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Electric Cars Will Not Save Cities

Electric Cars Cities
Photo: Mariona Gil / Barcelona City Council - "Superilla" (Superblock), Barcelona.

As a recent social media campaign put it, "electric cars weren't invented to save the planet, they were invented to save the car industry". They are often promoted in local election campaigns to reduce high levels of air pollution. But will they, or are there healthier and quicker solutions?


The recent European Court of Justice ruling against Spain for failing to comply with the European Air Quality Directive in Barcelona and Madrid has underlined the urgent need for drastic action to tackle the problem, especially as new European Union (EU) air quality guidelines are under review and are likely to be stricter. Cities remain hotspots for air pollution and related mortality.

Supporting electric cars in local elections is meaningless

With local elections coming up in Spain, many potential mayoral candidates are promoting electric cars as the solution. However, this is rather pointless as they don't have the legislative power to decide whether cars are internal combustion or electric (the EU is working on a ban for IC vehicles from 2035 onwards). If they really want to express their support for electric cars, a more meaningful policy measure they could propose and support would be to call for stricter and larger Low Emission Zones, which would favour electric cars and which they have the power to do.

It is true that electric cars have advantages over internal combustion cars. They produce less air pollution and less CO2 because they have no tailpipes (but their manufacturing process is polluting and they are powered by electricity, which may come from a non-renewable source, and the wear and tear on the tyres also pollutes). Electric cars are also less noisy (only the tyres make noise. However, electric cars would still take up space that could be used in better and healthier ways. At present, cars take up a disproportionate amount of public space. In Barcelona, they take up 60% of public space, even though only 1 in 4 trips is made by car.

Relying on electric cars alone is not a very quick solution…

Relying on electric cars alone to solve air pollution problems is also not a very quick solution because of the slow turnover of the car fleet. The average age of cars is more than 10 years and even if all new cars sold today were electric, it would still take 20 years to replace 90% of the current internal combustion car fleet. This is well beyond the 4-year time frame that mayors can control.

…and has serious environmental implications

The electric vehicle industry is also driving a massive increase in demand for lithium and other minerals. This has serious environmental implications, as lithium mining can cause water pollution and loss, toxic waste spills, loss of biodiversity and soil contamination.


Barcelona. Photo: Martí Petit / Barcelona City Council.


We should also rely on behavioural change

We need more immediate action to reduce high levels of air pollution and action that can be taken within the four-year term for which mayors are elected. In addition, we should not rely on technological solutions but also on behavioural changes, as the health benefits can be greater. Also, there is generally no magic bullet, so multiple policies are needed. For example, Low Emission Zones, low traffic neighbourhoods, car-free neighbourhoods and superblocks have been shown to reduce air pollution significantly and could be introduced relatively quickly. Fifteen-minute cities reduce the need for excessive mobility. These measures could also increase or be accompanied by more (electric) public and activity transport, which can promote physical activity. Fifteen-minute cities reduce commuting because all the usual activities (work, basic services, leisure) are within a fifteen-minute walk or cycle ride.

Electric cars cannot save cities; healthy urban planning can

If you build more roads for cars, you will get more cars. This is called induced demand. The reverse also happens. Reduce the space for cars and you get fewer cars. The fastest way to reduce air pollution is to have fewer cars on the road.

It is well known that there is no magic bullet and that no single measure can reduce air pollution, but that a range of policies are needed and urgently needed. There are many policies available, including those related to 1) pricing, 2) land use, 3) infrastructure, 4) behaviour, 5) technology, and 6) management, standards and services. Mayoral candidates should include in their election campaigns what they plan to implement so that citizens can make an informed decision when they go to the polls.

There is still a role for electric cars, but outside our cities

Immediate action is needed to reduce air pollution and prevent premature death and disease. Every year, air pollution causes many premature deaths and new cases of asthma and bronchitis in children, as well as major cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, COPD, mental disorders, Alzheimer's disease, pneumonia and lung cancer.

There is still a role for electric cars, but outside our cities, where distances can be much greater and where there are few or no alternatives such as public transport. But in cities there are faster, more sustainable, more liveable and healthier solutions that should be promoted and implemented instead.


Barcelona. Photo: Paula Jaume / Barcelona City Council.

Possible measures in Barcelona

  • Accelerate and expand the SuperIlles/Eixos verds programme
  • Extend the “Protegim les escoles” programme to establish a traffic-free zone within 200 metres of schools
  • Tighten the Low Emission Zone and limit it to cleaner cars (e.g. Euro 6)
  • Convert inner-city autopistas (e.g. Aragón, Calle Muntaner, Gran Via, Diagonal) into streets.
  • Apply and enforce a speed limit of 30 km/h on all roads and streets.
  • Ban noisy and polluting motorcycles and switch to electric motorcycles.
  • Ban motorised online home deliveries and set up collection points in every barrio.
  • Require taxis, delivery vehicles and public transport to be electric or hydrogen powered.
  • Reduce "through traffic", e.g. in Eixample many journeys have no origin or destination.
  • Expand cycling infrastructure, including in the metropolitan area.
  • Improve public transport links between the city of Barcelona and the metropolitan area.
  • Turn streets such as Creu Coberta/Sants into permanent Ramblas, not just weekend Ramblas.
  • Close Passeig de Colon to traffic and close the Ronda there and make it one big square.
  • Redesign Plaza Catalunya and close it to motorised traffic (except perhaps the west side for buses and taxis).
  • Create low traffic neighbourhoods where none of the above applies.
  • Replace asphalt with green space.

All political parties should include a plan to reduce traffic density and emissions by 50% within their four-year term, and to meet and exceed air quality guidelines by 2030.