By Rachel Lynskey
Electric vehicles (EVs) are not the silver bullet transformation for our transport industry, but the momentum for change is building, and EVs might be part of the change.
By simply championing a technical switch to EVs we will miss the greater opportunity of this problem. Focusing too strongly on EVs will lock in existing problems around congestion, health and the liveability of our cities.
We will fail to tackle our commitments in the Paris climate agreement if we don't start reducing our transport emissions. Some of these emissions could be reduced by shifting to clean EVs ‒ if plugged into renewable energy for charging. However, public transport already has a fraction of the emissions per capita of car transport.
Our electricity grid remains dependent on dirty fossil fuels. In parts of Australia, plugging into the grid means using more dirty energy than you'd be saving with your EV.
Single vehicles on our road network move people around inefficiently, causing the increasing congestion in our growing cities. The amount of space they take up vastly outweighs the number of people they move.
They also consume precious land when not in use by having space allocated to car parking lots, on-street parking, and space at our homes to leave idle vehicles.
The car industry meets at the Paris Motor Show this week, facing hazards ranging from the rollout of costly electric vehicles and tightening emissions rules to potential trade restrictions.
Providing this space for vehicles is a driving factor in the rapid urban sprawl we are witnessing. Farms and native habitat particularly around Melbourne and, to a lesser extent, Sydney are being encroached on by low density sprawl, which relies on roads for cars and land to store them at our homes or destinations.
With limited public transport in many new suburbs, many families are forced to bear the cost of two or more cars to be able to get to work, school and the shops. Simply shifting these vehicles to EVs reinforces the problems of sprawl.
Beyond the question of electric cars is the emerging issue of driverless (autonomous) vehicles. Will they tackle congestion if we end up with empty idle individually-owned vehicles on the roads? If not individually-owned, who will own them and how will they improve everyone's lives?
What role does private industry play in this? Australia's largest tolling company, Transurban, already has the data for major roads (owning 15 of 19 Australian toll roads), so what happens if they own the data to tell our cars where to go? How will their motivation to make more shareholder profit impact the mobility of the city? Transurban and the car industry are already leading the charge to test electric and autonomous vehicles.
We need to ensure people are put first to limit unnecessary human costs. And we need to fight against private interests prioritising profits over people.
Many low-income people rely on their cars to get to school or work. While we need to transition our car and truck fleet to electric engines, there are very real social justice concerns that will need to be addressed as this transition occurs. EVs remain an expensive relative to cars that rely on petrol or diesel.
Higher income households are more likely to be in a position to afford new cars with low emissions, including electric vehicles. They will disproportionately benefit from EV uptake: financial incentives (as in rebates), priority access to bus lanes, and priority parking for EVs.
Lower income households that can only afford used cars would miss out, perpetuating inequality.
Our governments must listen to urban planners and designers so that urban development is delivered with adequate infrastructure for people to imagine a city that is less car dependent.
Internationally there are strong moves to eliminate polluting cars and encourage electric vehicles. If Australia doesn't develop its own standards, we risk being left as a dumping ground for outdated polluting diesel and petrol vehicles.
Instead of relying on electric vehicles, we can create healthier, fairer and more connected cities. It's time to focus investment on more public transport to improve connections and frequency.
Then people can just turn up to public transport routes and go, getting to their destinations quickly and reliably. More people travelling by foot, bike and public transport create safer streets and a stronger sense of community.
We know not everyone has the choice to leave their cars behind. Our emergency services, some of our delivery trucks and tradies, and those with accessibility issues will continue to need to move on road-based transport. But we need to leave our roads free for those that need them to do their work without getting caught in unnecessary traffic.
Switching to electric vehicles addresses just one part of the problem that our car-centric city faces: rising pollution. We already have more efficient public transport systems.
Urban sprawl and the divisions cars produce in our city will only continue with a switch to electric vehicles.
Rachel Lynskey is the community campaigner for Friends of the Earth's Sustainable Cities campaign.
Published in Chain Reaction #135, April 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction
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