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COP26 Climate Crisis: Why Public Money Should Not Go to Electric Cars, But to Urban Planning

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Photo: Precious Madubuike / Unsplash

Government investments, subsidies and tax breaks should not go to electric cars, but towards better urban planning and new urban models to tackle the climate crisis more equitably and improve our cities and citizen health. Electric cars are heavily promoted for climate action. The lifetime CO2 emissions of electric cars are lower, but the extent depends on the energy used to generate electricity. Vehicle manufacturing accounts for a large part of lifetime emissions. Compared to fossil-fuel cars, it is true that electric cars have benefits: they emit less local air pollution (but still have non-tailpipe emissions), cause less noise (except from tyres), etc.

Although electric cars are being heavily promoted to fight climate change, these vehicles continue to generate CO2 emissions

However, electric cars are still cars. As such, they use as much public space as fossil-fuel cars, space that could be used in better and healthier ways. Cars currently take up a disproportional amount of the public space that causes heat island effects and could be put to better use. In Barcelona, one out of four journeys are by car, but cars occupy 60% of public space. Also, traffic jams are returning after the COVID-19 pandemic and we simply have too many cars on the road. In addition, car drivers cause many traffic injuries and fatalities and get less physical activity compared to users of other modes of transport.

Years of excessive investment in car transport infrastructure and underinvestment in active and public infrastructure have led to car dependency. Public transport has declined in many areas, particularly in peri-urban and rural areas, and too little has been invested in, for example, cycling infrastructure to provide people with safe and suitable travel alternatives.

Electric cars are still cars and, as such, they use as much public space as fossil-fuel cars, space that could be used in better and healthier ways

The car industry is private, open to competition and market forces, and regulated by government. It is already kept afloat by extensive government investment, subsidies and tax breaks on fossil fuels, road investments and manufacturing facilities. The car industry provides many highly skilled jobs, but these jobs have been declining due to automation and will continue to decline further and benefit fewer people. It is time to invest in alternatives . Governments should invest in public systems and services that benefit more people and promote health.

It is time to invest in what we want to have, not what we think we will have. Transport planners often predict greater car use and therefore justify building more roads. However, transport planners use outdated models to predict demand and tend to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. If you provide more (public) space for cars you will certainly get more cars . Urban streets often appear to be car parks (cars are parked 96% of the time). This is urban space that could be put to better use, for example as green space , which is important for health. Given the limited urban public space and the high density of traffic, too often it appears as if we have designed our cities for cars rather than for people.

A large part of the population is excluded from driving a car because of age (children and the elderly), financial situation or incapacity; these people rely heavily on public services that are slower and less convenient because of massive underinvestment. Car owners and commuters are generally better off and can afford the faster and more comfortable journey. Public transport is generally slower and less comfortable because of the lack of investment.

We need to reduce our car dependency and provide infrastructure and services that benefit all people and promote health, such as public and active transportation. Too many people are obese, get sick or die because they do not get enough physical activity, are exposed to air pollution and traffic noise, or do not have enough green space. Government investments, including subsidies for electric cars, are bad for health. This money should be invested in much healthier alternatives that provide mobility for all.

We need to reduce our car dependency and provide infrastructure and services that benefit all people and promote health, such as public and active transportation

It is time to invest and commit ourselves to urban and transport planning that is for people and not for cars, and that is not detrimental to health, but promotes health. Therefore, it is time to rethink our car-focused urban and transport planning . Not more asphalt, but less. We need sufficiently dense developments with diverse land use, allowing public and active transportation and shorter travel distances. We need to implement urban models like the Barcelona superblock, the Paris 15-minute city and the Hamburg car-free city, which prioritise active and public transport over car travel and use public space for greenery and not for cars. Cleaner air , more green space and more cycling in European cities could prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year.

These urban models require massive government investments, but will result in cities that have less motorised traffic, air pollution, noise, CO2 emissions and heat island effects and more green space and physical activity, while promoting more equitable and inclusive mobility. This will help to reduce car dependency and create cities that are carbon-neutral, healthier and more liveable.

To achieve this, we need to have political leadership and systemic and multi-stakeholder approaches . We need to break down the silos that currently exist and bring, for example, urban and transport planners, environment and public health professionals, and the housing and education sectors together in one room to (re)design our cities. Why do commuter journeys need to be long? Why do some kids need to travel to school by car? Why are there no safe cycling lanes? Why do we have to wait with so many people at a traffic light to see a few cars pass by? And why do we see so little green in our cities?

Don’t publicly invest in electric cars; regulate them. The car industry can take care of itself and produce cheaper and more efficient cars. Instead, we should invest in cities, where most of us live, making them healthier and more efficient. To tackle the climate crisis, we need better cities for people, not for cars.

To tackle the climate crisis, we need better cities for people, not for cars

We will discuss all of this at our two COP26 side events: the first on how to design healthy, sustainable cities (10 November) and the second on transitioning to zero-emissions mobility in cities (12 November).

More Information

COP26 Side Event: How We Can Make Cities both Healthier and Carbon-Neutral

10 November 2021

Information and registration (free online event)

COP26 Side Event: Transitioning to Zero Carbon Mobility in Our Cities: Linking Transport to Energy, Climate and Health

12 November 2021

Information and registration (free online event)