided for private car use and our streets and our society reflect that.
The direct cost to the NHS is well over £1 billion a year, and wider economic costs from sickness and early death £6.5bn. Then there are costs as we live longer but in worse health — the Barnet “graph of doom” shows that within 10 years the rising cost of adult social care will leave the north London council with literally no money to spend on any other services (save statutory children’s services).
But fitting exercise into already busy days is hard, which is where transport comes in — getting about under our own steam and taking advantage of the “miracle pill” that is physical activity.
Over two thirds of journeys are shorter than five miles — a distance that, given the right conditions, could be easily cycled in less than half an hour. Yet more than seven in 10 journeys between one and five miles long are done by car.
The domination of the car for even short journeys also provides the answer for why more people don’t walk or cycle — it is unpleasant almost everywhere in Britain. 59 per cent of people think the roads are too dangerous for them to cycle on. This is what’s known as subjective safety: the risk of being hurt is lower than perceived — though still far too high — but people feel unsafe and are put off.
Cycleways turn bikes from a hobby for the fit and the brave into a quick, cheap and easy way to get around for everyone. In the Netherlands three quarters of children cycle to school — able to get around independently in complete safety.
The same applies for older people, where having an easy and safe way to get about keeps up people’s health and decreases their social isolation. The director of the Dutch Cyclists’ Union tells Peter Walker in his book Bike Nation that while people tend to drive less from their mid-seventies as they feel less confident, they then cycle more. Not for nothing do people refer to the conditions as fit for eight to 80-year-olds (and beyond).
For disabled people too, cycling can be a good way to travel independently as well as keeping healthy, as Wheels for Wellbeing has made crystal clear. People with impaired mobility often find it easier than walking and many use a cycle as a mobility aid.
We must alter our streets before we can reap the benefits of this — the road layouts we’ve inherited from the 1970s just don’t cut it. As a nice bonus we can start to make our towns more pleasant places to be, reclaiming space for people rather than cars.
Labour’s pledge to spend £10 per person per year on cycling infrastructure is a start — but it is just a start. The Netherlands already has a comprehensive network but still spends about £25 per head. Public health experts have long called for 10 per cent of transport budgets to be immediately allocated to walking and cycling.
In the long run it could save us a good deal: $24 trillion worldwide by 2050 if just 14 per cent of urban journeys are done by bike by then — less than what is achieved today in the Netherlands and Denmark. That figure does not even include the money saved through improved health, which would be substantial.
And that is from cycling alone. The same UC Davis study shows that cycling alongside improvements in public transport and a decline in private car use would save the world $128trn by 2050 in comparison to continuing as we are now.
Such a scenario would also halve the carbon emissions of the business-as-usual case, putting us firmly on track to avoid utterly catastrophic climate change.
Electric cars do have a role to play in our future — but we must be aware of the associated risks to our health and the environment of widespread private motor use, and choose a more ambitious path that can transform our communities for the better.