Let’s clear the air about cars

Steve Brooks argues electric vehicles are a quick fix that hold hidden dangers

Today is Clean Air Day.  66 years on from the Great Smog of London, it should be an occasion when we celebrate efforts we’ve made over successive decades to reduce harmful air pollution in the UK. A time when we look back in bewilderment at how policy-makers let a situation develop whereby people died from simply breathing.


But it’s not.  It’s a day where we are forced to again raise awareness about dangers of air pollution.  Today’s pollution may lack the literal and figurative visibility of previous air quality crises, but the dangers to public health are no less real and serious. It’s a problem Public Health Wales described as  ‘public health crisis’; a situation caused largely by how we move people and goods. So with transport the biggest contributor to Britain’s air quality crisis, it’s time Wales started to talk about cars.


If cars create air pollution, let’s make cars cleaner? Problem solved? No. Electric Vehicles (EVs) have been hailed as sustainable form of transport and a silver bullet for air pollution, not just by government but also environment campaign groups like WWF.


We must remember motor vehicles don’t just emit pollutants (nitrogen oxide or NOx) from combustion engines burning fuel; 45% of pollutants comes from break and tyre dust.  To date, decision-makers in Wales and Whitehall have largely focused on tackling NOx emissions, neglecting Particulate Matter. The World Health Organisation states that there is no safe limit for break and tyre PMs and research shows that these PMs are the most dangerous pollutant to our health.  Which only goes to show scrapping combustion engines and racing towards electric vehicles will not solve our air quality crisis.


The starting point for people serious about tackling air pollution has to be fewer cars not newer cars.  And that’s achieved, in part by investing more in cycling routes, making our communities easier to walk around, and modernising our public transport network.


Fewer not newer cars, and investing in active travel and public transport doesn’t only benefit air quality. Electric vehicles have other flaws that should not be overlooked or understated.


As WWF argue, electric vehicles have the potential to lower Wales’ carbon emissions. But, there is a huge caveat. To lower carbon emissions, EVs must be powered by a renewable source of energy. At present, only a third of Wales’ electricity is generated from renewable sources.  Welsh Government has made a commitment to raise this to 70% by 2030 with the Environment Secretary Lesley Griffiths cautioning that the target was “stretching but realistic”. The idea that EVs represent a quick fix that will rapidly decarbonise our transport system is misguided.


Setting aside the problem of displaced carbon emissions and air pollution from EVs, there’s also the important question of what EVs will do to society.


Who will gain the most from EVs?  Who will benefit from scrappage schemes, subsidies and investment in EV charging points?  Some people advocate public money to subsidise investment in the EV industry. As it stands, EVs will largely be the playthings of higher income individuals, whilst low income groups will continue to struggle with a transport network that doesn’t work for them.  Pontcanna professionals will have a state-subsidised car when Pontypridd workers are still waiting for the metro.


Since the 1950s we’ve designed a Wales around the car. The way we live, work and play is largely driven by car use. That might be fine if you own a car, but for the quarter of Welsh households that don’t own a car, this can be a problem. A lack of transport options is make or break for a lot of people and means they go without the support and services they need.  That journey to a job interview becomes impossible to make on time. That trip to check Nan’s ok is too expensive to make more than once a fortnight. A long shift is followed by a two-bus journey home with a tiring wait in-between. Crossing the road safely to get to the Post Office is a dangerous mission because of cars parked on the pavement. EVs do very little to improve access to mobility.


Then there’s congestion. There’s an extra one million private vehicles on the road today compared with ten years ago.  The majority of short trips, under 5 miles are still made in the car. The school run is a daily reminder of how cars our clogging our streets and worsening our overall quality of life. But this can change. There’s a global movement of politicians, academics, planners, designers, developers and practitioners like Sustrans who advocate doing things differently. We’ve started to transform our towns and cities into liveable communities: attractive and vibrant places to live, work, play and do business. To do this we redesign streets and public spaces for people, not cars; and if scaled up across Wales we have the real potential to deliver positive action on the seven national wellbeing goals.


From a health and well-being perspective, EVs are also problematic.  Notwithstanding air pollution concerns, EVs do nothing to tackle the wider public health crisis facing Wales.  Obesity, diabetes, heart and lung conditions are all on the rise, adding to a financial pressure on the NHS that could reach breaking point within a generation. The Future Generations Commissioner is right to call for a re-think on health spending. The NHS has called for more measures which boost physical activity in the population, and whilst sport will play an important role for some, the vast majority of us will find slipping activities like walking and cycling into everyday life a lot easier to do then trips to the gym. There’s a real danger that the ‘Uber-isation’ of the EV industry will lead to more short journeys completed by car, further reducing levels of physical activity, leaving us with spare tyres with the NHS budget pushed over the edge.


Finally there is a real safety concern.  WWF suggested allowing EV drivers to use bus lanes.  Let’s remember bus lanes provide dedicated space for buses to avoid car induced congestion. Bus lanes also provide an important part of the urban cycling network.  Allowing EVs into bus lanes is dangerous for cycling and damaging for public transport.


As we talk about air pollution there’s a real danger that in the rush for a quick fix, Wales will make the wrong choice and prioritise investment in EVs above active travel and public transport.  That would be a huge mistake, unsustainable, and harm the well-being of future generations.


We are fully aware that for certain people, for certain trips, in certain parts of Wales, the car will remain a necessity; but for the majority of us more sustainable modes are available and preferable.


Quick fixes usually don’t exist, but more often than not the simple solutions, like walking and cycle, are already on our doorstep.  


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Steve Brooks is director of Sustrans Cymru and a former chair of Stop Climate Chaos Cymru and Tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

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