Don’t be seduced…

Decarbonising transport – we’ve got it sorted.

The UK government has been vocal in its support for electric cars as THE carbon-free future for travel. The transport carbon challenge solved!

Or is it?

The generously-funded motor lobby is powerful at getting its message across. We could be forgiven for thinking that electric cars are the answer to fully decarbonising our travel and building a better future.

A moment’s thought, however, shows this falls far short of the future we need to create for ourselves and our children.

Why so ‘down’ on electric cars?

Well, firstly, not many people can afford an electric vehicle. They remain a privilege for the few. Once bought, however, they’re cheap to run and so there’s every incentive to make every journey by car, which actually increases congestion.

More importantly, the world can’t afford it. Manufacturing electric cars is carbon-intensive and requires scarce resources for batteries. ‘Thinking’ people will agree that using a 2000kg vehicle to transport one 75kg person is not a wise use of resources.

Replacing fossil-fuelled cars with electric cars may be a small part of the future, but does not  help the 1-in-4 households without a car, does nothing to ease congestion, does nothing to bear down on the carnage on our roads – where five people are killed every day – does nothing to make it safe for our children to navigate our cities by themselves, does nothing to break the obesogenic design of our towns, does not eliminate the lung-clogging particulates from tyres and brakes; nor does it address the carbon-intensive production of electric cars.

Is this a counsel of despair?

Well, it might be if we didn’t already have a machine that fights climate change; one already owned by many, usable by children, adults, abled and disabled alike, a machine that doesn’t kill people by the dozens every week, a machine whose weight doesn’t damage roads; Devon already spends millions every year fixing potholes.

You know what this machine is, don’t you? You’ve probably already used one: the bicycle. The majority of car journeys are under five miles and a cycle will let you travel these in 30 minutes, powered by a slice of toast and a piece of fruit.

COP26 has rightly brought us fresh reminders of the existential crisis we face as a species and a planet, how we need to make changes in the ways we travel and heat our homes. Listening to the speeches it’s difficult to remain optimistic. However, I am driven by a positive and achievable vision for the future of the South-West.

What does this future look like? 

A future where we’ve tackled the decarbonisation of travel by enabling people of all ages to move around efficiently, cleanly and safely without using fossil fuels. A future where there’s equitable space on our highways for people travelling by foot, by scooter, by wheelchair, bus or cycle, and where we’ve reversed the dominance of cars on our streets. This is the clean, safe, fit and friendly city I am working towards.

“I don’t cycle because it’s not safe”. 

Cities across the UK are finding that they can make it safe to cycle: by installing protected cycle paths next to busy roads, removing through-traffic from residential areas and reducing traffic speeds (why is 20 mph not yet a default in Devon?), to create an environment where children and adults alike can switch everyday short journeys to walking, scooting or cycling.

Recently we’ve seen ‘pushback’ against really modest changes that enable low-carbon travel by making it safer to cycle, scoot or walk. The argument from one councillor that a small inconvenience for a few drivers must be given greater weight than safer journeys for school children has no place in a forward-looking society. We must embrace changes that help decarbonise our lives and avert the worst consequences of climate change.

This is a generational opportunity to change our communities for the better. We mustn’t mess it up.

So let’s not get seduced by the motor lobby into narrowly thinking that electric cars are the only answer. Instead, let’s embrace the shift away from cars towards active travel. We’ll be a healthier and happier society for doing so.

And, yes, for those who really can’t walk, scoot, cycle or take the bus, it’ll be a better place to drive your electric car.

Mike Walton is the Chair of the Exeter Cycling Campaign, which has added its voice to others from across Europe to ask the leaders at COP26 to ensure cycling is given the chance to help us fight climate change.

About the campaign in Exeter, Walton says,

“We want to see cycling being a normal, everyday choice for people of every age and ability on safe, direct, connected and convenient paths. This is something that every citizen of Exeter will benefit from.

Cycling delivers a clean, space-efficient way of moving people across the city. It is a significant contribution to tackling the city’s key challenges of climate change, pollution, congestion and unhealthy lifestyles.”

The Exeter Cycling Campaign would also encourage you to check out Wheels for Wellbeing – a national campaign to enhance disabled people’s lives by ensuring that anyone can access the physical, emotional, practical and social benefits of cycling.