Electric cars will still cause congestion

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Oil is on a slippery slope to depletion but our dependence on it isn’t wholly addictive. It’s not the gloop we love, it’s what it can do for us. It’s blown into plastic bags and powers our cars but if a magic alternative was found tomorrow we’d ditch the black stuff without a thought.

This is evident from the way we’re rushing to feed our cars instead of feeding the world. But biofuels are not a long-term solution to our thirst for car-juice.

And electric cars are not environmental saviours. They may be quiet but the energy to power them has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is not yet hillsides covered in solar panels or fields of wind turbines.

Not only do we have to wean ourselves off oil, we have to kick the car habit, too. Personal mobility shouldn’t start and stop with motorcars. Aside from the waste of petrol, the use of cars in city centres is incredibly wasteful of space.

The government and industry funded Energy Saving Trust released a future-looking report this week urging Brits to cut out wasteful energy practices. ‘Emission Impossible, a vision for a low carbon lifestyle by 2050’ believes electronic devices of the future will dispense with standby mode and there will be lots of other consumer-driven, planet-friendly lifestyle changes.

But the report’s graphics don’t inspire confidence. The Energy Saving Trust may have put a cyclist on the cover but inside the report (see pic above) an urban residential street is shown packed with futuristic cars, no doubt powered by electricity or other ‘alternative’ fuels.

A lone recumbent rider is shown about to knock down a woman carrying (hemp?) shopping bags.

The electric cars look a bit smaller than today’s cars but they’re still multiple occupancy and they’d still cause gridlock.


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According to Phillip Sellwood, the CEO of the Energy Saving Trust, we won’t be wearing sackcloth and sandals in the future:

“The good news is that if we start to take action now to lower our carbon emissions then we needn’t adopt austere lifestyles or make unpleasant personal sacrifices… In fact, I believe that a low-carbon lifestyle could actually improve the quality of all of our lives. Imagine living in warm, affordable, comfortable homes – with access to a range of travel choices, whilst at the same time sustaining our environment.”

OK, so energy efficient light bulbs will soon be ubiqutious; wind turbines will be on every rooftop; supermarkets will no longer hand out free turtle-stranglers, but unless we radically reshape the way we get around city centres, no amount of oil replacements will solve our transport woes.

Traffic and transport psychologist Dr Ian ‘long blonde wig’ Walker, a lecturer at the University of Bath, has got it spot on as usual:

“Cars are fundamentally badly designed in various ways (e.g., their need for huge slurpy soft tyres to stop them flying off the road), and one of their basic design faults is that they take up the same amount of valuable road-space to convey one person as five.

“The car is so amazingly dominant in our collective psyche that their use is totally habitual and alternatives, despite being plentiful, much cheaper and logically more appropriate, simply never occur to people. So everybody carries on using completely, wildly, infuriatingly inappropriate vehicles to get around and our cities get less and less pleasant and accessible.

“People are going to have to realise that if they travel alone 95% of the time, it is better for everyone – including them – if they get a one-person vehicle and hire something bigger on the odd occasion they need more space. It’s such a shame that we’re going to have to go through masses of congestion and heavy-handed legislation to make people act rationally. Bah.”

Now, I’m not anti-car (well, OK, I’m a little bit anti-car) and totally pro-bicycle (hmm, got me there, too). I own a seven-seat people carrier. But I drive it as little as possible and only very rarely in town. It’s a long-distance vehicle, for anything under five miles I’ll ride my bike.

I wouldn’t dream of “nipping into town” in my car. That would be madness. But I’m in the minority. For the majority who continue to want to drive in city centres the only way to stop them will be design. Not design as in pretty pictures, but design as in bollards. Driving short distances needs to become a little less possible.