Photo by NSW Government Architect

Much of the discussion around Australia’s carbon emissions has traditionally focused on the electricity sector. There has been less focus on what has provided the fastest sectoral growth in emissions over the last 30 years – transport.

It has been stated that, as men progress, they shall be able to travel in airship and reach any part of the world in a few hours. Men will not need the use of their hands and feet. They will press a button, and they will have their clothing by their side. They will press another button, and they will have their newspaper. A third, and a motor-car will be in waiting for them. They will have a variety of delicately dished up food. Everything will be done by machinery. – M.K.Ghandhi, Hind Swaraj,1909.

Written over 100 years ago, Ghandhi’s eerily accurate prediction of our currently daily reality draws interesting parallels to the prevailing attitude towards the climate crisis – everything will be done by technology.

Until the pandemic struck last year, transport emissions were on an upwards trajectory. As it stands, our efforts in reducing emissions in the transport sector have predictably been focused on technological fixes. In some respects, this is understandable – our technologically-inclined society has a tendency to seek solutions through the lens of technology. But when those fixes do nothing but reinforce a twentieth century notion of urban transport, we’re missing the bigger picture.

Percentage change in emissions, by sector, since year to September 1990
(source: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources)

That bigger picture is our current mobility paradigm – more mobility good, less mobility bad – and our continued assumption that we should be aspiring for increased mobility. The consequences of this, such as the depletion of our earth’s land and resources, as well as our time and money, have broader implications for the climate crisis that electric vehicles will not fully address.

More mobility good, less mobility bad – or vice versa?

Before we go full steam ahead into investing in these technological fixes, the prevailing mobility paradigm that more mobility is a universal good deserves testing.

John Whitelegg, Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and the University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute, contends that the pursuit of higher mobility can have counterproductive consequences. He writes in his book, Mobility, that transport planning and investment tends to benefit men, the relatively affluent, those who travel long distances, and those who have a preference for speed, giving rise to inequalities felt strongest by children, women, and the elderly.

Furthermore, as Whitelegg notes, in an evolutionary sense, our mobility patterns constitute a complete failure. We’ve built urban environments that require excess energy inputs in order to undertake the basic activities of modern urban life. Any other species that willingly expended excess energy like this would have (and did) disappear a long time ago.

It would be naive to think that the consequences of this waste are not threatening our own survival, or at least our ability to thrive – the deterioration of our mental and physical health, social relationships, environmental resilience, and economic prosperity constitutes an existential crisis.

But as we’ve witnessed throughout the pandemic, reduced mobility is not only possible, it’s an entirely plausible solution to transport emissions that has a variety of positive externalities.

Annual emissions data for the transport sector
(source: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources)

It was Gustavo Petro, former Mayor of Bogotá, who said “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Taking this idea to a logical, climate-friendly conclusion would suggest that a successful city is not a city where the poor drive to everything they need in life, it’s a city where everyone lives close to the things they need.

Bogota’s Ciclovia is a weekly event that closes streets to cars between 7am and 2pm every Sunday
(source: Wikimedia)

The electric vehicle myth

Aspirations for reducing transport-related emissions also tend to focus on technological change rather than behaviour change. Policy is largely centred on increasing the adoption of electric vehicles and the implementation of emissions standards. But these solutions avoid deeper questions about the environmental, social, and economic unsustainability of the cities we’re building.

Jordan McGillis, in The American Conservative, wittingly frames the electric vehicle as the climate idol of the unimaginative, and he’s right. Electric vehicles are an easy fix, an excuse that we’re doing something about climate change without having to change our lifestyles in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, electric vehicles continue to be promoted as environmentally friendly, but this too deserves testing.

The ability of electric vehicles to reduce urban air pollution is often touted as one of their primary benefits for our cities. The removal of exhaust pipes from vehicles, it is claimed, will result in a reduction in particulate matter on our streets. But with non-exhaust sources accounting for 85-90 per cent of particulate matter from traffic; vehicle weight being a key determinant in the generation of these non-exhaust sources; and electric vehicles weighing 24 per cent more than their internal combustion engine equivalents, EVs are unlikely to have any great effect on particulate matter levels.

Electric vehicle charging also consumes more land, with requirements for more charging points and longer “refuelling” times, while the benefit of charging electric vehicles at home also excludes those who don’t have private on-site charging facilities, like so many of us living in existing apartment buildings or dense urban neighbourhoods.

Above all else, electric vehicles reinforce the great suburban experiment of sprawling, car-dependent lifestyles that exploited cheap fuel and cheap land throughout the twentieth century.

In the twenty-first century, neither of those things is cheap.

Finally, the opportunity cost of the time, money, and effort expended on the electric vehicle revolution prevents us from realising more sustainable, equitable, and liveable outcomes in our cities.

While it’s natural for auto and tech companies to be promoting their products as climate solutions, our cities’ leaders, planners, and designers should be listening to their communities, where they’d discover the need to shift our thinking on transport and urban mobility from the “city shaping” to the “community making”.

The answer to transport emissions is in the reduction of mobility, not the sacralisation of electric vehicles. The range of benefits that would accompany this shift in thinking also address the multiple crises – health, climate, water, and economic – that we currently face and the urban environment’s role in them.

Time for a paradigm shift

As recent research shows, electric vehicles alone will not meet mitigation targets, concluding that meeting carbon budgets will require a move from technology-oriented policies to activity-oriented policies. Transit-oriented land-use policies; new public transport options; innovative taxes on fuel, parking, congestion and road use; and subsidies for public transportation all need to be prioritised.

The potential for autonomous vehicles or ride-hailing to alleviate the demands of car ownership and thus help reduce transport emissions should also be scrutinised. It’s unclear whether they reduce or increase vehicle kilometres travelled, therefore investments in such technologies should not come at the expense of public transit development and effective strategies to reduce transport emissions.

Above all else, electric vehicles as climate policy simply reassert a twentieth century mobility paradigm, and its time this paradigm shifted. Less mobility – not smarter, not electric, not autonomous – is the climate solution for transport.

Jason is a landscape architect and urbanist working and writing in urban mobility and public space.

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  1. Thank you for a great article. Where many people live, the construction of a good bicycle path immediately and reliably results in less driving. This is a much more effective way to reduce emissions per dollar spent than subsidising and providing infrastructure for electric cars, not to mention the added benefits of reduced traffic.

  2. The big stupidity has been the idea that society needs “growth” We are told that growth can be “sustainable” a thought that defies common sense and mathematics at year 6 level. Once we could have switched to a steady state economy but now we will have to accept de-growth where we wind back the excess produced by a growth based economy